I’ve been studying Spanish for longer than I want to admit. After years, I finally understand most spoken Spanish but to be honest, it shouldn’t have taken this long. If I’d known what I know now, I could’ve cut my learning time in half.
The general consensus is just keep listening, or put on subtitles and eventually you’ll get used to the sounds of a spoken language. And they’re right, you will…the problem is that it will likely take you 5 years or you’ll just get frustrated and quit.
Alas, I’ve had to scour the internet, use trial and error, and make guesses so that I can finally tell you what we should all know.
We don’t understand spoken language because: **No one has taught us** ***how*** **to listen**.
We’re so used to listening without thinking about it in our own language that trying to figure out a foreign language is painful and seemingly impossible.
**How to Listen**
Think about your own native language. Mine is English. How do you listen?
1. **Words are just sounds, don’t try to understand them.** You are not going to understand where one word begins and another word ends. In the beginning, everything sounds like a mishmash of incomprehensible noise. Your brain is used to drowning out background noise. You already know that you overcome this with lots of listening over a period of time, but what no one says is **you have to stop trying to understand**. If you stop trying to figure out what everyone is saying, you can actually begin to enjoy the sounds they’re making. Don’t think of it as words that have any meaning at all. Think of foreign speech the way you would think of a dog barking at another dog (I’m convinced they know what those barks mean) or a toddler tugging at her mother mumbling something. Have you ever wondered why parents can understand the unintelligible things their child says? Yeah, they just get used to it. That is what your brain will do on it’s own over time–get used to it.
2. **Words are just sounds, take them at face value.** If I were from Louisiana and told you, “Dat ball bounced side to side.” You wouldn’t try to correct my speech. You wouldn’t say, “Akunamata, the ball bounced up and down” sounds like a more logical sentence. Because you are a native English speaker, you would just accept my words and you wouldn’t correct my pronunciation. You would just understand me, even if you were from a different part of the US. You would also just picture a ball zig zagging, you wouldn’t question if I meant bounce up and down instead, you would just accept what I said. We can’t hear what native speakers are saying because we’re always trying to breakdown their sentence structure and grammar, we’re always trying to translate, or change native pronunciation so that we understand it. If a Caribbean Spanish speaker says Como eta mi amol? (which in textbook Spanish reads: Como estas mi amor), **I accept his/her accent as is and don’t try to correct it.** I understand him because I’ve heard it countless times. **Solution:** Don’t try to understand what you’re hearing. Let the words wash over you. Just accept them as is. Don’t try to change the tone of the speaker’s voice. Don’t say, “Oh he/she meant….(whatever you’re going to say in your non-native learner’s accent and comprehension).” He/she meant verbatim what they actually said.
3. **Stop Translating.** Another thing no one teaches us. Everyone warns us about the dangers of translating but no one explains how to stop doing it. When we hear a word we know in our L2 we tend to isolate it and think. “Pelota, oh he just said ball.” No, he just said pelota. In real time, the person or movie actress is still talking and we’ve missed everything else they’ve said because we stopped listening and changed our train of thought to connect the word pelota to the English word ball. When someone says ball in English we don’t think, “Oh he means that sphere filled with air.” No, we just think ball. That’s why you’re going to stop translating what you hear. **Solution:** To stop translating, let your mind go blank as you listen. You don’t have think anything at all while you are paying attention to the sounds. This is not tuning out or zoning out, it’s just allowing the words to be as is without commentary. Don’t try to understand, just accept the words at face value. If you hear a word that you don’t understand you can look it up later. **But you’ve got to keep going. You need to become comfortable with not knowing what is going on.** Eventually your brain, with repetition, and without a handicap like subtitles, frequently pausing the TV, or translating in real-time will make the connections and understand on it’s own what the conversation is about.
4. **Watch without subtitles or at the very most sandwich your subtitles.** Your brain will always use reading subtitles as a crutch. You don’t learn to hear while reading. When we read, we hear the words we are reading in our head in our own accent. You will never get used to the way people actually speak and all the different tones of voice and accents if you waste listening time reading. Also, reading is slow in a foreign language because we often focus on comprehension, grammar etc. If you are always reading, you will not get used to the speed of spoken language. You’ll continue to complain that they speak too fast when they are actually speaking at a normal pace. **Solution:** People say it’s hard to understand “Como eta” because you’re waiting to hear textbook Spanish “Como estas.” That’s the problem, you’re expecting to hear anything at all. Don’t anticipate words, don’t expect to hear anything. **Hear whatever you hear.** If not understanding is really getting to you, sandwich your subtitles. To do this you watch an episode or movie 3 times. The first time without subtitles, the second with subtitles, and a third time without subtitles again. However, I don’t recommend you do that often. If you are hearing a word for the first time, you might not be familiar with it’s sound, spelling, or even know the definition. It’s okay to pause the TV/video, turn on the subtitles and see how the word is spelled and look up the definition. But you also don’t want to do that too often. I’d suggest a handful of times per an hour episode. It doesn’t matter if there are new words you don’t know yet. If they are important, they will come up again and you can learn them in another movie or video. You don’t want to stop the flow of hearing by always looking up new word meanings/spelling.
5. **Listen a lot, even when you don’t understand and stick to one accent at a time.** You should be listening for hours everyday, without pause at worst and all the time at best. Stick to one country at a time and then after 4 – 6 months you can move to another accent. Don’t juggle more than 2 or 3 accents until you’ve mastered understanding them. Eventually you will understand other accents you haven’t even studied because you will get used to the flow of the language.
ETA: Repetition is your friend, pressing the back button, rewinding a video or listening to something again is helpful.
ETA: Do not beat yourself up if your brain still has a habit of translating, that disappears with time.
ETA: Listening is not a catch all, especially if you are a beginner. You can/will/should disengage from listening to do other things that help with comprehension. Some commenters have mentioned Dreaming Spanish YouTube channel and Stephen Krashen’s emphasis on comprehensible input. I think these are great, great points and resources.
ETA: Every couple of days you may consider mimicking/shadowing/parroting what you hear from time to time (don’t try to make sense of it and don’t worry if you’re even right) and/or try to count the syllables that you actually hear, not what you think the textbook word actually says. This will keep your brain active. Another commenter pointed this video out by Idahosa Ness. This helps explain syllable counting. I have posted it in comments below.
ETA: AJATT has a post on Why you should listen when you don’t understand where he gives his opinion:
**TLDR:** A baby is the perfect listener. They know nothing about the world. If you listen with pure acceptance and without judgement, every day, and for hours/much of the day, like a baby is forced to then your brain and ears will catch up and you’ll understand Spoken Spanish in 1 – 2 years or less.