How to deal with native level Spanish

Rob Ashby
The Spanish Obsessive

In this post we’ll look at strategies you can use when speaking with native speakers. Understanding full speed, native Spanish can be tough, so we’ll give you some pointers to help with your comprehension, as well as a few “emergency” tactics you can use when you’re in the thick of it.

Native Spanish speakers

When faced with native Spanish speakers, learners of all levels can get frustrated. What we hear coming out of a native Spanish speaker’s mouth often doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Spanish we know. Native speakers string words and phrases together in one breath, and speak so fast that it’s impossible to tell where one word ends and another begins.

If you are in a conversation with a native speaker and they realise you’re not following along, things can quickly go from bad to worse. They might start using unnatural speech, they might be condescending or patronising, or, worst of all, they might start using English (all with the best intentions, of course)!

Being able to deal with this requires comprehension skills, but also the ability to control our own mood and reactions.

Before we begin…

Before we get started with our advice, here are a few things to bear in mind:

Different accents and varieties of Spanish are mutually comprehensible, but even native speakers can struggle with certain accents

There have been many times when I’ve been watching a film from Spain with Lis (who is Colombian), and we’ve had to put the subtitles on!

While Spanish is an international language, I feel it is also more regionalised than varieties of English tend to be. That means that a native speaker from Andalusia (Southern Spain) might struggle to make out everything that a speaker from Mexico City says. It’s not usually a problem, but Spanish has very regional slang, and this can catch out even native speakers.

When two native speakers from the same area speak with each other, they often use slang and expressions which aren’t “standard” Spanish.

So, don’t feel bad about it, it can happen to even native speakers!

There can only be two reasons you aren’t following along

It always boils down to either 1) you don’t know the vocabulary, or 2) you don’t recognise the pronunciation (or, both 1 and 2…). There can be no other reason, so an important part of figuring out how far you are from understanding native speakers is to work out which of these two tends to be the case more often.

Comprehension is tied to your overall level

Of course, if you have just started out learning Spanish, you’ll find it hard to understand native speakers immediately. Try to be realistic about your level, and remember, to really understand everything a native speaker says requires a very advanced level. Fortunately, we don’t need to understand everything they say to be able to communicate effectively and have rewarding conversations.

Native speakers aren’t aware of what’s easy or hard for learners

When I first trained as an English teacher, one of the hardest things I found was regulating my own “teacher talk”. I would get blank looks whenever I opened my mouth – looks which I was later to give to Spanish speakers when I learned Spanish! In English, for example, students struggle a lot with “phrasal verbs” – verbs which consist of more than one word (“pick up”, “put down”, “give up”, “take away”, etc). Unfortunately for learners, these are extremely common, and native speakers use them all the time without thinking about it.

However, if you asked most native speakers about what’s hardest in English, they probably wouldn’t put phrasal verbs at the top of the list.

It’s similar with native Spanish speakers. They sometimes don’t know how to regulate their own speech to make it simpler to understand when talking with non-native speakers. This is not a simple skill: it’s not just a case of slowing down, but about knowing how to construct sentences in a simple way, and being aware of common and uncommon vocabulary.

Native speakers using “learner talk” can end up speaking in exaggerated slow Spanish, or using unnatural language, and can seem condescending and patronising to learners.

It’s good to be aware of this and not take it personally.

Now, let’s think about how we can improve our comprehension of native speakers, in general.

Study tips to help you understand native Spanish speakers

Listen more than you read

We’ll start with what might seem obvious: to understand spoken Spanish, you need to listen to spoken Spanish!

If you spend a lot of time reading (nothing wrong with that, of course), you may end up with your own version of how Spanish actually sounds. When you hear native Spanish, you’re unable to associate the sounds they make with what you know about the language.

Look at your own study habits. Be honest about where you are spending your time, and decide if you need to spend more time listening.

If you find that you struggle with understanding native speakers (presumably you are, if you’ve made it this far in the article!), consider re-balancing your study practice in favour of listening.

