Do you understand Spanish native speakers when they talk to each other? Can you catch all the words and expressions they use when they talk spontaneously? Do you feel like Spanish speakers talk too fast?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the questions above, you need to know that you aren’t alone. A recent study in the UK showed that 45% of language students were “embarrassed” by the level of their foreign language skills, and this includes, of course, understanding spoken Spanish.
Now, why is it so difficult to understand native speakers? is it actually that they talk so fast? or maybe you need only more lessons? In this blog post, you’ll find out what the real problem is.
Left in the dark when Spanish native speakers talk so fast? I bet you never thought about this…
We all agree on something: spoken Spanish is fast, it’s super fast! However, depending on the accent you hear, speakers might talk faster or slower.
Now, no matter what accent you hear in Spanish, in real-life conversations, there’s just no time to:
- Think about grammar
- Word meanings
- Or translations
In fact, every language at a spoken level is perceived as fast.
Just think of your mother language, do you think you speak at a slow pace?… Well, if you think you do, you’re wrong. You don’t speak fast or slow, your speaking just goes at a natural, conversational and fluent speed.
Actually, if your first language is English, you might be surprised to know that one of the most common complaints among English students is that native speakers talk fast.
So, do Spanish speakers really talk that fast? No, they just speak at a natural and conversational speed. Nevertheless, if this is so ‘natural’, then what the heck is the problem? why can’t you understand Spanish native speakers?
The answer lies within you. And if you’re like most of my students, there’re 3 reasons why you feel like Spanish speakers talk at 100mph:
#1 You don’t know the meaning of the words native speakers use.
People often think that native speakers are talking fast, but it’s more likely that Latinos or Spainyards use vocabulary that the students don’t know. Let me give you an example of this.
Let’s say you’re having a conversation with a Colombian. You guys are talking about La Ciudad Perdida in Santa Marta, and suddenly he drops the word ‘chévere‘, which means cool, but let’s suppose you don’t know that, he says:
“Sí, la ciudad perdida es un lugar muy chévere“
So, let’s face it: if you’ve never seen this word in your life before, if you never heard it in the past, or you never saw it written somewhere…
Even though you would’ve taken Spanish lessons for 2 years in college, or if you felt like an expert to conjugate verbs using the subjunctive and the preterit pluperfect, there’s no way on earth that you understand what the other person said about La Ciudad Perdida!
It’s not lack of practice, or that you needed more lessons, you just didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘chévere‘.
In fact, this reminds me of a comment I once got from one of my students, he said:
“It’s not fair that native speakers don’t choose the words I know”
Well, just remember that you’re the one learning their language, so instead of focusing on what you don’t know, focus on what you have to learn, which is the vocabulary native speakers use in real life.
#2 You’ve been learning Spanish from textbooks, but real Spanish is a topic that you’ve never heard of…
Textbooks might be a great source to get you familiarized with Spanish. In fact, schools love them because they make seem Spanish as an academic and systematic way to learn the language.
- They explain the structure of the language
- They’re helpful to learn the basic vocabulary
- You can definitely learn how to order some tacos in Spanish
But they’ll never teach you how people speak in real life. Yes, they might show you some dialogs, but to be honest with you, very few of them use natural and spontaneous dialogs, just check out this textbook dialog example:
—Hola, ¿cuál es tu nombre?— —Mi nombre es Juan — —¿De dónde eres Juan?— —Yo soy de Colombia, ¿y tú? ¿de dónde eres?—
Let’s put it this way: In real life, nobody talks like that!
- People have accents
- They shorten words
- They use lots of filler words
- And suddenly, Idioms show up in conversations all the time.
In fact, textbooks are often focused on correct and academic grammar rules, but when you come to real life, you realize that even “well educated” native speakers kill grammar all the time.
So, If you’ve been learning Spanish from textbooks, then there’s no wonder why you feel like you can’t understand native speakers, you just never learned the real spoken Spanish!
#3 You don’t spend enough time listening to Spanish
Listening to Spanish is often an underestimated activity, yet experts consider this the most essential skill you should focus on when you’re learning a language.
After all, how useful speaking a language would be if you couldn’t understand other people talking?
Now, if you’re struggling to understand native speakers, then you probably need to spend a little more time strengthening your listening skills.
Just like an athlete:
- Can’t lift the weight you need to enter a competition? Do more strength exercises and try again.
- Want to finish that race? Keep training until your body gets stronger.
- Need to shoot that basketball with more accuracy? Train a bit more, until you sharpen your shooting.
- Feel like Spanish native speakers talk so fast yet? Listen to more Spanish.
The long term benefits of listening
Dr. Stephen Krashen talks about “comprehensible input”, which refers to the content you give to your brain to learn a language.
“You want to get better at another language? Listen and read, listen and read“Stephen Krashen
Krashen says that language is best learned when we receive understandable messages in the language we’re trying to learn.
And if you think about it, that makes a lot of sense, that’s how babies learn to speak. They don’t learn grammar first or memorize vocabulary to speak, but they end up understanding everyone who speaks their language.
You need to take advantage of your brain’s natural abilities to acquire language, just like a baby. They hear messages, their parents help them understand them, and over time those messages become automatically understood by their brains.
Other researchers like Dr. J Marvin Brown say that fluency is the result of listening, and Internet polyglot Steve kaufmann, who speaks 17 languages says:
“…If you develop good listening comprehension, the other skills will come. The speaking will come, even your grammar, your accuracy, and all these things will come…”Steve kaufmann
In other words, if you spend tons of time listening then you will get two powerful results:
- Understanding native speakers will be easier and automatic.
- Your speaking skills will increase dramatically.
You are on your way to completely understand native speakers!
In my experience as a teacher, I’ve seen lots of students feeling frustrated after years of studying Spanish.
It’s always the same: they think they’ve gotten to a good level of Spanish, they go to Mexico, speak to Latinos and then, they go back home with the same idea: “Spanish native speakers talk so fast!”
But now, you know the reason why this happens. To summarize, the problem is:
- You don’t know the vocabulary Spanish speakers use.
- Textbooks are the center of your learning time.
- You have not spent enough time listening.
Now you know what’s wrong, but knowing the problem doesn’t solve anything. You have to work hard on the solution to this problem, and it all starts within you…
So, it’s time to visualize yourself having fully fluent conversations in Spanish, perceiving how messages flow like water. I know you can do it!
Just have in mind these 3 lessons: Real Spanish rules. Your textbook sucks. Listening rocks.
Your next step is to find strategies to help you to increase your skills to understand native speakers. I share 4 powerful strategies in my free ebook in full Spanish: 10 Secretos que nadie te dice para hablar español como un nativo. Get it in the form below.
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