How to Improve Your Spanish Listening Skills: Interview with Shahidah Foster from Black Girls Learn Languages
Do you have a hard time understanding native Spanish speakers? Does it sound like they just speak way too fast for you to catch every word? Well, we’re here to help. In this conversation with Shahidah Foster, founder of Black Girls Learn Languages, we’ll give you 4 specific strategies you can try right away to improve your Spanish listening skills. Listen up as we help you tune your ear to understand spoken Spanish.
Hola y bienvenidos.
Welcome to episode seven of the Learn Spanish Con Salsa podcast. Have you
ever tried listening to your local radio station that plays Latin music?
Maybe you tried to listen to a few songs and just when you were starting to
feel like you were getting the hang of listening to Spanish music and
actually understanding some of it, in between songs, this host comes on and
starts speaking super fast Spanish. And you feel like you can’t understand a
word they’re saying. If this has ever happened to you, you are not alone.
Many Spanish learners report that it can be difficult to understand native
Spanish speakers. The ability to understand spoken Spanish is a skill that
you need to develop just like you learn grammar and vocabulary or any other
part of the Spanish language. In this episode, we’re going to talk about some
ways that you can improve your Spanish listening skills with our guest,
Shahidah is the creator of Black Girls Learn Languages, a multi-platform,
digital community for black women language enthusiasts, language learners and
linguistas, or women fluent in more than one language. Since launching in
2017, Black Girls Learn Languages has garnered a worldwide audience with more
than 2,400 social media followers across multiple platforms, including a
growing Facebook group with more than 500 members. Shahidah is fluent in
English and German and has also studied French and Spanish. She was a speaker
at the first Women in Language event and was featured by Tandem as one of 12
amazing female language bloggers and vloggers. She’s also an author at Bauce
magazine, and that’s spelled B, a u c e. I hope that you enjoy this
conversation with Shahidah and that you’re ready to take notes on some ways
that you can improve your Spanish listening skills right away. Vamos a
Shahidah, welcome to
the Learn Spanish Con Salsa podcast. Thank you so much for taking your time
to join us today.
Thank you so much
for having me. I appreciate that.
Shahidah I came
across you on social media actually, because you run a site called Black
Girls Learn Languages. So If you could just tell us a little bit about
yourself and why you decided to start Black Girls Learn Languages.
I am originally from
Brooklyn, New York, and that’s very important because we all know that New
is a melting pot. So
I grew up hearing a lot of Spanish. I heard other languages too, but mostly
Spanish. So ever since I was little, ever since I remember, I just was like,
oh, I would love to learn how to speak Spanish and and you know, we don’t
have the resources we have today. So back then was like, I’m gonna watch
Telemundo all week and that’s what I’m gonna do, because I want to know
Spanish. I want to speak Spanish, I think it’s so cool. And then you know,
I’m gonna watch Univision and I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that. And
I would pick up a lot. I did pick up a lot of Spanish, but I wasn’t able to
practice with anybody, write, do any of these things that are very important.
Fast forward to junior high school, high school. I studied French and I liked
Everybody else they
just kind of treated it like, Oh, I’m just doing this so I could get my
credits to graduate. But I actually enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so much. I kept
a diary in French and I also lived in Germany and during high school too, so
I learned German and I like language and it was really hard for me because I
would want to connect with people that looked like me and it just seemed like
I couldn’t. Like I remember I went to a French club one time. I was like, Oh,
I think I’m gonna join the French club. And I think it was the only black
person there and I was just like, so this is a little awkward because this is
my first time because I’m from New York, so I’m used to being around, I guess
you could say minorities, right?
Even though we’re
not really the minority anymore, but that’s another discussion. But um, I’m
used to being around black people, I’m used to being around Latin people, I’m
used to being around Asian people. Like it wasn’t really a lot of white
people in the schools that I went to. So it was very like, okay, I don’t know
how to relate to these people. I’m coming to this French club, I’m going to
try it. And it was just, it was very hard. It was a shock because it’s like,
it was, it was clear that these people weren’t really able to relate to me
either. So I quit the French club, but I just was like, I know there’s got to
be people like that, like me that look like me and we could laugh and ki ki
about, you know, all these language problems and stuff, you know, and just
kind of connect on that.
