The one question you never want to hear when you you're learning Spanish...
-“Hey amigo, let’s just keep it in English okay?”
As a Spanish learner this was one of the most painful things my Spanish friends could say to me. I’d been learning Spanish for a while. I could get by expressing myself, but understanding Spanish speakers when they talked felt impossible.
I’d focus so hard on the first part of what someone said, that by the time I made a guess as to what they might be talking about, they a had already changed the subject two or three times. I felt lost in a mishmash of Spanish words. No matter how hard I tried to pay attention and dechiper the conversation around me, I found myself constantly stopping to ask "What?", "Could you repeat that?”, "What did you say?"...
In the end I can’t blame my friends for wanting to just talk in English. The fact that I couldn't understand them in Spanish was a big inconvenience for them, not just me. But the question "Let's keep it in English okay?" was like a dagger in my already self-conscious ego.
With so many hours spent on apps, courses, and in textbooks...why was it still such a struggle to understand native speakers! I was learning Spanish so I could have conversations with people...but it felt like that was never going to happen.
With so many hours spent on apps, courses, and in textbooks...why was it still such a struggle to understand native speakers!
What was I missing?
The truth is, I was missing something.
And it wasn’t more words.
It wasn’t more grammar.
It was something I didn’t expect…
It was my pronunciation
For me this was a surprise. I always thought of pronunciation as more of a luxury then a necessity when learning Spanish. If you speak Spanish with a good accent, then that would be really cool, but not necessarily helpful when trying to speak fluently…
Boy was I wrong.
How to unlock your Spanish listening skills
The importance of pronunciation
Pronunciation helps you learn Spanish in two ways: It helps you understand spoken Spanish, and it helps you memorize Spanish words and phrases more easily.
There are 39 sounds in the Spanish language: 25 consonants and 14 vowel sounds. Some are identical to English sounds, some differ just slightly from English pronunciation, and a few are completely different altogether. When you hear a Spanish sound that is the same or similar to a sound you already know how to say, your brain has a place to file and identify that sound.
But if you hear a sound you’re not familiar with, one you have trouble saying to yourself, your brain doesn’t have a place for the sound. It doesn’t know how to file it, and so it dumps the information.
When a native Spanish speaker is talking fast (which is most of the time let’s be honest), there’s a lot of words (ie sounds)that your brain has to process to help you understand what you’re hearing. If a lot of the sounds are unfamiliar, you’re going to have trouble processing what you hear. Spanish you hear might sound like beautiful but incomprehensible jibber-jabber.
How native Spanish speakers blend words together
Also Spanish speakers tend to blend sounds from different words together. Take this question for instance: ¿Cómo estás?. More often than not it’s spoken something like ¿Como-stas? This is an example of how the two words are spoken together, they are blended so that they sound different than if you were to say them one at a time.
If you’re not comfortable saying Spanish words correctly and quickly, this kind of sound blending will make it difficult to understand what is being said.
On the other hand if your tongue, mouth, and brain are all used to speaking Spanish with a good accent it will be much easier for you to understand spoken Spanish, and remember any new words.
So how can you work on your Spanish pronunciation?
How you can practice pronunciation and unlock your listening skills right now..
Here’s your guide to practicing Spanish pronunciation so that you can improve your listening skills. There are a couple of approaches for this. First we'll look at the DIY approach, so you can practice and learn correct pronunciation on your own:
1) DIY route for practice pronunciation
What you'll need:
You will need some native Spanish audio (preferably with a written transcript or subtitles too). This could be a clip from Youtube, a tv show, movie, a podcast, or a clip from a Spanish course. Below we linked to a couple free resources for Spanish audio, which have subtitles/transcripts.
Where to find great Spanish audio for free:
An awesome YouTube channel that features videos of native speakers answering questions and having conversations on the street. There are subtitles in English and Spanish.
A fun and free website that lets you listen to Spanish songs, and type the lyrics as you here them in real time.
Step 1 (break it down)
Breakdown the dialogue you hear into individual phrases, and pick one phrase to focus on while practicing.
Listen to the phrase several times. After that try to match the speaker’s pronunciation and inflections. In other words, be an actor or actress and do your best to imitate the speaker.
Step 2 (focus on the syllables)
Once you listened several times, and tried saying the whole phrase, try breaking the phrase into syllables.
If the audio you chose has the ability to playback at a slower then do that. Do your best to take each syllable from the phrase and imitate the way the native speaker says it.
Step 3 (mimic and practice)
Then put all the syllables back together again and practice the whole phrase again (listening and then mimicking like before).
Step 4 (putting it all together)
Once you finish one phrase, continue on to the next phrase in the same manner.
Once you have enough phrases try putting those all together and practicing them at once.
It’s also worth it to read along with the audio if you have a transcript or subtitles to work with. This will help you know what exactly is being said, in case you can’t understand it.
Why this method is so powerful
This process essentially deconstructs Spanish pronunciation and trains your accent. If you do this exercise regularly you will see rapid improvement in your listening comprehension skills, and a big uptick in the Spanish words you can memorize and remember.
2) Rocket Spanish
If you’re looking for a Spanish course that teaches pronunciation, then you might want to check out Rocket Spanish.
The course is built around audio lessons. Each lesson features a Spanish conversation between two native speakers.
Each lesson breakdowns the Spanish pronunciation word by word, and then syllable by syllable. You also have the option of listening to the conversation and role playing as either of the speakers in order to practice saying the full phrases in real time.
There is slow playback, and even a quick way to record yourself and compare your pronunciation to the original conversation.
Rocket Spanish was largely built with pronunciation in mind, so it’s a great option for those who want to develop their listening skills. Lesson transcripts are also available in English and Spanish.
If you’re serious about understanding the Spanish you hear, then improving your pronunciation is a must. Try out the exercises in this post, and see for yourself how important pronunciation is to understanding the Spanish you here!