Hacks to Memorize Spanish Words

Hacks to Memorize Spanish Words

We all know that one of the most important but difficult parts of learning a language is learning words (and then remembering them when needed). Here we’ve compiled some hacks to make memorizing vocabulary that little bit easier.

To make yourself understood in the early stages of learning a language, you only actually need to know a few hundred words. If that sounds daunting, remember it’s not as bad as it sounds. In your native language, you already knew about 5000 words by the time you were four years old!

Hack 1: Learn by Topic

Every word we know is grouped into a ‘semantic field,’ which basically means that it relates to a particular topic or theme, for instance, ‘goggles,’ ‘pool,’ ‘dive,’ ‘swim,’ and  ‘water’ all relate to swimming.

Feel free to choose topics that interest you. If you need a starting point, check out our blog articles on personality description vocab, classroom vocab, and, if you want to learn something a bit different, and are NOT a minor, a whole heap of curse words!

Hack 2: Make It Visual With Word Maps

Some people are naturally visual learners, meaning that seeing things is the best way for them to memorize them—you might have heard people refer to having a ‘photographic’ memory.

Try making a word map for a certain theme. There’s no set way of doing this, but you might want to:

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    Write a key word in the middle of the page, e.g. ‘swimming’ (in Spanish).
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    Write a key word in the middle of the page, e.g. ‘swimming’ (in Spanish).

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    Draw arrows outwards to related words. Think:
  • What is it? ‘Exercise.’
  • What do you wear? ‘Goggles.’
  • Where do you do it? ‘Pool,’ ‘water.’
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    If you’re feeling particularly creative, try drawing little pictures, too!

Colors can be really helpful for visual learning. Try making a word map for each new topic that you learn in Spanish, assigning a different color to each topic.

Use this task as an opportunity to make your study notes neat and beautiful! Although computers can be a great asset in this respect, handwritten notes are highly recommended—the process of writing them out can really help start the process of sticking them in your head. So get yourself some shiny new stationery and get started!

Hack 3: Get Sticky

A simple but fun idea is to put sticky notes on items around the house. For example, ‘puerta’ (meaning ‘door’) on your bedroom door, ‘frigorífico’ (‘refrigerator’) on the refrigerator door, or ‘espejo’ (‘mirror’) on—you guessed it—your mirror!

You can even start adding adjectives (description words) once you’re comfortable, e.g. ‘puerta blanca’ (‘white door’).

The more times you practice something, the more easily it will ~stick~. Since you’re looking at these objects every day anyway, why not make the most of it?!

Hack 4: Let Your Imagination Run Wild

You can really introduce creative thought into language-learning when it comes to vocab!

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    Creating your own sentences helps you practice using the words in context. For example, if you are struggling with the days of the week, write phrases whose contexts apply to you: ‘Juego al baloncesto cada lunes.’ ‘Los martes voy a la casa de mi amiga, María.’ This also works as a test to see if you understand the word and how to use it.
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    Try writing a funny story using words from the topic you’re on. Having perfect grammar isn’t what’s important here—what matters is creating amusing imagery that will stick in your mind.
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    Make silly little links. These don’t have to make sense to anyone but you (which also means you can make them as weird as you like!) To illustrate this, here are some links that I’ve used over the years, and some I’ve just invented:
  • Bostezar means ‘to yawn.’ I recommend imagining your boss (bostezar) making you yawn with boredom. (Disclaimer: a lot of bosses are actually amazing.)
  • Tobillo means ‘ankle.’ I like to imagine that I’ve named one of my ankles ‘Toby.’ (Please don’t judge me.)
  • On the body theme, I used to remember rodilla (‘knee’) by picturing a rodent (maybe a cute hamster) sitting on my knee.
  • And on the animal theme, if you picture a ferret doing DIY every time you see a hardware store, you’ll find it a lot easier to remember that the word for that store is ferretería.
  • Again with animals and shops, panadería means ‘bakery.’ I think it’s nice to imagine a massive panda going into a bakery and coming out with a baguette and a few cinnamon rolls.
  • Ministerio is ‘ministry’ and ministro is ‘minister.’ When I started learning Spanish, I would get this the wrong way round, because logic told me ‘minister’ matches better with ministerio, and ministro matches better with ‘ministry.’ My way of remembering it? When it comes to ministers and ministries, just reverse logic!

Hack 5: Cognates Are Your Friends!

Cognates are words that have similar linguistic origins—meaning the Spanish version looks identical or similar to the English—and if that ain’t helpful, I don’t know what is!

Let’s look at some examples:

  • actor—actor
  • circular—circular
  • television—televisión
  • extension—extensión
  • attention—atención
  • vocabulary—vocabulario
  • dramatic—dramático
  • curious—curioso
  • perfect—perfecto
  • camera—cámara
  • magic—magia
  • line—línea

Bet you know more words than you thought you did!

