The Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Understand Native Spanish Speakers

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I can't tell you how many times Spanish learners have told me “I have a hard time understanding native Spanish speakers.”

You probably find that you can understand Spanish better when you read it. But when you started learning Spanish, I doubt your goal was to get really good at reading and only vaguely understand Spanish spoken slowly by native English speakers.

Most likely, you want to have conversations with native Spanish speakers. More than speaking, understanding spoken Spanish is extremely important if this is your goal.

But when someone starts talking, you may struggle to keep up with what's being said.

Have you ever wondered why?

I'm going to share with you the 5 top reasons you can't understand spoken Spanish, and (more importantly!) what to do to improve your listening skills.

#1 Lack of Vocabulary

This may seem obvious, but the first obstacle that keeps us from understanding spoken Spanish is not having a sufficient vocabulary. If you don't know enough words in Spanish, you will most likely get lost when listening to any amount of extended speech.

Luckily, this one has a few easy solutions:

{1} Learn the most common Spanish words – Get familiar with the most commonly used words in Spanish. Focusing on the words and phrases that you will hear often is valuable study time.

{2} Learn by topic – Most likely, you are going to be drawn to topics that are of interest to you. Beyond common words and phrases, you should also focus on building your vocabulary around those topics so you will be familiar with terms that relate to your areas of interest.
While you won't be able to understand everything, this approach will allow you to have more meaningful conversations about things you actually care about.

Over time, you will be surprised how many topics you can understand comfortably, but you have to tackle them one at a time.

#2 Sound Deafness

Sometimes, we get very confused or simply cannot hear sounds that are not familiar to us. There are several letter sounds in Spanish that are similar to English–but the ones that aren't familiar to our ears can be hard to comprehend.

Letters like ñ, ll, and the hard rr sound can trip up non-native Spanish speakers. This is because these sounds are truly foreign to us.

We hear them, but we usually don't know how to properly pronounce them ourselves. This makes it even harder to recognize them, and they tend to divert our attention away from listening for comprehension.

Here's what to do to train your ear:

{1} Get familiar with new sounds – Review, learn, and study sounds that are unique to Spanish. Listen to a native speaker making the sounds in a variety of words. You will want to choose words where these sounds appear at the beginning, middle, and end of a word. Use sites like wordreference.com or forvo.com to hear how the sounds are properly pronounced.

{2} Treat the entire Spanish alphabet as “new” and master the alphabet – It's sooo easy to fall into the trap of pronouncing Spanish words like English words.  We have programmed a whole host of linguistic habits and patterns into our brains that it can be hard to switch them off, especially when both languages use pretty much the same Latin characters for their alphabets.

For this reason, I always recommend that you view the entire Spanish alphabet as different than English.

It can be hard to see the same letter and wrap our minds around the fact that it is pronounced differently than we’re used to. For example, the letter ‘d' is not ‘dee', it's ‘deh.'

Learn the alphabet and sounds of letters and letter combinations.

Here's a fun video that goes over the Spanish alphabet. I know it's for children but trust me, you'll appreciate it once you learn it by heart (a cool feature about this alphabet song is it gives BOTH sounds for letters that have more than one pronunciation).

#3 Inability to Distinguish Words When Linked

Native Spanish speakers tend to say a long string of words linked together.  And if youre not familiar with the intonation of the speaker, you will find it almost impossible to differentiate between the words.

What we hear as “fast” is actually normal-paced Spanish speech. While some Spanish speakers are known for speaking faster than others, in general, it all sounds faster than we are comfortable with.

I'm talking real-world Spanish, not the slow, comforting speech of a Spanish course.

We do the same thing in English.  Rarely do we say What did you do? it would sound more like Whadjoo do?  or Do you want to go to the store? would sound like Do you wanna go to the store?

We're just used to it, so it doesn't sound fast to us.

The thing is, when we learn Spanish we usually learn one word at a time, and only listen to excruciatingly slow speech.

This is a mistake.

Imagine if someone were to speak to you that way in English.

