I've tried many things, some things work and others do not work so well. Usually if I hear the word or phrase spoken it sticks better than if something I read from a book and tried to memorize.
I've heard that using a word 10 or 20 times will make it stick (some say 10 and others say 20). But it's not always easy to work a word into a conversation and I don't always have the chance to speak to someone in Spanish. I read books, look up words if I can't tell the meaning by the context. I watch Spanish programs, mainly the news and soaps. I watch soaps to try to get the gist of the way people talk in a conversation.
I've tried witting new words, making flash cards and carrying them with me. I never know if this worked until I really need the word.
When I work in different places that require me to learn different vocabulary words I tend to learn more. I worked awhile in security at a racetrack for horses. That built up my vocabulary for things that had to do with racing and horses, words like "horseshoe," "bridle," etc.
Working in the school system, I've learned more about things that have to do with children. "Measles," "mumps" and "chickenpox" were words unfamiliar to me until I had to write notes to parents to make sure their children were vaccinated. Calificar was a verb I should had known before but it just never came up.
I would just like to build up my vocabulary without having to go into another profession to do so. Does anyone have any advice on this?
Response 1: There was an English vocabulary-building program (I think it was a feature in a long-ago magazine) whose slogan was "Use a word three times and it is yours." And I think that is the key — it's why your vocabulary increases when you are in certain environments, for there you don't just receive the words passively, but use them actively.
Since you may not often be in such environments, perhaps inventing sentences that contain the new words would help. Or maybe you could look for opportunities to use the new words, even if it means talking to yourself.
Response 2: I really don't think there are many "tricks" ... you basically have to slodge through the memory process. I have a German friend living here who has come to speak Spanish enough to get along very well. One of his tricks is when he comes across a new word in conversation, he will use it two or three times within the next 20 minutes. Sometimes what he comes up with seems a bit forced, but I think it really helps him to "plant" the word in his head. Of course, the larger your English vocabulary the easier it will be since you can find more cognates. And your vocabulary within the sphere of your professional or social life will always be much larger than your average vocabulary.
What I mean is, sitting here right now without thinking, I would have no idea how to say "piston ring" in Spanish (and I really don't care) simply because I have nothing to do with engines, except to use one to get around, on a day-to-day basis. But I suppose I could get around it if I had to by trying to describe it with vocabulary I do know, and eventually the mechanic will tell me what it is. But isn't that true of English also?
Response 3: I agree, thinking in Spanish and simultaneously translating it and using it all the time. I learned Portuguese because I wrote to about 20 people a day. When you write to 20 different people, just as if you were to talk to them, you'd be talking about a lot of different things and using a lot of different words, and thus increasingly your vocabulary without even thinking about it. What's really cool is the thing works.
Response 4: Another oldie-but-goodie idea: e-mail practice partners. I think that if you can find a Spanish-speaking English student whose English is on par with your Spanish and whose motivation and ability to commit time is similar to yours — for me that has worked as well as anything. My experience was that it wasn't as difficult to find someone like that for e-mail exchange as it was to find someone to practice with in person. If you can't find that situation, trying to keep a journal in Spanish might serve somewhat the same purpose.
Response 5: Reading is good too. But for building vocabulary, it is better to be reading from newspapers, magazines and literature (this can also give you cultural insights you don't get from textbooks). There is a lot of Spanish-language literature and there are a lot of Spanish language newspapers and magazines on line.
Response 6: I have a few penpals that I write to. One in particular I have written to for about five years and he has helped me a great deal. Some of them are learning English and I can help them as well.
I would not have gotten as far as I have had it not been for these good people taking the time to help me. Sometimes there are things that they can't really answer, but just being able to write freely to them has been great. Not only have I learned a lot about Spanish but also about their country and culture.