You don’t even need to use English as your link. French and Italian, for example, have similar roots to Spanish (they are all Romance languages). So if you speak other languages, you can use any one of them to help with the others!

For instance:

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    ‘Yesterday’: ayer (Spanish)—hier (French)
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    ‘To see’: ver (Spanish)—voir (French)
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    ‘Green’: verde (Spanish)—vert (French)
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    ‘Cat’: gato (Spanish)—gatto (Italian)
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    ‘Thank you’: gracias (Spanish)—grazie (Italian)

This is all great, but … beware false friends!

Some Spanish words look like English words, but they don’t mean the same. Like, AT ALL. Be careful with these. Used incorrectly, they can get you into some hilariously awkward situations:
Examples:

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    éxito means ‘success’ NOT ‘exit.’
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    codo means ‘elbow’ NOT ‘code.’
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    recordar means ‘to remember/remind’ NOT ‘to record.’
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    embarazada means ‘pregnant’ NOT ‘embarrassed.’
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    … and, a personal favorite: constipado is the adjective for when you have a cold, NOT for when you’re having toilet issues!

Hack 6: Recognize Patterns

One of the wonderful things about Spanish is that a lot of words are formulaic, so when you learn one word, you’re actually helping yourself understand loads more. What I mean by this is:

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    You can be sure that words ending in -ar, -er, and -ir are likely to be verbs in their infinitive form, e.g. votar.
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    If a word ends in -ado or -ido but has the same stem as the infinitive, it’s probably the past tense/adjectival version, e.g. votado.
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    So if you know that bailar means ‘to dance,’ you can infer that bailado means ‘danced.’
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    If you know that herido means ‘injured,’ you can work backwards and guess that the verb for ‘to injure’ is herir!
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    There are lots of suffixes (word endings) that can help you as well. Check these ones out:
-splural
-ito/-itadiminutive (small or cute version of something!)
-or(a)
(vender-->vendedor)
(trabajar-->trabajadora)
nouns/adjectives derived from verbs
(to sell-->seller)
(to work-->hard-working)
-mente
(lento-->lentamente)
transforms an adjective into an adverb
(slow-->slowly)
-ista
(fútbol-->futbolista)
a person/professional
(football-->footballer)
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    It’s not just word endings that help. Prefixes (those ~mini words~ at the beginning of words) are also really helpful:
des-, in-, im-
(igualdad-->desigualdad)
(paciente-->impaciente)
makes the word negative/opposite
(equality-->inequality)
(patient-->impatient)
mal-
(entender-->malentender)
bad
(to understand-->to misunderstand)
con-, com-, co-
(existir-->coexistir)
together
(to exist-->to coexist)
re-
(hacer-->rehacer)
again, repeated
(to do-->to redo)
sobre-
(dosis-->sobredosis)
over
dose-->overdose
sub-
(estimar-->subestimar)
under
(to estimate-->to underestimate)

Once you recognize the components covered in these tables (and others which you’ll naturally pick up through reading in Spanish), you’ll be able to work out loads of words without having to memorize them all separately.

Hack 7: Music

The Spanish-speaking world is so vast that there are many, many songs out there written in Spanish—from all sorts of genres. One of the best-known styles globally is reggaetón (à la Daddy Yankee) which gives you loads of vocab—some of which is specific to the place of the song’s origin, and some of which is more general.

Even if you only learn one word from a song through its sheer relentless repetition (looking at you, Despacito!), it’s better than nothing, plus you’ll have fun discovering new music. If you need some ideas, check out our playlist!

There are also songs designed specifically for learning. Search for songs about days of the week, numbers, animals, and so on. The tunes will get stuck in your head, but so will the lyrics—and that’s the whole point! I still remember some of the songs I learned in language classes over 10 years ago!

Final Tips:

When it comes to memorizing things, items start in the short-term memory, and get transferred into the long-term memory once your brain has been exposed to them enough times. You’ll start off being able to recognize Spanish words, and eventually be able to use them.

Keep your vocab sessions to about 20 minutes at a time, and revisit your vocab regularly to push it into your long-term memory! When to revisit it? Try leaving increasingly long gaps between revisits. For example, 10 minutes after you first learn the word, then a day after, then a week, then a month, then 6 months.

Remember…

… this list of hacks is not exhaustive, and what works for some people won’t work for others. Each learner is individual: the trick is to try them out and see which ones work for YOU! Most of all, don’t panic if you’re struggling—that’s part of the process! Keep at it, maintaining a daily learning habit, and you’ll notice progress. For a great range of vocabulary topics to get you started, check out our book.

About the Author Annabel Beilby

Annabel is a language-enthusiast from the UK. She studied Spanish and French at the University of Southampton (with an Erasmus study year in Madrid!) and recently graduated. She has interests across the Spanish-speaking world, and is a fan of language in general.

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