Learning language vocabulary

I’ve procrastinated about learning Spanish for longer than I care to admit. My hold up has been fear in getting committed to and buried in some method that turned out to be a very bad, possibly very limiting approach. But I’ve finally made a decision, what I see as the easiest, most simplistic way to at least get a start that won’t come back to bite me.


Rightly or wrongly I’m going to start by learning vocabulary. The 100 most common words to start with, then the next 100 and so on.

Obviously at any time I can switch to some method that may have caught my attention, but I’ll be making some positive progress in the meantime, something I haven’t done so far.

All that remains now to make a start is to decide how to go about learning this mass of unrelated words.

I could be wrong, probably am, but I just can’t see a memory palace as being the right way to go about it.

What think ye?


The strategy can give you a good start, but just so know, a lot of the most common words are just different forms of the same verb. Knowing some basic Spanish grammar can help you memorize the words more effectively.

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Point 1: I’m going to back you up on this approach. I’ve studied a lot of languages, and sooner or later it comes down to learning a LOT of words. I estimate it takes about 10,000 words to be fluent. You have to learn grammar sooner or later, but in the long run vocabulary will take 90% of your effort. No harm in front-loading some of it.

I do highly suggest that you study correct pronunciation from the start. There are many Anki decks available for download of the most common Spanish vocabulary, etc, You can also find guides for adding audio to your cards.

Point 2: One of my peeves about this forum is that people want to use memory palaces for anything and everything, when not always useful or appropriate. Memory palaces are great for memorizing decks of cards because they give you a natural ordering. When learning vocabulary, the order of the words is the last thing you care about, and a memory palace is just extra baggage.

Harry Lorayne’s THE MEMORY BOOK has some good techniques for memorizing vocabulary. You can probably find the same thing in several other books, but that’s where I learned it.

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There’s nothing wrong with that at all… just don’t let great be the enemy of good. You didn’t give any timeline when you say…

…in fact, I’d support that 100%; however, going at a pace of 100/day for one week. That will give you 700 words without you having to worry about long terms retention too much. Obviously, you’ll lose a few along the way and end up with only 500 give or take. Especially, if you reuse the same 100 locations each day.

Memory palace with one example sentence per word. The example sentence is there to make the words a little less “unrelated.”

Language is all a matter of input. You’re looking at it from a lexis (vocabulary), grammar, and phonetics point of view. However, you should also consider the two receptive skills: listening and reading; and the two productive skills: speaking and writing.

In the end, the 500 some odd words you’ve learned the first week is enough to start watching Spanish tv shows and start learning phrases rather than words that way. The situation (tv is better than just audio) will help you to understand new words through context.

@ehcolston has a very good point here; however, most frequency dictionaries don’t even list the words like that. You get “to be” and it will not also have “I am” and “you are.” In fact, to make that a bit messier in Spanish… you’ll have “ser” and “estar” as part of the Top 20 in terms of frequency. They both mean “to be” by the way… grammar, as @ehcolston suggests, will help you to some extend but there is obviously also idiomatic usage of words. The other two you’ll find in the Top 20 are “por” and “para”… both meaning “for.”

That’s basically what I mean by “don’t let great be the enemy of good” and try and learn 1,000 loci for your first 1,000 words. You will not know when to use “ser” instead of “estar” without knowing some grammar, which you can pick up intuitively though by watching Spanish tv (read: YouTube). So I agree with @elswithers as far as…

…and whilst this is mostly true, SRS and memory palaces are not mutually exclusive. Like I said, put 100 words in there day one. Review end of day one and beginning of day two and then override the same loci. Again, review at night, review in the morning, put next 100 words in the same loci. Don’t even worry about ghosting because that works in your favor… you don’t remember one of the words, who cares.

I think you forgot one crucial thing… English and Spanish share a common ancestor and there are in fact 29 rules that you could learn to easily know your first 1,000 Spanish words in a couple of hours. I’m always surprised that nobody knows that… 1066 Battle of Hastings… yes, sure that is technically French and not Spanish, but in the end, both of those are just pretty bad Latin…

ps: I’ve taught English as a foreign language in Spain before (A2/B1 level) and they were always confused as to why nobody’s ever mentioned this list of rules to them before.

My advice: learn the 29 rules in this list to get your first 500-1,000 words. Takes about a day… or make it a weekend for all I care. Do the first 700 words from a frequency dictionary in a week and then switch to tv for another week. Start reading some magazines or whatnot for the second “receptive skill” and eventually have a look at some grammar rules.

I think we can agree that zero, first, second, third, and mixed conditional (in English) you can get from just vocabulary. I’m not sure how much Spanish you want to learn, but conditionals are done in A2 already when teaching English.

