Being able to understand spoken Spanish is one of the biggest challenges students face when they’re getting started. In this article, we will go over a few important aspects to keep in mind in order to practice your listening skills with a focus on understanding spoken Spanish in real life.
This article will focus on understanding spoken Spanish, but in order to do so, you need to have a foundation of basic grammar and vocabulary that is beyond the scope of this article.
In other words, in order to understand spoken Spanish, you need to know the meaning of common words and how they are used to make sentences and express ideas. Understanding spoken Spanish is a skill that requires practice, but in order to practice understanding Spanish, you need to be familiar with the words that make up common sentences.
If you feel like you need to review common words and verbs, you can find a list of commonly used words here: Common Spanish Words
In this article, we will go over a few important aspects to keep in mind in order to practice your listening skills with a focus on understanding spoken Spanish in real life and letting go of limiting thoughts that may be holding you back. We will also talk about some of the most important aspects of Spanish you should focus on while practicing your listening and comprehension skills, as well as a few tips you can use to find practice materials online.
Let’s get started!
STEP 1- Getting the Right Mindset and Eliminating Limiting Thoughts
1.1- “Why do native Spanish speakers talk SO FAST?”
Native Spanish speakers who are in the process of learning English wonder the exact same thing about native English speakers.
In other words, it’s not that Spanish speakers speak impossibly fast. It seems that way because your brain is not ready to understand spoken Spanish at a normal speed yet. That’s all!
The same thing happens when you learn to ride a bike, or drive a car. At first, it seems like everyone else is going way TOO FAST, but as you continue to practice and gain confidence, going faster starts to feel natural.
Nonetheless, there can be variations in speed depending on the context. For example, a group of close friends talking, laughing, and sharing a little gossip over drinks in a loud restaurant will usually talk faster when compared to a trained actor reading dialogues for a documentary or a politician delivering a speech. This is something that happens naturally in every language. The key is choosing listening materials that are challenging but not exceedingly frustrating for your current comprehension level.
In other words: “Make it a fun challenge, not a headache.”
Even if sometimes it may seem like Spanish speakers speak 2 or 3 times faster than English speakers, this is not what happens in real life. It’s only a matter of perception that will change as you continue to practice.
Although words in Spanish tend to have more syllables than words in English, it doesn’t happen at a rate that makes Spanish several times faster than regular English as it can feel when you’re getting started.
According to an interesting study from the Université de Lyon, Spanish usually has 2 more syllables per second on average when compared to English. This can make Spanish seem like a faster language, but the rate at which information is transferred tends to be similar between both languages according to this interesting study: Study about the speed of languages from the Université de Lyon
This difference in the number of syllables per second for each language is relatively small when compared to how amazingly fast Spanish seems to be for beginners.
Also, if you keep in mind that the amount of information conveyed per minute by both languages is almost the same according to the study I mentioned previously, this myth about spoken Spanish being impossibly fast starts to fade quickly.
Movies are an easy way to prove this. If you’ve ever felt Spanish speakers speak a lot faster than English speakers, there would be no way translators could fit the same amount of information when they’re dubbing a movie from Spanish to English or the other way around.
The illusion of accelerated speed has more to do with how our brain perceives the foreign language based on how difficult it is to understand at that particular point in time.
You’ve most likely already experienced this.
Have you ever had the feeling of how a new phrase in Spanish sounds impossibly fast the first few times you hear it, only to realize the same phrase feels more natural and seems to happen at a slower speed after you’ve been able to understand it several times?
It probably happened to you the first time a native speaker said something like this to you at normal speed in real life (which probably felt really fast, and a little disconcerting):
“Buenos días. ¿Cómo estás?” (Good morning, how are you?)
Maybe it happened the first few times you heard the phrase for good morning in Spanish, which is “buenos días” or the first few times a waiter asked “puedo tomar su orden” to enquire if he could take your order.
After you hear and understand a common phrase in Spanish, it “magically” starts to feel “less crazy fast.” How could that be possible if Spanish is supposed to be “impossibly fast” all the time?
It’s because it isn’t.
It’s our brain that needs to practice in order to develop the skills to feel comfortable with understanding spoken Spanish at normal speed in real life.
I’ll give you a specific example of what I’m talking about.
When comparing common words in Spanish to common words in English you’ll realize there are many more words in Spanish that begin and end with a vowel.
In the case of English, there are fewer words that begin and end in vowels when compared to Spanish.
Because of this, there are far fewer instances in English when words seem to be linked to each other with beginnings and endings the blend with each other.
This is something that happens a lot more in Spanish, and it is one of the skills your brain will learn to master as you continue practicing your listening skills. I’m talking about being able to recognize when a word ends and a different word begins even if they sound as if they’re part of the same word.
So, please don’t be so hard on yourself, be compassionate and stop saying discouraging things like these:
“Understanding Spanish when someone speaks to me is really hard, it all sounds like “mumbo jumbo” to me.”
“One of my biggest challenges seems to be that most Spanish speakers don’t seem to breathe at all….the words all come so fast…”
“When native speakers talk, it sounds so fast to me, and I am afraid I will never be able to keep up.”
