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When learning vocabulary in a new language, it is useful to focus on very commonly used words first. Are there any resources online (or in print) that give a list of the most frequently occurring Spanish words in spoken or written language?

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Yes there are many such lists.

It's really easy to find them using a search engine such as Google. Here's some results using both English and Spanish keywords to get lots of results.

And the first result (for me at least) is my favourite open dictionary that anybody can edit! (Disclaimer: I'm a long-time contributor to Wiktionary.) This list is divided up into pages. Here is the first 1000. This particular list is counted by word form but also gives the lemma or dictionary form for each entry. Here's the first few:

rank    word    occurrences (ppm)   lemma forms
1.      que     32894               que
2.      de      32116               de
3.      no      29897               no
4.      a       22313               a

As you can see the top of the list is all function words. But as you get further into the list you get to the vocabulary words such as verbs, nouns, and adjectives.

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I have found 6000+ Essential Spanish Words to be quite useful. It is organized in the manner that Flimzy mentions in his answer.

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I don't think you're going to find a very universally useful list like this. Many Spanish text books have such lists, but I think the best practice is to make your own list, that focuses on the area(s) of Spanish you wish to learn about. Keep a notebook handy, and as you find yourself wishing you knew how to say XYZ, add it to your list. Then look up the Spanish word when you have a chance, and learn it.

As you go through life, you'll discover that you care about different types of grammar. I find that I use grammar in the following areas:

  • Food (at restaurants and when shopping at the supermarket)
  • Computers (to talk about my work)
  • Photography (one of my hobbies)
  • Auto mechanics (my car is recently having trouble)

There are some more or less universally useful vocabulary categories, but you'll find any of these in a first-level Spanish text book:

  • Numbers
  • Parts of the body
  • Clothing
  • Household terms
  • Animals
  • Simple objects (car, airplane, movie, street, etc)

There are other areas I almost never talk about:

  • Health/Medicine
  • Farming
  • Art/painting
  • hundreds more

The proper vocabulary for many of these things also depends very much on region, so if possible, you should learn your vocabulary from a native speaker in the area where you'll be speaking.

  • I agree that raw frequency lists are not as useful when people actually see them as they may have expected. But people have different ways of learning so you never know. – hippietrail Nov 17 '11 at 19:49

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