But I just didn’t
know where. So I just, you know, that’s always been in the back of my mind.
Like I love to have these conversations, but I would really love it with
somebody who looks like me, who is my culture, who understands and we could
laugh. And so flash forward to last year, a couple of years ago, I was
working with a language consultant. I mean, not a language consultant, a
consultant and language came up in the conversation and she said, you know,
maybe you should do something with that. And I was like, no, not doing that.
Then, um, I thought about it and I was like, you know what, I still don’t see
this community. Like I still don’t see a community for black women learning
languages, knowing languages, whatever. So I’m just going to create it and
I’m just gonna see where it goes. When I started, there was like five people,
five followers, you know, and then I remember when I started I finally
decided, you know, what, it’s nice to have Instagram and all that.
It’s nice to have
twitter, but I want to have a conversation like I want to be able to continue
to talk to you. So I started the group on Facebook and I remember when it
seemed like I was talking to myself at one point I was like, I’m not going to
even post anymore. Like, I’m done. And then slowly like I have people that
regularly comment, they post their own resources and stuff and um, so that
basically just the story of how I got to this point. So I wanted to create
that community I didn’t see. And I’m so glad that I did because I’ve met
people because of Black Girls Learn Languages in real life. And you have met
some amazing people. So I’m very glad that I did this.
I’m glad that you
did it too because I actually, I’ve met some people through your group too.
And I don’t even know how I came across it. I think someone added me. I’m not
sure. But I’ve met so many cool people in the group and hearing different
conversations because like you mentioned, culture is really important to
learning languages and I was talking about that allowed in this podcast that
you really can’t learn language in a vacuum. You really need to connect with
the people that speak the language. And it’s really hard to do that if you
don’t know anything about the people. And also if you don’t have people that
look like you, like you mentioned, I think it’s really interesting that one
of the things for me as well that stood out when I was learning Spanish was
having a community of people that also are into language learning. Because,
you know, your friends aren’t always going to be into like, oh, how do you
learn this new Spanish grammar thing?
Or like what? How do
you improve your accent? Right. Most of my friends weren’t really into that
until I started connecting with other people in a language learning
community. And really being able to have those conversations like you talked
about. So yeah, I’m really glad that you started it too. And I think that’s
great because sometimes we can be reluctant to start something, but when you
see a real need, when you start that and you really start to get the feedback
and see people participating in it can be really rewarding.
What I wanted to
talk to you about Shahidah is a little bit about something I actually saw you
post on Instagram with Black Girls Learn Languages because sometimes you also
share your own language learning journey. And I know that right now you are
learning Spanish. So I wanted to talk to you a little bit about a really
common issue that a lot of people, a lot of the clients and folks I work with
who are learning Spanish struggle with and that’s improving your ability to
really understand Spanish when it’s spoken.
So a lot of English
speakers learning Spanish, they are really good at reading it, right? Or at
least they think they are, that’s another story. They recognize where it’s
more when they see them, but if somebody walks into the room like a native
speaker and reads the exact same words they just read, they wouldn’t
understand it, so it’s a real problem I
especially English speakers in particular, but it’s a real issue with
learning the Spanish language. So can you tell us a little bit about some of
the things you’ve done to help improve your Spanish listening comprehension
and some of the strategies that you’ve used so far?
comprehension is is the bane of my existence, OK? I have to admit that. Even
when I was learning French, I got really good, but it was struggling because
I learned French in a classroom setting ,and it wasn’t an immersive classroom
setting. Because I learned German on my own. I was totally in full control of
that. I decided, you know what I’m going to take with the Spanish that I know
and I’m going to take control of this and take it to the next level. And I
know that listening comprehension is hard for a lot of people and it, but it
is also key to gaining that fluency, that level of fluency.
So things that have
helped me is one of the things is understanding it a little bit better
because it’s beyond just the superficial, okay, my listening comprehension is
bad. It’s like, it’s not that you’re listening comprehension is bad, it’s
just, it’s, it’s, that’s the starting point, it’s going to get better. So
first thing is I would say is we definitely need to change our mindset and
reframe the things that we’re saying. For instance, one of the things people
always say is, “oh, I can’t understand them, they talk so fast.”
