Do you keep studying and practicing, but you don’t see any progress in your speaking, besides learning a couple of new words you barely use?
You’re probably stuck at the intermediate level, and perhaps you don’t know why or how to get out of there.
You don’t know how to reduce your accent and speak more naturally. Possible you don’t know either how to truly develop your listening, or why you don’t get to improve your speaking skills.
Today, 4 polyglots and a speech therapist will tell you their favorite exercises to develop your speaking skills.
They are Pau (Ninja of life), Karo (Spanish teacher), Nacho (Spanish teacher), Paco Álvarez (Greek, Latin, and Spanish teacher), and Alicia Montalvo (speech therapist), and they will answer the following questions:
If you could only do one exercise for the rest of your life...
- What exercise would you choose to develop your (student’s) pronunciation?
- What exercise would you choose to strengthen your (student’s) listening skills?
I’m very surprised with their answers because, even though they all agree that repetition is the key, the 5 answers are different (and each one is part of an exercise I use with my students).
At the end of the post you’ll see this exercise that will improve you listening and reduce your accent in only 7 minutes.
This is what you'll find in this post
- Their answers: How to fix your pronunciation and improve your listening skills?
- Pau Ninja
- Karo Martínez
- Paco Álvarez (o Javier)
- Alicia Montalvo
- So how do you know whether an exercise will help you improve your speaking?
- How long and how often do you have to practice?
- How to choose a video (or an audio) that suits your level and needs?
- What if they speak too fast for me?
- Upgrade your listening skills in 7 minutes
- A 7-minute exercise to upgrade your pronunciation (step by step) that sums up all that the 5 experts recommend
- An extra exercise to improve your speaking skills
Their answers: How to fix your pronunciation and improve your listening skills?
Ninja of life, bald, fresh, and carefree. He likes Lindy Hop and got to publish 12 books in 12 months. Pau speaks Catalan, Spanish, English, Swedish, and a little French and Russian. He couldn’t choose a profession so he decided to learn a little about everything. Today, Pau’s going to give you some advice on how to improve your pronunciation and listening but, besides languages, he experiments with all the things he enjoys. He currently has 8 blogs where he writes about learning languages and other thoughts, ideas, and crazy (or not) reflections.
If you want to learn some tips that will help you learn new languages, you should visit Pau’s blog: Idiomas Ninja.
Exercise #1: Shadowing. Pau’s favorite exercise to improve your pronunciation
Nothing can beat repetition. One method I love, and that helped me a lot at the time, was doing “shadowing” which, as the name suggests is “shadowing” what actors say in our favorite series and movies.
Notice that people call this exercise differently: shadowing, repetition, and mimicking are the most common ones.
Mimicking or shadowing is good not only for your listening and pronunciation, but also for your grammar, fluency, and vocabulary.
If you don’t know what shadowing is, play the video below.
But that isn’t all. We have no choice but to bring out the actor in us. Somehow when we “imitate” and joke with any accent and language, we end up with a pronunciation that sounds much more native-like than if we were in a class afraid of looking too pretentious.
So to improve pronunciation I’d say: act as if you were a native, exaggerate the accent and move your arms and body in the most expressive way as if you were in an opera and you were the protagonist.
When we imitate someone, we permit ourselves to exaggerate, to behave differently without feeling judged or judging ourselves.
To choose a good resource to shadow, take into account the recommendation of Paco (Exercise #7).
This exercise (shadowing) will not only improve your pronunciation but also your listening comprehension, fluency, grammar, and vocabulary. If you combine shadowing with Exercise #3 (the one Karo recommends) you’ll get the perfect combo to improve your speaking.Blanca Quintero
“No hay otra cosa que pueda superar a la repetición. Un método que me encanta y que me ayudó mucho en su momento fue hacer “shadowing”, que como nombre indica es “hacer sombra” lo que los actores dicen en nuestras series y pelis favoritas.
Pero eso no es todo. No nos queda otra que sacar el actor que llevamos dentro. De alguna manera cuando “imitamos” y bromeamos con cualquier acento e idioma, nos termina saliendo una pronunciación que suena mucho más nativa que si estamos en una clase y tenemos miedo a sonar demasiado pretenciosos.