“They talk so fast and I can’t understand what they are saying. I get so frustrated and feel like I will never understand them.”
“I can read Spanish just fine, but understanding the lightening speed at which they talk has me doubting I will ever understand a spoken word.”
“When native speakers talk, it sounds so fast to me, and I am afraid I will never be able to keep up.”
Instead of thinking there’s no hope, keep in mind that Spanish is not impossibly fast. It only seems that way but it’s not true. It’s only a matter of getting enough practice using listening materials that are challenging but not exceedingly difficult.
It’s just like riding a bike. Training wheels make all the difference.
1.2- Understand your “WHY”
Understanding WHY you want to be able to understand spoken Spanish is one of the most important steps along the process of mastering the language.
It will allow you to persevere when you feel discouraged and find a way to keep going forward when you get stuck (it happens to all of us, it’s natural. It’s part of the process.)
Seriously, ask yourself: “Why do I want to understand spoken Spanish?” and take a few minutes to think about it. Then, think about it some more and go deeper.
The first common answers that show up usually sound a little like this:
- “Because I want to travel to a foreign country”
- “Because I want to talk to other people”
- “Because I want to get a better job”
They tend to focus on what “I” want. They focus on “me.”
There’s nothing wrong with that. But finding a way to dig deeper and connect your desire to understand spoken Spanish with your deeper values will give you additional strength to go the extra mile when it’s needed.
- How can you make it about more than just yourself?
- How can you make it about others?
- How can you connect Spanish with your deeper values and find a way to serve others?
This is a personal introspection process and I cannot give you the right answer. You need to ask the person in the mirror and find what makes you feel inspired.
However, here are a few examples of what a deeper “WHY” that doesn’t only focus on “MYSELF” may sound like:
- “Because I want to be able to see the world from a different perspective”
- “Because I would love to connect with other cultures at a deeper level by being able to understand their books, songs, and movies”
- “Connecting with other cultures at a deeper level by being able to understand their culture, books, songs, and movies”
- “Being able to volunteer and help others in my community, even if it’s just by being kind with someone I meet at a store”
- “Being able to help my kids (or grandkids) so they can practice and improve their Spanish in order to be able to communicate with more people in their community”
Take the time you need to identify a motivation to learn Spanish that makes you feel inspired. It will help you to stay motivated as you continue to practice in the upcoming months.
1.3- Don’t make it about YOU, make it about THEM.
One thing I’ve noticed is that we often tend to take things personally when we feel it reflects who we are as individuals, and when we start to think people will judge us if we make mistakes.
This happens to all of us at a certain point in different aspects of life, including the process of learning a new language.
However, we seem to care a lot less when we’re doing something to help someone else. We stop making it about ourselves, and we see it as a type of “service” for others.
I suggest you find a way to use your innate altruistic nature to your advantage by finding a way to see the awkwardness and bravery required to practice your Spanish skills as something that will eventually allow you to serve and help others.
It could be at work, it could be by being kind to other people on the street, by volunteering, or by being able to connect and be gentle to Spanish speakers while traveling or meeting someone at a store (or communicating with a family member or friends of friends!)
In the end, a connection is about authenticity and that’s something that can’t be faked. People will appreciate that you’re making an effort, as long as you allow yourself to care less about your ego, and care more about connecting with those around you.
By putting yourself through the awkwardness of not speaking perfectly or the temporary struggle to understand spoken Spanish, you’re making a sacrifice to serve others and show respect for the culture of those you’re speaking with, and those you’ll speak with in the future.
Whatever you find encouraging and meaningful that is outside yourself and geared towards serving others is a good place to start.
What makes you feel inspired? By finding an inner motivation to serve others you can “shift” the way you see discomfort and instead of viewing it as a source of shame or awkwardness, you can translate it into a selfless act of service toward those you will be able to help in the future. Thus, making the world a better place with each act of kindness and each “little test” in Spanish.
There are no mistakes in Spanish, only things that work and things that work even better. Seen like this, as a skill, similar to drawing or riding a bike, each and every single “test” allows you to continue learning and growing so you can serve more people.
1.4- How do you plan to use your Spanish? (Simplify and Focus!)
Learning how to paint is nice. But what you learn, and the tools you focus on will vary depending on whether you choose to paint portraits on canvas, or if you choose to paint the exterior walls of houses.
They’re both painting, both involve the use of paint and brushes, but the context in which paint and brushes will be used will determine the tools and techniques you’ll need to master.
A similar thing happens with Spanish. Understanding how and where you will use your Spanish skills will help you focus on what will be truly useful.
When it comes to understanding spoken Spanish, selecting the right “brushes” and “techniques” starts by choosing one “version” of Spanish so you can focus on listening materials from a specific country or region. This will allow you to practice your listening skills with a specific type of accent, common expressions, and common vocabulary.
On top of having a clear idea of the region or country you’ll focus on, it is also important to determine HOW you plan to use your Spanish and the context in which you’ll be using it.
Do you plan to use it to travel internationally to Spanish-speaking countries? In that case, finding listening materials that focus on topics and situations related to traveling will make things easier for you.
