Learning new words is undoubtedly the foundation of learning any new language. Expanding your vocabulary enhances your ability to express yourself and understand others.
Language learners tend to rely on developing reading ability because it often comes easier than developing speaking and aural comprehension skills.
This is why many people are able to read and understand Spanish but are completely lost when they hear the exact same words uttered by a native Spanish speaker, or even another Spanish learner.
Acclaimed linguist Paul Pimsleur explains…
“Speaking and reading are 2 very different activities, and though reading builds vocabulary, it may actually damage pronunciation.”
The problem with reading is that when you read, generally you sound words out in your head. As a non-native Spanish speaker, your internal Spanish voice is usually riddled with pronunciation errors and unnatural speech patterns.
Luckily, audiobooks can help us bridge this gap.
If you listen to an audiobook while reading along with the print or ebook version, you will improve your vocabulary without getting the pronunciation wrong. You will be able to tune your ear to hear Spanish and increase your exposure to new words, concepts, and interesting topics.
One of the hardest skills for Spanish learners to develop is the ability to hear and understand spoken Spanish, particularly when spoken by native Spanish speakers.
I always recommend finding interesting and challenging audio in Spanish that is appropriate for your level to boost your listening comprehension skills.
The problem with this, though, is that sometimes these materials can be hard to come by. Beyond Spanish course content, which can be less than realistic when applied to real-world conversations, it can be difficult to find quality content in Spanish.
Once you find content you like, you may find that it's too challenging or it's difficult to find an accurate, quality transcript of the content you are consuming. This can be true for TV shows, movies, music, and YouTube channels.
Audiobooks, on the other hand, are generally high-quality works produced by publishers. You can also often find an English version of the book which takes care of the need to find an English translation for your content.
Books also generally tell stories–whether fiction or nonfiction. These types of narratives help keep us interested, motivated to learn more, and help our memory.
These are all pluses for language learning.
How to Find Audiobooks
Audiobooks, the narrated version of a written work, have increased in popularity and availability in recent years. Most local libraries have a section of books on CD and websites that allow you to download the audio version of many popular titles.
Even better, those same books often have a Spanish version available. If you cannot find an ample selection at your local public library, services like Audible.com and Audiobooks.com allow you to access a catalog of over 4,000 audiobooks in Spanish covering a variety of genres and topics.
Choosing Your First Audiobook
Some people may find the idea of reading (and even listening) to books pretty dull. But I assure you, there is something for everyone.
You can look for books that suit your interests–from interesting stories in fiction, mysteries, self-development, personal finances, or building a business.
Whatever you are into, you can find a book that meets your needs.
You may also choose to find the Spanish version of one of your favorite books. This should be a book you have already read in English, preferably one you have read more than once and are familiar with the story line and characters (if it's a fiction book).
If you are a true beginner and find the idea of listening to an entire book in Spanish daunting, you can look for shorter titles or even children's books.
If you use a service like Audible, you can try your first few books for free. You can also exchange any book, so if you download something and realize you don't like the narrator, don't understand it, or simply don't like the book, you can return or exchange it at any time.
I also recommend starting with one book at a time, so make sure it's a book you really like so you can give it your full attention. You can potentially get weeks and weeks (if not months) of learning material from just one book.
Once you've selected your first title, you're ready to get started.
How to Use Audiobooks to Build Vocabulary
Here are a few steps to follow to get the most out of your Spanish audiobook:
1) Download the Audiobook
OK, this may seem obvious but it's important to have the book available on your devices. You don't want to be dependent on having a Wi-Fi connection, so make sure you download the .mp3 file if available, or make the title available offline if you are using the Audible app or other audiobook app.
2) Get the Text Too
Depending on your preference for digital or hard copy, you will want to also obtain the written version of the book. This is your transcript for the audio, and will make it much easier to find new vocabulary.
Check out the book at your public library or buy your own copy if you like to highlight and make notes in the margins of your books. Many titles on Audible will allow you to buy the Kindle ebook version at a discount.
3) Pace Yourself
It can be tempting to binge listen to a 4-hour audiobook on a rainy weekend or while you're traveling. This may be fine for passive listening, but to get true value out of the learning experience it's important to listen to the book one section at a time.
The length of each section will depend on your Spanish level, the difficulty of the content, and amount of time you dedicate in each study session. Generally, I recommend using small sections of no more than 5 minutes at a time and keeping your study sessions less than an hour (ideally 20 or 30 minutes). Depending on the book, your sections most likely will not be a full chapters and that's OK.
If you find yourself breezing through the book and not hearing any new words (e.g. things you don't understand 100%), you may need to pick a more challenging book.
4) Listen for General Comprehension
Once you've decided on the length of your sections, listen to it once for general comprehension. Do this without the text first to see how much you understand and get the gist of what's being discussed.
5) Read Along
Next, listen while you read along with the printed/written version of the book. Do this several times, and note any words you don't know. My rule of thumb is if you see a word and “kinda” understand it, but aren't comfortable with using it yourself, write it down. Remember to also look up phrases and note the meaning of the word in context (e.g. with the sentence), since the words around a word and how it's used can change the meaning.
6) Make Flash Cards
Look up the definitions for any new vocabulary using a site like wordreference.com. You may also check the English version of the book, but beware that these are not always direct translations.
Put your new vocabulary words somewhere where they will be easy for you to review. Pop them into your favorite flashcard app (I like Quizlet because you can include audio with your flashcards), or simply write them on index cards or in a word list. Review the new vocabulary several times between listening sessions.
7) Rinse and Repeat
In your next study session (after you have reviewed your flash cards a few times), start by listening to the same section again. You should start to recognize more of the words and concepts this time. Then, move on to the next section and repeat the process until you finish the book.
This type of methodical approach will make sure that you are really learning new vocabulary and not just skimming or “getting by” as you listen.
Take advantage of the written version of the book, but be careful not to read ahead WITHOUT also listening to the audio, or you may fall into the bad pronunciation trap.
In the end, you will have learned a ton of new vocabulary, know how to use it in context, and how to pronounce it correctly.
And if you picked a good book, you'll also have a good conversation topic.
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¡Hola! My name is Tamara Marie. I'm a language coach specializing in brain-friendly methods to learn foreign languages faster. I speak English (US native), Spanish (advanced), and Brazilian Portuguese (beginner). I'm a Latin music & dance addict and passionate about helping people learn languages.