Learning a new language comes with a whole range of challenges but the one that trumps all others is that of processing native speech in that language. It’s true that Spanish is one of the most phonetic languages in the history of languages which makes it incredibly easier to pronounce than, say, Chinese or even English. And yet untrained ears struggle to make sense of spoken Spanish even if the entire speech were written down for them. What sorcery is this? Why does something that’s meant to be and is spoken exactly as it’s written sound so incomprehensible when actually spoken?
Before you prepare to curse spoken Spanish for being deceptively hard to comprehend, yourself for being too stupid to understand, or both for being mutually incompatible, I’ve some news to calm your nerves. First, Spanish isn’t the only language with this problem; second, you’re not the only learner with this handicap; and third, that rapid-fire shotgun speech that frustrates you is mostly just an illusion. So if it’s not real, why does it sound so?
Think English Isn’t Rapid-Fire?
Your English is way more “shotgun” than you realize. And that happens with everyone and with every language. We call it elision. That’s when you strategically eat up syllables while speaking and make your words run together in a single string until you hit the period. Typically this effect is most prominent in informal conversations which is why formal speech, e.g., the news, is significantly more comprehensible to foreign ears. Here, take this sentence for example:
What are you doing this weekend?
Unless you were a robot or a non-native English speaker, you’ll most likely render this sentence as:
Might not sound like a big deal to you but to unaccustomed ears, your rendering would sound a whole lot different from what you’re trying to say. Notice how you joined the individual words and, in the process, wound up completely omitting certain syllables. In some cases, you even change the syllable altogether like you did with wotcha. There was no /ch/ sound in the original, was there? But you invented it anyway. That being said, elision is not completely random and there’s a method to this madness only a skilled native speaker would be deft with. This is something only practice, and I mean a lot of practice, can train you for. Nobody said comprehension was easy to come by.
Errors of Speech Can Become Rules
Sometimes, this practice is so widespread that with time it becomes the norm and enters formal speech. This is how we get orange. Confused? You see the fruit wasn’t always native to Europe which is why English never had a word for it. Nor did Latin. All that changed when the Moors brought the exotic fruit to Europe. They spoke Arabic and called the fruit nāranj. They themselves had borrowed the name from India’s Sanskrit via Persian. From there the word entered Late Middle English as orange via Old Provençal and French, some seven centuries ago. Quite some history, right?
Now, if you notice, the word always started with an /n/ sound until it entered Europe. Then it got slapped with the /n/ sound and it stuck. Why? It’s all about articles. In English, for instance, nouns starting with a vowel sound take an for article while the others take a. That’s how we get an umbrella but a unicorn. So, although the fruit started out as something like a narange, the two words were run together all the time and ended up sounding like anarange. This happened for so long that nobody remembered what the two words were to begin with. So, when someone tried separating the components arbitrarily, they in their infinite wisdom gave us an arange instead of the actual a narange. This is the story of an orange.
Fascinating, isn’t it? This is how vernacular laziness gets legitimized over time. And this happens all the time, in all languages. You can call it evolution. But I digress. Whether practices like elision get legitimized is not the point here. The point is, they exist and that’s what makes a foreign language sound like a hurricane of alien syllables next to impossible to tell apart.
Sorry but You Were Right All Along
Now, that’s a bummer, isn’t it? This is one of your convictions you’ve sincerely been hoping to be proven wrong. Turns out, spoken Spanish is fast after all. Faster than spoken English, for sure. Of course, languages like Japanese leave Spanish in the dust when it comes to rate of speech but it’s still rapid enough to keep noobs at bay. That’s because spoken Spanish packs way more syllables per second than a slower tongue like, say, German or Chinese. And that’s because an individual Spanish syllable conveys far less than its German or English counterparts necessitating more of it to convey the same amount of information. And all this isn’t just figment of someone’s imagination. Actual studies have been conducted to arrive at these conclusions.
So It’s a Battle of Syllables!
Care for some perspective? Per the study I mentioned above, English is typically spoken at a rate of 6.19 syllables a second in comparison to a sluggish 5.18 for Mandarin. Spoken Spanish trumps both with a syllable rate of 7.82 a second! All of this is because a syllable of spoken Spanish is less loaded than one of English which is why more of it is needed per unit of time.
Let’s illustrate this with a couple of examples. Take the white house, for instance. How many syllables is that? Just three! Each of those words is monosyllabic. Now translate it into Spanish and you get la casa blanca. That’s five syllables – a good 33% hike. Here’s another: Please. That’s again a single syllable. But translated into Spanish you get por favor, three syllables. See how it works?
