Learning new vocabulary is an ongoing process for any language learner, so optimising the way you do it should be a top priority. It isn’t so much learning and recognizing a new word that’s tricky, but it’s the process of retaining it well enough to spontaneously use it in a conversation. Going from a beginner to intermediate level in Spanish largely depends on your ability to pick up and retain vocabulary effectively, so it’s worth dedicating some time to it. We’ve compiled a variety of techniques, activities, and resources which can help you memorise vocab efficiently so you can focus more attention on important elements like speaking fluency.
If you’re wondering how to improve your Spanish vocabulary then a good place to start is with some of the more effective retention techniques. The following techniques can all help you better recall the words you learn so that they come to you more readily when you need them. You can either pick the one which sounds most interesting to you, or try each technique out to see which works best.
One of the worst things you can do when trying to learn vocabulary is sitting down to study a list of 50+ random words. The human brain works best when we break down tasks into smaller bite size chunks, and that’s the essence of this technique. The way you can do this is by taking a look at your long list of words and dividing them into logical groups. For example, you could have a list of verbs and nouns, or a list of body parts and animals, or if the words are more abstract you could group them by a common prefix or suffix. Dividing words up into groups like this will also help you associate them with each other for better recall. This can be a great way to improve your writing too as you start to associate words to the extent that you can write well on a specific subject.
Mnemonics refers to systems that we use to aid memory. They can take the form of anything from a rhyme to a mental image or a simple acronym. I remember once using my walk to school as inspiration for a Latin text translation I had to remember. Each lamppost along the way had a different milestone from the text associated with it in the form of an image, sound, or smell. This technique can be surprisingly effective for memorising vocabulary well. The trick is to evoke all of the senses. This is one of the only times that sensory overload is a good thing. There’s a reason why many people have such fond memories of Disneyland, even if it’s been years since they went. The strong smells of fast food, sounds of people screaming for joy, and the sights of huge roller coasters make for an unforgettable experience. So the next time you need to remember several words, especially if you struggle with the meaning, try to create an interesting story with them in your mind with whatever associations they bring up.
Spaced repetition is what it sounds like. You are exposed to a word consistently over a period of time until it sinks in. It sounds simplistic, but this technique really does work. The best way to reliably use spaced repetition for vocab retention is to use an app like Anki which takes care of the process for you. We’ll dive deeper into the app later in the ‘resources’ section.
The question of how to remember words is as much about doing the right activities as it is employing effective techniques. All of the following activities can enhance your rate of vocab retention, especially when practised regularly.
Cognates are essentially words in different languages which have a common root. You might have looked at a Spanish text before and been surprised at how much of the meaning you could infer without knowing many of the words. This is something you can use to your advantage. If you spend time researching the most common cognates across English and Spanish, you will find that you already have a very solid foundation of vocabulary to draw upon. Words like ‘inteligente’, ‘académico’, and ‘orgánico’ should be easy for you to remember, and can expand your vocabulary quickly.
Find Reading Material
With reading material like magazines, books, and newspapers you canimprove your reading comprehension while also building your vocabulary. The key here is to find reading material that you would enjoy in your own language. For example, if I like reading about cars I’m not going to pick up a Spanish magazine about gardening. By focussing on areas we’re actually interested in, we can create a deeper connection to the vocabulary we’re learning. Plus, if you find a magazine in Spanish on your favourite topic you’re going to be far more likely to stick with it even when there are words you don’t recognise.
Write a Short Story
Instead of going the traditional route and making a list of all the vocabulary you’d like to learn, why not get creative and write a short story? One of the biggest misconceptions about the language learning process is that it has to be dull and repetitive. If you enjoy getting creative then you could spice up your efforts to learn vocabulary by making an interesting story about the words. The more imaginative the better! As with the mnemonics, the more detail and senses you can bring into things the better. Try to avoid common associations like stating the pen and paper are on the desk. Instead, think of a creative backstory of how the desk was made, or from what tree the paper came.
Listening to music can be a great way to make words stick in your mind. This is especially true of pop songs which seem to stay in our heads forever. However, beyond listening to music, you can even create stronger connections to words through singing. The more you say a word aloud, the more likely you’ll be to remember it the next time. So with that in mind, if you prefer singing or rapping to writing, then perhaps you could express yourself through music. Resources like Mimic Method have you freestyle rap in your target language since it can help you loosen your tongue and let go of inhibitions. On a basic level, something like freestyling can help you bring words to mind more readily. Try walking down the street and saying what you see to a beat in your mind. Before long, you will start trying to rhyme ‘coche’ with ‘noche’, and create stronger memories of those words. You don’t even have to rhyme them, you can go off syllables or similar endings. For example you could practise basic two-syllable words like ‘árbol’, ‘mármol’ or words that end in the same letter like ‘blanco’ and ‘negro’. Find easy Spanish lessons here on Superprof.
So you have some techniques and activities to try out, but you might want some assistance to help you on your way That’s where online resources come in handy. There are far too many to mention here, but here are a couple of our favourites which can help you develop and retain new vocabulary:
Do you remember earlier when we touched upon the technique of spaced repetition? Well, Anki is the free flash card app that makes the most of this technique and should be a go-to resource for anyone learning vocabulary. To use Anki for learning vocabulary you first need to type up the vocabulary on separate flashcards through their app. On the back, you can either write the meaning of the word, or even better use a striking image from Google. If you use an image you can train your brain to associate ‘perro’ with an image of a cute dog, not just the English word ‘dog’. Once you’ve done this, Anki will show you the flashcards at different intervals depending on if you get them right or not. The more you get a word right, the less you’ll see it. But after a few weeks when it might start to slip from your mind, it’ll come up again. This effort the brain makes to recall is crucial in developing a strong memory of the word.
Another fun resource is LyricsTraining. This website is commonly used by ESL teachers to teach English vocabulary, but can also be used to pick up new Spanish words. Basically, you have a music video with some of the words blanked out. Your job is to listen to the song and identify the missing words, then type them out correctly. There are three different levels of difficulty for each song, so this resource is one you can make the most whatever your level of study. What’s great about training with music is that not only is it fun, but you will start to get used to the rhythm of Spanish speech and of course pronunciation too. Plus you will get some extra writing practise as you have to spell out the words.
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