Do you plan to use your Spanish for your work as a teacher? For volunteering? At an elementary school? You may want to find listening materials related to education.
The most common words and expressions will vary for each scenario. Although any listening materials that are challenging and not exceedingly frustrating will help you improve your listening skills; you will improve faster if you use listening materials that focus on the scenarios, topics, and contexts for which you plan to use your Spanish.
1.5- Find a way to not take yourself so seriously, learn to take things lightly, make it a game with constant testing, and HAVE FUN!
I know this is easier said than done but it is really important. Finding a way to laugh at oneself and not take things SO seriously is fundamental in order to be able to practice and master a language.
Instead of feeling stressed out when you realize you didn’t say something the way native speakers usually say it, find a way to laugh about it and don’t take yourself so seriously.
Make it a game and see mistakes as part of your learning process and not a judgment on you as a person. Find a way to see it the way you see “falling down” when learning how to ride a bike and not the way you felt about saying the wrong answer in math class.
It’s not a right or wrong scenario with Spanish; it’s a “managing to get your point across scenario” with whatever you can at any given moment (gestures, mimicking, and smiling are encouraged!)
Think of it as practicing “the human art of communication” where drawing a curved line is always correct to connect the dots. It’s always art. It’s all about connection.
The key is finding a way to reframe the way you look at the situation in a way that makes you feel empowered.
How about if when you get a chance to speak Spanish, instead of thinking something along the lines of “Damn, I’m going to make a mistake and people are going to think I’m not smart. They are not going to respect me anymore!”
Instead of that, take a moment to realize that each and every time you make a mistake, you are getting closer to mastering Spanish.
Speaking Spanish is a skill, not that different from drawing, swimming or playing the guitar.
So, instead of feeling “inadequate” whenever you are unable to understand spoken Spanish or make a “mistake,” feel proud and realize that each time you make a “playful mistake” you are actually getting better because you are making an effort. You are in the field, playing the game, instead of just watching and criticizing what happens from the sidelines.
Think of it as a game you can’t lose unless you quit practicing. Making mistakes is part of the game, it’s fun practice that allows you to get better as you go.
Try seeing them as “fun testing” and each time you don’t get it 100% right, it just gets you closer to improving your skills. It’s just an experiment you learned from.
Mastering Spanish is only a matter of making enough mistakes. It’s only a matter of time and focused practice as long as you don’t quit and continue to be kind to yourself.
Enjoy the process, have fun and you will continue to improve every day.
Much like Arnold Schwarzenegger during his first week at the gym, there’s no one who has become a 100% fluent in Spanish in a few days (not even native speakers!) so don’t worry so much about it okay? Be compassionate with yourself. Be proud of yourself! =) Pat yourself on the back for being engaged in the process and don’t take mistakes so seriously. See them as playful opportunities to get better each time you stumble upon each and every one of them.
In other words, by becoming consciously aware of these tendencies and noticing them as they happen, you’ll start to make changes that will increase the probability of understanding spoken Spanish and having a successful conversation (one that gets your message across) and you’ll start to feel happier about practicing Spanish more often.
1.6- To Avoid Freezing, learn to keep control of a conversation (and smile!)
We’ve talked about the importance of taking things lightly. Now, it’s time to focus on learning tools to keep control of a conversation in Spanish.
We’ve all experienced this at some point. You say something in Spanish, the other person replies “super fast” and says things you don’t understand, you feel awkward and freeze abandoning the conversation feeling frustrated.
If you do this enough times, you end up quitting Spanish altogether because it’s just way too frustrating. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
All you need is to allow yourself to be vulnerable and learn a few dependable tools to keep control of the conversation.
Make sure you let the other person know what’s going on and why.
Most people are nice and they want to help others, and if you help them understand what’s going on, they’ll try to make things work for you.
Often, when you approach someone you don’t know and speak in Spanish expressing a sentence or a question you’ve rehearsed dozens of times, they’ll probably think you’re an advanced student and they’ll reply at full speed for 2 reasons:
First, because your Spanish sounds great, so take it as a compliment!
Second, because most people don’t interact with Spanish students on a regular basis, so they just talk the way they normally do. They’re just trying to help.
However, you need to help them understand what’s going on so they can help you make the conversation work.
Instead of freezing up and running away, you can try one of the following phrases to let them know you are in the process of learning Spanish, and that you were unable to fully understand what they said.
Take your time to memorize these phrases because they are super useful (I suggest you write them down and carry them in your pocket or in your phone so you can practice during the day or have them available in case you need them in a conversation.) Here we go:
1.7- Phrases to Take Control of a Conversation in Spanish:
1- I don’t understand, can you repeat? I’m learning Spanish – No entiendo, ¿puede repetir por favor? Estoy aprendiendo español.
2- Again please, I’m learning Spanish. – Otra vez por favor. Estoy aprendiendo español.
3- Can you speak slower please? I’m learning Spanish. – ¿Puede hablar más lento por favor? Estoy aprendiendo español.
4- What’s the word for this? – ¿Cuál es la palabra para esto?