Practise different types of listening

We need to listen to a lot of Spanish. That means that we won’t necessarily be dissecting every word and sentence, but letting a lot of it wash over us, getting used to the sounds and rhythm of Spanish.

Gist listening is a particularly useful skill, when we don’t pay attention to everything that is being said, but “zoom out” to get the big picture.

Most of our listening should be “gist” listening. This enables us to get the raw volume of listening in that we need.

Practising listening: 2 approaches

Gist listening is a particularly useful skill, when we don’t pay attention to everything that is being said, but “zoom out” to get the big picture.

Most of our listening should be “gist” listening. This enables us to get the raw volume of listening in that we need.

Listening for detail is also important. Use this with shorter sections of audio to try to ensure that you understand every single word and phrase. Here’s a process that you could use with one of our podcasts:

  • Listen one time, all the way through (gist listen)
  • Choose a section which you found interesting, or which didn’t make sense to you on the first listen (if you are using our podcasts, you can use the links in the transcript to skip through the audio).
  • Repeat this multiple times. There will still be gaps in your comprehension, and that’s ok.
  • Look at the transcript for that section – does this match what you think you heard?
  • Check you understand everything. Use the English translation to double check.

Note that there is no active memorisation, note-taking, or additional work in looking up grammar. This practice will enable you to really focus on your comprehension.

Be aware of pronunciation patterns

If all native speakers came with subtitles, we’d probably have no problem understanding them!

Yes, they can often speak fast, but the bigger problem is actually how they join their words and phrases together.

This can even put off native speakers! I remember reading about someone who talked about not understanding his mum in the supermarket when he was a child:

¿Qué seso? ¿Qué seso?

What is a seso?

It was only later in his life that he realised she was really saying ¿qué es eso?

Of course, the e in qué and es merge together, making it sound like something completely different.

This is one example of many. We need to get used to how Spanish words run together, and get used to pronunciation patterns and shortcuts that native speakers take.

We can do this in a couple of ways:

  1. As part of our “detailed listening”. As you listen, actively take mental notes (and physical, if it helps) of words which seem to “stick together”, or phrases which don’t sound like you expected them to. Once you start doing this, you’ll realise that there aren’t really that many different patterns, and once you’ve noticed them, you’ll hear them all over the place.
  2. Learn about specific pronunciation features. It’s beyond the scope of this post to go into all of these features, but the intermediate section of our Pronunciation course goes into detail on intonation, linking sounds, and common pronunciation patterns from around the world.

So far, we’ve looked at what you can do in your general Spanish study. However, is there anything we can do while we are in the thick of it, in conversation with native speakers?

“Emergency comprehension” tactics

You can’t “force” yourself to understand. Simply concentrating harder won’t necessarily help you, and can actually be a hindrance. Instead, try these quick tips to help you out:

Be comfortable being uncomfortable

When faced with native level Spanish, it’s natural for us to feel frustrated, and to try to grab onto every detail of what we are hearing.

We need to recognise this feeling of being slightly lost at sea, and start to get comfortable with it. You won’t understand everything, but try to accept this, and continue regardless. A positive attitude is crucial here!

Relax and relieve the pressure

Consciously make the effort to relax, and ease the pressure. Breathe deeply and smile, and slow down – mentally and physically.

Don’t feel rushed

Just because your conversation partner is speaking fast doesn’t mean that you have to emulate that. By consciously slowing down, you are giving yourself a better chance of communicating better, and easing the pressure of the conversation. This is a well-known tool in public speaking, and the principle is exactly the same when we speak Spanish.

Don’t “switch off”

I often found myself switching off when faced with multiple native speakers conversing. I felt stuck in the middle of a conversation, like I was in a Skoda while everyone else was lapping me in their Ferraris!

I would tense up, get frustrated, and avoid speaking as I didn’t want to slow down the pace of conversation, or risk showing that I didn’t know what they were talking about.

Switching off is the worst thing you can do, though! You lose valuable input, and may also seem rude and aloof.