Así que para mejorar la pronunicación en cada repetición diría: actúa como si fueras un nativo, exagera el acento y mueve los brazos y el cuerpo de la manera más expresiva como si estuvieras en una ópera y fueras el protagonista”.
Exercise #2: Decoding faster speeds. Pau’s favorite exercise to enhance your listening comprehension
I have always thought that listening improvement is like someone who practices for a short distance running.
Unlike in a marathon, it isn’t just about “enduring” but about being able to withstand ever faster speeds.
It’s the same with listening. We are interested in being able to “decode” faster and faster speeds of what people are telling us. In languages that come from Latin – I don’t know if it’s due to a cultural fact or what -, but it seems that the speeds are faster so you have to practice a little more.
How do we practice the decoding speed?
I think there is no other way than to slow down what you hear. Again, just like in a race, we start at a light pace, but as we train and time goes by, we go faster and faster.
With listening, what I’d do is to find materials where they speak slower than usual, and I’d gradually increase exposure to speed.
“Siempre he pensado que la mejora del “listening” es como alguien que practica para una carrera de pocos km.
Al contrario que en una maratón, no se trata de simplemente “durar” sino de poder soportar velocidades cada vez más rápidas.
Con el listening pasa lo mismo. Nos interesa ser capaces de “descodificar” velocidades cada vez más rápidas lo que nos están diciendo. En idiomas que vienen del latín, no sé si es por un hecho cultural o qué, pero parece que las velocidades son más rápidas por lo que se tiene que practicar un poquito más.
¿Cómo practicamos la velocidad de descodificación? Creo que no hay otra manera que relentizar los que se oye.
De nuevo, al igual que una carrera, empezamos a un paso ligero pero a medida que entrenamos y pasa el tiempo, vamos cada vez más rápido.
Con el listening lo que haría sería encontrar materiales que hablen más despacio de lo habitual, e ir yo aumentando poco a poco la exposición a la velocidad”.
Don’t let her surname or her accent in Spanish confuse you: she isn’t a Spanish native, but her pronunciation is excellent. Karo’s from Poland and speaks fluently 4 languages: Polish, English, Spanish, and French. She loves action movies and chocolate. Karo teaches Spanish, and as a non-native, she may give you a different point of view on how she got to improve her Spanish pronunciation and listening skills.
Karo has a lot of free resources to help you learn Spanish in Español Automático.
Exercise #3: Recording yourself. Karo’s favorite exercise to improve your pronunciation
If I had to recommend my students a single exercise to improve their Spanish pronunciation, then I would recommend them to record themselves while speaking in Spanish.
Recording yourself can be tough because it’s hard to hear your own voice. This happens to everyone. It also happened to me when I started recording podcasts and videos for Automatic Spanish, and then I had to edit them.
At first, I didn’t like the way it sounded at all, but I got used to it. And not only that but editing the audios meant that I had to listen to the same pieces over and over again.
This allowed me to identify weaknesses that I had in my spoken Spanish and thus I was able to work on them in a specific way.
I always encourage my students to record themselves and listen to their recorded voice, and to focus on the sounds they find the hardest. Recording yourself is an exercise that makes you noticeably better in a matter of days.
As Karo says, recording ourselves is challenging because we aren’t used to hearing our own voice. It took me some time to send voice messages on What’s app because I didn’t like the way I sounded.
By combining this exercise with the one Pau recommended (shadowing) you can quickly improve your listening and pronunciation in Spanish or any other language.
“Si tuviera que recomendar un solo ejercicio para que mis estudiantes mejoren su pronunciación en español, entonces les recomendaría que se graben mientras hablan en español.
Grabarse a uno mismo puede ser difícil porque es difícil escuchar nuestra propia voz. Esto le pasa a todo el mundo. A mí también me pasó cuando empecé a grabar los podcasts y los vídeos para Español Automático, y luego los tenía que editar.
Al principio no me gustaba nada cómo sonaba, pero me acostumbré. Y no solo eso, sino que editar los audios implicaba que tenía que escuchar los mismos fragmentos una y otra vez. Esto me permitió identificar debilidades que tenía en mi español hablado y así pude trabajar en ellas de forma específica.
Siempre les animo a mis alumnos a que se graben y que escuchen su voz grabada, y que se enfoquen en los sonidos que más les cuestan. Grabarse es un ejercicio con el que se mejora notablemente en cuestión de pocos días”.
