I remember a time when I was afraid to talk to people in Spanish because I thought I would never understand them.
When I tried watching movies and TV shows, I could barely understand a word. So how could I possibly understand a native speaker if they were speaking to me?
Years on from that point I still have trouble understanding movies but speaking in a one-on-one conversation is not a problem.
And, one of the key lessons for this is that speaking with a real person in real life is actually easier than watching movies because you can control the context of the conversation.
I get asked about listening comprehension almost every single day. When I surveyed the Real Fast Spanish subscribers, 1 in 3 said that listening comprehension is their biggest challenge for learning Spanish.
Due to my own struggles with listening comprehension and how often I get asked about it, the topic has become one that I’m hugely passionate about.
In fact, apart from responding to daily interactions with subscribers, I have written about it for Fluent in 3 Months here. I have podcasted about it here. I have written multiple blog posts about here, here and here. And I have written a 30-day listening comprehension course you can access in the Real Fast Spanish School.
Yet, there is still much more to cover.
In this post, I’m going to talk about a specific aspect of listening comprehension—why one-on-one speaking practice is so effective for listening comprehension. And, how you can use context control to make the process even more effective.
But, first, you need to find someone to practice your Spanish with.
If you don’t have anybody to practice with, follow the action steps in this post or you can sign up for one of our live Spanish classes.
Once you have someone in mind, let’s start with this question:
- Why is speaking with a real person in a live setting (as opposed to TV or the radio) so effective for listening comprehension?
Short answer: you can control context.
Context is everything
When it comes to listening comprehension…context is king!!
Context means you know what a conversation is about, where it started and where it is likely to go next.
When you are watching a movie or listening to a podcast, it is not always easy to follow where a conversation has come from. And, characters can often change topics in a flash and quickly leave you behind.
When you are interacting with someone, it is almost impossible to be left behind because the person you are speaking with cannot continue unless you are following along.
In other words, you can control the context of a conversation when you are there live to ask questions and respond.
Moreover, when you’re involved in a real conversation you can control, or at least influence, the following:
- The speed that the person is speaking with you.
- How loudly they are speaking.
- Their accent (and articulation).
- The vocabulary they are using.
- The topic.
- The direction of the conversation.
- How often they repeat an idea.
When you watch a movie, you can probably slow it down with movie playback software and you can turn up the volume.
But, this is nowhere near as impactful as asking someone in person to speak louder, more clearly, rephrase a sentence, or repeat themselves, when you are struggling to understand them.
Of course, all of these points of control come with a caveat:
- You need to be comfortable asking the person you are speaking with to adjust how they are speaking or what they are speaking about.
I’ll get to this next.
But, first, let’s talk about #3: their accent…
How to adjust someone’s accent
But before moving on, I’m going to guess that maybe you are thinking:
How can I control someone’s accent?
I’ll say that you don’t have ‘full’ control over their accent. But, just like in English, there are two forms of Spanish:
- There is colloquial, shortened and slurred language—the kind of language you would use with your friends (and what is often used in movies).
- And then there is exact, annunciated and well-articulated language—the kind that most parents encourage their children to use when there are in a formal setting.
You simply have to ask for a native speaker for their best Spanish. The kind they would use in front of a critical parent or teacher.
So far, I haven’t met a Spanish speaker that couldn’t make even a small adjustment from the kind of language they would use with their friends to a more formal, clear and annunciated version of the language.
All you have to do is draw this out of them.
Speaking with a language exchange partner is not speaking with a friend
There are 4 types of interactions you can have with someone in Spanish:
- A random person in the street, restaurant or shop.
- Spanish friends in a social setting.
- A language exchange partner.
- A Spanish teacher.
The ideas I’m going to present in the article relate to interaction types 3 and 4.
You can use the ideas below for interaction types 1 and 2 for sure. But they are going to work best when you are in an environment where learning is the focus of the interaction.
When we are in these types of interactions we can drop standard social norms.
