Today, we will focus on how to improve your listening skills in Spanish. If you are reading this entry, chances are you’ve come across some small (and BIG) problems when listening to Spanish or any other foreign language. Let me tell you, you are not alone. Many of my students (myself included) have felt it. Sadness. Frustration. Anger. Disappointment. Defeat. Failure. You name it!
In some cases, this might mean you’re simply unable to complete an exercise in your text book. Well, you might think, I can always read the transcript. However, in other cases (a.k.a. real life), it might mean you end up looking like him:
So, if you want to find out how to solve the problems you come across when listening to Spanish speakers, keep reading!
Problem # 1. Mind blown
Situation: You’ve studied Spanish for a while. You can understand written texts. Then, you listen to Spanish for the first time. Now, you feel like a two year old. You can only understand separate words. Nothing makes sense. How is this possible?!?!
Explanation: When we learn a new language, understanding a native speaker’s pronunciation and intonation is no easy task. We are used to being passive when listening. In fact, we take it for granted. Words in our mother tongue just float from our ear to our brain. No extra effort is required. However, in a foreign language, words find different obstacles before you can process them. Whether it’s the speakers’ accent, or the way a certain word is pronounced, or even the sentence intonation pattern. Plus, you only have a limited amount of time to listen and understand information. All of these elements are not present in the written text, and that’s why, most of the time, when you read the transcript, you can understand most of what the speaker says. But when you hear it, you are unable to process it mentally.
Solution: practice and repeat. Take small chunks of listening and compare your comprehension with and without the transcript. What held you back from understanding? Pronunciation? Intonation? Accent? Try listening to the same recording over and over until you can understand it without reading the transcript. Then, move on to another text. Little by little, you will become more confident. This way, as you get used to hearing Spanish, processing it in real-time will be easier.
Problem # 2. Senseless nodding
Situation: I’m sure you can relate to this one. You hear a conversation/song/recording. You start confidently and understand the first 3-4 words/sentences. Then, an unexpected word comes up. You get stuck on that word. You can’t figure out what it means. You think, search, think again. By the time you go back to the listening, you’ve lost half of the important information you need. You disconnect from the speech. You feel stressed. And, what’s worst: you can’t understand anything and end up nodding senselessly.
Explanation: As I said before, we are used to making little to no effort when we listen to a speaker in our mother tongue. In Spanish (or any other foreign language for that matter), it’s not that simple. You don’t know all the words in the dictionary. And, let me tell you, neither should you. So, if you if you try to understand everything the first time you hear a conversation/song/recording, it will only make you feel frustrated.
Solution: First, predict. Second, focus. Third, sum up.
Firstly, before you listen, predict what topic you’re going to be hearing about. Which words might come up? What kind of information is going to be asked of you? What do you know about the topic? It has been proven that when you have a mental image of the topic you’re going to be listening to, it will guide you through the listening. Thus, it will be easier for you to understand the conversation. This is especially helpful for exams such as DELE A2, but can also be applied to any subject or daily topic.
Secondly, focus only on key phrases and to let the rest go. Don’t worry if some can’t understand every single word, just try to get the gist. Most of the information we use is to fill in space anyhow. For this stage, it’s also useful to pay attention to body language as it delivers a lot of information too. That’s why it’s easier to speak to someone face-to-face rather than on the phone.
Thirdly, try to create a global image from the main ideas you DO understand and, if you’re speaking to someone, repeat the information to check that you’ve understood it correctly.
Problem # 3. Why ya’ll talk so fast?
Situation: You come across a lovely person who asks you “¿Hablas español?”. Feeling adventurous, you take up courage and nod. You say “sí, un poquito”, and by the time you want to open your mouth again, it’s too late. It’s impossible to stop him/her. Let alone understand any of it. You feel as though you’ve been run over by a wave of words.
Explanation: Spanish is a very fast language. Indeed, it has been proven that Spanish speakers are the fastest speakers in the world. It’s no surprise, then, that you struggle when you first hear a native Spanish speaker. To you, it might sound like this:
Solution: don’t let it scare you off! If you are talking to people, remember to tell them “no entiendo, ¿puedes hablar un poquito más despacio, por favor?”. Simple, but effective. And, to ease you into listening, there is a useful Youtube tool I would like to introduce to you. Simply log in to YouTube. Find a Spanish video. Hit play. And lower the speed. How? Very easy: below each video you will find a little wheel. If you click on it, you can actually change the speed at which each person talks. Little by little, you will get used to the rhythm of Spanish and at some point you might even surprise your self talking at their speed…
Ok, I got you. I want to put it into practice. Now… where do I start?
If you want to find other documents to practice let me give you some tips:
- As we saw in our post 6 effortless ways to learn Spanish, there are many Netflix shows available with subtitles. If you are a beginner, it’s also useful to watch movies you’ve already seen.
- Youtube has many news channels where you can find news in Spanish which you can slow down, such as Agencia EFE
- Podcasts like Lightspeed Spanish or Coffee break are great.
- If you are preparing for an exam, practice with specific exercises such as those for DELE A2
- Otherwise, you can simply enjoy a song in Spanish. Check out this month’s Instagram for inspiration on great Spanish songs from all styles. Not enough? Watch out for next week’s blog post when we will be sharing five love songs in Spanish according to your level and more listening exercieses.
Let me know in the comments below if you’ve put these techniques into practice and if they have helped you and I hope to see you around 🙂
This Post Has One Comment
I am B1 level for speaking Spanish and B2 for grammar and reading, but my listening and understanding is awful.
I can understand if people speak clearly, not necessarily slowly, but clearly.
When i listen to audio, i miss words especially prepositions, but the main problem i have is words and phrases said, especially by men, most sound mumbled and slurred and there is no way i can understand. I reduce the speed of the audio and still i can’t make it out, so it’s not the speed.
It could be too hard? well, when i read the transcript or subtitles, i understand 85-90%, so it’s not the vocab i struggle with. When i read and listen, some parts, sometimes more than others, don’t sound at all like what’s written. I listen 5-6 times and it still sounds nothing like it. What they say don’t sound like any word / phrase at all and so i can’t look it up, even if i wanted to.
So basically, i cannot identify words or phrases when spoken even when i know them when written down. i miss small words and a lot of times when i’m transcribing the audio myself, i put the wrong word / phrase down as that’s what it sounds like.
How can i get around this?only by playing slow audio, even though the speed is not the problem 80% of the time?