And it’s like, actually they’re not talking, they’re talking the normal speed
that people in that language or any language speak they, they’re normally
talking. It’s just that because there’s a lot of things at play such as
connected speech. What I learned as liaisons in French class, there’s a lot
of linking and connected speech.
So it sounds like
they’re speaking quickly, but it’s just, you learn the words isolated and
robotic and choppy and so that’s what you’re listening for. But that’s not
natural speech. And so knowing that that’s gonna get you. Okay? So the
problem is not that they’re talking fast. The problem is the way that I’m
learning how to listen. You’re not learning how to listen, what to listen
for. You’re learning, this is the word, this is what it sounds like stand
alone. But people don’t just say words randomly, standalone. It’s a sentence,
you know? So that’s one thing that I have gotten myself. I stopped saying
like, oh, French people speak so quickly. It’s like, no, I, you know, I’m not
used to the way they speak. I need to get used to it. Because when you say
that, oh, they speak so quickly, you automatically, your mind, your
preconscious is saying, it’s like telling you you’re not going to be able to
do that. So you don’t want to do that. You want to say I’m not used to it. I
need to get used to it. Um, that’s the first thing
The second thing is
you need to learn what things sound like in normal speech patterns. And so
for instance, I was watching Celia, which I’m addicted to and I’m very upset
because I wanted to binge this weekend and, and having an opportunity.
Yeah, I will
confess, I also binge watched, like I think it’s 80 episodes of that show so
it’s definitely addictive. So yes, I’ve been through that binge-watching with
Celia too. And if, if anyone doesn’t know what she’s referring to you. So
there’s a, a telanovela or soap opera and it’s on Netflix now, I believe. It
started out on Telemundo and it’s about the singer Celia Cruz who’s from
Cuba. So it’s a really dramatic but right. Interesting story about her life
and the history and culture of Cuba and the music. So it’s really just a
really fun show to watch. But yeah, but hopefully you get a chance to binge
watch it soon. It’s a great show.
Right because if
it’s still on when this episode airs, watch it, because we all know that
Netflix does not keep licensing forever. So who knows how long it’s going to
be on there, so if it’s on there, get it, watch it while you can. But yeah,
like I was watching it, I was thinking to myself, oh my goodness, is this the
Cuban accent? I can’t do this because I never really talked to Cubans before.
Like I’ve heard for Puerto Ricans talking, I’ve heard Mexican people talking.
I’ve even heard people from Spain talking, but I never really listened to a
Cuban so I’m listening to this like oh wow. And I had to put Spanish
subtitles on because I’m like, I don’t understand. And you know, as I’m
looking at the words and you know, listening to how they’re speaking them
out, I’m like, oh, they’re saying it completely different than how I expect
to hear it.
So, you know, and
that’s something I did in German as well. Like when I was learning German I
would watch TV in German and I will put the German subtitles on because I’m
like, why don’t I understand anything?
And then I’m reading
it like, oh, that’s how the word sounds when you say it in a sentence in
between, sandwiched in between other words. Okay. Because if you’re saying
one word one way just by itself, it sounds completely different than when
you’re saying it in a sentence.
Yeah, and I mean we
do it with English too. I think we just don’t realize it because it’s her
native language. But you know, if you wanted to ask someone how they’re
doing, you’re not going to say How. Are. You. Or it would sound really crazy.