That’s it… the rest is just learning from tv for the next 3/6/12-month… depending on your goals… eventually you’ll have to try and speak of course (or at least write). At least that’s my assumption when you say “learn Spanish”… obviously, if you just want to understand and not interact… you’re good.

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…and whilst this is mostly true, SRS and memory palaces are not mutually exclusive.

Indeed they are not, but that was not my point. How do you decide which word to put in a specific location? If the answer is “it doesn’t matter” then a memory palace is the wrong tool.

according to a frequency dictionary

not really making use of the frequency though, so in a sense “it doesn’t matter”… how does that make a memory palace the wrong tool though?

You take the convenience of the “order” to be able to review your vocabulary (at night and the next day) without the need for a book. It doesn’t matter which image is in which location… what matters is that the n-1th location follows the nth location. In turn, this allows you to review all the vocabulary… so why is a memory palace not the right tool? SRS alone doesn’t offer that.

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I personally don’t like memory palacades for learning vocabulary of a language. Something you learn with a memory palace is accessible by checking loci. It is really convenient for when you need structured knowledge. For instance if you wanted to hold a presentation in Spanish, yes, then I would recommend using method of loci.
When I learn vocabulary I prefer to work with the keyword method only. It works well for me, when I learn graspable vocabulary. For instance:
el maestro = teacher -> I imagine a teacher thinking he is a master at what he is doing, which is why he is called el maestro (master sounds similar to maestro). The most important aspect here is to link it to the image/meaning of a teacher and not to the word teacher. I used to do it differently when I was still in school and didn’t know anything about memory technics. That was wrong because it kept me in stagnative state where I was always just trying to translate in my head. But if you want to become more fluent it is really helpful if you become able to think of the foreign word when you’re confronted with the image / meaning.

Learning words by frequency seems an efficient approach. However, for me it doesn’t work that well when I just get to lists of words. It’s been better for me if I learn foreign vocabulary as a secondary aspect and I treat them as a collection to grow along the way. The problem is probably the feeling while doing so. If I’m just learning plain vocabulary it’s mostly a question of getting done workload. At least in the long run. In the beginning I can be motivated that way too. But in comparison if I watch a Netflix show for instance, I’m getting curious (“what does that word mean”) and I have to elaborate it. Words I learn from lists on average take me significantly longer to convert them into long-term memory. It’s probably the difference between “I want to know it” and “I want myself to know it”.
I feel like it’s good though to have a certain level of vocabulary in before you move on to something like Netflix. So I wouldn’t recommend this for starters. I began with Duolingo, but after a while it get’s repetitive and it was more about earning XP etc. It’s easy to lose track on Duolingo. I can recommend it for starting to learn a language though. But at some point you should leave it if you don’t want to stagnate at a certain level.

I also use Anki for my vocabulary but I don’t like premade decks of vocabulary. As mentioned I like to put together my own collection. It’s like when I was young boy and collecting stickers etc. Just like this time my collection isn’t a waste of time (and money), because it provides me with knowledge. :slight_smile: I hope some of what I said is helpful to you.

Hi all.

I haven’t been back for a while but be assured I am still watching, and gaining a lot from all your opinions and suggestions, and I will definitely continue to keep track.

A number of personal issues have interfered since my OP, so sadly I haven’t got very far yet.

Apart from this source I have watched many YouTube videos pertaining to language learning in general and Spanish in particular.

All things considered I am still of the opinion that the best approach FOR ME is to learn as much vocabulary as possible. I never use age as an excuse for anything, but at almost 75 I don’t really have any delusions about becoming fluent.

I have done a lot of traveling, often in countries where I didn’t know a single word of the language. Believe it or not there have been several occasions when my visa was expiring before I decided on my next destination, so I basically had the plane trip to learn hello, please and thank you - if I wasn’t sleeping instead.

From those experiences I know very well that simply a good kit of vocabulary words would have made life immensely easier.

anyway, despite the impediments that I’m facing at the moment and other demands on my time, I’m using Duolingo when I can and learning the names of all the items in my apartment.

Hopefully it won’t be too long before I can get serious again, but in the meantime this website continues to be an important to me, so thank you all. I’m humbled and impressed by the amount of effort some of you go to.

One observation before I go:
bjoern.gumboldt said in part…
“Again, review at night, review in the morning, PUT NEXT 100 WORDS IN THE SAME LOCI. Don’t even worry about ghosting because that works in your favor… you don’t remember one of the words, who cares.”

Reusing the same loci goes against everything I’ve ever understood about memory palaces! I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m looking forward to it as an interesting experiment. Wondering what others think about this.

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