If you’re a non-native Spanish speaker like me, you may feel like you’ve mastered speaking, reading, or writing the language proficiently, but when hearing it spoken, you sometimes can barely recognize a couple of words. Instead of a series of distinguishable words organized neatly into sentences, it sounds like a rapid stream of nonsense where one word catches you up. It frustrates you, because all your hard work learning Spanish seems to be a waste, since you can’t understand it when spoken naturally. And it doesn’t help if you happen to slip up while you’re chatting with the cute barista or bartender, during a break on that business trip in the D.F.!
Learning a language is not an easy task, no matter what any advertisement tells you. Understanding spoken Spanish is a just a matter of practicing as often as possible. It’s totally possible to nail it, despite the frustration you may be feeling. Listening skills develop the more time you spend listening to spoken Spanish in every form. By plugging in a pair of headphones, or turning on the TV en español for an hour or two per day, you’ll soon be able to break down the speech into logical and comprehensible pieces. And if you’re like me, you’ll probably end up with a new list of fave TV programming and Latin artists to listen to—not to mention some new crushes.
Let’s not forget how drastically Spanish differs from region to region, both in terms of accents and idiomatic expressions. Joanna Hausmann does a spot-on job of tackling the very different sounding Spanish accents in her “Joanna Rants” series on the Flama YouTube channel. Because the accents are so different, you may want to focus on learning the accent and idiomatic expressions of one particular region, at least in the beginning. This isn’t something that is always in your control, though, and you’ll undoubtedly be faced with situations where the speaker is from a country with an unfamiliar accent.
Living in New York, I’ve gotten pretty good at understanding español caribeño—the accents you would hear in Cuba, Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic. Joanna compares the accent’s tendency to drop a word’s final syllable to bumping into your ex at the club—you see them but just ignore them. So believe me, if it’s possible to master one of the most rapidly spoken and abbreviated forms of español, you can come to familiarize yourself with them all! Since I’m not as acquainted with accents from Mexico or Spain, I end up getting off the plane and asking ¿qué? way more often than I’d like. And you also want to be careful—I picked up most of my Tinder and Bumble slang while on vacation in Spain, so I ended up learning the hard way that some jerga doesn’t quite translate the same in Mexico or Puerto Rico #swipeleft.
A good place to start getting accustomed to rapid speech is on TV with Netflix, Hulu, Sling, and the major Spanish language networks—Telemundo and Univision. They offer viewers largely colloquialism and accent-free Spanish broadcasting, where presenters are trained so that it’s tough to identify their national origin.
Here are some of our fave TV shows from different regions to help get you started on your path to dominating rapid speech by country:
Set in the late 1950s, Velvet takes us back in time to an upscale department store in Madrid. Although it’s a long form multi-series drama based in Spain, it has everything that you would expect from a Latin American telenovela—a steamy affair, family tension, tragic near-death encounters, and let’s not forget the eye candy. Miguel Angel Silvestre stars in the series, who you may recognize from his equally provocative scenes in the Netflix series Sens8.