Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Best Way to Improve your Spanish Vocabulary

The average 4-year-old knows 5,000 words in their native language. By 8? 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.

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?

Flashcards, but Without Wasting Your Time

Enter "Spaced Repetition Systems" (SRS). These are like a magic trick for creating memories without wasting your time.

Here's the key insight that creates the magic: everyone forgets things at a different speed. So it follows that when you learn something, you will need prompts to review and recall that thing at different times than other people.

A good SRS system learns your needs, and shows you only the cards you need to see, when you need to see them.

No time wasted reviewing unnecessary things.

What does this mean for you? In my personal experience, I have built and maintain a 17,000+ word vocabulary in around 20 minutes a day of review. 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 develop, 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), download the desktop client and import it there
  4. Grab the mobile client - For AnkiDriod at
  5. Log in using the mobile client, sync up, set it to give you a daily reminder, and get to work!


What's the result? After one year, and 125 hours of focused vocabulary study, I have an estimated Spanish vocabulary of 17,760 words!

It is difficult to express how big a change this has made in my Spanish. Going from 3,000 to words to 17,000+ is 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 what my last year of study has looked like - one big push at the start, then a long period of maintenance.

Tips and Tricks

Finally, here are some tips and tricks that have helped me. Using an SRS system may feel difficult for a few reasons and if you are unaware of them you may not enjoy success.

  • Active recall is mentally difficult. The system only shows you cards you have almost forgotten. The struggle to recall strengthens the memory that much more, but is not easy. I can only do 30 minutes or so a day
  • If you miss days, you WILL forget cards. If the system has learned your forgetting curve correctly it will show you cards right before you forget them, so if you skip a probably will forget them! This eliminates the efficiency boost of an SRS system, but isn't the system's fault. Daily review is an important commitment
  • 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, so I did 300 new cards every day, plus reviews. This created an enormous snowball going downhill effect. After a month or so of 300 new cards a day, my daily review count was also huge, plus the new cards. I was drowning. I changed Anki's 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 and cleared out the backlog. 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. Having too many decks is irritating in my opinion
  • 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. My kid loves looking at the pie chart change as he finishes he reviews. 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

If anyone else tries this and does a before and after vocabulary size test I'd love to hear the results.

Good luck!

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