People. usually. don't. talk. in. single. separated. one. word. sentences. That. would. be. very. painful. to. listen. to.

But this is how we learn Spanish, and so we speak it the same way.  This means when we're exposed to Spanish in the real world we are in shock because they speak, well, normally.

My suggestion…

{1} Learn the word linkage rules – There are some general rules for how words are linked together when pronounced. Linking words combines two syllables, so they become one sound instead of 2 separate and distinct sounds.

One tendency in spoken Spanish is that if a word ends with a vowel and the word spoken after it starts with the same vowel, the syllables are combined.  For example, ¿Qué es esto? would sound more like ¿Que-esto?

{2} Listen to regular-speed speech in ‘chunks' – Find authentic audio to listen to real Spanish speakers. Listen to it in small sections, no more than a few lines at a time. It may seem tedious, but this will help you get used to how words are pronounced together.

{3} Slow it down – Once you find some good audio, you'll want to listen to it at a slower pace so you can hear the different words clearly. Then, you can speed it up again and you'll hear how it flows a little better.

How to Slow Down YouTube Videos

 

App to Slow Down Audio

The thing is, listening to something you don't understand just becomes background noise in your mind and you tune it out.  So if you listen to something at regular speed and you are struggling to understand anything, it's a good idea to slow it down a little so you can make out the meaning.

You may also want to try repeating after the speaker as well to reinforce the speech patterns in your memory.

#4: Missing phrases

If you learn words in isolation, you may not realize that combinations of words have different meanings. For example, “dar” means to give, and “cuenta” means account or story. But the phrase “darse cuenta” means to realize.  Similarly, the word “tener” means to have on its own, but if it's followed by “que” it means must or to have to.

The solution is simple…

{1} Learn common phrases –  It's important to become familiar with the most common Spanish phrases and idiomatic expressions.  This will keep you from getting confused and not lose the context when you're listening to longer stretches of speech.

{2} Change the way you study vocabulary – Instead of making flash cards with individual words only, study vocabulary in complete sentences.  This will make you more familiar with the context in which the word is being used.  It can also prevent misunderstanding.

#5: Unfamiliar accents and dialects

Sometimes you may come across someone that just sounds strange to you.  It's not that your listening skills are poor, but no matter how hard you try you may just struggle to understand anything this person says.

In that case, you may have come across an unfamiliar accent or dialect. And as a beginner, you won't be able to hear the differences and nuances of the Spanish language from different regions

While this may be frustrating, you'll be comforted to know that there are some dialects that even native Spanish speakers have a hard time understanding.

So how do you overcome this hurdle?

{1} Become aware of the differences – If you don't already, you will want to get into the habit of asking people where they are from.  This is a pretty common topic of conversation when you start speaking to someone in Spanish and they realize you are not a native speaker.

If you develop a general awareness of the various Spanish-speaking countries and cultures, you will start to have an appreciation for the differences.

Pay attention to words and phrases that are used often, and don't be afraid to ask for clarification.  If you are listening to audio and are having a hard time translating it, check into online dictionaries that explain regional expressions and provide a country of origin with each translation such as Diccionario de Real Academia Española or Asi Hablamos.

Over time, you will start to notice which accents give you a hard time, and will know not to beat yourself up over it.

{2} Focus on ONE type of Spanish – Since you won't be able to hear the differences on your own, you need to be intentional about what types of Spanish you expose yourself to.  I talk about this in-depth here, and explain why it's important to pick a type of Spanish to learn from the beginning.

Otherwise, you may get bogged down and demotivated if you run into someone that you don't understand AT ALL.

If you get really good at understanding one accent or dialect, it will be easier to hear and understand others as you get become a more advanced learner.

~

I hope exploring these 5 reasons you have trouble understanding native Spanish speakers has given you some insight on how you can improve your study techniques.

Overall, if you are going to be able to understand normal speech you need to increase your exposure.  Talk to people in Spanish, listen to conversations in Spanish instead of audio from the news or academic sources, and learn how Spanish sounds naturally.

In time, you will begin to get the flow of the language and understand it naturally.

 

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