How many Spanish words do I need?

In some situations half a dozen words can show respect for a culture and the desire to communicate. It’s surprising how few words you need when you begin to speak a foreign language. In survival mode we can get by with a few nouns along with gestures, as long as our audience is inclined to understand.

How many words do we REALLY need?

A few years back I learnt about 30 to 40 words of Bahasa Indonesia for a trip that the Lovely Dee and I took. It was surprisingly useful and was appreciated by the local people. I hadn’t realised just how valuable those few words were until we went to rural Japan without anything beyond Konnichiwa and arigato. You quickly learn the limitations of mime.

When Homer Simpson forgets the word for spoon, his use of ‘dig-food’ as a synonym communicates the essential, even if the result isn’t eloquent or grammatically correct.

There quickly comes a point though when you want to take your Spanish beyond the absolute basics. At which time you should aim to maximize your returns on effort invested.

Not all words are created equal. Give priority to High Return vocabulary that can be used in as many situations as possible..

Prioritise. You don’t need to know every word. If you don’t know the English for something you almost certainly don’t need to know the Spanish.

Concentrate on ’high return’ words that can be used in many different situations. You probably won’t need the word for hovercraft just yet.

Some of the first phrases you should learn are the ones to acquire new vocabulary. Ask for advice on what to say there and then surrounded by context. Learn to ask “Cómo se dice…” “¿Cómo se llama eso?”

Learn how to describe things by shape/colour/function/material. Knowing how to describe things clearly means you can concentrate a little less on nouns particularly for things outside of your sphere.
Learning ‘the thing, thingy, whatsit’ and pointing can save mental capacity for more vital vocabulary.

Proper-nouns are generally far less valuable as they can be used very narrowly offering a far smaller return on the mental effort required to remember them.

In our own native languages we have a vastly larger passive vocabulary than the words we use actively. Eventually you want to be able to understand as many words and phrases as possible but you don’t have to use all of them yourself. When there are multiple synonyms for a given concept, choose one or two work into your active vocabulary.

Concentrate on vocabulary that is relevant to your life, dealing with subjects that interest you.