How Can I Increase My Vocabulary?

Learners explain what has worked for them

Es importante aprender palabras nuevas. (It is important to learn new words.). Juna Pablo Lauriente/Creative Commons

Do you want to increase your Spanish vocabulary? What works for your best friend in expanding the number of Spanish words you know might not work for you, and vice versa — but something will. So here are 10 suggestions made by readers of this site: Try one or more out and see if the work for you.

Use Spanish Words Actively

There was an English vocabulary-building program (I think it was a feature in a long-ago magazine) whose slogan was "Use a word three times and it is yours." And I think that is the key — it's why your vocabulary increases when you are in certain environments, for there you don't just receive the words passively, but use them actively.

Since you may not often be in such environments, perhaps inventing sentences that contain the new words would help. Or maybe you could look for opportunities to use the new words, like talking about the seasons or whatever new topic you have learned about, even if it means talking to yourself.

Use New Spanish Words Right Away

I really don't think there are many "tricks" ... you basically have to slodge through the memory process. I have a German friend living here who has come to speak Spanish enough to get along very well. One of his tricks is when he comes across a new word in conversation, he will use it two or three times within the next 20 minutes. Sometimes what he comes up with seems a bit forced, but I think it really helps him to "plant" the word in his head. Of course, the larger your English vocabulary the easier it will be since you can find more cognates. And your vocabulary within the sphere of your professional or social life will always be much larger than your average vocabulary.

What I mean is, sitting here right now without thinking, I would have no idea how to say "piston ring" in Spanish (and I really don't care) simply because I have nothing to do with engines, except to use one to get around, on a day-to-day basis. But I suppose I could get around it if I had to by trying to describe it with vocabulary I do know, and eventually the mechanic will tell me what it is. But isn't that true of English also?

Write to Others in Spanish

Thinking in Spanish and simultaneously translating it and using it all the time helps me. I learned Portuguese because I wrote to about 20 people a day. When you write to 20 different people, just as if you were to talk to them, you'd be talking about a lot of different things and using a lot of different words, and thus increasingly your vocabulary without even thinking about it. What's really cool is the thing works.

Find an Email Partner

Another oldie-but-goodie idea: email practice partners. I think that if you can find a Spanish-speaking English student whose English is on par with your Spanish and whose motivation and ability to commit time is similar to yours — for me that has worked as well as anything. My experience was that it wasn't as difficult to find someone like that for e-mail exchange as it was to find someone to practice with in person. If you can't find that situation, trying to keep a journal in Spanish might serve somewhat the same purpose.

Read Newspapers and Magazines Online

Reading is good too. But for building vocabulary, it is better to be reading from newspapers, magazines and literature (this can also give you cultural insights you don't get from textbooks). There is a lot of Spanish-language literature and there are a lot of Spanish language newspapers and magazines online.

Native Speakers Glad To Help

I have a few penpals that I write to. One in particular I have written to for about five years and he has helped me a great deal. Some of them are learning English and I can help them as well.

I would not have gotten as far as I have had it not been for these good people taking the time to help me. Sometimes there are things that they can't really answer, but just being able to write freely to them has been great. Not only have I learned a lot about Spanish but also about their country and culture.

Reading Online a Good Way To Learn

I really do believe in reading as a way of building vocabulary, although it must be done in conjunction with speaking the language to someone every now and then! I find that the more I read, the more when I get "stuck" trying to express something in spoken conversation, a phrase will spring to mind that I have read — perhaps in a slightly different context — in a newspaper or magazine. I have really stepped up my Spanish reading when it occurred to me that my English vocabulary is infinitely richer for all the reading I do. In the past I would be reluctant to spend money on reading material in Spanish because I was afraid the subjects would be too obscure or the vocabulary too hard. Now that there is so much free on the Internet, it is much easier to do!

Write a Journal in Spanish

My advice is to keep a journal in the language you are trying to learn, put in all your days activities and also add a list of the words you learned that day with the native language translation and a sentence in both languages. You can also use Spanish printables to help you with your journaling.

Put Your Spanish Vocabulary in Motion

It seems to me new vocabulary is good learned in sentences, but even better learned in stories or environments. Also enhanced further by actual kinetic activity ... doing or acting out the story or word you are learning. This is why i feel you learn so much through new jobs or trips.

So try acting out or doing the words as you learn them ... maybe do food word learning in the grocery, or while cooking. Translate the word, say garlic, then speak out loud (important: not in your head) a sentence describing what you are doing: "I am cutting garlic." Every one will think you are crazy now, but a linguistic genius later. ...

Luckily I live in a major city, New York, with huge Spanish speaking communities, radio and TV. For those who don't and who can't take trips to immerse themselves in the language try this one: I help achieve a level of immersion at home by videotaping Spanish language television, especially news, soaps aka diarios, and movies with the closed-caption feature turned on. I also rent Spanish language movies and turn on the English subtitles, then rent English-language movies and turn on the Spanish subtitles. I hunker in with a dictionary and a cup of tea and enjoy the ride.

Be Brave

Mostly it's practice, practice, practice speaking, especially with native speakers. Be bold and unafraid to make mistakes and tell your Spanish friends (victims?) to correct every one. Because I am already fluent in one Romance language and read Spanish reasonably well, my teacher concentrates on getting me to talk about things that interest me, and we work on my weaknesses. Try to make it fun, don't get too serious. You need to make the time you spend in Spanish, with Spanish people, something you enjoy and look forward to, and this will become easier as you get to know them in their native language. You will make very rapid progress this way. If you have a skill, such as playing an instrument or a sport or game that your Spanish friend(s) would like to learn, then it's good idea to offer to teach them, or if you know a Spanish speaker who wants to improve his or her English, try doing half an hour each day. The sharing of the learning process makes the whole thing much more fun for both sides, and somehow the vocabulary is "locked in" better.

Learning a new language requires making a complete clown of yourself on a regular basis, but it's worth it.

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Erichsen, Gerald. "How Can I Increase My Vocabulary?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Erichsen, Gerald. (2020, August 26). How Can I Increase My Vocabulary? Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "How Can I Increase My Vocabulary?" ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).