We’d be like “How are you?” And it sounds like one word, but we
hear it as three different words because we’re used to it. So I think that
you’re right. It’s definitely a mindset thing and if we tell ourselves it’s
going to be hard or that it’s too fast and it’s already going to set us up
So you mentioned one
thing I wanted to ask about because you talked about watching German shows
with German subtitles and watching Spanish shows with Spanish subtitles. And
I’ve heard some people recommend watching with English subtitles. So just
kind of give us some insight on why you choose to do it that way instead of
using subtitles in English and how that helps you with your listening
Well I think it’s
nothing wrong with watching with English subtitles because I did also do that
too. But once you get to a certain level and you’ll notice within yourself,
like once you get to a certain level where you’re like, I’m good
on that, you can try
and put it in the native language one because you know, I think it’s a good
starting point. I also did that as well, like because MTV in Germany at the
time because it may be different now, but at the time they showed English
speaking shows and they showed German speaking shows. So sometimes they would
have no subtitles. Sometimes they did. Sometimes it would be like they had,
um. Oh my God, the Osbournes this is old. I’m dating myself, but they had the
Osbournes and like it would be German subtitles. So I would watch it in
English. I understand everything mostly. And then read the subtitles. Like,
oh, that’s what that word means in German. Okay. That’s how you use it.
Whatever. And vice versa. They may have a German show and it may have English
subtitles. And then I would say, oh, okay, that’s how you say that phrase.
And so it’s nothing
wrong with that, but I just feel like I’m kind of beyond that at this point.
Like I don’t want to be doing that. Like I’m trying to take myself to a next
level and the next level for me is understanding natural speech. Like just
understanding it. And the key to that is knowing what to listen for. And like
I noticed in the, in the, uh, in CeliaI noticed that a lot of people aren’t
really saying like certain sounds. So of course, like for instance, I noticed
like they said like the word “explicar” and notice they sound like
they sound like “e’plica”. Like there’s no x sound or like when her
father was saying like respect is the most important thing. He was like a
little “el re’peto’, like not “respeto”, you know what I mean?
Yeah, Cubans tend
not to pronounce the letter “s” a lot. So yeah, a lot of words,
just the “s” disappears and it seems like they swallow it, right,
it’s like they’re eating the “s”s, they don’t pronounce them. So
yeah, that’s pretty uh, pretty characteristic of the Cuban accent.
But the thing is if
you don’t know this, then of course you’re sitting there like “I don’t
know what I’m hearing.” So it’s like kind of have to know what you’re
hearing. Another thing that I do encourage, and I, and I don’t know if
anybody does this, but I do encourage is I do also encourage talking to
someone who’s not a native speaker but a little more advanced than you and
maybe listening to them and interact with them. I feel like that’s a good
bridge to getting from, because we tend to understand non native speakers
better at first, so that’s also a good bridge. Like if you can find someone
that’s like, like let’s say you’re a beginner, right?
You’re a beginner
and you can find someone that’s at least an advanced beginner, intermediate,
advanced intermediate, whatever, and they’re not native and you can talk to
them. You’re gonna be able to understand them because they’re not going to
talk. They’re gonna speak and you’re going to be able to catch that speech
linking because they’re going to be, you know, not native fluent, so they
might not, they’re flow may not match a native’s flow and so you may be able
to catch that speech linking like, oh, that’s what it sounds like. Oh, that’s
what it sounds like when you say that word, that’s what it sounds like in the
full sentence. That’s what it sounds like after this word and you will get
the hang of it. I feel like that’s a good, like the training wheels to begin
talking to native speakers. If you don’t feel comfortable and if you want to
start to understand what you’re trying to listen for.
Yeah, I like that
idea. It’s actually a good bridge because I think sometimes we assume we have
to just jump in, and you know, a lot of people in the language learning
community say you have to talk to native speakers. But if you don’t
understand anything it can be really demotivating and demoralizing if you’re
trying to have a conversation, you’re like, I didn’t catch any of that, so I
like that idea—talking to someone whose level is a little bit higher than
yours so you can at least get the hang of hearing spoken Spanish. And then like you said, kind of use it as
training wheels and once you get better and better at that then you can kind
of make that jump to listening to more native speech at more of a regular
pace. So you can start to get used to that too. So is there anything else that
you’ve been doing as you’ve been working on what you call the bane of your
existence? Working on improving your Spanish listening.
