How to Improve Your Spanish Listening Comprehension
If you’re like most Spanish learners, you might think you’re pretty good at understanding the Spanish you hear—you just need to get better at speaking it. But we’ve found over and over again with our students that the opposite is true. It turns out that learning to express yourself in Spanish is actually the easy part. Listening is much harder.
Why Is Listening Comprehension So Hard?
Listening comprehension is the hardest thing to perfect when learning a new language, for two reasons.
First, when you’re speaking, you’re able to go as quickly or as slowly as you need to. When a Spanish speaker responds, who knows how fast they’re going to go? You have very little control over that.
Second, when you’re expressing yourself in Spanish, you’re able to use the vocabulary, grammar, and idioms you’re most comfortable with to piece together what you want to say without going beyond your current level. But when a native speaker responds, what they say probably won’t be restricted to the vocabulary you know.
Let’s say you’ve mastered the most common 2,000 words in Spanish. You can probably find a way to say just about anything using only those words. But when a native speaker responds, they know about 15,000 words that they’ve been using most of their life—you might get lost if they throw in just one or two that you don’t know yet. Furthermore, a native speaker’s pronunciation and manner of speech are likely to be much more relaxed and fluid than yours. Since we don’t get subtitles for real-life conversation, it can be very hard to understand sentences spoken by a native speaker, even if all the words and phrases they’re using are within your vocabulary.
Fortunately, there is a tried-and-true method for steadily improving how well you understand native speakers, and it doesn’t require any special tools or equipment. It all starts with self-awareness and humility, acknowledging your own strengths and weaknesses and not going too far beyond your current level in Spanish.
Hearing vs. Comprehending
“Listening comprehension” literally means comprehending what we listen to—that is, making sense of what we hear. And our brains are sophisticated enough to hijack the process, sometimes not in a good way. Our ears are constantly hearing noises that the mind either registers as meaningful or filters out as not meaningful. As you’re reading this, you might be hearing the humming of your air conditioner, the rumbling of passing traffic, the squeaking of your chair, and the chattering of family members or coworkers a few meters from you. But if your brain is filtering properly, you’re probably not consciously hearing any of that.
Your brain is also programmed to filter out meaningless background conversation. Think about the last time you met up with a friend in a busy café. You were probably surrounded by groups of people talking over each other, but you didn’t hear every detail of every conversation. Your brain filtered out practically everything you were hearing as meaningless nonsense. But when you heard your friend call you from across the room, your ears perked up because the familiarity of your friend’s voice registered as meaningful.
Basically, your brain is constantly subconsciously deciding what is or isn’t meaningful based on what your ears have been exposed to. And we don’t have complete control over that, which means we need to be particularly careful when it comes to learning a new language. Does spoken Spanish automatically make you tune in and listen for meaning, or does it always seem to register as meaningless noise? If you’re early in your Spanish learning journey, the latter is probably more common for you. Fortunately, that’s trainable! When your brain hears Spanish that makes sense—words and phrases that register as meaningful—it gives your subconscious brain the message that it should keep listening and pay attention to spoken Spanish, rather than filtering it out as meaningless.
The best way to improve your comprehension is to listen to more and more Spanish that your brain registers and understands. That means not listening to Spanish that is so far outside your comfort zone that it doesn’t compute when you listen to it. But it also doesn’t mean listening exclusively to things that are very easy for you. The goal of good listening practice is to reach a new level of understanding in each practice session.
Think about the last time you watched a TV show in Spanish without subtitles. If you aren’t very advanced in your Spanish comprehension, you probably understood very little of it. You may have even felt a jolt of stress. This means that not only does listening outside your comfort zone tell your subconscious mind that Spanish is nonsense, it can also consciously frustrate you and tell you that trying to learn Spanish is difficult and stressful.
Now let’s go the opposite direction. Let’s listen to some Spanish conversation that you can understand. In this clip, two speakers are talking on the phone for the first time in many years. Listen along while reading the transcript below the player.
“Who is this?” (¿Quién es usted?)
“It’s me!” (¡Soy yo!)
“Maria? How nice that it’s you!” (¿María? ¡Qué bueno que seas tú!)
“How have you been?” (¿Cómo has estado?)
Notice how much more positive an experience that is! If all your listening comprehension practice were that rewarding, imagine how positively you would feel toward working on your Spanish.
Still, remember that there’s not much benefit to listening practice that’s super easy and unchallenging. The goal is to stretch your capabilities a bit beyond their limits—just enough for effective growth. Let’s talk about how to find the right balance between easy and difficult in your listening practice.
Finding the Sweet Spot
Spanish audio materials are available all around us, in the form of Spanish songs, movies, radio, television, and dozens of other resources that are very easy to come by. But be careful—most of these resources won’t help you get to the next level in your listening comprehension. There are 2 key factors you should prioritize when looking for good material to practice with: 1) the availability of a written transcript and 2) the difficulty level of the material.
Remember that we’re not doing this to be passively entertained; this is a study session. For it to be effective, you’ll need access to an accurate transcript of the Spanish that you’re hearing so that you can go back and forth between the audio and text.
Some audio resources have more reliable transcripts than others. Unfortunately, movies, TV shows, and YouTube videos rarely have accurate subtitles, which rules them out as a solid option. But Spanish-language songs are typically great because you can almost always find accurate lyrics online (just search for the title of the song followed by “letra”, the Spanish word for lyrics). The drawback to songs is that since the lyrics are sung instead of spoken, the delivery doesn’t quite match how Spanish sounds in normal conversation. Personally, I recommend using the Spanish edition of your favorite book—get both a hard copy and the audiobook. That way you can read and listen at the same time, and you can choose a subject that’s interesting to you or a story you already know and love.
