Spanish and Wine: Don’t Waste $2000

How many words do you have to learn to be fluent in Spanish?

The Spanish dictionary has 100,000 words. Do you need to learn all of them to be “fluent”?

If not, how do you know which words to select?

Think about it like wine.

Diminishing Returns

How much do you have to pay for a bottle of “good” wine?

If you look at the typical options, you’re going to see that a bottle of wine can go from $2 (in a Barcelona grocery store) to $20,000 or maybe even $200,000 (at a top restaurant in New York City).

Snobby wannabe connosieurs might tell you “Oh, if you want GOOD wine, you’ll really need 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, in our lifetime, be able to tell the difference between a *good* $20 bottle and an *extremely good* $2000 bottle. Most people like me, who only drink a little wine on occasion, can usually tell the difference between a $2 bottle and a $20 bottle. But going from there to $2000 is barely noticable (for us).

Even the wine connosieurs would tell you that the pleasure they get from the wine can be graphed like this:

$2: 10% pleasure

$20: 55% pleasure

$200: 80% pleasure

$2000: 90% pleasure

Diminishing returns in buying wine and learning language

This is based on the assumption that in each case, you’ve chosen the BEST bottle of wine for that price, e.g. the best $20 wine that exists, or the best $200 wine that exists.

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 ten times the original price) just to change 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, that is.)

Let’s do a “fluency percentage” graph, just like the wine graph:

200 words: 55% fluency (beginner)

1000 words: 80% fluency (conversational)

3000 words: 90% fluency (near-native level)

50,000 words: 98% fluency (native level)

Diminishing returns in language learning Spanish and Wine

This assumes that you’re choosing the BEST and most practical words available, e.g. the top 1000 most-used words in Spanish.

Also note that this assumes you are truly 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 in every practical way.

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 more.

And the price of getting to 98% is FIFTY TIMES 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 instead for 1000 words is more realistic and practical. Plus it’s a lot more fun! You can begin talking in Spanish, 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, or a “diminishing return”.

How to Find Your $20

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 wine. 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! It’s sad but true.

In the same way, 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 use every dollar wisely.

I’ll help you make sure that every word you learn, for now, has a true and definite purpose.

Here’s exactly how you should choose your $20 bottle.

The first $10: Syntax

Spanish has 500 essential words that you need to learn in order to communicate well and to understand others.

They’re mostly tiny words, like prepositions, pronouns, and short but confusing verbs. And unfortunately, many of these words are (1) very nuanced in expression and (2) hard to understand when someone says them quickly.

Check out this list:

Top words for fluency

This isn’t guesswork; it’s science. Those words are based on millions of samples of native Spanish speech. Those top 500 words constitute about 75% of what Spanish speakers say.

If you truly master these 500 words, in all of their common uses, you’ll be well on your way.

As a clear example, check out this 9-minute Spanish conversation that only uses the top 600 words in Spanish:

Dialogue with only the top words

I always recommend starting at the TOP of the frequency list (quedenoala, etc.) and moving down from there once each word is truly mastered.

To measure your own mastery of these, check out Volume 1 of Accelerated Spanish, which thousands of Spanish students have used to master the top 100 words.

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 as 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 special to you, personally. You’ll be ready to begin growing in your confidence and enjoyment of the language by expanding into exciting, colorful areas.

It’s time to find the next $10, the next 500 words that will help you speak with freedom about the things that are important to you.

Start thinking about your work, your family, your hobbies, your favorite stories… what Spanish words will help you 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 fluidity a boost. Build up a library of stories and topics that flow for you. If you select your vocabulary carefully, it will only take about 500 more Spanish words.

Of course, you want to make sure you’re using them properly.

My student Julia is at this exact stage. She is a financial advisor, and she’s realized that these words will be essential in describing her work:

– financial advisor

– manage

– investments

– goals

– achieve

Also, to talk about her life and her hobbies, she chose these words:

– park

– bicycle

– apartment

– to move (between houses)

– restaurants

– vegetables

– indulge

She put them together in a short “script” to talk about herself:

Hi, my name is 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.

Not only that, but we also recorded it for her (I have a team of professional native-speaking voice talents) so that she can practice with a recording. This helps with pronunciation, phrasing, and intonation.

This has enormously boosted Julia’s conversational confidence. Now she can begin to talk about her work, and her hobbies, with smoothness.

And notice:

This only took about a dozen new words!

All the rest of the words in the script are words she already know (because she had studied those top 500-600 words).

Imagine how confidently she’ll be speaking when she learns just 500 MORE words that are important to her!

Don’t Waste $2000

Do you take your Spanish goals seriously?

Then you need to take your selection of words seriously. Don’t spend $2000 when $20 will do the trick.

Figure out your $20.

Master the essential words in Spanish, and build your confidence from there.