5- Can you write that down please? – ¿Puede escribir eso por favor?
6- How do you pronounce that? – ¿Cómo se pronuncia eso?
7- I don’t understand, can you explain it with different words? – No entiendo, ¿puede explicar con otras palabras?
STEP 2- Focus on What’s Important in order to Understand Spoken Spanish:
2.1- Choose One Version of Spanish:
Let’s imagine a friend from a foreign country happened to be in the process of learning English as a second language in order to be able to communicate in the United States. Let’s imagine he wants to practice his listening skills in order to understand spoken English in the U.S. when he comes to visit you next year.
Do you think the process of being able to understand spoken English in the United States would be easier for him if he listens to recordings of English speakers from Scotland one day of the week, and then listens to a recording of English speakers from Australia the next day, and then to English speakers from India the next day? That would be very difficult and confusing if you’re getting started. Wouldn’t it? Different accents, pronunciations, slang words, and common expressions. It’s not a big deal for a native English speaker or an advanced English student, but it’s too much for a beginner who still struggles to understand spoken English at a conversational level.
It may not seem like a big deal because as a native English speaker, you are able to understand most regional or international English language accents, but it is not the same for students who are learning English.
Spanish speakers who are in the process of learning English struggle to understand different international accents at first.
I am a native Spanish speaker from Mexico. When I was a beginner English student I struggled to understand certain English accents outside of the United States. Scottish, Indian and Australian accents were particularly problematic at first, but over time, I was eventually able to understand them without a problem.
That’s why it is important that you focus on one regional variation of Spanish when you listen to native speakers in order to reduce variability and increase the repetition of common words and phrases using a similar accent and pronunciation.
If you feel tempted to skip around and practice using listening materials from different Spanish-speaking countries such as Argentina, Spain or The Dominican Republic, I suggest you avoid the temptation in order to make things easier for you.
By focusing on one version of Spanish, you’ll be able to train your listening skills with practice materials that are consistent in terms of accent, vocabulary and common phrases which will accelerate the process of being able to understand spoken Spanish.
Once you feel comfortable understanding one version of Spanish, feel free to start practicing with listening materials from a different Spanish-speaking country.
I recommend you focus on the Spanish spoken in Mexico if you live in the American continent or you plan to visit Latin America because it is the country with the largest population of native Spanish speakers in the world and also because it is one of the biggest producers of entertainment materials in Spanish.
In general, Mexican Spanish is spoken at a slower pace when compared to other countries like Spain, Argentina, Venezuela or Cuba.
On top of that, a large majority of the Spanish speakers who live in the United States are of Mexican origin. So, if you plan to visit or you happen to live in the U.S. or you work with companies from the U.S., it is the version of Spanish you will most likely encounter and that will give you the most opportunities to practice.
Something I’d like to mention is that, focusing on understanding the Spanish spoken in one specific country first will not prevent you from understanding or communicating with Spanish speakers from other countries.
Just as it happens with English spoken in the United States, Canada, England or Ireland, the biggest variations are found in the regional accents, local words, slang and regional expressions but the underlying foundations are very similar.
In other words, keep it simple! Choose one Spanish-speaking country and focus on listening to Spanish speakers from that country until you feel comfortable understanding their spoken Spanish.
After that, you can focus on a different country if you want to keep practicing or plan to travel to a different region. Eventually, with enough practice; your brain will be able to understand Spanish speakers from many countries, just as you’re able to understand English speakers from many different places.
2.2- Simplify and break things down.
Start by understanding the building blocks of spoken Spanish and build layer upon layer in the following sequence.
Familiarize yourself with the sound of letters in Spanish
Familiarize yourself with the sound of vowels in Spanish making sure to cover 2 subgroups:
- The sound of vowels at the start of a word
- The sound of vowels in the middle of a word
Familiarize yourself with the sound of consonants in Spanish making sure to cover the following subgroups and levels:
- Consonants that sound relatively Similar to English:
- At the start of a word
- In the middle of a word
- Consonants that sound relatively Similar to English:
- Consonants that sound very Different from English:
- At the start of a word
- In the middle of a word
- Consonants that sound very Different from English:
You can practice listening to vowels and consonants (as well as common words with each letter) over here: Spanish Pronunciation Guide
Focus on understanding the most common words (use the 80/20 Principle to your advantage!)
What’s the 80/20 Principle?
According to Entrepreneur and Author, David Koch; in one of my favorite books ever he explains: “The 80/20 Principle asserts that a minority of causes, inputs or efforts usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs or rewards” (David Koch, The 80/20 Principle, Doubleday Publishing)
In other words, what are the few things that matter most?
We can use the 80/20 Principle to determine what we need to learn in order to move faster. In this case, determine a segment (which is usually around 20% of verbs and words, but the specific percentages can vary) that are used most often in common conversations.
By focusing on that 20% you can get disproportionate results in the progress of your language skills, which often (but not always) is around 80%.
