SS #75: Are you listening well?

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I mentioned in a recent YouTube video that listening is the most important part of your learning process.

But most of us — myself included — don’t do it very well most of the time.

Listening well makes the difference between…

✓ Feeling noticeable progress

✗ Feeling like you’re blasting your ears with Spanish to no avail

Today, I’ll share a few tips to get more out of your listening.

No soy ningún Picasso

Around 5 years ago, I picked up painting as a hobby.

I’d describe myself as “lower intermediate”. There’s a lot I still can’t do, but I can enjoy the process and occasionally produce something nice looking.

But sometimes, my work looks look like a cat rolled across my palette and then rubbed itself back and forth on my canvas.

bad painting
The kind of painting no one is supposed to see. Is that a banana?

To reduce the frequency of my cat-art, I’ve tried to observe what seems to be the cause.

Perhaps the most consistent culprit is not paying attention.

This goes for both before (in the planning phase) and during the actual painting.

When I paint without planning or focus…. unsurprisingly, the next thing I know I’ve got a campfire-worthy piece of art on my hands. 

There’s a similar phenomenon I’ve noticed in language learning – in particular, the listening portion.

Listening to Spanish is how we make connections.

Listening is how we intuit meaning, notice patterns, and build a sense of what sounds right.

But when I listen without really paying attention… very little of that happens.

  • I don’t absorb new words — instead, my brain glosses over them and tricks me into thinking I understood.
  • I don’t have “aha-moments” where I pick up on a pattern — instead, I hear the words but not the meaning.
  • I don’t improve my intuition for the language — instead, I get 30 minutes of foreign background noise.

For the good stuff to happen, learners need focused, active listening.

What exactly does that look like? Anything, as long as you’re giving it your full attention. For example:

  • Listen while reading
    • In this video, I talk more about the value of listening while reading. But in a nutshell, it does a great job of forcing you to block out distractions.

      For any fans of Radio Ambulante, Jiveworld is a cool resource that turns the podcast’s stories into interactive text+audio lessons that push you to listen actively. 
  • Read before you listen.
    • Grab a transcript, subtitles or audiobook. Read through it before listening. Mark it up! Highlight, circle, underline interesting words, confusing sentence structures and things you want to remember. Then listen.
  • Take notes while listening
    • Grab a pen and piece of paper and make note of what’s happening: main ideas, plot points, etc. Afterwards, read back over your notes and try to summarize (in Spanish) what you listened to.
  • Listen twice
    • Once is rarely enough for things to sink in. If you never repeat what you watch/listen to, you’ll be impressed with how much more you understand the second (or third, or fourth) time around. Some studies suggest we need 15-20 exposures to a word before it’s part of our active vocabulary. Repeated listening gives you more exposure.
  • Listen actively before listening passively
    • Listening to Spanish on a jog or in the car is more effective when you’ve already listened to the material actively. 

Passive listening is not a waste of time

Listening while you commute, exercise or do chores is an excellent habit.

But without a good bit of escucha activa to complement it, you can end up 30 minutes into a podcast without having absorbed a single thing.

I still make this mistake all the time, so it’s a reminder to myself as much as it is a tip for you.

I love getting my language practice in while I’m doing other stuff.

But too often, it’s the only practice I get.

That’s fine if your goal is to maintain your Spanish. But to improve it? Dedicated, focused listening needs to be part of your routine.


Looking for something more? Here’s one way I can help:
The Confident Spanish Pronunciation Course. Join 100+ students learning to unlock better conversation skills by building clear, natural-sounding Spanish. Click here to read what current students are saying.

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Hey there, I'm Connor. I help motivated learners speak Spanish without slogging through grammar books or tapping through every new app. I started Breakthrough Spanish to give more people the confidence and focus to learn effectively Spanish from home. Learn more about me here.

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