Increasing Your Spanish Vocabulary

An Overview

Palabras
El español tiene muchas palabras para aprender. (Spanish has many words to learn.). Juna Pablo Lauriente/Creative Commons.

A big part of learning any foreign language is learning the vocabulary — the collection of words used by those who speak the language. Fortunately for English speakers learning Spanish, there is a large overlap in the vocabulary. That's because Spanish is a direct descendant of Latin while English received an infusion of Latin-derived vocabulary in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Word Similarities

The overlap gives English speakers a head start in learning Spanish vocabulary. A linguist would say the two language have an abundance of cognates, words that are similar and have a common origin. But that head start comes with a price: Meanings of words change over time, and English and Spanish haven't always changed in the same way.

So some words, known as false friends, look like they might mean the same thing in the corresponding word of the other language. For example, something that is actual in Spanish is something that's current or happening now rather than something that isn't imaginary. And some words, ones I (but hardly anybody else) call fickle friends, correspond frequently but not so often enough that their meanings need to be learned. Arena in Spanish can refer to a sports arena, for example, but it more often refers to sand.

Expanding on What You Know

How many words do you need to be proficient in Spanish? That's an open question because the answer depends on what you want to do with the language.

That task of learning thousands of words may sound daunting. But there are ways you can make the task easier. One way is to take advantage of the many prefixes and suffixes, word beginnings and endings you can use. Many of the prefixes will seem familiar, because most come from Latin. That's not as common with the suffixes. Two of the main kinds are augmentative suffixes, which can add a negative connotation to a word or refer to something that's particularly large, and diminutive suffixes, which can refer to things that are small or that are especially desirable.

Memorization

Memorization is seldom the most fun way to learn words, but many students benefit from it. Here are some of the word lists we provide as an aid:

We also have lessons on use of particular words. Many of these lessons include comments on the word's etymology, or word history.

For Fun

It may not always be practical, but sometimes it's fun to learn words just for the sake of learning them:

Ways to Make These Words Yours

Over the years, numerous readers of this site have offered their advice for incorporating the words into the Spanish that you can use everyday. The simple fact, though, is that what works well for one person doesn't work for everyone, as we all have our own learning styles.

You might consider some of these methods, however, to see of one of them clicks for you:

  • Make sticky notes with names of objects and place them on the things you want to be able to talk about. You can't do this everywhere, of course, but if you do this your home you can track your progress by removing the notes for words you have already learned.
  • Create three-by-five-inch cards with vocabulary words on one side and definitions on the other. And random times during the day, compose sentences using the words.
  • Use social media to find Spanish speakers learning English and you can help each other.