It may feel strange to you to do so but when you are in a conversation with a language exchange partner or Spanish teacher, it is perfectly fine to ask them to repeat something 5 to 10 times.
I know I have!!!
In fact, I would go as far as to say that it is imperative if you want to improve your listening skills effectively.
Yes, I know not easy to ask someone to repeat themselves 7 times.
But, you have to let go of the idea that the person you are with is judging you in some way. If they are the right teacher or right language exchange partner they will be there to help you!
And, they’ll want to help maximise your learning experience.
Now, it is possible that you don’t have a great connection with the person you are speaking with. If not, you need to find another exchange partner or teacher.
Once you have found the right person though, you’ll want to take full advantage of the time spent with that person.
To do that, you’ll want to try four techniques that will help improve the quality of your practice with your exchange partner by controlling context.
1. Just talk shop (Spanish theory)
When you are talking with a language exchange or teacher, you don’t have to talk about relationships, current affairs or movies.
One of the best topics to start with is Spanish vocabulary and grammar.
‘Deep and meaningful’s are fun.
But when you are building your listening skills from scratch it is best to just talk about vocabulary or grammar because you need to review and practice these things anyway.
Ask your exchange partner or teacher about certain words: what they mean, how they are used, ask for example sentences and ask if they have other synonyms.
One of the central principles of language learning is improving your vocabulary.
When you are practising your listening skills you will be connecting sounds with words. And, if you are practising by talking about vocabulary you will be killing two birds with one stone.
You will also be in full control of the context.
2. Ask questions
When you get over talking about Spanish theory and you need to talk about something else, ask questions!
Lots of questions!!
When I got lost in a wall of Spanish sounds, it happened because I missed the context of the conversation. I didn’t understand what the speaker was speaking about because I got stuck thinking about a specific word and I would fall three sentences behind the speaker.
The natural reaction to this situation is to simply try to keep up.
I say, instead, take control of the conversation.
You can do this by asking questions.
Keep in mind something I mentioned earlier, you are there to learn, so it’s okay to cut someone off if you don’t understand their point.
Whenever you ask a new question, you are in control of the context. You will know what the person is more likely to say next because the conversation is on your terms.
You can’t do this with movies or TV shows. If you get lost, you are lost and that’s it.
When you are practising this way, don’t just simply let your conversation partner drift on a tangent or story and then nod like you are following what they are saying.
Force yourself to stay with them by asking questions.
3. Choose the topic
The next step up from asking specific questions is to guide the conversation in a general direction.
You can’t control how well your ears respond to the sounds or how much vocabulary you know but you can still control the general topic of conversation.
You could talk about life, love, work, movies, food, etc.
If you don’t like a topic or the vocabulary is a little too challenge (conversations around economics often throw me) then take control of the context and switch topics again—on your terms!
4. Follow tangents and stories
The next level of context control is allowing flow and changes of directions based on stories and tangents.
If you think about how your typical conversations go with friends and family in English, you may notice quick topic changes from time to time where all of a sudden you are miles from where you started.
This is the scariest part of speaking another language because you will get lost in these quick changes.
At this last level of context control, you can let the conversation evolve organically, but you need to do constant check-ins.
Do quick interruptions to confirm you know where the conversation is and where it is going.
For example, you could ask questions like:
English: You are talking about your brother, right?
Español: Hablas de tu hermano, ¿verdad?
English: What are we talking about? And how did we arrive here?
Español: ¿De qué hablamos? ¿Y cómo llegamos aquí?
English: Why do you mention that? (bring that up)
Español: ¿Por qué mencionas eso?
I’ll reiterate that asking these questions isn’t a problem when you are there to learn and the person you are with is there for the same reason.
I know listening comprehension is difficult. And I cannot say that it will come easily for you—it didn’t for me!
But, I can say it will come if you persist!!
If you really want to improve your listening skills, you need to put yourself in a situation that is going to make that happen.
Once you are in that situation take control of the context but trying out the techniques in this post.
Start at level 1 of context control and see how far you can build without getting lost.
How else can you practice your listening comprehension in a one-on-one situation?