Coming back to the topic of understanding spoken Spanish, focus on being able to understand the spoken version of frequently used words making sure to cover the following subgroups first (the building blocks):
- -Common words used in everyday life:
- -Courtesy words
- -Most Common Verbs
- -Most Common Nouns
- -Definite articles
- -Indefinite articles
- -Most Common Adjectives
- -Most Common Adverbs
- -Common vocabulary words used in topics of interest for you
- -Commonly used nouns by context (i.e. travel, cooking, sports, etc.)
- -Commonly used verbs by context
- -Other commonly used words by context
- -Focus on understanding common phrases
- -Common phrases used in everyday life
- -Common phrases used in topics of interest for you
- -Focus on understanding common expressions
- -Common expressions used in everyday life
- -Common expressions used in topics of interest for you
- -Focus on conversations
- – Listen to frequently used conversation in everyday life (i.e. buying something at a store, ordering food, talking about your likes and dislikes, talking about your family, talking about your weekend, talking about your plants, etc.)
- – Listen to frequently used conversation scenarios by specific topics of interest (i.e. traveling conversations, buying a bus ticket, asking for travel recommendations, asking for directions, renting a car, etc.)
- – Practice consistently with listening materials that are interesting for you (preferably about topics you like)
-Focus on finding listening materials that are challenging, but not exceedingly frustrating (aim for at least 50% comprehension, and listen to the same audio or video several times)
Focus on your topics of interest (selective context)
How will you use Spanish? (Travel, socializing, cooking, retail, customer service, etc?) Having a clear idea of how and where you plan to use your Spanish skills, will allow you to select listening materials that focus on the version of Spanish and the context or topic that interests you. In other words, it’s a practical way to apply the 80/20 Principle.
For example, if you love cooking and plan to take a cooking class during your next vacation in a Spanish-speaking country, you’ll probably benefit more by listening to lots of cooking shows in Spanish instead of watching tutorials about accounting, bodybuilding or documentaries about ancient history. The common vocabulary, phrases, and expressions will be different in those 3 different topics. But most importantly, if you’re passionate about cooking you’ll probably get bored with listening materials about other unrelated topics (particularly the one about ancient history!)
What’s most important is that you find Spanish practice materials that are interesting for you. So, whenever possible look for materials that are related to topics that interest you.
What do you usually learn about in English in your spare time? That’s a good place to start when looking for practice materials in Spanish. Focus on relevance and find ways to make things interesting.
Focus on Understanding Common Words
Depending on your topic of interest, focus on being able to understand common words in Spanish when you hear them.
Since these words will be used frequently, they will help you feel more confident and understand more of the materials as you practice your listening and comprehension skills.
Let’s continue with the hypothetical cooking class you plan to take in Spanish during the upcoming trip we mentioned previously.
What if before watching lots of cooking shows in Spanish, you made a list of common vocabulary words in Spanish that are used often in the kitchen? You could even start the list with common cooking-related words used in English, and then translate them into Spanish. After that, you could add common words in Spanish, such as regional ingredients or words related to local recipes.
What if after coming up with that list of common words related to cooking, you asked a native Spanish speaker to record them for you so you could practice your listening skills in Spanish? Don’t you think that will make it easier for you to understand those common words when you encounter them in a conversation or a cooking show on television? Yes, it would certainly help!
By breaking down the process of understanding Spanish conversations to its fundamental elements, you start building from the ground up, to eventually be able to put all the pieces together.
Focus on understanding common phrases and expressions
Being able to understand commonly used phrases and expressions is another important step to understanding spoken Spanish.
Initially, practice listening to common everyday phrases making sure to include the following subgroups of phrases:
- Common Everyday Phrases to talk about:
- -Asking for help
- -Other common topics
- Common Phrases related to your topics of interest:
- – Common scenarios
- – Common actions
- – Common challenges
- – Common problems
- – Common solutions
Focus on Common Conversations
In previous sections of this article, we talked about the importance of deconstructing the process of understanding spoken Spanish by starting with the fundamental building blocks of the language in a progression that allows you to stack layers on top of layers in order to make things easier.
First, we talked about practicing and familiarizing ourselves with vowels and consonants.
Then, we talked about the importance of focusing on understanding commonly used words in everyday life and common words for your topics of interest.
After that, we talked about the importance of practicing and understanding common phrases and expressions.
AND NOW, it’s time to practice bringing them all together by practicing by listening to conversations.
Once again, it is important to simplify the process by starting with listening materials that are challenging but not exceedingly frustrating. Try to find a balance between the speed and complexity of your practice materials in order to be able to understand at least 50% of the audio after you listen to it a couple of times.
It doesn’t have to be an exact number, you can make an approximate estimation using your intuition. If you understand less than approximately 50% look for simpler materials that are easier to understand.
So, how can you actually practice understanding Spoken Spanish?
The short answer is: “with the right practice materials.”
