It is a scientific fact that Spanish people speak much faster than English people. Most learners notice straightaway how fast Spanish people speak. Even if they think they are slowing down to help you, they don’t realise that this is still probably too fast for you to keep up.
In this blog post we will teach you some little tricks to make a conversation with a native speaker much easier for you to deal with.
Why is listening to natives so difficult for learners?
The reason that learners of Spanish find listening to native speakers so hard could be for several reasons.
Firstly, people from different parts of Spain or different South American countries speak differently as they have a different accent. If it makes you feel better, even Spaniards find it difficult to understand other Spanish speakers who are from different regions.
For example, when I lived in Spain, I know that my Spanish friends in Valladolid found it difficult to understand people from Andalucia because of the different dialect. People in Valladolid speak clear Castilian Spanish whereas Andalusians miss of the “s” off the ends of words, they say an “s” sound for “-ci” or “ce” whereas in Northern Spain this is a “th” sound.
Because of how quickly they speak, often the end of one word runs into another so the result is you hear a completely different word instead of the 2 separate words. So this makes following what they are saying increasingly hard.
For instance, “¿Quieres una cerveza? May sound like “¿Quiere sunacer veza?” So then you are left trying to decipher what they have just said.
Either there is a slightly embarrassing pause or they move on to say something else and you get left behind in the conversation and get totally lost.
You don’t know the vocabulary
If you are a beginner Spanish learner and you have only been learning for a few weeks or months understandably you are going to struggle when talking to natives because you have only learnt the most basic words and phrases so far. As you progress and learn more vocabulary this will improve.
Natives don’t adapt to your level
Another common problem is that native speakers do not know your exact level. They don’t know how long you have been learning Spanish or what you do and don’t know. They sometimes use everyday expressions that they think everyone knows but when it comes to language learning you often don’t learn these expressions until much later on. They also don’t realise just how fast they speak and how much slower they need to talk so that you can follow most of what they say.
Tactics to make the conversation easier for you to deal with
Use filler words “muletillas”
Try to use those little words and phases that start off a sentence or are used during pauses. This includes things like:
– Vamos a ver
– A ver
The good thing about these is that they give you time to think what to say next and how to form this in Spanish. They make you sound more natural and fluent, just like a native Spanish speaker. They are also good to use as something to say as a reply, if you haven’t understood exactly what they have just said to you. However, as you improve, you will want to use them for this reason less and less.
Don’t be afraid to say you don’t understand
There is no shame in admitting that you haven’t understood. They know you are learning the language so of course you are not going to understand things. They will be happy to repeat it, say it a bit slower or re-phrase it in a simpler way.
You can learn phrases such as:
– Lo siento pero no entiendo. (I am sorry but I don’t understand.)
– ¿Puedes repetir, por favor? (Can you repeat, please?)
It is much better to get something clarified and to continue the conversation rather than get completely lost and unable to continue.
Continue speaking slowly
Even though the person you are talking to may be speaking very fast, this does not mean that you have to speak as fast too. Simply continue talking at a speed that you can manage so that you can also think about what you are saying and how to formulate it in good Spanish.
Ask them to slow down
A must-know phrase every learner should memorise is how to ask them to speak more slowly:
– ¿Puedes hablar más despacio por favor? (Can you speak more slowly please?)
What you can do to get better at listening
Now let’s look at what you can do yourself to improve listening and speaking to native speakers.
Do more listening and read along with transcript
Clearly the best way to get better at listening is to do more of it! It is one of the hardest skills for people to improve when learning foreign languages. Even when you do lots of listening, you don’t always notice that you have made progress. It is a long slow process but one you need to stick at to make any real improvements.
The best tip is, to find a podcast or story in Spanish that you can read the transcript at the same time. This way you get to know the sounds that run together and you will get used to spotting these in future.
Listen for the gist
This should form the majority of your listening practice. It is really important to listen to get the overall picture of what is being said. Do not worry about understanding every single word that you hear. In a normal conversation you would be unlikely to:
a) understand every word that has been said and
b) you would not need to understand every single word to be able to follow the conversation, reply and keep the conversation going.
Listen for detail
Every so often you should listen to a short piece of audio to study in-depth. This may be a paragraph of an audiobook or a small section of a podcast. Ideally it would be a more difficult section that you would not be able to follow if you just listened to get the overall gist.
- Listen to every single word and make sure you understand what it means.
- Listen over and over again until you do understand everything that is said.
- Check with the transcript that you know every word and look up those you didn’t know.
Listen to different types of Spanish
As you are likely to meet people who speak with a different accent and register, it is important to practise by listening to different types of Spanish. Make sure you listen to both Castilian Spanish accents as well as those in the south of Spain, Mexico and other South American countries. This will give you a greater understanding of different dialects.
Here is a list of the different types of Spanish audio that you could listen to:
– Beginner materials, teaching CDs
– Podcasts (various levels; beginner, intermediate, advanced)
– Spanish news (formal Spanish)
– Youtube channels
– Spanish telenovelas (these would use lots of slang and everyday expressions)
– Spanish music (Spotify, Youtube or the Lirica app)
– Spanish radio
– Spanish interviews with celebrities
Whichever method you choose, make sure listening forms a good part of your Spanish studies. The key thing is to stick at it, listen to something every day if you can as this is the best way to get better at both listening and your conversation skills.