Spanish and Wine: Don’t Waste $2000
How many words do you have to learn to be fluent in Spanish?
The Spanish dictionary contains 100,000 words. Do you need to learn all of them to be “fluent”?
If not, how do you know which words to choose?
Let’s answer this question using an analogy: wine.
How much do you have to pay for a bottle of “good” wine?
If you look at the typical options, you’ll see that a bottle of wine can cost anywhere from $2 to $20,000 — or even $200,000 (say, at a fine dining restaurant in New York City).
Snobby, wannabe connoisseurs might tell you, “If you want GOOD wine, you have to pay at least $2000.”
But actually, some of the top wine experts will tell you that $20 can get you a very decent bottle.
In fact, most of us will never be able to tell the difference between a good $20 bottle and an extremely good $2000 bottle. People like me, who only drink a little wine occasionally, can usually tell the difference between a $2 bottle and a $20 bottle. But going from there to $2000 is barely noticeable.
Even wine connoisseurs will tell you that the pleasure they get from wine can be graphed like this:
Look at those numbers carefully. Notice anything strange?
Going from $200 to $2000 results in a 10% change in enjoyment. In other words, someone is paying an extra $1800 (or 10x the original price) to increase their enjoyment very slightly.
So if you want to enjoy good wine, and to get the most enjoyment for your money, you should probably spend between $20 and $200. Not $2000.
Language learning is exactly the same.
I mentioned that there are 100,000 words in the Spanish dictionary. However, any language-learning expert will tell you that it is possible to be functionally fluent with fewer than 5,000 words. (As long as they’re the right words.)
Let’s chart this in graph form, just like we did with wine prices:
- 200 words: 55% fluency (beginner)
- 1000 words: 80% fluency (conversational)
- 3000 words: 90% fluency (near-native level)
- 50,000 words: 98% fluency (native level)
Note that we’re talking about learning the most practical words (the 1000 most commonly used words in Spanish).
This also assumes you are learning all the nuances of these words, including common idiomatic uses, and you can actually understand them when you hear them in a conversation. In other words, you’re not just memorizing definitions — you’re truly learning these words and can use them in real-life conversations.
OK. So what do those numbers tell you?
That’s right. The “price” of getting to 55% isn’t that much! Just 200 words.
The price of getting to 80% comes to 5 times that. Doable, but a lot more work.
The price of getting to 90% is much higher.
And the price of getting to 98% is 50x the price of getting to 80%. (For perspective, if it takes you 3 months to get to 80%, that could mean 12 years to get to 98%.)
Now, that’s not to say that getting to a native level is impossible. It just takes an enormous amount of work.
Aiming for 1000 words is much more realistic and practical. Plus it’s a lot more fun! You can start talking in Spanish right away, even with native speakers, without learning thousands and thousands of words first.
Getting from 1000 words to 50,000 words is like going from $20 to $2000 in a wine store. It’s a LOT more cost for an increasingly small benefit — a diminishing return.
I hope I’ve convinced you by now that you’re looking for a $20 bottle, not a $2000 bottle.
But you want to find the right $20 bottle. Among the thousands of options, not all $20 bottles are created equal. In fact, there are some $20 bottles that are worse than some $3 bottles!
Although you can be conversational with 1000 words, you have to know the right words. Learning 1000 animal names, for example, won’t make you conversational at all.
Fortunately, you have a guide.
As we browse the aisle, I’m going to point out the most important details on the labels so that you can you spend every dollar wisely.
I’ll help you make sure that every word you learn in Spanish right now has a useful purpose.
Here’s exactly how you should choose your $20 bottle.
Spanish has 500 essential words that you need to learn in order to communicate well and understand others.
They’re mostly tiny words — like prepositions, pronouns, and short (often confusing) verbs. Unfortunately, many of these words are (1) very nuanced and (2) hard to understand when someone says them quickly.
Here’s the full list:
This isn’t guesswork — it’s science. The list is based on millions of samples of native Spanish speech. The top 500 words constitute roughly 75% of what Spanish speakers say.
If you master these 500 words, and all of their common uses, you’ll be well on your way.
Check out this 9-minute Spanish conversation that uses only the top 600 words in Spanish:
I recommend starting at the top of the frequency list (que, de, no, a, la, etc.) and moving down the list as you master each word.
The Next $10: Your Interests
Once your Spanish sentences are flowing, you’ll be amazed that you can actually begin to think in Spanish. Your mind will be retrained, kind of like using a different programming language.
However, at that point, most of your Spanish thoughts will be abstract, like “I used to do that a long time ago” and “I like working with people and things”. You won’t yet have many specific words for the things you want to talk about.
Now it’s time to spice things up a bit.
That means focusing on vocabulary that is important to you, personally. You’ll start increasing your confidence and enjoyment of the language by expanding into exciting new areas.
It’s time to find the next $10: the next 500 words that will help you speak fluidly about the things that are important to you.
Start thinking about your work, your family, your hobbies… what Spanish words will help you the most? What words will help you get excited to talk in Spanish?
Again, these will be the subjects on which you want to be the MOST comfortable and confident. You’ll already be able to talk about a lot of things, but now it’s time to give your fluency a boost. Build up a library of stories and topics that flow for you. If you choose your vocabulary carefully, it will only take about 500 more Spanish words.
Of course, you’ll want to make sure you’re using them properly.
My student Julia is at this exact stage in her Spanish learning journey. She’s a financial advisor, and she’s determined that the following words will be essential for describing her work:
- financial advisor
To talk about her life and her hobbies, she chose these words:
- to move (between houses)
She put them together in a short “script” she could use to talk about herself:
Hi, my name is Julia. I was born in New York City and have always lived here. I just moved to a new apartment with my dog, Snoop. I work as a financial advisor helping people manage their investments and achieve their goals.
On the weekends, I like to take Snoop to the nearby parks. Since I don’t have a car, I ride my bike everywhere. I also love to eat at amazing restaurants with friends. I mainly eat vegetables, but once in a while, I will indulge in tacos when my friends do.
Next, my team of native-speaking Spanish coaches translated it for her into perfect, idiomatic Spanish.
Hola. Me llamo Julia. Nací y he vivido toda mi vida en la ciudad de Nueva York. Recién me mudé a un nuevo apartamento con mi perro, Snoop. Trabajo como consultora financiera y ayudo a las personas a administrar sus inversiones y alcanzar sus objetivos.
Los fines de semana, me gusta llevar a Snoop a los parques cercanos. Ya que no tengo auto, voy en bicicleta a todas partes. También me gusta comer en restaurantes muy buenos con amigos. Principalmente como vegetales, pero de vez en cuando me doy el lujo de comer los tacos cuando lo hacen mis amigos.
We also recorded it for her so that she can practice saying it aloud. This helps with pronunciation, phrasing, and intonation.
This gave Julia a huge confidence boost. Now she can talk about her work and hobbies much more smoothly.
This only took about a dozen new words!
All the rest of the words in the script are words she already knew (because she had studied those top 500-600 words).
Imagine how confidently she’ll be speaking when she learns just 500 MORE words!
Are you serious about learning to speak Spanish fluently?
Then you need to take your selection of words seriously. Don’t spend $2000 when $20 will do the trick.
Master the essential words in Spanish, and build your confidence from there.