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Increasing Your Spanish Vocabulary

An Overview

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A big part of learning any foreign language is learning the vocabulary — the collection of words used by those who speak the language. Fortunately for English speakers learning Spanish, there is a large overlap in the vocabulary. Spanish is a direct descendant of Latin, which is also the source of many English words.

Word similarities

In other words, English speakers have a head start in learning Spanish vocabulary. A linguist would say the two language have an abundance of cognates, words that are similar and have a common origin. But that head start comes with a price: Meanings of words change over time, and English and Spanish haven't always changed in the same way.

So some words, known as false friends, look like they might mean the same thing in the corresponding word of the other language. For example, something that is actual in Spanish is something that's current or happening now rather than something that isn't imaginary. And some words, ones I (but hardly anybody else) call fickle friends, correspond frequently but not so often enough that their meanings need to be learned. Arena in Spanish can refer to a sports arena, for example, but it more often refers to sand.

Expanding on what you know

How many words do you need to be proficient in Spanish? That's an open question because the answer depends what you want to do with the language.

That task of learning thousands of words may sound daunting. But there are ways you can make the task easier. One way is to take advantage of the many prefixes and suffixes, word beginnings and endings you can use. Many of the prefixes will seem familiar, because most come from Latin. That's not as common with the suffixes. Two of the main kinds are augmentative suffixes, which can add a negative connotation to a word or refer to something that's particularly large, and diminutive suffixes, which can refer to things that are small or that are especially desirable.

A new word each day

One of the best ways, and perhaps the most effective in the long run, to expand your vocabulary is to learn words as you use them. That's one of the principles behind our Word of the Day feature. Check on our site each day, and you'll get a new word to learn as well as a sample sentence that includes the word in context. Most of our sample sentences are taken from Spanish-language publications and Web sites, so you can see the words as they are used by native speakers. And if you already know the featured word, you can learn the other words in the sample sentence. We have Word of the Day vocabulary words for beginning Spanish students as well as Spanish words for intermediate or advanced students.

If you'd prefer not to check the site daily, you can also get vocabulary lessons via e-mail.

Memorization

Memorization is seldom the most fun way to learn words, but many students benefit from it. Here are some of the word lists we provide as an aid: We also have lessons on use particular words. Many of these lessons include comments on the word's etymology, or word history.

For fun

Although they may not be the most efficient way to learn words, some students enjoy using puzzles and games to help themselves learn. Here are a few:

A final word

Finally, here is some general advice for expanding your vocabulary:

Readers Respond: Expanding Your Spanish Vocabulary

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