This week’s article is a change of pace from the podcast reviews and Spanish tortilla articles I’ve been writing recently. I wanted to take a bit more of a serious tone with this one and share an email with you that I received this week from one of my past students. She’s been living with an elderly Spanish couple in Madrid for the last few weeks as she prepares for her new job and this is what I received in my inbox this week, uncut:
“My Spanish isn’t coming along like I’d have liked. I still struggle with tenses and syntax and it’s pretty deflating, bro. I just don’t know what else I can possibly do. I guess for me, the thing that is really hard is there is just no way to improve listening comprehension. I can do verb conjugations all day long, I can re-write vocab until I memorize all sorts of random words, I can read books in Spanish to relearn the syntax, but when it comes down to actually listening to an audio and improving, there is just no way to noticeably improve. I guess that’s what is hard for me. I get that I still can’t speak it very well and flub my way through most conversations that don’t revolve around likes or learning about someone’s family, but jeez, man. I only hang out with Spanish people and most of the time, I just sit in silence and just guess at what they are saying.”
Sound familiar? I know I probably thought some version of the above thoughts to myself at least hourly for years while I was learning Spanish. That’s right. Something that not many of my students know is that I struggled with comprehension worse than basically any of my peers in high school and college. I did find a way through it though. For that reason, when I receive this kind of e-mail, I don’t take it lightly. I know the struggle and I absolutely love what I do and I’ll have my students’ backs until the end of time, even if it’s decades after they’ve finished classes with us.
Here was my response…
“Since you have the opportunity, give it a month of full immersion/no English. I promise things will start to click. I can assure you it is not the case that your brain wasn’t designed to learn languages. It took three full months of immersion for me to be compleeeetely good, but I noticed significant improvement after a month of no English. And heck, the process is still ongoing and I’m learning new stuff every day. And it may be helpful to think of it like trying to get a tight ring off your finger. This might not be you, but it was definitely me. I found that the more I struggled and stressed trying to get the proverbial ring off (or overcome the speaking and comprehension issues in our case) the harder it was to find success. I found that the more I just let go and accepted that I wasn’t going to understand stuff and that I was going to sound like a dork half the time (while still remaining immersed, of course), the quicker the results came. A helpful thought was “What’s the worst that can happen? Somebody corrects me? Or I smile and laugh when someone tells me their dog died?” Anyway, maybe it’s a completely different answer for you than it was for me, but just thought I’d help with as much insight from my experience as possible.”
I should add that she and I have, from day one, learned languages in identical ways (we just started 14 years apart). Just something about the way we’re wired, I guess. I watch many students who can understand just about everything after just a dozen or so lessons. My wife, for example, moved to Spain from China and within about a week was able to understand anything she heard.
So, what’s the takeaway?
Everyone has a specific set of skills when it comes to learning Spanish and there’s no such thing as just not being “cut out” for language learning. There are countries where entire populations have to learn multiple languages and probably an equal number of adult immigrants who have to do the same when moving to new countries. This should be proof enough that anyone can do it.
As far as listening comprehension, if you work hard on learning vocabulary, idioms, and work your tail off to speak as much like a native as possible, time, patience, and practice are the only things standing in the way of perfecting your listening comprehension in Spanish.
Do you have any tips or tricks you’ve found particularly helpful for improving your listening comprehension in Spanish? Pleeeeeease share them below in the comments. The whole Coffee Shop Spanish community would love to hear from you!