How Can I Learn to Understand Spoken Spanish?

You may have heard of Spanish immersion classes. They involve hearing and speaking only the target language in class. As a concept, it seems like it must be effective, since the language is heard and seen all of the time. Regardless of how it seems, I have heard from some students in immersion classes that the classes were frustrating for them: they “didn’t understand anything the teacher was saying”; they didn’t retain the language, and, ultimately, they ended up believing they could never learn Spanish. What a tragedy! Everyone who can learn English as a native language can learn Spanish if they want. What was the problem?

In the last post, I mentioned that you need a large amount of exposure to the language, but not all language exposure is created equal. To learn from the Spanish that you see and hear, you have to be able to understand it as you see/hear it. When you understand what you are hearing, even if you are hearing it for the first time, you will benefit. When you don’t understand it, it does you no good. So, immersion can promote fluency, but only if the language being used is given in a comprehensible way.

How is it possible to understand a foreign language if you have never heard it before? In an educational format (e.g. a face to face classroom, an e-learning program, etc.), the translation needs to be visible, and the words need to come at a speed that is slow enough for you to translate and comprehend everything. It also should be given in the form of a relatively engaging story or information that is relevant for the learners. There is more, but this is a good beginning.

This positive language exposure, the kind that you understand, is called comprehensible input in educator lingo. Comprehensible, because you comprehend it. Input, because it is going into the learner’s mind.

Regarding the many ways that foreign languages can be taught, Stephen Krashen says “the best methods are…those that supply ‘comprehensible input’ in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear.” Hearing and reading Spanish are good for learning only if you are understanding what you hear and read.

If you are trying to learn Spanish, but aren’t currently receiving the comprehensible kind of input, I invite you to subscribe to my blog. The first e-learning lesson using this methodology will be ready soon. I would also love to receive your comments and suggestions for improvement. In the meantime, subscribe for more posts about language acquisition principles and research findings.

¡Hasta pronto!

Mark Mayo has an M.A. in Instructional Design for Second Language Education. He has lived in South America, but currently resides in Northern California with his family (and dachshunds).

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