As the saying goes, el español tiene un color muy especial (Spanish is unique indeed)!
Spanish comes in many shapes and sizes. Spoken in over 25 countries globally, there are more than 100+ ways to speak if you take into account regional accents, slang, pronunciation and intonation.
So, surely you’ve heard someone say to you, “¿Me entiendes?” (do you understand me?) during conversation.
And surely, at some point, your answer to that question has been, “ehh…no, perdón.” (Um…no, sorry).
There is much debate in linguistic circles on what constitutes neutral Spanish. Currently, Spanish has roughly 400 million speakers in the Americas and 44 million in Spain, so there are quite a few differences to think about when considering what neutral Spanish might sound like.
Many learners agree that natives of Peru and Colombia speak the most clearly, while others say that the accent from Valladolid, Spain is “real” Spanish. When it comes to who speaks the proper language, there is really no such thing as authentic or fake, as all variations of Spanish are equally valid.
With that said, in the context of this great variety, it’s a good idea to learn to recognize a variety of ways of speaking and accents in order to master spoken Spanish!
Pick Your Spoken Spanish
Castilian and Latin American Spoken Spanish
Castilian Spanish (CS): CS is the general version Spanish spoken in Spain. General because from South to North there is as much linguistic variety as there are Spaniards in Spain. Many comment that spoken CS has a higher velocity (speed) and more difficult pronunciation than other Spanish varieties, but this all depends on context and speaker.
Latin American Spanish (LAS): LAS is the general version of Spanish spoken in Latin America, this is also very general because there are intonation and accent differences between Mexican, Chilean and Bolivian Spanish. Remember, this is a big continent! All in all, many learners comment that spoken LAS has a more comfortable speed and pronunciation, but remember that the context and the speaker matter here too.
For our purposes, be sure to keep in mind these 2 important elements in spoken CS and LAS:
1. Mind Your Cs and Zs: In spoken CS the letters c and z are pronounced with a bit of a lisp, similar to the sound we make when pronouncing “th” in the word “the.” In spoken LAS, the letters z, c and s are pronounced exactly the same.
2. Use of Vosotros vs Ustedes: For plural informal you form remember that vosotros is exclusively used in CS whereas ustedes is exclusively used in LAS. It’s very rare to hear either or in the opposite region, unless a speaker is adapting their speech to a Latin American or Spanish visitor. The only exception is in the Spanish Canary Islands, where ustedes is used instead of vosotros by Canarians.
Get a more in-depth look at the major differences and similarities here.
To get quick a sense of the spoken differences, check out this short clip that explores Spanish movie dubs in LAS and CS. Write down your impressions and thoughts in your Spanish journal on the spoken differences according to how you hear them. If you’re a beginner, they might sound exactly the same. If you’re intermediate to advanced, you’ll likely notice the two elements mentioned above.
Generally, U.S. learners opt for LAS because it’s the standard taught in high school, college and also the most widely spoken form of Spanish in the Spanish-speaking world in sheer numbers.
Despite CS being spoken by 44 million compared to LAS by 400 million, it’s still widely used as voice-overs in documentaries, dubbing in movies and also International Spanish News stations. So make sure to listen to audio in both spoken varieties as this is excellent training for your ears.
Spoken Spanish, the Real Challenge
For spoken Spanish, your real challenge is to match written word with sound, until it becomes intuitive and reproducible in speech. You literally need to train your ears! Sounds easy but this takes a lot of practice, dedication and training.
Remember, matching written word to sound is the trick to master spoken Spanish in any and all of its linguistic varieties. Once you become an advanced learner, you’ll easily tell the difference between spoken Spanish varieties and will be able to communicate in a nice and neutral Spanish.
Through extensive listening combined with travels you may even get to the point where you pinpoint the country or exact city the speaker is from, and olé to you if you do (cheers to you)!
In the meantime, let’s look at some ways you can train your ears and improve your spoken Spanish starting today!
