How to improve your Spanish listening comprehension

Understanding spoken Spanish is hard! Get better at it with our awesome guide.

Aug 18, 2020
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One of the biggest challenges that Spanish students struggle with is understanding native speakers. And honestly, it's very difficult given how fast we speak. According to some studies, Spanish is the second fastest spoken language in the world, behind only Japanese.

One thing that can help you to understand Spanish speakers is to understand how they speak so fast. If you learn to speak at the same speed, it will likely make listening comprehension easier as well.

Why do they speak so fast in Spanish?

There are three main pronunciation habits that make us speak faster in our language. If you understand them and adopt them in your own speech, you'll find yourself improving your listening comprehension and your accent at the same time.

Joining of vowels

The biggest secret of our speed lies in the large number of words that end or start with vowel sounds. Given that the vowels produce very simple sounds, these words offer us the possibility to connect them together quickly in such a way that when combined together they sound like a single giant word. Pay attention to how to these sentences are read:

A non-native speaker would pronounce this with a clear differentiation between every word:


Yo nunca había estado tan contenta.

But a native would pronounce it like this:


Yo nuncahaaestado tan contenta.

Notice that the words nunca había estado don't have a clearly pronounced separation, rather they are joined together into one sound due to the presence of the vowels between them (remember that the "h" is silent in Spanish).

Try to read the following question out loud:

¿Qué vas a hacer mañana?

Now listen to the pronunciation in Spanish:


¿Qué vasahacer mañana?

Notice that it seems like “vas a” is a single word “vasa”, it also sounds as if there was just one “a” in between words, so the final result is “vasaser”.

Now, try this other sentence:


Si leshablo muy rápido no me vanaentender.

Aspiration of the final "s"

Many Spanish speakers, especially the ones in the Caribbean, tend to pronounce some final “s” in an exhaled way very similar to the sound of the English “h” or the Spanish “j”, which really speeds up the transition between words. Example:

Ellos conocieron a un par de personas más o menos interesantes.
They met some sort of interesting people.

Omission of "d"

Our “d” pronunciation is already softer than the one in English, but if we add the fact that many Spanish speakers completely omit this consonant in some participles and in words whose last syllable includes this “d” between vowels, then we’ll find another contributing factor to our speed.

Therefore, words like cerrado, cansado, aburrido, asustado or callado become cerrao, cansao, aburrío, asustado, callao. Weird, right? Even their diminutives follow the same omission; serves as an example the following grandma sentence: ¡Cómase todo callaíto!

Common words like todo and nada usually become to'o or na'a.

For instance:

Yo estaba tan cansaa que no escuché naa. En cambio, él entendió toito.
I was so tired that I didn’t hear anything. He, on the other hand, understood everything.

Another common word victim of a “mutilation” is para which becomes in many cases pa', creating some interesting combinations like “ven pa’cá” (ven para acá), “voy pa’l mercado” (voy para el mercado), among others.

This makes us think of a popular song called “No hago más na” from El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, where you can find examples of everything we’ve explained in this post; you can find it on YouTube. It’s also very appropriate for these quarantine times.

Now, pay attention to the following paragraph and pay attention to the words we link:


Entreayeryhoyempecéa leerun libro muyinteresante sobreun mundoenel que to’as las personas son perfectas físicamente peroal final no son felices porque nohay variedady todos se venyse comportan de la misma manera.

Now that you understand the secret of the Spanish pronunciation speed, let’s start with what you can do to improve your listening skills.

Tips to improve your listening comprehension

Imitate the speed of native speakers

Imitation is key to learning another language. If you try to emulate our speed, you’ll be able to easily identify the words linked in every sentence so you won’t need anyone to slow down for you ‘cause you’ll know exactly how to link words yourself.

Practice your listening daily

Listening to some Spanish daily will help you get used to our different sounds, and we’re not talking about just talking to your Spanish tutor or classmates, do more. Try to get at least 10 minutes everyday to listen to something you find interesting in Spanish like the news, a podcast or a song. The best part of it is you can do it in the shower, while cooking or when driving, so finding the time shouldn’t be a problem.

Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything, remember that the idea is to train your ear to our sounds. Just make sure to pay attention and at least try to understand! Simply listening to Spanish content in the background will not provide any benefit.

Also, remember that if you listen to some Spanish for a few minutes once a week or sporadically, you will hardly reach your goal. You need to be disciplined and have a routine.

Watch children's shows or movies

Children’s content often has images, making the words you're listening easier to understand. Besides, both the language and pronunciation are adapted to children’s comprehension levels, which will help you follow the idea easily and avoid frustration, after all, we’re like kids when starting a learning process.

Here are some suggestions:

https://www.thespanishexperiment.com/stories short stories for kids in Latin American Spanish with transcription and the option to see the English translation.

On YouTube there are lots of the most popular children’s shows dubbed in Spanish, such as:

And if you are a Netflix fan, there are plenty of Spanish versions for lots of children’s movies such as Hotel Transilvania, Charlie y la fábrica de chocolates, Encantada, Buscando a Nemo, Toy Story, Coco, Los increíbles, Ralph el demoledor, Shrek, among others.

What if you’re not interested in children’s content?

Rewatch shows or movies you've already seen in English, in Spanish

If there’s a movie you love that you can watch over and over again, why don’t you try to watch it dubbed into Spanish? That way, you won’t feel frustrated if you don’t understand something because you already know what the characters are saying and what the movie is about, so you’ll just need to focus on your listening.

Watch Spanish language movies and TV

If you want a bigger challenge, then you can try to watch movies originally spoken in Spanish from different countries, to get used to our many accents.