Exercise #4: Understandable content. Karo’s favorite exercise to enhance your listening comprehension
To improve listening, I always recommend my students to actively listen to understandable content, that is, that they understand at least 70% of the content. This is the foundation of natural language learning.
When the student understands 70% of the content, he/she is able to intuitively grasp much of the remaining 30% thanks to the context.
However, when even the general context isn’t understood, the content is heavy, boring, and frustrating. Frustration is the number one enemy of learning.
Frustration will surely lead a student to abandon the listening practice altogether.
Instead, working with understandable content provides the learner with a sense of success. And there is nothing better to be self-motivated than to reap successes, no matter how small, day after day.
“Para mejorar el “listening” siempre recomiendo a mis alumnos la escucha activa de contenido comprensible, es decir, que comprendan al menos el 70%. Esta es la base del aprendizaje natural de idiomas. Cuando el alumno entiende el 70% del contenido, es capaz de captar de forma intuitiva gran parte del 30% restante, gracias al contexto.
Sin embargo, cuando no se comprende ni siquiera el contexto general, el contenido resulta pesado, aburrido y frustrante. La frustración es la enemiga número uno del aprendizaje. La frustración seguramente llevará a un alumno a abandonar la práctica del “listening” del todo. En cambio, trabajar con contenido comprensible proporciona al alumno una sensación de éxito. Y no hay nada mejor para automotivarse como ir cosechando éxitos, por muy pequeños que sean, día tras día”.
He teaches people “how to get out of Spanish Intermediate Purgatory” with deliberate practice. When he was 14 years old, his family moved to New Jersey. That experience sparked his fascination with languages. Nacho speaks Spanish, French, Italian, and Catalan. He lived for 7 years in Boston, where he got a Ph.D. in Bioinformatics and met his Italian wife in a language exchange. They’re currently enjoying life in sunny Barcelona.
Here you can join Nacho’s community, where you can learn Spanish and interact with other students.
Exercise #5: Repeating from memory. Nacho’s favorite exercise to improve your pronunciation
The exercise I recommend the most to develop your pronunciation in Spanish is to listen to a sentence and try to repeat it from memory.
This is much easier to do if you can hear the sentence multiple times, so it is better to choose sentences from a video or an audio clip.
The idea is to write the sentence word by word and look at all the details:
- Where are the breaks?
- Which syllables are pronounced stronger (stressed) than others (unstressed)?
- How does the intonation of the sentence change (in which parts it rises and in which it falls)?
Although there are millions of possible phrases, the number of sound combinations in Spanish is limited. So deliberately practicing with a small number of sentences can provide a major improvement in your ability to speak fluently.
What you’re repeating should contain vocabulary you’re going to use.
Spend your time wisely. Practice sentences that you can get the most out of.
“El ejercicio que más recomiendo para mejorar la pronunciación en español es escuchar una frase e intentar repetirla de memoria.
Esto es mucho más fácil de hacer si puedes escuchar la frase varias veces, así que es mejor elegir frases de un fragmento de vídeo o audio. La idea es escribir la frase palabra por palabra y fijarte en todos los detalles:
- Dónde están las pausas
- Qué sílabas se pronuncian más fuerte (tónicas) que otras (átonas)
- Cómo cambia la entonación de la frase (en qué partes sube y en cuáles baja).
Aunque hay millones de frases posibles, el número de combinaciones de sonidos en español es limitado. Por eso, practicar de forma deliberada con un número reducido de frases puede proporcionarte una mejora importante en tu capacidad de hablar con fluidez”.
Exercise #6: Dictation. Nacho’s favorite exercise to enhance your listening comprehension
One of the best ways to develop your listening skills is dictation. In other words, transcribing audio fragments word by word.
You can start by transcribing the voice messages your exchange partners send you. Another option is to use video fragments on topics you’re interested (TED talks are a great resource for this).
The most important thing is that you choose something you don’t mind listening to several times, that has the appropriate level of difficulty, and, if possible, is accompanied by a transcript.
If you don’t want to get frustrated and abandon, read Paco’s advise (Exercise #7) to choose content.
In this way, you can compare your initial attempt with the official transcript and realize which combinations of sounds you did not recognize due to lack of attention and which of them were really blind spots.
