When you are starting out, saying some Spanish phrases and then sentences is a challenge, but one you’ll quickly overcome. Listening to someone speak to you in Spanish can be an entirely different experience. At times it will seem like someone is speaking in fast-forward and using terms that just don’t make sense to beginners. Just relax and know this is normal. Here are a few reasons why understanding spoken Spanish can be so hard for beginners.
Vocabulary – A lack of vocabulary is the first and most obvious obstacle when it comes to listening to someone speak Spanish. When you simply don’t know the words coming out of someone’s mouth how can you understand what they are saying? Fortunately, this is the easiest obstacle to overcome because you should be focusing on building your vocabulary from day one. The great thing about having even a very basic vocabulary is you can often get the general idea of what someone is saying if you know some of the words. You can pick up on the words you know and then infer meaning from the context of what is being said to you. You can listen to the tone and inflection of the speaker to understand if they are asking a question or making a statement. Even hand gestures coupled with a few words can get a point across.
Speed and Blending Words – It may just be me, but I’ve always thought Spanish was a very rapidly paced language. This is probably due to the fact that Spanish is not my first language. Whether it actually is more rapidly spoken than English, for example, I don’t know. What I do know is almost everyone will seem to be speaking super fast when you are listening to Spanish speakers carrying on a conversation. The good news is, speed isn’t a huge problem if the person with whom you are speaking knows you are a beginner. They will naturally slow down to allow you to understand them better. This is just polite and to their benefit to getting their point across to you.
Blending words is a tougher nut to crack. This can occur when there is a vowel sound at the end of one word followed by a vowel sound at the beginning of the next word spoken. For example, let’s take the term “my daughter.” In Spanish, this would be translated to “mi hija.” It reads like “me eeha.” (the “h” is silent) That’s simple enough if you are reading the words but when a native Spanish speaker says that phrase it will sound like “meeha.” This is due to the fact that you have “mi” ending in a vowel sound and “hija” beginning with a vowel sound. The words tend to blend together even when spoken slowly. I use “mi hija” as an example because for the longest time, even though I knew the meaning, I thought it was one word.
Idioms – An idiom is a phrase that isn’t understandable from just knowing the individual words. For example, in English, you may hear someone say “it’s raining cats and dogs” when it is raining heavily. Imagine you are someone learning English. You’d envision cats and dogs falling from the sky and wonder what the heck the speaker meant. Talk about being confusing. In fact, this isn’t a phrase used in all parts of the English speaking world so it would be confusing to many English speakers as well. The only way to get past the idiom obstacle is by learning them… usually by hearing them and asking the speaker to explain what it means. You can also spend some time studying idioms. It’s fun to read a Spanish idiom, translate it literally, and then find out what it actually means. There are different idioms spoken in different Spanish speaking countries so just pick a country and do a search to see what pops up.
As with everything, this all gets easier with practice. So, don’t fret. Just know you’ll encounter these obstacles and use them as learning opportunities.