Are you having problems understanding Spanish-speaking people?
I’ve been there too. So let me share with you some tips to help you improve your Spanish listening skills.
Before we dive in, I’ll tell you about my bumpy journey….
When Spanish sounds like Chinese to you
I had studied and spoken Spanish for about 2 to 3 years and was still almost incapable of understanding strangers. I was only able to understand people when I knew what they were going to say, like an answer to my question, or when I talked to people I knew really well. But any out-of-the-blue-conversation sounded like Chinese to me, even after several years and especially with people I hadn’t met before.
“There it was: my highly desired Spanish listening skill”
I remember it vividly. The moment when I suddenly understood someone for the first time. It was as if I had arrived on a new planet. There they were: my highly desired Spanish listening skills.
It all happened in an office in Colombia. I was working with a colleague and we were speaking English together when the cleaning lady entered the office and started speaking Spanish to my colleague. As always, I didn’t even pay attention to it because at this point, trying to understand it only felt like a big frustration. I knew I couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying.
But then… there it was…. that moment when I landed on another planet. I understood what she was saying! I fully understood it! For a moment I thought that she was speaking English and that was the reason why I understood her. But she wasn’t. I actually understood her Spanish.
The melody of the language
Analyzing it all afterward, it feels like there’s a certain rhythm, a melody if you like, to the language. Like waves. And I was always surfing against the waves. And at that moment, for the first time, I caught the wave. I hopped on and stayed there until the last word of the sentence.
Nowadays, fluent in Spanish, I still have those moments when I don’t catch the waves. Or I lose the wave in the middle of the sentence. But it’s easier to hop back on because I’ve also become proficient in wave-catching.
Ok, so now back to the topic. How can you get there a little faster and work on your Spanish listening skills right from the beginning?
The general trick to improve your Spanish listening skills is to adopt the melody and speak like that yourself.
“I still have moments when I don’t catch the wave”
If you know how to speak in that rhythm (which is a completely different skill than learning words), you’ll be much more capable of understanding a Native’s “wave” when (s)he speaks.
Tip 1: Listen to something that you already know
If you’re in a Spanish-speaking country, drop yourself somewhere a few blocks away from a supermarket, church, mall, etc. and ask a native how to get there. You already know where it is, so you know what they’re going to say. Concentrate on their indications, listen carefully to how they say it, what words they use, and mainly: what the melody sounds like.
And if you dare: tell them that you didn’t understand and ask them to repeat it. This way you can practice twice!
Tip 2: Listen to the same sentence over and over again
Take a sentence that you’ve heard in a movie, youtube video, etc. Make sure you have it available in some form of audio file. It shouldn’t be a long piece, 10 seconds per piece is enough.
Turn it on and repeat it until you can’t hear it anymore. First, only listen to the rhythm, the sentence stress. What words are glued together, what words get more stress, how is their voice going up and down?
Then, when you’re sick of hearing it: repeat it. Use the exact same word stress, pitch, etc. as they are doing. Then do it together with the audio. It’s like learning the lyrics of a song, but only now it’s a regular phrase.
When you’re done, take the next sentence and repeat this until you feel confident that you sound like a native when saying these sentences.
Tip 3: Change your mindset and let go of fear
I’ve noticed that not having Spanish listening skills has to do a lot with fear (at least in my case).
It has happened to me that I had to ask someone to repeat what they were saying 4 times. And then I still didn’t understand. Every round of repetition I felt worse. And the fear of not being able to understand it again increased every second.
Not being able to understand people became so uncomfortable that I even started to develop a fear of asking at all. But this just made me go into a vicious cycle of not speaking Spanish.
At some point, I started to realize that I’m not the only one in a conversation. Even though I’m the one not understanding, the speaker also has a responsibility to be understood. If you have a conversation partner who wants you to understand, they will help you, they will slow down, change their phrasing, or use hand gestures.
This “shared responsibility” mindset has helped me to be more chill about it and not be embarrassed when I don’t understand the speaker.
I hope that these tips will help you to not get to the point I was at.
And read our blog post on 5 Spanish learning tips to get your Spanish flowing!
Good luck with your Spanish learning journey!
Johanna – from a language learner to a language learner