This exercise requires concentration, so it’s a good idea to spend short but relatively frequent periods of time. The good news is that not only will it improve your listening skills but it can also positively affect your pronunciation. It’s a two for one. ✌️
“Una de las mejores formas de mejorar tu capacidad de escucha es hacer dictados. O sea, transcribir fragmentos de audio palabra por palabra.
Puedes empezar transcribiendo los mensajes de voz que te mandan tus compañeros de intercambio. Otra opción es utilizar fragmentos de vídeos sobre temas que te interesen (las charlas de TED son un gran recurso para esto).
Lo importante es que elijas un audio que no te importe escuchar varias veces, que tenga el nivel adecuado de dificultad y que, a ser posible, vaya acompañado de una transcripción.
De esta forma podrás comprobar tu intento inicial con la respuesta oficial y darte cuenta de qué combinaciones de sonidos no reconociste por falta de atención y cuáles eran realmente puntos ciegos.
Este ejercicio requiere concentración, así que es una buena idea dedicarle periodos de tiempo cortos pero relativamente frecuentes. La buena noticia es que no solo mejorará tu capacidad de escucha, sino que también puede afectar positivamente tu pronunciación. Es un dos por uno”. ✌️
Paco Álvarez (o Javier)
Everybody calls him Paco, except his parents. He ended up studying Latín and Greek in order to not deal with maths. Now, Paco has 3 websites: AcademiaLatín (the only academy of Latín and Greek online), Delcastellano (that started as a notebook, and now over 700 people visit it daily to learn Spanish historical grammar, phonetics, and phonology) and EspañolPlus (where he teaches Spanish orthography and grammar). Paco speaks English, Italian, and a little Greek, Portuguese, French, and Polish.
Here you can take a look at Paco’s Spanish pronunciation course (the first lesson is free).
Exercise #7: A daily podcast or video. Paco’s favorite exercise to enhance your pronunciation and strengthen your listening skills
The answer is two-in-one:
Listening frequently to the language we are learning it’s essential to improve not only our listening comprehension – any serious language student or teacher will agree with this – but also to improve our pronunciation.
The problem I most frequently detect when increasing exposure to spoken language is adherence.
Adherence is a dietetic concept that applies perfectly to our discussion. People often abandon diets because they are unable to make a constant sacrifice, day after day, even if they know it would be good for their health.
In the same way, it is easy to abandon the intention of exposing ourselves to the oral language if we pose this habit wrong.
The problem comes when the plan involves a sacrifice.
If you listen to boring podcasts or watch videos that you are not interested in, simply because they are consistent with your level or because they include the subject of grammar or vocabulary that you’re studying, sooner or later you will abandon that commitment.
Fortunately, there are tons of resources available in Spanish.
If you’re interested in cooking or history, then listen to podcasts and watch cooking or history videos.
There are also many TV series for children, adolescents, and adults, available in Spanish. Cartoons are a good fit for beginners, as vocabulary is simpler and diction is clearer.
When I started studying modern Greek, I watched the Pokémon series in Greek (as a kid, I was very fond of these video games!) and watched one every day.
In chapter #1, I understood virtually nothing but when I reached chapter #100, I was already able to follow, more or less, and with the help of the images, the general plot.
Improving your listening comprehension will also help you improve your pronunciation, as long as you make an effort to pay attention to details (e.g. the different pronunciations of /b/, /d/, /g/) and to reproduce them when you talk.
Therefore, my recommendation is the same to develop both skills: at least a daily podcast episode, some YouTube videos, a chapter of a TV series…
The point is to find interesting what you’re doing so that you don’t abandon it.
Don’t worry or be discouraged if you do understand at first: little by little, you’ll notice that you understand more and more, and it’ll be very rewarding.
Improving your listening skills will help you improve your pronunciation as well. But if you want to see improvements, you have to frequently practice your listening and pay attention to the details (intonation, pronunciation, rhythm, try to understand what you hear…), and be interested in what you’re watching.
Otherwise, you’ll abandon, as if you had been eating boiled broccoli on every meal for 3 days.