The longer answer is: preferably, look for practice materials that focus on the following stages and topics at a speed and level of complexity that is manageable in order to make things easier for you:
1- Phonetic Building blocks:
1.1-Understanding the sound of vowels in Spanish
1.2-Understanding the sound of consonants Spanish
2- Understanding The Most Common Words (Focus on The 80/20)
2.1- Understanding the most common words in everyday conversations
2.2- Understanding the most common words in your topics of interest
3- Understanding Common Expressions (Focus on The 80/20)
3.1- Understanding very common expressions in everyday life
3.2- Understanding very common expressions in your topics of interest
4- Understanding Common Conversation Structures (Focus on The 80/20)
4.1- Understanding common conversations in everyday life
4.2- Understanding very common conversations in your topics of interest
STEP 3- Finding Listening Materials to Practice and Understand more Spoken Spanish
I’ve been getting requests for help with this topic for a while and I’m currently working on a course specifically designed to help students understand spoken Spanish. If you’d like to be notified when the course is available, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the title “Let me know about the Spoken Spanish course” so I can let you know when it is available.
Alternatively, you can also look for other kinds of listening materials that allow you to practice your listening and comprehension skills at a level that is challenging but not exceedingly frustrating (preferably, aim for a comprehension level of at least 50%):
Unless you find listening materials that have been specifically created in a progression of complexity that focuses on helping you understand spoken Spanish at your level, I suggest you follow this sequence in order to find listening materials that match your “Spoken Spanish comprehension sweet spot”:
These will not be optimized to help you understand spoken Spanish, but they will help you practice your listening and comprehension skills. Just be flexible and patient and make sure to practice consistently, at least 15 minutes per day.
Ideas to find Listening Materials Online:
Now, let’s go over a few ideas you can use to find listening materials in Spanish to practice your comprehension skills:
Spoken Spanish Tip: Adjusting playback Speed Levels
In the next section, we’ll talk about finding listening materials online. Since some of those materials may feel a little too fast at times I’ll share a few tricks you can use to adjust the playback speed to make things a little easier for you on some of the most popular content platforms out there:
How to adjust playback speed on Youtube:
1- Find a video you’d like to use to practice your listening skills
2- Find the “Settings” icon on the video player
On a computer, it usually looks like a “gear” near the bottom right corner of the video player:
On a phone, you will usually need to tap on the “more options” button (the one that looks like “3 vertical dots”
3- Then, tap the “Playback speed” button to choose the speed you’d prefer (In my opinion, 0.75 works best, but you can also try 0.5 and see what you prefer depending on the clip you’re watching):
Finding Listening materials in Spanish for Beginners:
Next, we’ll go over a few search terms you can use to find listening materials in Spanish if you’re getting started:
1- Look for slow audio materials in Spanish made for toddlers that you find easy to understand.
Preferably with visual aids, you can read if needed (videos are okay as well.) Although this will probably be too easy for you, there’s nothing wrong with starting here. The most important thing is getting started and moving forward consistently. It’s only a matter of focused persistence.
Here are a few search terms in Spanish you can use to find listening materials online (English translations provided in parenthesis for context, no need to type those when you’re searching):
– Canciones de cuna para bebes con letra (Lullabies for babies with lyrics)
Here are a few examples with several songs you can use to practice Spanish:
– Cuentos para bebes con audio y con letra (Bedtime stories for babies with audio and text)
Here are a few examples with several stories you can use to practice Spanish:
2- Audio materials in Spanish made for young kids between 2 to 4 years old.
Here are a few searches you can try to find listening materials online:
– Canciones de Kinder para niños con letra (Kindergarten songs for kids with lyrics)
Here are a few examples with several songs you can use to practice Spanish:
Kindergarten songs for kids on Youtube:
A website with Kindergarten songs for kids:
– Cuentos de kinder con audio y con letra (Stories for kindergarten kids with audio and text)
Here are a few examples with several bedtime stories you can use to practice Spanish:
Bedtime stories on Youtube:
A website with bedtime stories for kids:
Leverage the Power of Music!
Songs are a great way to practice understanding spoken Spanish because many genres will give you the opportunity to listen to Spanish at a slower speed while using simple sentences most of the time.
Here’s the process I suggest you follow:
Play the song and listen to it WITHOUT reading the lyrics. Try to understand as much as possible. Make a note about the percentage of the song you estimate you’re able to understand on your first try. No need to make it exact, use a rough estimation and write it down (i.e. 70% 50% 20%, etc.)
Print the lyrics of the song in Spanish on a piece of paper or copy and paste the lyrics in a blank text document file in order to be able to make notes.
Play the song again and read the lyrics in Spanish while you listen to the song. Pause the song when needed and highlight the words or sentences you don’t understand.
After you’ve finished listening to the song, try to translate the highlighted sections you were unable to understand. Use a dictionary or translator if you truly need it. What’s important is that you are able to understand the meaning of each sentence.
Play the song again, and pause it when needed in order to read and understand the lyrics in Spanish.
Play the song one more time without reading the lyrics, try to understand as much as possible, and compare it with your first try.
Continue listening to the same song at least 1 time per day for a week (or more, until you are able to understand the entire song in Spanish) so you can continue to practice your Spanish comprehension skills (and your dance moves! Yeah!)
There are so many genres and singers that it can be difficult to know where to begin. So I’ll give you a few pointers.