There are many available series and movies in almost every country. Here’s a list of the most popular ones:

Netflix series: Club de cuervos, La casa de las flores (Mexico), La casa de papel (Spain).

Great movies in Spanish: Relatos Salvajes (Argentina), Voces Inocentes (Guatemala), El espinazo del diablo (Spain), El crimen del padre Amaro (Mexico), Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Colombia), El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (Mexico), No se aceptan devoluciones (Mexico), El laberinto del Fauno (Spain), Y tu mamá también (Mexico), El hijo de la novia (Argentina), María llena eres de gracia (Colombia)

Watch documentaries

Yes, we already suggested that you should watch TV and movies in Spanish, but we have found that documentaries make particularly effective learning content.

The vocabulary and modulation in documentaries are almost perfect, so they are a good alternative to practice your listening, especially if you enjoy them. In order to make the most of this activity, it’ll be better if you start with one you’ve seen before in your language, and it’s even better if you previously look up the vocabulary related to the documentary topic.

Here are some documentaries on Netflix dubbed in Spanish:

  • World War II in colour
  • Earth
  • Our planet
  • Night on earth
  • The universe

If you want to try something more advanced, here’s a list of documentaries originally spoken in Spanish:

  • Guatemala: Corazón del mundo
  • El Pepe una vida suprema
  • El Che
  • 1994
  • El sucesor
  • El fin de ETA
  • Los tiempos de Pablo Escobar
  • Patria
  • Los tigres del norte
  • Nuestra lucha libre
  • River: el más grande
  • Maradona en Sinaloa
  • Andes Mágicos

Here are a couple that can be found outside Netflix:

English or Spanish subtitles?

For beginners, starting with English subtitles is ideal since you’ll be able to read faster in your own language and you’ll avoid the frustration of not knowing what they’re saying and eventually quitting. If you feel you already have a higher comprehension level and reading in Spanish is not hard for you, you can start using subtitles in our language, but something you should keep in mind is that, for a mysterious and inexplicable reason, many Spanish subtitles don’t match the exact words people on the screen are saying; however, you’ll sure feel very proud of yourself when you are able to identify the mistakes in the transcription and say: “that’s not exactly what he said”. Eventually, with lots of patience, you’ll feel able to watch everything without subtitles. Always remember that this process is less frustrating if you start with things you’ve seen before.

Listen to music in Spanish

Music offers many advantages when trying to understand another language. First of all, it helps you emulate the speed we use when talking which would improve your own speed, hence your comprehension. Second of all, it helps you memorize full sentences and vocabulary so you don’t have to think about them. Evidently, this will only work if you repeat that song enough until you learn it by heart and can sing along.

One of the best resources we have found on the internet to practice your listening abilities with music is Lyrics Training. It’s like a game where you get to pick the song, the level, and the difficulty while you listen to your favorite songs.

Here is a list of recommendations for some of the best bands and artists for different kinds of music in Spanish:

Popular bands: Café Tacuba, Aterciopelados, Soda Estéreo, Los hombres G, Molotov, Mago de Oz, Caifanes, Zoe, Calle 13, La oreja de Van Gogh, Los fabulosos Cadillacs, Estopa, Jarabe de Palo, Búnker, Bomba Estéreo, Los prisioneros.

Popular singers: Maluma, Rosalía, Shakira, Melendi, Andrés Calamaro, Juanes, Carlos Vives, Ricky Martin, Alejandro Sanz, David Bisbal, Fito Páez, Pablo Alborán, Silvio Rodríguez, Joaquín Sabina, Enrique Iglesias, Karol G, Anuel AA, Chino y Nacho, Natalia Lafourcade, Julieta Venegas.

Listen to Spanish language podcasts

This one has become one of the most popular ways for students to practice their listening. You have probably tried some of them, like the ones in Duolingo or other apps, which is perfect. However, let us recommend some other podcasts spoken in different accents.

On Radio Ambulante there are interesting interviews with people from all around Latin America. Most of these podcasts also include Spanish transcription and English translation.

https://posta.fm/ is a website with lots of podcasts about the latest news. This one doesn’t include transcriptions.

If you’re not interested in long podcasts, you can always listen to ours! They are grammatically focused on a topic, and they come with the transcription and the meanings of complicated words and expressions.

Do transcription exercises

Trying to write down what you hear offers at least three advantages: One, training your ear in Spanish; two, since transcribing from what you listen requires lots of reps, you can learn new vocabulary and complete sentences by heart with the right intonation and pronunciation, and three, you can practice your spelling. It’s one of the most complete exercises you can try, but you must be patient and have time to do it because it can be hard and time consuming, depending on your level.

For starters, we recommend picking a 2 or 3-minute video clip. You can easily find them on YouTube and you can check what you wrote by activating the subtitles.

The same exercises are also possible with songs, starting with slow ones, then you can go to the lyrics to check if what you wrote is right.

This post also includes some transcription exercises that you can try as well!

Watch something in Spanish, write down and study new vocabulary, rewatch

If you’re watching a movie with subtitles and you see unknown vocabulary, write it down or make flashcards with the meanings, study them and rewatch the movie, this time without subtitles. You’ll notice a huge difference in your comprehension!

AnkiDroid is an amazing app for creating flashcards. To look up the meanings SpanishDict is one of the best websites because it is very accurate and it includes examples. Try to avoid Google Translate because it contains lots of inaccuracies and it can confuse you.

Be patient

Getting to understand 100% of what people say in another language requires patience and consistency, especially if that language is too fast spoken and has so many different accents, like Spanish. So the key here is to be persistent and never let frustration defeat you. Keep practicing, you can do it!

To practice, check out our exercises or listen to our podcast!

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