So you think you know a Spanish word?

Rob Ashby

Rob Ashby

The Spanish Obsessive

In our day to day conversations and interactions, we actually use a very limited set of words. An average person has a vocabulary of around 10,000 words, but in an average day, uses only 1,000 of them. We have a set of common words that we stick to, even when there are more interesting and expressive options available. Many courses sell themselves on the premise of a “minimum” vocabulary: Learn just 1,000 words, and master any conversation in Spanish/French/Chinese!

Yes, you only need 1,000 words, but have you ever thought about what that really means? And how do you know if you really know a word? And if you do know 1,000 of them, are you able to say whatever you want? 

Let’s take a few examples, and see what’s really involved.

The most common 10 Spanish words

These were taken from Wiktionary, along with approximate translations (my own):

  1. que (“what”/”that”/”which”)
  2. de (“of”)
  3. no (“no”)
  4. a (“to”)
  5. la (“the” (feminine))
  6. el (“the” (masculine))
  7. es (“is”)
  8. y (“and”)
  9. en (“in”)
  10. lo (“it”)

These are obviously essential words, but if you started Spanish by learning these, there wouldn’t be very much you could say just yet. All of these words are functional words – they are the glue that holds sentences together. It’s clear that to really know these words and be able to use them properly, you have to understand the grammar behind them. It’s not enough just to learn the words, parrot style!

The most common 10 Spanish verbs

From the same source:

  1. ser (to be)
  2. estar (to be)
  3. comer (to eat)
  4. haber (to have – auxiliary verb)
  5. ir (to go)
  6. tener (to have – possession)
  7. saber (to know)
  8. querer (to want)
  9. poder (to be able to)
  10. ir (to go)

This is more like it. It’s obvious that these words are hugely important, and any language will have to use words such as these all the time. However, the more common the word, the more meanings it has. Let’s take “hacer” – to do (definition from Word Reference):

Along with over one hundred definitions, there are also loads of common idioms and collocations that use “hacer”:

So, we know that “hacer” means “to do”. But it also means much, much more than that. There is a lot of grammar behind it, as well as all of the different shades of meaning. Typically, more common verbs such as these will have a very large amount of meanings – if you don’t believe me, search for some of the top ten verbs listed above and look at the definitions. The reverse is also true – the less frequent the verb, the more specific the definition of it is. How about hacinar, for example? Just one, easy translation!

It’s clear then, that some of the most popular words in Spanish are also some of the hardest to really understand. These words have lots of different meanings, uses, and using a lot of them correctly involves understanding the grammar behind them. It’s not enough to just learn the word and hope you can use it right. If we took the top 1,000 words by frequency of Spanish and rote learnt them, I don’t think we would be able to use them properly, or speak Spanish at all well.


What is Spanish vocabulary, then?

My advice is simple: Don’t take a quantitative approach to vocabulary. Just because you’ve learnt 1,000 Spanish words doesn’t mean you know them – there’s probably more to know about those first 1,000 words than there is in the next 10,000. Being able to use those words means knowing how they fit together, when to use them, and knowing the different uses of those words. It’s a common temptation to take a “numbers approach” to vocabulary, as seen by the popularity of books of vocabulary lists.


The importance of awareness

On the other hand, it can be useful to learn a large volume of words. Imagine you’ve learnt 2,000 words. You probably won’t be able to use all of them, but it will open the door a little wider for comprehension, and lead to more vocabulary acquisition. You’ll be aware of those words, and while you only start with a limited understanding of their uses, meanings, and contexts, you’ll grow to understand how to use them more and more as you see them around.


What to do? Some practical advice

What does a word mean? One of the best ways to tell the meaning of a word is from its context – the words that surround it. So, a good way of doing that of learning the various meanings of a word is to learn Spanish phrases. If you learn, for example, 15 phrases using the word “hacer”, you’ll expand your knowledge of that verb, as well as learn some useful communicative nuggets. Also, don’t be fooled by thinking that because you’ve memorised a word you truly know it. Language is so much richer than that. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that when you first memorise a word, you begin a relationship with that word, and over time, hopefully you’ll get to know it better!

6 Responses

  1. You make good and true points but one has to start somewhere. I prefer going with the the most common words at least somewhat in order of commonality. Once a person has some fluency, he or she will continue to broaden their understanding of the most common words and acquire additional vocabulary through conversation and reading. Until some basic skill is gained, a person is blocked from learning in the most natural ways–listening, conversing and reading.

  2. Why denigrate frequency lists? No one is stupid enough not to know and understand that common words are rich with semantic content in any language. Pointless article.

    1. You clearly haven’t read the article. I say that alongside taking a quantitative approach to vocabulary (ie, frequency lists), we need to also take a qualitative approach. Yes, it’s useful to start somewhere, with common words found at the top of frequency lists, but powering from top to bottom of a vocabulary list to try to “learn more words” isn’t going to help in the long run. Pointless comment.

  3. Excellent response Rob! I suspect “lolu” is some depressed individual with some warped desire to simply offend and not add anything constructive to a discussion. Thank you for all that you and Lis do for us learners including writing this thought-provoking article.

    1. “My advice is simple: Don’t take a quantitative approach to vocabulary.”

      I agree that this seems like a dissuasion against frequency lists. Ultimately though, there isn’t one single ‘right’ way to learn vocabulary. To each their own.

  4. I agree with the argument. I’ve used frequency lists before and they turned out to be a major waste of time. It’s helpful to know which words come up the most, but just knowing what they are doesn’t tell you what they mean in every context. I’ve found it more helpful to dive into language – as used in news stories, TV and film, commercials an other real-life examples of language-at-work.

    Consuming real-life uses of language provides the most often-used words, and in contexts that make the reader more savvy about multiple meanings and uses of a word. It increases both vocabulary and context clues. It also does this at a reasonable scale of inquiry. It furthermore gives the reader practice with the word, training the mind to use it in real-life situations. If a picture is worth a thousand words, time spent decoding real-life uses of language is worth a thousand academic books and primers on language.

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