Focus on slow or moderately paced songs that do not include too much slang or aggressive language (avoid things like fast rock songs, fast Latin music, rap, hip hop, or reggaeton. ESPECIALLY reggaeton! LOL!)
Try to find singers who sing using a clear pronunciation. For example, who do you think is easier to understand in English? Mick Jagger or Frank Sinatra? A similar thing happens in Spanish.
If you need a little help understanding songs in Spanish, you can look up the lyrics of a song so you can read them If you really need to.
An easy way to do it is to go to your favorite search engine (which will probably start with the letter “g”) and use one of the following search terms replacing the words “song title” for the real title of the song you’d like to find:
– “song title” song lyrics
– “song title” letra de canción
Another easy way to practice is to find videos made for karaoke where you can listen to the song while reading the lyrics on the screen. You can search for these videos on your favorite search engine or go straight to YouTube where you’ll find most videos of this kind. Here are a few search terms you can try:
– “song title” video con letra
– “song title” con letra
Here’s a list of singers as well as a few songs that are relatively easy to understand in Spanish:
– No sé tú
– La Incondicional
– Hasta que me olvides
– O tú o ninguna
-Por debajo de la mesa
– Amor Eterno
– Abrázame muy fuerte
– Te sigo amando
– Yo no nací para amar
– No tengo dinero
– Hasta que te conocí
– El Triste
– Gavilán o paloma
– El amar y el querer
– El príncipe
– La nave del olvido
– Lo pasado, pasado
– Volver, volver
– El Rey
– Mujeres Divinas
Alejandro Fernández (the son of Vicente Fernández):
– No sé olvidar
– Si tú no vuelves
– Si tú supieras
– Me dediqué a perderte
– Día de Enero
– Quién como Tú
– Maldita Primavera
– Amiga Mía
– Detrás de mi Ventana
– Quién Eres Tú
– La Gata bajo la lluvia
– Ya te olvidé
– Frente a Frente
– Déjame Vivir
– Chica de Humo
– Toda la Vida
– Bella Señora
– Sentirme Vivo
– Lloran las Rosas
– Nunca Voy a Olvidarte
– Por Amarte Así
– Somos Novios
– Nada Personal
– Contigo Aprendí
– Sólo tú
– Te esperaba
– Gracias a ti
– Otras Vidas
-La Camisa Negra
-Es Por Ti
-A Dios Le Pido
– Te Extraño, Te Olvido, Te Amo
– Fuego de Noche, Nieve de Día
– Tal Vez
– Historias de un Taxi
– Señora de las cuatro décadas
– Dime que no
– Dejaría todo
– Y tú te vas
– Atado a tu amor
– Tiempo de vals
Marco Antonio Solís:
– Si no te hubieras ido
– Cuando te acuerdes de mi
– Sigue sin mi
– Tú otra vez
– Tan Enamorados
– La Cima del Cielo
– Me va a Extrañar
– Baila Morena
– Me Olvidé de Vivir
– Lo Mejor de tu Vida
Listening to Speeches and Documentaries in Spanish:
When you feel more confident to try more challenging listening materials in Spanish, you can try some of the following options that tend to use a clear tone of voice and moderate speed.
If you find videos available on Youtube and feel you could use a little extra help to understand the audio, you can activate closed captions in Spanish or have them translated automatically into English. They are not perfect, but they are correct most of the time and they can be helpful. These are the steps to do it on a web browser:
1- Click on the “CC” button you’ll find at the bottom right corner of the video player:
2- This will most likely bring up closed captions in Spanish if the original language of the video is Spanish. Try using closed captions in Spanish only while making an effort to understand as much as possible.
3- The next step should be your last option. Try to stay with audio and closed captions in Spanish as much as possible. However, if you find that you’re struggling to understand most closed captions in Spanish and feel like you need a little extra help, you can configure your video player to translate closed captions into English automatically by following the next steps:
Click the “Settings” icon that looks like a small gear near the bottom right corner.
Then, click “Subtitles/CC” and click on “auto-translate”
Then, click on “English” to have the subtitles automatically translated into English (remember, these are not always perfect but they are correct most of the time and they’re useful.)
Next, we’ll go over a few search terms you can use to find listening materials in Spanish that are a little more challenging:
Listen to speeches in Spanish:
Here are a few search terms you can use to find speeches in Spanish on Youtube:
discurso del presidente
discurso del director
discurso de graduación
Here are a few examples:
Discurso sobre contaminación y Medio ambiente
Discurso del presidente José Pedro Castillo / Perú – VI Cumbre CELAC
Discurso Corto (sensibilización Ambiental)
¿Miedo o amor? Tú decides | Bárbara Mori | TEDxIbero
Colombia necesita una revolución creativa | Ciro Sarmiento | TEDxBarranquilla
Listen to documentaries in Spanish:
Here are a few search terms you can use to find speeches in Spanish on Youtube:
El Cerebro y la alimentación ¦ DW Documental
Perros y humanos – Los secretos de una amistad inquebrantable | DW Documental
Los Aztecas: Capítulo I, El Origen (Documental Completo)
EL PODER DEL CEREBRO – LA INTELIGENCIA,DOCUMENTALES INTERESANTES,discovery
Watch Movies in Spanish:
Watching movies in Spanish is another good way to practice because they generally use common words and expressions and they’re an engaging way to practice.