Yes. Actually it’s
so crazy because like I’m actually going to do a video on this. So another
thing that I would have to say in listening, I personally believe that if you
can video is better than audio alone. I just find that because one of the
things that I was doing was I subscribe to a podcast for kids like sesame
street or whatever in Spanish. One thing I don’t like to do is I don’t like
to watch exported entertainment. And when I say export an entertainment, I
mean shows that are like they’re dubbed in Spanish or you know, they
originally in English or they’re originally Italian. I don’t like to do that,
I like to get the content already originally created in that language because
I just feel like you don’t have to worry about learning something incorrectly
because sometimes the translations are completely wrong. They’re just really
Yeah that’s a big
So I highly
encourage original content in the original target language, not exported
content that’s been dubbed over. But anyway, I digress. What I want to say
was I was watching, I was listening to the podcast and another thing is
repetition. So for instance, if I’m watching the podcast and I only
understand, let’s say 40 percent of it and then I watch it again and then
understand 50 percent and then I watch it again and then I understand 80
percent, like I’ll keep watching until I pretty much understood what they
said. Like I feel comfortable enough to know, okay, I didn’t really miss that
much, that many words. And then I’ll go onto the next thing because
repetition is a huge part of learning language. So if I’m watching it. well I
was listening to it, and I was listening to over and over.
But there was a lot
of stuff that I was missing. And so one day I was like, Oh, you know what?
I’m going to watch it while I’m getting ready for work. So I turned it on,
Sesame Street in Spanish, like not dubbed over. It’s actually made in
Spanish. The characters are speaking Spanish. So I was watching it while I
was doing my makeup and watching it and I’m like, I went from understanding
20 percent of what was going on to understanding like 60 percent of what was
going on. Just because there’s body language that goes with it, you can look
at them, the mouth, the way the mouth is moving, when they’re talking the
context of what’s going on, like all of that goes into language and people
don’t realize that like that’s a huge part of language because I was like
thinking like I don’t really understand like what’s going on with this, but
you know, so that’s why I highly recommend if you can, as much video as you can
take in, please take it in.
Cool. That’s a
really good suggestion as well because I think that, like you mentioned,
being able to see how someone’s mouth moves. I think it also really helped
you with your pronunciation as well because I think a lot of times when we
hear something that a native speaker says and then we try to say it, we might
go, wait, why don’t I sound like them. Right? Especially like in like a quick
example is like when we say like a super American, I’m going to use my super
American accent and say like “Oh-laa,” right? And we’re like, why
doesn’t it sound like, it sounds different when they say it, and it sounds
like “Hola.” It’s because your tongue is in a completely different
place. Right? When you’re saying the “L” sound and you won’t notice
that unless you see someone actually pronouncing the word and you can kind of
see their mouth is open more.
You can see their
tongue is behind their teeth instead of like in English we kind of have a
more lazy like “Oh-laah” so you can also start to pick up on things
with video I that will help your pronunciation I think .
So, those were some
good tips you gave us.
1) You first talked
about mindset, making sure you
don’t overwhelm yourself by thinking this is going to be hard or too fast.
2) You talked about watching shows with subtitles in Spanish
and not in English to really help you take your listening to the next level.
3) You also talked about talking to, not a
native Spanish speaker, right? But talking
to an English speaker who may be a little bit more advanced than you, so
you can really start to understand some of those natural speech patterns,
4) and also watching video and using repetition to really see how much you can understand
and I think you’re right, you’ll find the more and more you listen and
repeat. You understand more and more every time.
So thank you so much
for sharing that advice. I hope that will help our audience who’s working on
listening comprehension to really kind of get over that hump to where you’re
just sitting there going, oh, it’s too hard. I don’t understand anything that
they’re saying to giving it a shot. Trying some of the tips that Shahidah
gave us today and seeing if you can apply it to your learning. And also Shahidah,
I want to link in the show notes, the video that you just talked about. So I
definitely put that in the show notes. So anyone who’s listening can check
out her video where she goes into more detail about how to improve your
Okay. So now I want
to switch over to do our quick fire round in Spanish. So this is our segment
where we ask five quick questions in Spanish and we get your answers off the
top of your head, you know, to give you an opportunity to practice your
Spanish as well and to give our audience an opportunity to listen to you some
Spanish. So Shahidah, ¿lista? Ready?
No. (laughs). That’s
OK, let’s do it.