Train Your Ears, Your Guide to Learn Spoken Spanish
1. Listen to News in Slow Spanish
Listening to the news in Spanish can be overwhelming—it’s fast-paced, packed with information and your brain gets overloaded quickly. Lucky for you, there’s an alternative: listening to the news a little bit slower. This is a wonderful method to train your ears and get you informed on world events in a relaxed and slower-paced environment. But where to find slowed-down news for learners?
The platform News in Slow Spanish provides news podcasts and corresponding transcripts for news stories from Latin America. The podcasts are intentionally slow to get your ears used to sounds and the accompanying transcripts provide excellent vocabulary and word-to-sound recognition for your learning. You can download the app on your cell phone at iTunes or Google Play, to take it with you anywhere you go!
2. Listen to Spanish Recordings at Various Speeds
Finding songs, podcasts, news broadcasts and audio recordings a bit too fast? Remember how your mom said not to play with your food? Well, there’s no reason for you not to play with your language learning!
Compile your favorite Spanish songs and challenging audios into one big playlist. Start listening to them at different speeds using both Audacity and VideoLan to do so.
It’s simple, download the audio in mp3 and adjust recordings as you wish. Experiment from slow, medium to fast speeds, pitches and intonations, increasing and decreasing as you see fit in order to adjust to your level and listening comfort zones.
3. Specialized Podcasts with Written Transcripts
Use websites that offer quality podcasts with written transcripts. For example, you could try the audio features on FluentU Spanish, which play the captions in English and Spanish on your screen as you listen (but don’t worry if you prefer to fly solo or only have Spanish subtitles by your side, you can toggle the subtitles on and off at will).
Start off by first printing out the transcripts then listen to the podcast audio a few times, making sure to follow along on your transcript with a pen or highlighter to catch those tricky words and pronunciation. Check out SpanishPod101 by Innovative Language for free quality podcasts on a variety of subjects with transcripts, flashcards, videos and a handy app!
4. Watch Movies with Spanish Subtitles, Consistently
This tip makes it on lists over and over again for a reason—because it really, truly works. But the trick here is consistency—not just watching randomly or sporadically. Aim to watch a new movie in Spanish once a week, or try watching your favorite movies in English dubbed into Spanish with subtitles every now and then.
Consistency really is the key to make sure the word and sound connection is activated in your head at least once a week, if not more!
Want some recommendations from yours truly? For LAS, watch “También la lluvia” (Even the Rain) and for CS watch “Mar Adentro” (The Sea Inside), both available on Netflix with the subtitle option. If you’re a beginner, stick to watching the same movie a couple times within the same month!
5. Pair Audiobooks with Physical Books
By this I mean that you should listen to audiobooks while you read them in Spanish.
It’s easier than it sounds! Audible has a wide variety of Spanish audiobooks, from both Latin America and Spain. If your pockets allow you, you can also search on Amazon.es for the physical book so you can read along while you listen to the audiobook recording. Having physical pages in front of you keeps you focused, on-task and also reinforces sound-word recognition.
6. Immerse Yourself in Spoken Spanish with FluentU
FluentU is actually a pretty sweet resource to use for Spoken Spanish.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
The diversity of authentic content here is perfect for exposing yourself to a variety of Spanish.
Oh, and you can use the active learning tools found in FluentU’s learn mode. The interactive captions, multimedia flashcards and vocabulary lists will all give you the opportunity to really practice and reinforce the language you’ve learned from your chosen videos.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the App from iTunes or the Google Play store and bring FluentU’s innovative language-learning experience to your iOS and Android device.
There you have it, now pull those tangled ear buds out of your desk and stick to the 6 methods above to master spoken Spanish. Whatever your level, you’ll surely get quick results—not to mention compliments—on your improved Spanish from teachers and friends!
¡Hasta la próxima, amigos! (Until next time, friends!)
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Spanish with real-world videos.