Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Best Way to Improve your Spanish Vocabulary

What is the best way to improve your Spanish Vocabulary?

[editing note: this is a published rough draft. Needs fewer words. Needs pictures. Needs better structure and a word level check. Could use a note about slang and regionality as well, possibly punctuated with a local note about Diccionario Morlaca with associated shared deck. Could use a companion article on how to make flashcards quickly using add-ons like auto-translating and web image clipper, and maybe audio as well. Calls to action are fun, maybe post before/after myself then ask people to post theirs and goals. Maybe their current in native language as well. ]

The average 4-year-old knows 5,000 words in their native language. By 8 they know 10,000 words. Most adults have a vocabulary between 20,000-35,000 words in their native language. Amazing, huh? You can test your Spanish (or other language) vocabulary size to see where you are.

As an example, when I first took this test my vocabulary size was approximately 3,000 words, which explains why only understood half of what the average 5 year old said :-).

So what to do about this? How can I increase my vocabulary so I can hold a conversation with the average adult?


Why? Studies I've seen show that active recall in a testing situation, is the best way to create and strengthen a memory [citation needed, hopefully added later when I have time]

But not just any flashcards. Most flashcard systems don't adapt to you, so they waste your time. Paper cards, duolingo, quizlet, etc show you whatever card is "next" without regard to what you know, or when you need to see it. You may have noticed this with duolingo when it asks you to "refresh" knowledge from previous units. It feels good to know answers instantly but is that the best use of your time?

Enter "Spaced Repetition Systems" (SRS for short). These are like a magic trick for creating memories without wasting your time. Here's the key insight that creates the magic - it turns out that everyone forgets things at a different speed. So it follows that when you learn something, you will need prompts to remember that thing at different times than other people. A good SRS system will learn your needs, and show you only the cards you need to see, right before you forget them.

However, using an SRS system may feel difficult for a couple reasons. First, as you review cards the system has shown you before, you will likely see only cards that you have almost forgotten. The effect is that each card may feel hard, but it should be possible - you can remember it and this struggle to recall strengthens the memory that much more. Second, the system only shows you cards right before it thinks you will forget them. This means that if you are not committed to daily or almost daily review, the reviews pile up and - if the system has learned your forgetting curve correctly - you will likely have lost the memory prior to review which eliminates the efficiency boost of an SRS system.

What does this mean for you? If you think you can commit to a daily review session, and you are willing to power through the uncomfortable "tip of my tongue" feeling, SRS systems can maintain a 20,000+ word vocabulary in as little as 10 minutes a day of review once the words are learned. That's power.

Okay, so flashcards, delivered by a Spaced Repetition System are great. Sign me up. Now how do I do it?

  1. Pick a system. I personally use, help out on, and recommend the Anki system. It's cross-platform, has cloud sync, has shared decks, is free (except the Apple mobile/iOS client which funds all the rest), and has a good development ecosystem for plugins. I could go into detail on each of these points, but I'll leave it at that for now.
  2. Sign up for your system - on Anki this is
  3. Import a shared deck of important words - I recommend this one for Anki (it has images, audio, forward and reverse cards, and is ordered by a good standard of common usage, is large (and thus useful) but not so large you can't imagine learning it all)
  4. Grab the mobile client - For Anki at
  5. Log in using the mobile client, sync up, set it to give you a daily reminder, and get to it

What's the result? After one year, and 125 hours of focused vocabulary study, I have an estimated Spanish vocabulary of 17,640 words! Qualitatively, I can say I really feel the difference too - it's a night and day change when speaking with people. Another 50 hours or so and I should be up to a normal adult level. This is useful to know because it also tells you when it's okay to switch focus (to listening, or writing for instance).

Finally, here are some tips and tricks that have helped me:

  • Tune the new card count / review count so you balance progress against feeling overwhelmed. For me that's about 300 cards a day TOTAL. At first I was super-excited to learn words so I did 300 new cards every day, plus reviews. But after a month or so of 300 new cards a day, my daily review count was also huge, plus the new cards (have to review all those new cards from previous days, right?). I was drowning. So I changed the settings to do reviews first instead of mixed in with new cards, and spent a couple weeks just doing reviews with no new cards so I didn't lose memories. I just stopped the session when new cards started popping up, and the load slowly went down to a level that felt right. I found I could reliably do 30 minutes a day without feeling overwhelmed and started doing new cards only as the load was under 30 minutes a day. You are in control so don't give up, think about your capabilities and tune things accordingly
  • Use one catch-all deck for personal words you add (I created one called "Misc Spanish Words") and add all your personal Spanish words in to it. This will come in handy as you'll have one place to review your progress and one set to manage limits / load on
  • Gamify it. Give yourself a cookie if you do your review. Give yourself a treat if you streak for a week, etc. Turn on "Advanced Statistics" in the settings, and every time you finish reviewing, look at the statistics pages and see how many words you're forecasted to know in a month or a year. Look at the pie chart of how many words you already learned. This can be incredibly motivating!
  • Review tough words with a local. If you are unsure of a word or how to use it, hit the "star" icon. Then later, use the Card Browser, show only marked cards, and review them with a friendly native speaker to make sure you know it. As you review, edit the card and unmark it then save it so this review process stays clean. This is SUPER helpful

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