A Basic Guide to Building Your Spanish Vocabulary


What is vocabulary?

Your vocabulary is your storage of Spanish words and phrases. Some of this is active – available for instant recall, and that you can use in your own Spanish; and some of this is passive – words and phrases which you understand, which ring a bell, but which aren’t available for instant recall, and aren’t part of your conversation toolbox. Developing your Spanish vocabulary involves working on both parts of this, and trying to convert as much of your passive vocabulary into active vocabulary.

Learning a Spanish word, broken down

When you learn a Spanish word or phrase you are not learning one piece of information, even though it feels like it. When you learn a word, here are some of the things which your brain has to take on board:

    • Form: How long is the word? How many syllables does it contain? What are the sounds of the word? How is it written, and how is it pronounced? How does it change (does it conjugate, does it decline?)
    • Meaning: What is the translation? What are the nuances of meaning? How does it differ from its English equivalent? Does it have a good English equivalent?
    • Context: Where did you hear it or read it? What were the other words around it? How does its meaning differ according to its context?


So, faced with this abundance of information, learning a word is not so simple as you might have thought. How do you know if you really know a word?

Spanish vocabulary: Quantity vs Quality

Most of us, in our approach to vocabulary (or most things in general…), take the opinion that bigger is better, and that it’s best to enlarge the vocabulary as quickly as possible. I feel that this is both true and false, depending on what type of vocabulary you’re looking to build. Remember we talked about passive vs active vocabulary? People with a large passive vocabulary have a good passing knowledge of many different words, phrases and constructions, and people with a large active vocabulary have a good in depth knowledge (although perhaps not so large) which they are able to use and recall in their conversations.

The challenge is to develop both quantity and quality of vocabulary. It’s great to be able to understand everything you hear and understand (strong passive vocabulary), but it’s also important to know enough about words and phrases in your vocabulary to know how and when to use them appropriately (strong active vocabulary). A balance is needed here…

Developing your passive Spanish vocabulary

Activities which extend your passive vocabulary include more receptive activities, with a large amount of input. It’s important to read a lot in Spanish, watch Spanish films and TV programmes, and generally surround yourself with the language. The important part with all of this is to let the language wash over you, and not get too caught up in the nitty gritty. Try and understand the gist of what you read or listen to, and don’t worry when you don’t understand every word. The important thing is to have a broad understanding, and a large input.

Developing your active Spanish vocabulary

This is where you need to focus on those individual words, and work on ways of commiting them to memory. The most important part for me here is to imbue those words with as much information as you can. Before, we talked about all the aspects involved in learning a word or phrase, and found that you

Finding a balance

Personally, I always feel that it’s more important to work on passive vocabulary, and trust our innate language ability to gradually turn the passive to active. I use passive activities (watching TV, reading Spanish, etc), and pull out parts of vocabulary and phrases which I either don’t know, or which I feel will be useful. I look these up (see my post on “looking up vocabulary”, and record the Spanish and English translations in Anki, which I then use to work on my active vocabulary.

Some Spanish vocabulary tips

  • Look to achieve a 70/30 balance of vocabulary work between passive/active.
  • Use passive activities as an opportunity to gain material for your active vocab study.
  • When memorising words and phrases, remember that there is a lot to learn. Learning additional information, such as things about the form (long, vowel sounds, etc), the various meanings, and the context in which you’ve heard it will all help with long term retention.
  • TONY

    hola, estoy aprendiendo espa;ol, y este sitio me ha gustado mucho, me gustara aprender nuevas palabras de lo basic or de la cotidiana vida. Gracias

  • TONY

    Rob alguna sugerenciaa

  • spanishobsessed

    Hola Tony! Me alegro que te guste esta pagina! Es cierto, que todavia no hay mucho vocabulario o frases basicas, pero en el futuro pienso escribir algunas paginas acerca de todo eso. Y, tambien vamos a grabar algunos podcasts que seguro van a tener algo asi.

    Cuanto tiempo llevas aprendiendo el espanol?

  • Dems

    But how can I built a good vocabulary? I mean, where I can find the words (this is a very practical question, maybe a little dumb but I hope u will understand). Should I buy a vocabulary book (??)?

    • spanishobsessed

      Good question – I’ll probably do a follow-up post on this! But, broadly speaking, I’d try to stick to finding vocabulary from “natural” sources, so TV, books, etc. At the beginning stages, I’d focus on learning phrases from phrasebooks and learning materials (podcasts, etc).

  • Gavin Linkson

    Dear Spanish Obsessed, I have watched films/TV programmes in Spanish with subtitles because I find it’s too fast for me to get the film plot. Do you advise I should maybe watch it firstly in this way then watch it again without?
    Thanks also for this very helpful site! 🙂