So you naturally try eating up syllables and doing all sorts of vernacular things when you have to say so many of them in the same amount of time. That further complicates the situation for non-native listeners. First they have to process more syllables than they’re used to, and then they have to also figure out the ones that were implied but not uttered!
Here’s What You Can Do about It
Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat – There’s no shortcut around this one. Yes there are tricks to learn the vocabulary and there are tricks to ace the grammar. But listening skills is another beast altogether. You can’t just go to bed having recited some secret chant and wake up the next morning fluent in Spanish. What works, though, is perseverance and determination. I can’t do it for you, nobody can. What I can do, and I will, is tell you what you can do to maximize your chances of success. And those are just two very simple things: Speak. And listen. A lot.
1. Speak like No One’s Listening
This one’s big despite how obvious it sounds. You can’t learn to decode the sounds unless you try producing them yourself. Of course, you might argue how difficult it is to find a patient enough native speaker who wouldn’t lose their mind listening to your nervous and incoherent murmurs. And you’re not unreasonable there. Please spare them the assault of your rookie attempts if you’re just starting out. You don’t have to do that.
Your most patient listener is – surprise, surprise – you! That is unless you easily get bored of your own self which would be an entirely different problem to deal with. The best thing about Spanish is its pronunciation. This is one of the most phonetic languages in the world we’re talking about. So you speak what you read which should be a welcome change from the pronunciation idiosyncrasies of English. I would just pick up a random text, preferably meant for kids as they have simpler and smaller words, and read it aloud. This will not only train your mouth for the new sounds but also help acclimatize you to the way spoken Spanish sounds.
Since you’ll be listening to a lot of spoken Spanish over the course of time, try mimicking your favorite artists. Love that Salsa number? hum along. Like listening to Wagner Moura’s badass lines in Narcos? Mimic him and feel like Escobar’s doppelgänger for a while. It’s okay if you sound stupid, not like anyone’s listening. All that matters is that sounding silly at this stage will get you closer to sounding native later. Just think about who’s gonna have the last laugh!
2. Listen to Nothing but Spanish
Unless your girlfriend speaks English, that is, but that’s beside the point. The headline here is that you ought to overwhelm yourself with the sounds of Spanish. Music? Make sure it’s Latino. TV? Try Telemundo. Movies? Sorry, no Hollywood. Imagine you’ve been sentenced to hearing only Spanish all the time for the rest of your life. Sounds like a nightmare, right? It is. I won’t promise you otherwise because it will feel mighty frustrating in the beginning as you will make no sense whatsoever of what you hear. Nada. But here’s the thing, it’s not meant to make sense at this stage. All you’re doing right now is training your ears for the patterns and rhythms of the language.
The Spoken Spanish Epiphany
Once you’ve subjected your ears to this onslaught long enough, you’ll have your epiphany. Without warning! One fine day you’ll just wake up, turn on the TV, and go whoa, I can hear the words! It does happen and it did to me; the human brain works in funny ways. But there’s certainly a method to this madness. Ideally anything you listen to will do its thing as long as it’s Spanish. But the process can be made a lot more tolerable and rewarding if you follow a gradual incline.
For example, I would focus a lot more on music as a noob than on anything else. Why? Because when the words are sung in a tune, they become hummable and that makes them stick better. Your first few listens are gonna be difficult without the lyrics so feel free to cheat. But in less than 5 listens you’ll notice you don’t need the lyrics anymore. After a while, you can graduate to childrens’ stories (and there’s plenty of them on YouTube) or other beginner-level speech.
News are also a good candidate at this stage as their Spanish is far more neutral and the rate of speech more balanced than what you’d hear in the street. Whatever you watch or listen to, make sure you do it in small chunks on loop. Repeated listening is key here. That’s how patterns drive home. And by repetition, I don’t mean twice or thrice; I mean dozens of times. Maybe even hundreds. The moment you can spot the gaps between the words making up the sentences, give yourself a cookie.
So that’s all there is to it. No sorcery, no black magic. Just some common sense and a lot of patience. Keep challenging yourself every single day and you’ll end up buying a whole lot of cookies. I won’t tell you when to start making sense of natively spoken Spanish because that’s something you’ll find out on your own. Remember the moment of epiphany I talked about above? You will have yours. When? I can’t say. But will you? Heck yeah!