There are four parts to learning any new language: reading, writing, speaking and listening.
Which one do you think is the most difficult?
The first and easiest to learn are usually the reading and writing. That’s because you can take your time, study them, and work them out on your own.
Spoken Spanish offers no such luxury. It’s an incredibly fast spoken language. Its diverse accents and dialects can twist words beyond recognition.
For many Spanish language learners, listening is the most difficult. Have you tried watching a Spanish language movie, talking to a Spanish speaking conversation partner or going on a date with a Spanish speaker? It can seem like native speakers are bombarding you with meaningless jumbles of noises that your brain is fighting to untangle as quickly as possible. As soon as you figure out what one thing means, you’re immediately presented with another word puzzle to figure out. It’s a real workout for the brain. Even if you know gender rules, how to make words plural and where to add accent marks, listening to Spanish can feel like a whole different ball game.
The good news? The more you exercise your brain with listening practice, the stronger it will get. There are more than a few ways you can quickly add some muscle to your brain with various Spanish listening activities. Take a look at the following tips for improving your listening skills – try out all different strategies and don’t stop until you see improvement!
5 Great Tips for Improving Your Spanish Listening Comprehension Skills
1. Watch movies in Spanish with Spanish subtitles
This is like learning to ride a bike with training wheels, and I personally found it to be one of the most beneficial ways to practice when I was first learning Spanish. It combines two of the areas of language learning, one harder and one easier, and allows you to easily follow along with what’s being said without having to decipher only the spoken language. It’s like a sing-along for language learning.
You can change the language on almost any DVD, but I prefer to use movies that are originally in Spanish because it sounds more natural. Additionally, you can focus on films from a specific country to better learn a specific accent. The added benefit is that it opens you up to a whole new world of excellent Spanish-language films (El laberinto del fauno being one of my personal favorites).
A great exercise is to find a short scene with plenty of dialogue between two characters. Watch it with the subtitles a few times until you can distinguish every word. Then watch it a few more times without the subtitles, listening carefully to the words and how they’re spoken.
- Which parts of the words are stressed?
- Where are the pauses?
- Which words or phrases are strung together to sound like a single word?
Say the lines out loud as the character says them, then switch parts and respond to the words that are spoken. Do this enough times and you’ll never forget how those certain words and phrases are pronounced.
2. Listen to Spanish songs
Music is a universal language, and an excellent way to train your ears to listen to a foreign language. Fortunately there’s a wealth of excellent music in Spanish, and finding it is as easy as logging into Spotify and choosing the Latin genre, or using FluentU to view a wide range of music videos in Spanish.
FluentU lets you learn Spanish through the web’s best Spanish music videos. There’s a wide variety of videos—topics like soccer, Disney musicals, TV shows, music videos and even magical realism, as you can see here:
Choose any video that strikes your fancy! You’ll see how many Spanish vocabulary words you can learn from it, and you can even look at the transcript of the dialogue and practice vocabulary before watching the video.
Every video comes with interactive subtitles. So, when you choose a music video or something else to sing along with, you’ll find that all the lyrics are translated for you. You can hover over any word or phrase to see the translation, along with a helpful image.
Clicking on the word shows you useful example sentences, as well as other video clips which use the word. For example, check out this screenshot from a popular song by Carlos Baute:
You can even review the words in a review session that uses video context to help embed the words in your memory. You’ll be able to create vocab lists and track your progress as you advance through video after video.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and it recommends you examples and videos based on the words you’ve already learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
The best part? You can try FluentU for free.
I recommend picking a slower song with clearly sung lyrics, and listening to it several times over until you get a good feel for it. Then look up the lyrics in order to fill in any gaps that you might not be able to work out yourself.
Here’s where it gets fun. Starting with just the refrain, sing along with the song until you can do it from memory. Then move on to the rest of the song. The good thing about learning with music is that it has a way of sticking in your brain and helping you to remember the words. Plus, if you happen to hear the song next time you’re out, you can seize the moment to be the life of the party.
For bonus points, many Latin American songs often have both Spanish and English versions. Listen to the song in both languages, then mark down all the differences between the two versions. For instance, the Shakira song, She Wolf:
In English it’s:
There’s a she wolf in the closet,
Open up and set it free.
There’s a she wolf in the closet,
Let it out so it can breathe.
But in Spanish it’s:
Una loba en el armario, (A [female] wolf in the closet)
Tiene ganas de salir. (It wants to leave)
Deja que se coma el barrio, (Let it eat the neighborhood)
Antes de irte a dormir. (Before you go to sleep)
I don’t think it really changes the meaning of the song too drastically, but it does present a few interesting translation points. For instance what’s the difference between tener ganas de… and querer? They both mean “to want”, but tener ganas de… implies more itching to do something, or feeling an urge to do something. And what do you think she means when she says “Let it eat the neighborhood”?
3. Watch the news in Spanish
Most people follow the news on a daily basis, whether it’s a morning show during breakfast, an evening broadcast or even just the weather forecast. As an already established daily ritual, it’s the perfect opportunity to get a regular dose of daily Spanish (an important part of any well-balanced lesson plan).
The good thing about the news is that it’s always very clearly spoken with minimal accent and slang. It’s also good for a beginner because it generally uses easier sentence constructions, simple declarative statements and clear descriptions.
If you don’t have a Spanish language news broadcast such as Univision or Telemundo included with your television service, you can find Spanish news online from plenty of channels in Spain or Latin America, or use FluentU to find news videos.
Here’s where you can find Spanish news online:
For practice, watch the video and write down the important information: Who, what, when, where and why. Then find an English version of the news piece then see how much of it you got right. Soon enough you’ll be getting all your news en español.
4. Put your GPS into Spanish
This is a pretty simple one, but none-the-less it’s an excellent way to get used to hearing Spanish. So you don’t get lost, start out with a route you travel frequently, such as between your home and your work.
This is a particularly good way to practice hearing numbers in Spanish, because the GPS always tells you how far you have to travel before your next turn. Learning numbers in a foreign language is deceptively difficult. On the surface, it seems easy, uno = one, dos = two, and so on.
In your native language you hear “five” and you think “5.”But when you hear numbers in a foreign language, it takes a lot of time if you have to translate the numbers into your head like this: Cinco = five = 5.
It takes a lot more practice to be able to hear “cinco” and think 5. It gets even more complicated with higher numbers like 25,476. Veinticinco mil, cuatrocientos, setenta y seis. If you have to stop and think about that for too long, you’ll miss the rest of the sentence and have to catch up. So learning to internalize your numbers in Spanish really pays off.
Putting your GPS into Spanish will also help you to learn the vocabulary for giving and receiving directions, one of the most important things to know if you plan on traveling in another country.
5. Speak Spanish
This can be intimidating at first because you might be afraid of making mistakes or not understanding something correctly, but actually speaking Spanish is one of the best ways to practice your listening. It forces you to really listen to the other person’s responses so you know how to reply.
It’s okay if you don’t understand everything that’s said, and most people are pretty forgiving if you make a mistake, so don’t be worried. If you really don’t get something just ask them to repeat it: “otra vez, por favor?” They’ll then know to slow it down and say it more clearly for you. Just ask a lot of questions and listen to the response.
The most important thing is to relax and have fun. That’s what language learning is all about. And who knows, you might even meet some great new friends in the process!
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