Say What?: Learning to Listen

Why do you want to learn Spanish? Most likely, your goals have something to do with speaking the language. If you’re learning Spanish to travel or communicate with friends and family, you’re probably pretty focused on the goal of speaking specifically. Speaking is, of course, an important part of practicing and learning any language. Unfortunately, in the rush to learn to speak, some students lose sight of how valuable just listening to the language can be. Listening as a skill is probably both more important and more difficult than you may think!

Hopefully, it’s already apparent to you that listening is an important part of learning a new language. To have a conversation or respond to a question — in essence, to speak Spanish — you first must know what it is that you’re responding too. There’s more to it than that, though! About 45% of your time communicating in any language is spent listening; for comparison, just 25-30% of your time is spent speaking. In addition to utility, listening has proven beneficial to cognition, efficiency, and affect. Cognitively, listening helps you store information to your long-term memory and internalize linguistic rules (without the tedious study of grammar charts). Because listening allows users to focus their attentional resources on meaning, it also facilitates meaningful language use earlier, improving learner efficiency. If you’re averse to speaking, listening can also provide a lower-anxiety avenue for language practicing. Linguistic studies have shown better listening abilities to be related to higher overall proficiency, comprehension, and oral proficiency in foreign language learners. In fact, the manifold benefits of listening while learning a new language have led some educators to suggest that learning a new language begin with a silent period in which the learner is not asked or expected to produce output.

The benefits that make listening so valuable also make it a surprisingly tricky skill. Unlike reading, it creates a temporal constraint, challenging you to process information while simultaneously listening. Additionally, it includes variances (e.g. the accent, speed, and pronunciation of the speaker) that other other communication forms don’t, adding an additional layer of decoding for the learner. Fortunately, listening — like any skill — can be improved through practice and attentive strategy. For instance, one feature that skilled listeners share is the ability to balance top-down and bottom-up processing. Top-down processing is high-level and pays attention to context and nonverbal cues, making inferences to discern the general meaning of what’s being said. Bottom-up processing, on the other hand, focuses on putting together the individual parts of words and phrases to develop an understanding of form and structure. While both of these cognitive strategies are important, strong listeners usually employ top-down processing more than weaker listeners, who tend to rely more on full-sentence machine translations and focus on word-for-word translations. Bottom-up processing is more useful later in the learning and listening process, as you start to develop a grammatical comprehension of the material. If you find that listening to new material is hard for you, you might want to rethink your expectations and approach and try a top-down method: see if you can get the gist of the conversation by leveraging context clues and the words that you already know to make an educated guess. Over time, you’ll find that rules and words you previously found confusing will start to feel more natural, and you’ll need to guess a little less as the grammatical ideas fall into place. And don’t forget — in one-on-one situations, where you’re interacting with a speaker (as opposed to listening to a podcast), it’s perfectly fine to ask the speaker to repeat, slow down, or provide more information. Most importantly, remember that active listening is not the same as passive hearing: it will take effort and attention to develop your Spanish listening skills.

At Fluencia, we work hard to provide listening opportunities that challenge you to make inferences and strengthen your top-down processing skills. Our conversational lessons are just one example of how you can practice using context to listen for meaning. Review questions will challenge you to listen to previously learned concepts in new situations. Best of all, each of our lessons features authentic audio, recorded by our crew of native Spanish speakers, to help develop an ear for the varied accents and enunciations of the Spanish-speaking world. Give it a try today!