How to Memorize Spanish Words: Instantly Improve Your Recall

I was doing a live class last night and kept repeating something that I thought was worth sharing here: 

If you memorize Spanish words like this:

Tener = to have

El bigote = the mustache

You are unlikely to remember them. If you do remember them, you’ll probably struggle to use the word in conversation. 

That’s because, to remember new words in Spanish effectively, those words need two things: 

  1. Context: how is the word actually used in conversation?
  2. Meaning to YOU (“encoding”): It requires effort to attach meaning to a totally foreign word. But that effort is exactly what makes the word stick.

Why context is so important for remembering new words in Spanish

Consider the English word contact. What’s the first thing you think of when you read that? 

Imagine you’re an English learner who’s just learned “to contact” — the verb. 

You learned it as a verb with the example sentence, “I contacted Mary to see if she was coming.”

Then you come across “contact” in the wild, and see it used like this: “I looked through my contact list and didn’t see Mary.”

You’d be forgiven for being confused.

Then again in phrases like eye contact, contact lens, or in contact with

Phone contact
Learning that “contact = communicate” doesn’t help you when “contact” refers to a number in your phone.
Eye contact
And it also doesn’t help you understand alternative uses of the same word, like eye contact

Without proper context, you’d struggle to use contact in its many varied forms. 

Context is also important because it gives you information about how the word is used in conversation. 

Let’s take the useful Spanish word poder (to be able to). If you just learn:

Poder = To be able to

… it won’t be very useful to you. 

If instead, you learn to say “I can go with you” (yo puedo ir contigo), you’re able to use it right away — even if you haven’t learned how to conjugate poder

And if you make the extra effort to take “puedo” and put it in your own sentence, you are thinking deeply about the new word and how to use it, and thus more likely to recall it later.

Of course, you won’t be able to know or memorize all the uses of poder at once.

But as you come across them (in context), you can add them to your Anki flashcard deck or a notebook or spreadsheet where you collect new short phrases. 

Obama campaign slogan in Spanish: Sí, se puede!
Another use of poder, in context: “¡Sí se puede!” from the Obama campaign’s slogan “Yes, we can” (derived originally from American labor leader Dolores Huerta’s work with the United Farm Workers). Image Source: Wikipedia.

How to retain Spanish vocabulary: here’s what will immediately improve your recall

To retain Spanish vocabulary, the key is to actively “encode” it — meaning to make an effort to connect the word with something meaningful to us. 

Studies show that “meaningful analysis” of a word leads to better recall. 

What does this mean in practice? 

When you come across a new word that you want to remember in Spanish, don’t just repeat it to yourself 10 times, saying compartir, to share, compartir, to share, compartir, to share. 

Play the part of an investigator, breaking the word apart and looking for clues and things to latch onto. 

Compartir is a great one because it has several things we English speakers can latch onto. 

  • Compartir — you’re sharing parts of something
  • Comp — you’re sharing it with your companions
  • Compart — you’re compartmentalizing things by splitting them
Sharing a pizza / compartiendo una pizza
La pizza es algo que se comparte (is shared) comúnmente

Or take Disculpe, for “excuse me”. 

  • Culp — related to “culprit” or “culpable”, which all derive from the latin word for guilt. When you’re saying “excuse me” to someone, you’re asking them to relieve you of the guilt/proclaim you “not guilty” for having bumped into them or spilled your coffee on their head. 
  • Disc — you might imagine that you broke someone’s CD (compact disc) and need to say excuse me/sorry: disculpe.
A judge's gavel / el martillo del juez
If you hear this sound, you might have wished you said disculpe and paid your ticket instead of running from the law!

Sounds great, you say, but what about words that have nothing to do with English? Not all words have connections to English that are so apparent. 

How do I remember a word like bigote (mustache)?

Connecting things to English is great, but it’s not the only thing you can do. Really, the point is to connect the word with anything that has meaning to you. 

That meaning can come from a person, place, thing, event, memory, etc. 

Maybe your neighbor growing up was big and had a bigote. 

Maybe you remember that Charlie Chaplin had a very thin mustache – un bigote muy fino

Maybe you already know how to say a few related things:

  • pelo largo (long hair)
  • Los años setenta (the seventies)
  • De moda (in style)

You might then make the sentence, en los años setenta, estaba de moda tener el pelo largo y bigote. 

Or a few other things, for a simpler sentence:

  • Mi papa (my dad)
  • Tiene (has)

Mi papá tiene bigote

For extra effect, you use the opposite of what your dad really has! If he doesn’t have a mustache, make yourself laugh at the mental image of mi papá tiene bigote

If he’s had a mustache for 30 years, make it mi papá no tiene bigote, and try your best to picture what he’d look like without one. 

Absurdity also helps you remember Spanish words more easily. 

El papa Francisco tiene tres bigotes  — Pope Francis has three mustaches

Barbara Streisand tiene bigote azul — Barbara Streisand has a blue mustache

You can memorize Spanish words by associating them with things you're already familiar with
If your favorite lego had a mustache, you can use that to help you remember the word bigote.

What now? 

Next time you come across a word that you want to remember, don’t just write it down for later or put it into Anki. 

Think about it critically. Find a personal connection to the word. Make your own sentence with it (this takes effort — which can be a pain, but it’s exactly what makes it beneficial). 

It’s a combination of hard work (consistent effort over time) + smart work (connecting Spanish words with things meaningful to you) that helps you actually remember what you’ve learned in Spanish. 

Connor Kane, Spanish coach

Thanks for reading! I'm Connor Kane, the Spanish coach and creator behind Breakthrough Spanish. I'm not a native Spanish speaker — which means I know exactly what it's like to learn Spanish from scratch, like you. Breakthrough Spanish helps you save time, get focused, and speak confident Spanish faster.

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