Do you ever find yourself listening to Spanish, barely understanding a word, then asking: how long is it going to take before I actually understand this language?
Not being able to understand spoken Spanish is both frustrating and constraining. You think maybe listening skills is the final barrier stopping you from any sort of freedom in the language.
Yet, despite hours of training and deep concentration in the moment, the sounds you hear still don’t make sense.
I’ve been there. It’s painful.
So, to respond, I’m going to try to alleviate your frustration in this article.
Reframing the problem
But, instead, I’ll ask you a simple question:
- Why is it so painful?
I ask this question because I want to break down an important component of mindset.
When it comes to working on your language skills, the biggest source of frustration, and the likely answer to the above question, is high expectations.
If you expect it to be easy to listen and understand, or that you should be good enough by now, then you are likely to feel lousy about your current ability to comprehend a Spanish conversation.
Conversely, if you can manage your own expectations, and even lower them, language learning and practicing your listening skills will be a much more enjoyable journey.
Of course, simply lowering your expectations isn’t easy. So, rather than ask you to drop your expectations because it’s a good idea, I’m going to try to help you manage them in a scientific way.
I started with a question about how long it should take to improve your listening skills. And often in these types of posts, where the author asks a question about how long something should take, the conclusion is often “it depends”.
Well, this is a tempting conclusion, but I will give you a number. I’m not going to leave you hanging.
But, of course, there have to be some caveats to any promise of time invested in listening training to return on investment made.
So, let’s start with some of the key factors that affect the time it takes to improve your listening skills so that I can build towards a healthy conclusion.
Yes, yes, alright, you got me.
I wanted to avoid writing about natural ability because it’s not helpful to think about. But I have to mention it because it is a factor.
Some people have a natural capacity to learn and improve listening skills better than others.
And, of course, a natural aptitude for listening comprehension will reduce the time it takes to develop your ability to understand a Spanish conversation and thus affect the conclusion below.
But, there is very little you can do to change this, so I’m going to leave it at this. It’s not worth thinking about.
It’s better to think about the activities you do have control over and focus on those.
Language learning experience
For me, listening comprehension was the most difficult skill to develop.
In comparison, I watched my wife learn Spanish over a two-year period, and I was only left with a deep feeling of jealously to see how quickly she developed her listening skills in Spanish.
While her quick development was frustrating, there was a good reason for it.
She learned French in high school and lived in France for a year when she was 16.
She had already developed the meta-skills required to improve her listening muscle in a foreign language.
She knew how to listen to foreign sounds. She had already figured out how to fill gaps in the information she didn’t quite understand, and guess the meaning from context.
Not only that but there are sounds and vocabulary that French and Spanish have in common.
If Spanish is your first language outside of English then you need to develop these meta-skills as well.
You also need to consider how previous experience contributes to the time it takes to develop listening skills, and how this will be the next factor that goes into the equation below.
Knowledge of the language
Probably the most obvious and least obvious part of listening comprehension performance is how well a student knows the language they are listening to.
I say most obvious because if you don’t know a single word of Spanish, you won’t be able to understand anything you hear when you listen to the language. This goes without saying!
But, then, it can be the least obvious thing because a lack of knowledge of the language is always a factor that affects students of all levels.
Sometimes the reason you don’t understand what you are hearing is that you don’t know the words or the grammar.
Or, maybe you do “know” a word, it just takes you a few minutes to remember its meaning.
And, if it takes you a few minutes to remember something, you’ll be lost as the conversation will have moved on by the time you get there.
To solve (or improve on) this problem, simply continuing to build your knowledge of Spanish will always contribute to your listening skills.
Then if you do ever encounter a Spanish conversation that is full of words that you know really well and can pull from your memory in seconds, but you still don’t understand what you are hearing, chances are you aren’t practicing using the right activities.
Types of listening activities
Benny Lewis wrote this wonderful post on listening comprehension: Shocking truth about passive listening.
In short, the takeaway from his article is: passive listening is really ineffective.
Benny said he spent over a thousand hours listening to German radio and still botched the listening component of his German exam.