It was only when I relaxed, smiled, and consciously slowed down my speaking that I could really get into the conversations. Once this happened, I enjoyed them more, and created a positive feedback loop: I would enjoy the conversation, speak more, engage more, and take part in more conversations, accelerating the whole process.

Fake it ’til you make it

You can feign comprehension with some well placed Spanish muletillas. These useful conversation fillers can help you stay in the conversation, even if you are struggling. It’s not a good long-term strategy but if it stops a conversation from shutting down, it’s worth a try!

Were there any “aha” moments for you in your journey to understanding native Spanish speakers? Do you have any more tips to share with us? Let us know in the comments below!

3 comments. Leave new

Almost zen-like (comfortable in the uncomfortable) tips, well refreshed common sense others. *LIKE*

Dear Rob, and Lis

I have been learning Spanish for just over two and a half years now. I like to observe myself and try to notice how my brain works. I’m Dutch, by the way, and English is my second language but I have been reading it, listening to it and speaking it for about 50 years now and consider myself to be of near-native proficiency. Still, it always takes a fraction longer to get the joke in a foreign language and it is frustrating that I can never be as witty in another language as I am (I hope) in my own.

I think it boils down to this. Learning a language is at least as much an unconscious process a a conscious one.
You can consciously learn word meanings, vocabulary and verb conjugations; but your brain has to be trained, first, to chop the sound stream into units and parse it as words, and then to assign meaning to the parsed bits. You can help your brain by learning vocabulary because a word you don’t know takes a lot more processing than one you recognize, even to parse, and you may fail to understand it in the end. But the parsing is a miracle, because your brain cells pick that up all by themselves. From an incoherent stream of sounds you suddenly pick up a word! Then another bit of gobbledygook, then another word! Then, at first, looking up the meaning of the word in your memory is so slow that you lose the next five or ten words before you have it. But it is a beginning.

In order to understand spoken language, brain processing speed now must increase to keep up with input speed. Once you are fast enough to not only get the meaning, but to have side thoughts about them, and time left to try to fit different meanings and double-entendres and ideas for responses as well, you can begin to engage in meaningful conversation. The brain needs to practice listening; and if you listen to the language you are learning it will get better at it.

The best way to improve your brain’s processing speeds is to listen with attention. This is exhausting at first. You will lose concentration within a few sentences. Persevere. Play the same bit again.

Start by listening to slow speakers, as in beginner podcasts, and learn vocabulary in parallel but separately, and when you find you can understand most of it, try another speaker. Just a different one, not even necessarily a faster one. The hardest of all types of non-dialect Spanish is the news: very fast changes of subject, spoken by people selected for their ability to speak very quickly. Juan Fernandez’ podcast is very good because he says nearly everything twice, in a very natural manner. This helps and reinforces your brain processing and in forming new neural pathways.

One thing that struck me is how hard it is just to repeat sentences in Spanish. The longer they get, the harder. I might faultlessly repeat a 20-word sentence in Dutch after one hearing, but even seven words in Spanish is a lot! This is a reflection of how efficiently your brain has learned to encode syllables, words, expressions and phrases. We can all keep only about 7 items at a time in our short-term memory (this is a physiological fact), but as you advance, your items can grow bigger; from phonemes to syllables to words to clusters of words. “Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda” is a single item if you know the phrase, but at least 10 if you do not.

I find that without even realizing that something is happening, my ability to understand increases gradually, maybe not noticeably within a week, but certainly within each month. I now understand your podcasts with ease, and also quiet, documentary type radio programs. Understanding the news is starting to come but I still need great concentration listening to it.

As an aside: Interesting is that accents, apart from some obvious ones are very hard to even distinguish in a language not your own. Developing an ear for this takes years. I only recently learned to tell a canadian from a US american accent. Strangely, this has no bearing at all on understanding the meaning of what they say. Argentinian spanish is not more difficult than Spanish Castilian if you know neither; only if you are from a spanish-speaking country and have only ever learned and spoken that variety will you think another countries’ Spanish is weird and hard to understand. My teacher might say listen to her accent, she is from Andalusia, but I just hear Spanish.

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