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How to master and memorize Spanish vocabulary

We’re all accustomed to using the tried and true method of flashcards in language classes. I would roughly estimate that over 80% of us who have taken any foreign language course use flashcards to try and memorize new words, new concepts, or things we may need to define in a language course.

And it is effective in its own way. Flashcards help your ability to remember things on the spot. They’re sort of like playing peekaboo with yourself until you’re not startled by the moments or minutes it takes you to think of the right answer.

I personally find flashcards useful in the event of tests or quizzes where words are going to be asked to be defined or to be used in certain contexts, but there are other – and sometimes better – ways to memorize words to bolster your vocabulary.

Firstly, I try to tell people to try word association. I find that word association is quite helpful for myself and people that I’ve tutored, because it takes words you know or are learning and helps you recognize and apply them.

For example, if your word list has el dios or la diosa and you don’t know what it means, I would recommend looking at the word adiós from a literal standpoint. We know it in English as “goodbye”, but this is because it used to be “God be with ye” and became altered to “goodbye” over time. In that way, adiós means something like “Go with God” or “Godspeed”… which makes el dios “a god” and la diosa “a goddess”.


Word association is like taking a tangled ball of cords and pulling them apart so you can see what belongs with what. It can help you see how words are connected and helps you make sense of them.


We do this all the time by virtue of prefixes and suffixes. We have the common Latin prefixes like “pre” and “re”… where “pre” means “before” and “re” means “again”. You can apply many prefixes to Spanish in the same way. If ver means “to see”, then prever must mean “to see before (something has happened)”… i.e. “to foresee”. And if tomar means “to take”, then retomar can take on the meaning of “to take up again” or “to restart”.

Suffixes also work like this. In Spanish you can typically tell a verb apart from a noun by the endings… regular verbs end in –ar, –er, or –ir. In that way, I can say that amplio/a meaning “wide” likely not a verb, especially if it corresponds to a noun in gender and number. In that same way, if I know what amplio/a means, I can surmise what ampliar means: if amplio/a is “wide”, then ampliar must be a verb, hence… “to widen”. In that way, I can say that largo/a meaning “long” is related to alargar “to elongate”.

And if I know that a verb is regular, then I know that I can use it in any situation as long as I know the conjugation rules and the tenses and moods. That means I can construct sentences more easily, or at the very least I can understand the way I should be reading the verb.

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Some words are built on cognates – meaning they look alike to words we know in English (or a different language). I know that la organización is “organization” because they aren’t far off.

What I then would really need to focus my attention on are the words that are false cognates, or “false friends”, meaning words that look familiar but aren’t what I would think they are. For example, I might see el trapo and think it means “trap”, when in fact it means “rag”… or I might see la ropa and think “rope”, when it’s “clothing”. Furthermore, I would then focus on learning to differentiate them by learning that, in fact, la trampa is “a trap” and la soga is “a rope”.

Other suffixes like work sort of like in English. In English we have the typical “-ly” suffix that means “this is an adverb”, and that a typical Spanish adverb ends in “-mente”… like frecuentemente, normalmente, rápidamente are all adverbs. And based on cognates I know they mean “frequently”, “normally”, and “rapidly/quickly”.

It’s also quite useful to build off of existing words that you have, especially verbs if you can. If you know that poner is “to put”, then you recognize it as the root of words like suponer, exponer, or componer… which mean “to suppose”, “to expose”, and “to compose”. Seeing that link, you can link it to other variations of poner. For example puesto is a past participle meaning “put” and el puesto as a noun is “a position/place”. From there you can see supuesto is “supposed”, expuesto is “exposed”, and compuesto is “composed”.

These mental shortcuts are key when discovering and learning things intuitively.

But don’t knock the power of the flashcard just yet. Word association might help you learn on the go, but you do need to establish a foundation of your knowledge.

When learning the names of household items, many people find it useful to label items in their home so that they get used to associating it in their mind. They might put a label on their door that says la puerta, or put a la mesa label on the “table”.

When learning words it may be helpful for some of us to draw. This not only helps you understand what the word is, but it helps give you a visual of something to remember. If you draw a picture of la cocina with a refrigerator and a sink then you might more easily place it as “kitchen”, and if you can draw la sala de estar with couches and a TV then you’ll think “living room” more easily. People do this with many things; el sol “sun” or la luna “moon”, as well as simple animals like el gato “cat” or el perro “dog”. You don’t have to be a good artist to get a picture in your head.


RAE Spanish dictionary

Another good game to play with yourself is what I call “the dictionary game”, which is better for more intermediate to advanced learners. More or less, it’s charades. You give a definition of the word – in Spanish – and you can guess the word. This helps put your thoughts into context and helps you describe objects you don’t know the words for. You can say… es un gato grande y normalmente es naranja y negro and if you can understand that, then you can picture it as el tigre “tiger” or get someone else to understand you. Never underestimate the ability to mime things.

For the more intermediate to advanced learners, a good idea is to read in Spanish and make lists. This is something I call palabras clave “key words”. The idea is an old one based off of many textbooks that would have a vocabulary list in a chapter in a textbook or by a passage of reading. It’s a good idea to read things in Spanish to see how sentences get formed and are worked with, then to mark down things you don’t understand.

Read articles, or books, or short stories, or song lyrics, or poems. Read things you like. Read things you want to learn about. This feeling is echoed in an earlier post on this blog that discussed whether it was possible to learn a language in 10 days, that you have to make Spanish important to you but still fun.

Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know every other word. That’s what learning is there for. Pay close attention to what you do know and see if you can understand the context or what you think happened. If you’re at the advanced level you should write a reflection in Spanish about what you think is happening – textbooks frequently have a list of questions that ask you to say what’s happening at various parts of a passage, as well as your opinions.

Write out all of the words or expressions you don’t understand. If it’s a verb you recognize in a tense you don’t know, you can make a special note in a separate column and look it up later. You might see hablaré and think, “Well, it’s hablar and I know that means to speak but I don’t know this tense”… and you can look that up and find out that it means “I will speak”, future tense.

Once you’ve made your list of words and expressions, you can look them up on a site like WordReferenceLingueebab.la or some Spanish-English dictionary you trust and write down your notes. Then you read the passage again and you read along with your notes and see how much more you’ve understood. Once you get used to seeing them used and once you get to know them, you not only have a list of words you can study over, but you also have a context to practice them with. You can even make your own Spanish vocabulary lists with sites like Memrise which allows you to learn various vocabulary lists with pictures or flashcards.

Be resourceful!

A small caveat is that dictionaries are not as helpful as real people for many words. Words like fuera and afuera both show up in dictionaries as “out” and have no real context. A good dictionary might give you context, but some do not. And with no human element attached, it’s hard to then decide what word you would want to use. Sometimes people will know fuera and afuera but not know that fuera means “out” as in a position, while afuera means “going out” as in direction or intention.

Context is key. You can learn all the words you want, but if you don’t know how to use them and if you don’t practice them, they aren’t so helpful. That’s why it’s best to do your work and also have someone there to give you context and help you along, the way a real classroom should work.

And don’t forget you can make use of many of the resources available on the internet or on this blog itself.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_gap height=”40″ hide_under=””][vc_message color=”custom” tcolor=”#333333″ bw=”1″ br=”5″ close=”” bgc=”#ffff99″ bc=”#e5e597″]Want to start learning Spanish from day one? Book a free trial now! No commitment and no credit card required.[/vc_message][/vc_column][/vc_row]


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