A Basic Guide to Building Your Spanish Vocabulary
Your vocabulary is your storage of Spanish words and phrases. Some of this is active – available for instant recall, and that you can use in your own Spanish; and some of this is passive – words and phrases which you understand, which ring a bell, but which aren’t available for instant recall, and aren’t part of your conversation toolbox. Developing your Spanish vocabulary involves working on both parts of this, and trying to convert as much of your passive vocabulary into active vocabulary.
Learning a Spanish word, broken down
When you learn a Spanish word or phrase you are not learning one piece of information, even though it feels like it. When you learn a word, here are some of the things which your brain has to take on board:
So, faced with this abundance of information, learning a word is not so simple as you might have thought. How do you know if you really know a word?
Spanish vocabulary: Quantity vs Quality
Most of us, in our approach to vocabulary (or most things in general…), take the opinion that bigger is better, and that it’s best to enlarge the vocabulary as quickly as possible. I feel that this is both true and false, depending on what type of vocabulary you’re looking to build. Remember we talked about passive vs active vocabulary? People with a large passive vocabulary have a good passing knowledge of many different words, phrases and constructions, and people with a large active vocabulary have a good in depth knowledge (although perhaps not so large) which they are able to use and recall in their conversations.
The challenge is to develop both quantity and quality of vocabulary. It’s great to be able to understand everything you hear and understand (strong passive vocabulary), but it’s also important to know enough about words and phrases in your vocabulary to know how and when to use them appropriately (strong active vocabulary). A balance is needed here…
Developing your passive Spanish vocabulary
Activities which extend your passive vocabulary include more receptive activities, with a large amount of input. It’s important to read a lot in Spanish, watch Spanish films and TV programmes, and generally surround yourself with the language. The important part with all of this is to let the language wash over you, and not get too caught up in the nitty gritty. Try and understand the gist of what you read or listen to, and don’t worry when you don’t understand every word. The important thing is to have a broad understanding, and a large input.
Developing your active Spanish vocabulary
This is where you need to focus on those individual words, and work on ways of commiting them to memory. The most important part for me here is to imbue those words with as much information as you can. Before, we talked about all the aspects involved in learning a word or phrase, and found that you
Finding a balance
Personally, I always feel that it’s more important to work on passive vocabulary, and trust our innate language ability to gradually turn the passive to active. I use passive activities (watching TV, reading Spanish, etc), and pull out parts of vocabulary and phrases which I either don’t know, or which I feel will be useful. I look these up (see my post on “looking up vocabulary”, and record the Spanish and English translations in Anki, which I then use to work on my active vocabulary.