The second factor that determines whether or not something is good listening material is the difficulty level of the content in relation to your current comprehension level. If you have a personal Spanish coach who is familiar with your exact level, you can simply trust them to find materials that are perfect for you. But if not, here’s a good trick for determining whether a resource you’re considering will work for you.
Start by looking at the transcript and counting the words and idioms that you don’t currently understand. If there are more than about 2 per sentence, you should find something simpler. Next, listen while following along with the text. If you lose your place more than once, it’s too advanced for your current listening abilities. On the other hand, if you’re understanding everything without the slightest difficulty, you should look for something more challenging.
3 Steps for Practicing Your Listening Comprehension
After you’ve found some Spanish listening materials that are just outside your comfort zone and include a good transcript, there are 3 steps you should follow to practice your listening comprehension. I recommend starting with a small passage of the resource you’re studying (for example, one verse of a song or one page of a book). Once you’ve followed all 3 steps and fully understand that portion of the material, move on to the next section.
The first step is to go through the written transcript and search for any terms and phrases you aren’t familiar with. There’s not much point in trying to understand something when it uses words that simply aren’t in your vocabulary! Find the words and phrases that are outside your vocabulary, look up their meanings, and make sure you understand them within the context of the material.
As a bonus, you can turn these new words and phrases into flashcards that you can review on a regular basis. That way, you won’t just learn them for the sake of this one listening comprehension exercise—you’ll make them a permanent part of your Spanish vocabulary. For more ideas on how to make this work for you, check out our video “Learn Spanish Permanently”.
The next step is to read through the passage while listening to the audio until you achieve perfect comprehension. This may prove harder than it sounds. Even if you’ve already become familiar with the passage and should theoretically be able to understand all of it, listening to a recording of a native speaker tends to be a lot harder than reading at your own pace.
Pause it whenever you struggle to understand what is being said. During this phase, be very self-aware and honest with yourself—when you have the slightest difficulty keeping up with the meaning, stop the audio and study the part that you’re having trouble with. Then, rewind by a few seconds and listen again while reading the transcript. If you now understand it in real time, move on to the next section.
Once you get through the entire passage, start over and go through it all again. If you still struggle to keep up with the meaning at certain points, it’s a good idea to practice saying the difficult phrases out loud. Speaking a phrase aloud helps solidify it in your brain so you’ll expect to hear it the next time you go through the passage. Step 2 is done once you’re able to listen and read through the passage and perfectly understand it all in real time.
The final step is to listen to the passage without looking at the transcript. You’ll only use your ears this time, which will require a lot of intense focus. Just like in Step 2, be very self-aware and critically honest with how well you register what you’re hearing. Pause whenever you struggle or zone out. When you get stuck, refer back to the transcript, review what is being said at that moment, practice saying it out loud, and then rewind by a few seconds and listen again.
Once you’re through the whole passage, start it over and see if you can listen to the whole thing and understand everything without reading or pausing. When you reach that point, you’re ready for a well-deserved break! Then it’s time to move on to the next passage and start the process again.
If you’re really serious about getting good at listening comprehension, there are a couple of extra techniques you can use to take your practice to the next level.
The first is to periodically revisit the audio sources you study. After you’ve mastered an audio clip, listen to it again a few hours later. Then, listen to it again the next day and make sure you still completely understand what you’re hearing. Keep going back to it a couple of days later, a week later, and so on, in order to cement your understanding of the words and phrases for the long term.
Second, try working backwards. Instead of listening to a book or song from the beginning, start with the passage at the end and then work your way back from there. For example, let’s say you’ve chosen a song with 3 verses. Rather than starting with the first verse, you’ll study the last verse, then the second verse, and finally the first verse. Or if you’re studying a chapter of a book, start with the last page of the chapter and master that, then work on the second-to-last page, and so on.
It might sound counterintuitive, but this is a really helpful technique for maintaining your focus while studying unfamiliar material. Our attention tends to wane the longer we work on a task. By working backwards, you establish a focal point for your attention at the end of the passage. This counteracts your mind’s tendency to wander during the middle and encourages your focus to increase throughout the passage instead of decreasing. So when you listen to the audio from the beginning, instead of gradually zoning out, your attention will continue to focus in.
It’s also nice because this creates sort of a miniature spaced repetition system for what you’re working on. With a 15-page book chapter, for example, you master page 15, then you master page 14 and review page 15, then you master page 13 and review pages 14 and 15, and so on.
Trust Me, It’s Worth It!
This may sound like a lot of work, but remember that these techniques are for studying, not entertainment. We want the time we spend listening to Spanish to be productive, and the only way to do that is to practice proactively and intentionally.
But there will be times when you just want to relax and enjoy the Spanish language, not study it. And that’s ok! Just make sure to choose Spanish content that is within your comfort zone. For example, you could create a playlist of all the songs that you’ve studied, or listen to some audiobook chapters again after you’ve achieved 100% comprehension. And that can be really motivating—the more you use these study techniques, the more Spanish content will be available to you for entertainment.
Plus, the longer you use these techniques, the more often you’ll come across Spanish media that you don’t need to study much to understand. Before too long, you’re going to encounter a new Spanish song or video that you can completely understand the first time, thanks to all your hard work.
And if you make a habit of practicing your listening comprehension regularly, you’ll get to the point where you can keep up in real-life conversations with native speakers.
I hope these tips are helpful for you! If you liked this post, check out our YouTube channel for more videos on how to break through the intermediate plateau and reach Spanish fluency. And don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter to get actionable Spanish learning tips delivered directly to your inbox.