Saturday Spanish #10: “I can understand but can’t speak”

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I’d bet $100 that at some point in the course of learning Spanish, you will think to yourself: “I can understand so much… why can’t I speak??”

Most people think they are alone in this — that other learners who now chat away in Spanish didn’t feel the same way at one point.

And it’s frustrating! When you first reach a point where you understand noticeably more than you can say, a few things often happen:

  • You feel like like there’s something wrong with you as a learner
  • You get discouraged at what feels like slow progress
  • You feel stuck — not sure how to start building speaking skills

The truth is, every learner feels this way at some point.

It is a natural part of the language learning process, and it’s a sign that you’re headed in the right direction.

This is because our active abilities (speaking, writing) are always less than our passive abilities (reading, listening). Even in our native languages, we can understand things that we’d struggle to put into words ourselves.

But the hardest part is this stage, when we’re understanding more Spanish but struggling to say much at all.

Fortunately, starting to build speaking skills isn’t as complicated as it might seem.

First, accept that it’s normal to understand more than you can say.

Don’t give yourself a hard time for something that is a normal part of the process.

Part of the problem is unrealistic expectations. Speaking a foreign language is a complex task, and we have to start small.

Second, ease into speaking with this simple activity:

The first way to start small is to stop trying to speak spontaneously, and just practice speaking alongside someone else.

Repeat what they’re saying.

If you’ve ever learned to play an instrument, or to paint, or play a sport, you know: we learn by imitating. Artists copy other artists’ work to improve their own. Athletes copy other athletes’ technique to better their own.

Two accessible places to do this are:

  • Audiobooks + Text book editions (great because these are professional voice actors with exceptionally clear speech)
  • Podcasts with transcripts, like Radio Ambulante or El Hilo (the content is advanced, but comprehension isn’t the main focus of this exercise)
  • YouTube channels with well-done subtitles, like Easy Spanish (variety of content at different levels)

The key is that you have clear audio and accompanying text, so you can read along with the narrator/speaker.

Technically, you’re not “speaking” on your own. But you’re building the muscle memory and dexterity you need to make Spanish come out without feeling like you have a rock in your mouth. Not to mention — you’re subconsciously absorbing their intonation and pronunciation.

This exercise is the simplest way to ease into speaking because it takes all the pressure off and helps you get used to the physical act of speaking.

Understanding more than you can say is not a flaw.

But it is a sign to start working actively on your speaking skills.

So if you feel like you can’t get 3 words out, start small: Speak alongside the narrator of an audiobook or similar, reading the text.

From there, you can move on to speaking to yourself on simple, everyday topics (more on this in a future edition of the newsletter).

Speaking is complex, but it becomes a lot simpler when you break it down into smaller skills that you can proactively practice.

A simple step like this one sets you on the path to turning your listening skills into confident speaking skills.

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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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