Hate flashcards for Spanish? Try this instead

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Flashcards can be great if done right. 

And while some of you enjoy them… 

I know for a lot of you, the thought of doing flashcards is like laying on a bed of nails. A few weirdos say it’s good for you, but you’ll stick with your Sleep Number, thank you very much. 

Either way though, you still need a way to learn new words…

You can learn a lot of vocabulary through sheer exposure to Spanish — especially, active listening and repetition of your learning material. 

You can also learn words through any one of the big apps. 

Both of these options are useful in their own ways, but they share one problem: the words are not always useful to your life. 

If you’ve ever been lost watching Casa de Papel… 

Or come across Duolingo cards like this one shown to a poor Finnish learner… 

Source: reddit

… Then you know what I mean. 

Today I want to share a straightforward way to fill your brain with more of what’s relevant to you, and less of what’s not. 

Filtering what’s not relevant right now 

Lately I’ve been watching Club de Cuervos, a comedy about a dysfunctional family who runs a soccer team in a nondescript pueblo in northern Mexico. 

Despite all my time learning Spanish, there is plenty of vocabulary in the show — especially soccer terms and certain Mexican slang and expressions — that I haven’t heard before. 

When watching, I’ll sometimes rewind to catch a phrase I didn’t quite hear, and I’ll go down a rabbit hole that takes me out of the experience of watching the show. 

But the truth is, most of the words I don’t catch are not important. 

In fact, the words I have learned from Club de Cuervos are the ones that have shown up over and over (the relevant ones usually do) and I’ve learned them through exposure. 

I’ve seen estimates saying we have to hear a word 15-20 before it enters our long term memories. 

Which means the “zero study” approach could take quite a long time before you build up a useful arsenal of words. 

So… what to do if you want to intentionally learn vocabulary from a certain area..

… but you don’t want to use flashcards of any kind? 

The option I’m going to suggest to you today is a kind of structured journaling exercise. 

Here’s how it works:

  1. Grab a journal
  2. Choose a topic to write about
  3. Set a timer 
  4. On the left side of your journal, write until the timer stops, or until you fill up the page. 
  5. When a word comes up that you don’t know, write it in the margins
  6. When the timer stops, look up the words you were missing
  7. Set a timer again. On the right side of the journal, rewrite, trying to recall the words you just looked up.  

Repeat this every couple days with a new writing prompt. As you go, you’ll build a bigger backlog of mini-essays or journal entries. 

Once you’ve written a few, you can add a new step to the beginning of the process: 

  • Flip back to a journal entry at random. Look at your writing on the left side (where the words were missing) and quiz yourself on the words you were missing. 

Repeat this every so often and you’ve got a context-rich, personally-relevant, flashcard-free vocabulary learning system. 

What’s the best way to learn Spanish vocab?

When it comes to vocab acquisition, there are almost as many schools of thought as there are words. 

But I think everyone can agree on this:

Learning a bunch of words you don’t need is like filling up someone else’s gas tank. It feels productive, but it doesn’t get you very far. 

We all have limited time and attention, so prioritizing your efforts means intentionally ignoring some unknown words until you come across words you know for sure are useful. 

This applies especially once you are nearing an intermediate level and have a foundational vocabulary under your belt. 

If that’s you, give today’s journaling exercise a shot. I suspect you’ll uncover some words that are highly relevant to your life, that you didn’t even know you needed. 


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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.

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