Here’s one of the most embarrassing moments of my time learning Spanish…
When I was 14 or 15 in high school, I volunteered at a local community center to help Latino immigrant kids with their homework. I had started studying Spanish at age 13, so I didn't have a strong grasp of the language yet.
There was a police officer who was always at the center who would chat to the kids in Spanish. One day he was telling the kids a story, and when he got to the end I laughed along with all the kids.
Little did I know that in his story he was making fun of me for pretending to understand Spanish. :(
I had only understood a few words, and just followed everyone else's reactions. Sometimes this works and other times it ends with a teenage girl never wanting to return to that community center.
The good news is that I am SO over it now. Now I can understand Spanish speakers who speak a mile a minute, speakers from many different regions and countries, and all kinds of accents.
I believe that you too can overcome any embarrassing situations with hard work and dedication. Here is a masterpost to guide you in finally understanding people when they speak Spanish!
First of all, let’s reveal why you can’t understand Spanish. The most probable reason that you can’t understand Spanish is that you haven't developed your Spanish ear. Don’t worry. You don’t have to grow a third ear or anything. What I mean by Spanish ear is the ability to cognitively separate and comprehend individual words when a Spanish speaker is talking.
Basically, if you have a good Spanish ear, you’ll be able to actually understand the separate words someone is using while speaking in that natural flow of a native speaker. Developing your Spanish ear is not going to be easy or quick. You have been warned. It takes consistency and attention. You need to be listening to Spanish daily. You also need to be listening actively. This means that you cannot put on a podcast and listen to it in the background without really paying attention to it.
Focus on the words you hear, even if you can’t understand most of them. When your ear catches a word or two that you understand, CONGRATULATIONS! That calls for celebration. Don’t focus on what you can’t understand, ok? Be happy every time you can understand spoken Spanish and continue onward!
How to develop that Spanish ear
There are a couple areas that you could work on to help improve your Spanish listening skills quicker. The first area is phonetics and pronunciation. You might think that Spanish pronunciation is pretty similar to English, and you’re right. However, even letters like l, t and d are actually pronounced differently between English and Spanish. The differences are small, but they do exist, and if you really study Spanish pronunciation (even if you can’t perfectly replicate it), it can definitely boost your understanding of Spanish speakers.
The second area is regional accents and dialects. Now, you don’t have to be an expert in all of the hundreds of Spanish regional dialects. However, it can be really helpful to know about the most common pronunciation variations from the standard Spanish you’re probably studying right now.
Some of the most common regional pronunciation differences are the following:
Elimination of the final s sound in a syllable (Caribbean, southern Spain, other areas)
ll sounds like sh (Argentina, Uruguay)
-ado and -ada suffixes lose the d sound (many areas)
c and z can sound like English th (Spain)
If you are aware of these variations from standard Spanish pronunciation, it can help you greatly in understanding native speakers.
Natural speech is a flow
Another key point in developing your Spanish listening comprehension is interpreting the natural flow of Spanish speech. It’s not easy, and you probably won’t be able to achieve it in a short time.
You see, just like in English, Spanish speakers normally do not pronounce every word perfectly. They combine different words together and mesh their sounds into one seemingly long and endless word train. Take this sentence for example:
Mi hijo está ocupado.
A Spanish speaker would not pronounce every word separately. They will blend the words together.
Mi and hijo commonly mesh together to form Mijo. The vowels at the beginning and end of each word will commonly squeeze together as well. Combine all that with the tendency of some speakers to eliminate the d sound in the -ado suffix, and you get this when spoken:
Wow. That’s a doozy. However, if you are aware of this tendency to mesh words together (called sinalefa), and you practice, practice, practice your listening, you WILL be able to understand Spanish speakers when they do this.
How to practice your listening skills
In order to actually improve your Spanish listening skills, you have to listen to Spanish every day. You’ll improve much faster that way and develop that Spanish ear. Some days you might be busy. It’s ok. You still have to fit Spanish into your day though!
Here is what I recommend you do to practice your listening skills when you are doing other tasks:
Download a bunch of podcasts/shows/songs that interest you onto your phone or whatever device you use to listen to Spanish. This will be your library that you can turn to instead of spending too much time searching for something to listen to.
Listen to these materials while you’re washing dishes or folding clothes or driving, whatever.
Repeat phrases that you hear to help reinforce your comprehension.
On the days that you have time to sit down and study, you can really dive deep into listening comprehension!
What you need to do on these days is the following:
Find a good podcast to listen to. Make sure it’s not too long, and make sure it has a transcript.
Listen to the audio once without looking at the transcript. See how much you understand.
Listen again while reading the transcript. Did that clear a few more things up?
Look up all the vocabulary words you don't know (do not do this first! See how much you can understand during the first two listenings).
Listen again. Mark on the transcript where you hear the speaker linking words together (sinalefa) and where you hear regional accent variations.
Challenge: Listen again and write your own transcript. Of course, don’t look at the given transcript for this one.
If you do this for 30 days, I guarantee that you’ll improve your Spanish listening skills.