¿Lista? No. Jajaja. Okay. So, tenemos 5 preguntas en español. Y la primera
es, ¿Cuál fue la última cosa que leíste, miraste, o escuchaste en español?
Ready? No. (laughs) OK, so we
have 5 questions in Spanish. And the
first one is, What was the last thing you read, watched, or listened to in
La última cosa fue podcast de Sesame Street.
The last thing was the Sesame Street podcast.
La segunda pregunta: ¿Cuál es tu canción favorita en español?
The second question: What is your favorite Spanish song?
Oooh, una buena pregunta. Mi canción favorita en español es de Selena,
“Baila Esta Cumbia.”
Oh, good question. My
favorite song in Spanish is from Selena, “Dance this Cumbia.”
Ah “Baila Esta Cumbia,” Selena es muy popular.
Oh, “Dance this Cumbia.”
Selena is very popular.
Y, número 3. ¿Cuál es tu palabra favorita de español?
And, number 3: What is your favorite Spanish word?
To miss [someone or something].
Y, número 4. OK, Saca tu teléfono y traduce para nosotros el último
texto que recibíste al español.
And number 4. OK, take out
your phone and translate for us the last text that you received into Spanish.
OK momentito. Recibí un mensaje de mi prima, dice “Voy a volver
pronto, estoy a (en) Pep Boys.”
OK just a moment. I received
a message from my cousin, it says “I’m coming back son, I am at Pep Boys.
Que bueno. Y la última pregunta. Esto es una pregunta al azar (so it’s
a random question), ¿Si tuverias música de presentación, qué canción sería y
OK good. And the last question: this is a random question. If you had theme music, what song would it
be and why?
Pienso, pienso, pienso. De Remy Martin, “Conceited.”
I’m thinking, I’m thinking, I’m thinking. From Remy Martin, Conceited.
Que interesante. Okay, gracias Shahidah. Gracias por participar.
interesting. OK, thanks Shahidah. Thank you for participating.
Thanks for participating in our quick fire round. I
hope that was a little bit of fun for you and gave you a chance to practice
your Spanish as well.
|26:11||Shahidah||Yes, it did.|
So to wrap things
up, do you have any projects coming up? Or just kind of let folks know how to
follow you on social media and where they can get in touch with you.
I want to have a
language event for black women so I don’t have the dates yet, but just look
out for that. Other than that, you can follow me. I am heavily on instagram
@blackgirlslearnlanguages. I’m occasionally on twitter saying things that I
just feel like saying, on twitter @blacklinguistas. Also, I have the Facebook
group. I guess you can see the link in the show notes, but I’m definitely in
there posting all kinds of stuff, memes, you know, resources, asking
questions, just interacting. But I mean we talk about things, you know,
that’s not just language that’s just about being a black woman in this world.
Thank you so much
for your time. Shahidah. I’m gonna let you run, I know you’re a busy woman.
Thank you so much
for having me.
That is it for this
episode of Learn Spanish Con Salsa. Now if you’re looking for more ways that
you can improve your Spanish listening skills, check out the free course, the
5 Day Spanish Ear Training at learnspanishconsalsa.com/eartraining. That’s
learnspanishconsalsa.com/eartraining, and you can sign up for a free
five day course that will give you a daily lessons on how to improve your
Spanish listening comprehension. In just under a week. You will be surprised
at how much better you’re able to understand spoken Spanish.
For links to all the
resources we talked about in this episode as well a full transcript. Go to
the show notes page at learnspanishconsalsa.com/7. That’s learnspanishconsalsa.com/7
for episode seven of the podcast. If this is your first time listening to the
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And as always, we
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spanishmusicandculture.com. I hope you heard something in this episode that
will take you one step closer from being a beginner to bilingual. Hasta
Links and Resources
Plaza Sésamo (Sesame Street)
Shahidah’s Video: Why You’re Having Trouble Listening
Shahidah’s Favorite Song: Baila Esta Cumbia by Selena
Shahidah’s Theme Music: Conceited by Remy Martin
Shahidah Foster, Black Girls Learn Languages
- Instagram: @blackgirlslearnlanguages
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