First of all, I suggest you always watch movies that were filmed originally in spoken Spanish.
Since I’m not entirely sure of your level of Spanish, let’s go over a few scenarios:
I suggest you watch a movie that’s simple and easy to follow. For example, a romantic comedy or a simple comedy that can be suitable for children. Avoid difficult movies like dramas or complex science fiction stories.
If you struggle to understand what’s being said, I suggest you watch the same movie 3 times.
– The 1st time:
Watch the movie in Spanish with subtitles in English, so you can read the subtitles in English when you need a little extra help.
This will allow you to understand the general topics that are going on in the movie.
– The 2nd time:
Watch the same movie in Spanish with subtitles in Spanish.
Try to understand what’s being said for a few seconds (without reading the subtitles) and if you can’t understand what’s being said, pause the movie, rewind it and read the subtitles in Spanish. Then, rewind a few seconds again and watch the same scene one more time.
Like this, you’ll have a general idea of what’s happening (thanks to the first time you watched it) and you’ll be able to understand what’s said in Spanish after reading the subtitles.
– The 3rd time:
Watch the same movie in Spanish without subtitles, and try to understand as much as possible (only turn on the subtitles in Spanish for certain sections if it is absolutely necessary, and not for more than one-third of the movie.)
You will probably not understand everything, but what’s important is that you practice your comprehension skills and you give your ears a chance to get used to the sound of spoken Spanish.
If you’re a little short on time, one clever shortcut you can take is to watch a movie you have previously seen in English but watch it in the version that is translated into Spanish.
Like this, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s going on and you’ll be able to follow the plot. If needed, you could also activate the Spanish subtitles, and rewind the sections you don’t understand so you can read the transcription in the subtitles, and re-watch the same scene again.
As you continue to practice, you could try watching movies in Spanish (filmed originally in Spanish) and activate the closed captions in Spanish or the subtitles in English when it’s really needed.
How to adjust playback speed on Netflix:
When watching a show or movie on Netflix using a mobile device, look for the speed control button at the bottom left corner. Shown here as “Velocidad (1x)” which means “Speed (1x)” in English
After tapping the speed control button, select the speed you’d like to try:
Using Podcasts to practice Understanding Spoken Spanish
Listen to at least 15 minutes of audio during your day while doing something else. If you are doing something that would allow you to listen to music, you could be practicing your Spanish!
15 Minute Spanish for your Job (Podcast):
In case you haven’t tried it I strongly recommend you listen to my podcast for free. Many of my students have used it to understand more spoken Spanish with great results.
You can find the podcast here:
For Android devices:
Using a web browser:
How to adjust playback speed on Apple’s podcast player:
When you’re playing an individual episode, go to the bottom left corner of the app and look for the speed control button that says “1x”
Then, click that button a few times until you find a slower speed that works for you (for example, “1/2x” to hear it at half the normal speed)
How to adjust playback speed on Stitcher podcast player for Android devices:
You’ll find the speed control button at the bottom left corner of Stitcher’s podcast player. Shown here as “1x”:
After clicking on “1x” use the slider to select the speed you’d like to try:
Other More challenging podcasts (created for Native Spanish Speakers):
This is one of the most challenging options to try. Here are a few podcasts in Spanish that you may find interesting,
Por el Placer de Vivir / Mexico
Regil Radio / Mexico
ESPN Radio Formula / Mexico
Raza Deportiva / Mexico
Libros para Emprendedores / Mexico
Cuéntame de Economía / Mexico
Podcast de Historia Deconstruida / Mexico
La Historia del Mundo
Imagen Noticias con Ciro Gomez Leyva:
Noticias W Radio:
Although this article focuses on how to understand spoken Spanish, I’d like to add a bonus tip so it is easier for others to understand YOUR spoken Spanish when they listen to you. It may seem like a small thing but it makes a big difference:
Speak up (LOUD and c-l-e-a-r!)
Often, when we feel a little insecure when talking we instinctively lower our volume and that makes the situation even more difficult, because it’s much harder for the other person to understand what you’re saying (which may have been correct, but it’s hard to understand something if you can’t even hear it!)
When the other person doesn’t understand because we speak too softly (even if the sentence was correct) we start to worry more, feel more insecure and self-conscious and start speaking even more softly or stop altogether.
This perpetuates the cycle and we eventually convince ourselves that something must be wrong with us, but that’s NOT TRUE!
On the other hand, if you speak up, loudly (without yelling, but with a loud voice, similar to the way you’d speak in English over a bad phone connection) it will be much easier for the other person to understand what you’re saying even if your grammar isn’t perfect (which nobody really cares about, they just want to understand your main points)
I hope you find this guide useful. I plan to continue improving this article in the future and I’d love to hear your questions and feedback about this topic. What are your biggest challenges when it comes to understanding spoken Spanish? Please let me know in the comments section you’ll find at the bottom of this page so I can help you.
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