I haven’t spent a thousand hours passively listening to Spanish radio. But, I have had a similar experience.
I have listened to a lot of Spanish podcasts and watched a lot of TV shows and movies in Spanish. And I have come to the same conclusion.
The best way to improve your listening skills is to practice with active listening exercises. And, to get the most out of these types of exercises you need to up the stakes.
The most effective activities to improve your listening skills in order are:
- Live interaction.
- Active listening exercises.
- Passive listening exercises.
Live interaction means working with a Spanish teacher or Spanish friends. We run live Spanish classes for this exact purpose, to get students to interact and respond to the language in real-time.
Active listening exercises can be done on your own but you must respond to something you are hearing with some sort of action. Even writing down words as come up in what you are hearing is a simple form of an active listening exercise.
Passive listening is the least effective activity and usually means putting on Spanish and just sitting and listening to it. It could be watching TV, or even worse putting on the radio or podcast in the background while you are doing something else.
In the next section, I’m going to make a prediction on the time you need to improve your listening comprehension.
But, the most important takeaway is that if I’m going to make a prediction about the time it will take you to improve then I have to take into account the types of activities you are practicing with.
If you are only using passive listening activities you may be in the ballpark of one thousand hours, like Benny.
But if you are using live interaction, you may only need a fraction of that time.
So how long should it take to improve your listening skills?
I have done enough dodging up to this point. It’s time to make some concrete predictions.
You know there are factors such as natural ability, previous experience, knowledge of the language, and types of listening training activities that all affect the time it takes to improve your listening skills.
So as I start throwing numbers around, of course, go easy on me—yes it depends.
That said, this is how I see the way you should set your own expectations.
Firstly, let’s assume this is the first time you have learned a language other than English. Then, we’ll put natural ability out of the equation.
Now, all we have to do is decide is how long you are going to commit to one type of listening activity.
Prior to starting to practice with live interaction, I had listened to a lot of podcasts and watched a lot of TV and movies. It wasn’t a thousand hours but it was a lot.
I used to listen to Spanish on the commute to work. It was about 30 minutes in each direction. There are 250 working days in a year. Minus the days I couldn’t listen to Spanish because I was so frustrated at my lack of ability to comprehend it. Then I need to add in the time I was watching Spanish movies, this is probably around 30 movies.
Therefore, conservatively, I would say the number of hours of passive listening practice I have done would be in the order of 450 hours over two years.
After all that training, I still couldn’t understand spoken Spanish.
Next, I’ll look at the time I needed to improve my listening skills after I started training using live interaction.
After many hours of listening passively, at the next point in my language learning journey I started to attend live Spanish classes and work with Spanish natives in one-on-one language exchanges.
I would say that I did probably a language class and language exchange once per week for about 9 months, which places me in the order of 75 hours in live interaction.
So I put the hours that contributed most to my listening skills in this type of activity around the 70 to 80 hours mark.
I would, therefore, say live interaction listening practice is about 5 to 10 times more effective than passive listening because I got more from 75 hours in live interaction than I did the prior 450 hours of passive listening practice.
This leads to the final conclusion.
After assuming you have spent a reasonable amount of time learning the key components of Spanish theory such as vocabulary and grammar—of course, using conversation hacking principles—then the amount of time you need to improve your listening skills is:
- If you are using live interaction practice: 70-100 hours.
- If you are using active listening training: 100-200 hours.
- If you are using passive listening training alone: 400-1000+ hours.
So, the key lesson is, if you haven’t spent time learning vocabulary and grammar, and you haven’t spent the time in the above list of recommended hours on each listening activity, then adjust your expectations.
There is no need to be frustrated, you simply need to get on with the work you need to do to meet your goals.
The biggest factor that affects the speed you can improve your listening skills in the types of activities you choose to do. Natural ability is out of your control. Previous experience is a factor but also somewhat out of your control for now.
If you haven’t hit the above training time, you don’t need to worry about not being a natural language learner or being specifically weak with listening skills, you just need to get on with the work required to improve.
What are your thoughts? Do you agree with the mathematics?
How long have you spent in one-on-one listening vs passive listening activities?