Saturday Spanish #2: Don’t learn individual words

Become a better Spanish learner each week

This post appeared originally in the Saturday Spanish Newsletter. Join below and every Saturday, you'll get one insight, strategy or resource to build more confident spoken Spanish.

Unsubscribe anytime with one click.

If you want to be able to use your Spanish (not just read it), don’t learn individual words by themselves.

If you do, you’ll feel like you’re constantly spinning your wheels. You may recognize a ton of words, but you’ll struggle to put them into your own sentences.

This leads to frustrating outcomes:

  • New words don’t stick
  • You understand things but can’t say anything
  • You misuse more abstract words because you had no context for them
  • You need a time-out between each phrase to search for words

It’s a quick way to make yourself want to give up on your goal of learning Spanish.

I have a notebook full of individual words

When I was first learning Spanish, I didn’t know anything about memory or about how to learn more effectively. So I did what most people do: I wrote down tons of words with Spanish on the left, English on the right.

I was improving, but struggled to ever put these words to use. I had a notebook full of words, but nothing to anchor them to my reality. That’s why I wanted to share this with you.

Without context, the words you know are like students sitting too far apart to pass each other notes: they see each other, but can’t connect.

Instead, learn words in context.

If I could go back, I would stop writing down every random word I came across.

Instead, I’d:

  1. Only write down words I think are most relevant to me at the time
  2. Write those words down in the context I found them

In fact, that is what I do now in my own language learning efforts. I’ve been learning German for about 2 years now. This approach has helped me build practical skills — I’ve never been to Germany, but can now comfortably hold conversations on a range of topics in German.

The same is possible for you, even if you don’t live abroad. 

Other things are part of the process, of course. You need to listen, practice speaking with others, and more. 

But the simple act of learning words in context (or finding context online when you have none) is huge.

It helps you:

  • Build connections between words in your mind
  • Know how and when to use certain words (llevar vs. traer anyone?)
  • Learn words faster and remember them longer
  • Access words when you need them
  • Acquire the grammar that’s built into each word’s context

Learning vocabulary doesn’t have to involve lists of kitchen items followed by lists of office items followed by your computer’s exit through the nearest window.

If you avoid the trap of learning words on their own, with no context, you will build stronger Spanish skills.

It’s the first step in finally being able to use the words you know in conversation.


Become a more skillful Spanish learner every Saturday

Sign up for the Saturday Spanish Newsletter and start getting your Spanish unstuck. Every Saturday, you'll get 1 tip to help you in a concrete aspect of your learning.

Hey there, I'm Connor. I help motivated learners speak Spanish without slogging through grammar books or tapping through every new app. I started Breakthrough Spanish to give more people the confidence and focus to learn effectively Spanish from home. Learn more about me here.

Leave a Comment