Mastering Spanish is not just about studying grammar and expanding your vocabulary. It also involves mastering the four key communication skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening.
Of these four skills, students usually find that they have the most trouble with listening comprehension. We frequently encounter students who can already read and write Spanish at a high level, but who still fail to understand native speakers in natural conversation.
In this post, we’re going to go over a few of the reasons why students struggle with listening comprehension and the most effective ways to improve your listening comprehension skills.
Mastering differences between Spanish and English pronunciation
One of the most common reasons that students struggle with listening comprehension is that they do not have total mastery of the way words are pronounced in Spanish. Although Spanish and English both use most of the same letters, the way those letters are pronounced is often quite different.
Students who do not have full mastery of proper Spanish pronunciation will consistently struggle to understand Spanish speech. For the purpose of improving your listening comprehension, its not necessary for you to learn how to roll your Rs, but it is important for you have a firm grasp on the way that native speakers pronounce letters and words in Spanish.
How to fix it: Fortunately, poor pronunciation can be solved quickly. Our Complete Guide to Spanish Pronunciation covers everything that you need to know to master the art of pronunciation in Spanish in just a few hours. Don’t miss your chance to check it out here for free.
Addressing the unique challenges of oral Spanish
Learning to understand oral Spanish presents several challenges beyond learning to understand written Spanish.
There’s a book called “Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy” about misheard song lyrics. The title is based on a misheard line from the Jimi Hendrix song Purple Haze that goes “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.”
If you try saying each sentence aloud you can hear how closely they sound to each other:
“Excuse me while I kiss the sky!”
“Excuse me while I kiss this guy!”
While the differences are clear in writing, it is hard to distinguish between the two sentences when listening to them aloud. It is easy to see how a listener can come away understanding something entirely different than what was intended by the speaker.
This example illustrates an important difference between oral speech and written speech. When you are reading, it is easy to distinguish the correct words because each word is clearly separated by spaces and punctuation. But in oral Spanish words and sentences run together and there is often little or no audible separation from one word to the next.
How to fix it: To improve listening comprehension, it is critical to incorporate dedicated listening practice in to your study routine. If you are like most people, you probably spend the majority of your study time focused on vocabulary and grammar, and relatively little time actively focused on improving your listening comprehension.
In order to improve your listening comprehension, you need to practice exercises that force you to listen for subtle differences in sound a pronunciation.
Listening to audio clips using our Dialogue Deconstruction Method offers a structured approach at improving your ability to understand spoken Spanish using dedicated audio exercises.
Navigating differences between classroom Spanish and “real-world” Spanish
As you start to encounter Spanish in the real world, you will quickly find out that the Spanish you hear in the real world often sounds quite different than the Spanish you hear in the classroom.
Native Spanish speakers in the real world rarely speak as clearly as speakers you are likely used to hearing in a classroom setting. For example, it’s is very common to hear some Spanish speakers pronounce certain consonants very softly.
Listen to the following example that illustrates the differences between a standard “S” sound and a much softer “S” sound that is commonly heard in certain regions:
The first time I encountered this tendency it drove me absolutely nuts. But eventually I learned to how to listen for these kinds of pronunciation.
How to fix it:
The are few real fixes for learning all of the nuances of oral Spanish in the real world beyond spending time trying to converse with native speakers. Speaking to someone in real-time forces you to listen more attentively as you need to understand everything the person is saying to be able to respond to them.
Depending on where you live, you may be able to attended Spanish-speaking events held in your town or city. This is a great idea for many reasons: you will be able to learn something new, immerse yourself in the culture of Spanish-speaking countries, meet like-minded people, and practice speaking and listening with native-speakers or fellow learners.
Such events are a lot of fun and they are quite often relatively cheap or even free.
If you are intimidated by the idea of trying to talk with native speakers, you can try speaking with fellow learners first. They may be easier to understand, and will help you get started with speaking practice.
Not enough emphasis on active listening
People will often suggest listening to Spanish language music or watching Spanish TV shows to help you improve your listening comprehension. In my opinion, this not a good way to improve your listening comprehension in Spanish unless you are already pretty advanced.
Passive listening – simply listening to lots of Spanish in the background without understanding it – won’t do much to improve your comprehension. I love Chinese Kung Fu movies and I have probably watched hundreds of movies in Chinese, but to date I am still not able to speak or understand any Chinese.
To improve your listening comprehension, you must focus on active listening – meaning that you need to actively test yourself to ensure accurate comprehension of what you hear.
To do this you’ll need access to a written transcript to in order to check the accuracy of your comprehension.
Listening for accurate comprehension usually requires listening to the same material over and over a few times until you can clearly pick out all of the words and phrases being used.
Watching movies doesn’t work well for this exercise since you usually do not have access to a written transcript for the movie and it is inconvenient to stop and rewind a movie after every sentence.
That’s why I recommend using short audio clips that are easy to listen to and rewind as many times as needed. Use small audio clips (1 minute or less) that can be digested in one sitting.
You can check out our list of free podcasts here our check out our complete One Month Spanish course loaded with audio files and interactive transcripts specifically designed to help you master listening comprehension in Spanish.