La respuesta es dos en uno:
“Escuchar frecuentemente la lengua que estamos aprendiendo me parece indispensable para mejorar nuestra comprensión auditiva —cualquier estudiante o profesor de lenguas serio estará de acuerdo con esto—, pero también para mejorar la pronunciación. El problema que detecto más frecuentemente a la hora de aumentar la exposición a la lengua oral es la adherencia.
Este es un concepto de dietética que se aplica perfectamente a nuestro debate. La gente suele abandonar las dietas porque no son capaces de hacer un sacrificio constante, día tras día, incluso si saben que sería bueno para su salud. De la misma forma, es fácil abandonar el propósito de exponernos a la lengua oral si planteamos mal este hábito. El problema viene cuando el plan supone un sacrificio.
Si nos dicen que escuchemos pódcasts aburridos o que veamos vídeos que no nos interesan, simplemente porque son acordes a nuestro nivel o porque incluyen el tema de gramática o el vocabulario que estamos estudiando, más pronto que tarde abandonaremos ese compromiso.
Afortunadamente, hay muchísimos recursos reales disponibles en español. Si nos interesa la cocina o la historia, escuchemos pódcasts y veamos vídeos de cocina o historia. También hay muchísimas series para niños, para adolescentes, para adultos, disponibles en español. Los dibujos animados son buenos en niveles iniciales, ya que el vocabulario es más simple y la dicción más clara.
Cuando empecé a estudiar griego moderno, me puse a ver la serie de Pokémon en griego (cuando era niño, ¡era muy aficionado a estos videojuegos!) y veía uno cada día. En el capítulo 1 no entendía prácticamente nada, pero cuando llegué al 100 ya era capaz de seguir, más o menos y con la ayuda de las imágenes, la trama general.
Mejorar nuestra comprensión auditiva también nos va a ayudar a mejorar nuestra propia pronunciación, siempre que hagamos el esfuerzo de prestar atención a los detalles (p. ej. las distintas pronunciaciones de /b/, /d/, /g/) y a reproducirlos cuando hablemos.
Por tanto, mi recomendación es la misma para desarrollar las dos habilidades: al menos un episodio diario de pódcast, algunos vídeos de YouTube, un capítulo de una serie… Lo importante es que lo que hagamos nos resulte interesante para que no lo abandonemos. No te preocupes ni te desanimes si no entiendes prácticamente nada al principio: poco a poco irás notando que entiendes cada vez más, y va a ser muy gratificante”.
Translator, teacher, and speech therapist. She’s from the North of Spain and speaks Spanish, English and a little French. When Covid arrived in our lives, Alicia was working as a teacher of English in Thailand, and in communication and translation (EN>SP) in the travel sector. She had to come back to Spain and reinvent herself. She continues as a translator but she has the perfect combination for being a pronunciation teacher someday: teaching languages and speech therapy.
Here you can visit Alicia’s LinkedIn profile.
Exercise #8: Mouth positioning and sounds. Alicia’s favorite exercise to improve your pronunciation
From my point of view, I would use pronunciation exercises that go hand in hand with speech therapy. That includes teaching the position of the articulatory organs (tongue, jaw, lips, and throat) for each phoneme (sound), in order of difficulty or according to the student’s needs, after detecting which phonemes they find the most difficult.
Also, it is helpful to know which phonemes are pronounced the same in their native tongue or very similar to certain phonemes in the Spanish language. This association makes learning more straightforward.
Repetition exercises: Give the student a series of words that contain the same phoneme in different positions.
It’s better to work with the phoneme, first in a direct syllable, and then in a reverse syllable.
Examples for the phoneme [r]: caramelo, marino, oruga, marisco, farol, comer, pastor, martillo, formado, mirar y servir.
“Desde mi punto de vista, utilizaría ejercicios de pronunciación que van de la mano de la logopedia. Esto incluye enseñar la posición de los órganos de la articulación para cada fonema por orden de dificultad o en relación a las necesidades del estudiante, tras detectar qué fonemas le resultan más dificultosos. Además, es de gran ayuda saber qué fonemas de la lengua de partida se pronuncian igual o de forma muy parecida a ciertos fonemas de la lengua española. Esta relación facilita mucho el aprendizaje.
Ejercicios de repetición. Dar al alumno/a series de palabras que contienen los fonemas trabajados en sus distintas posiciones. Lo más recomendable es trabajarlos primero en sílaba directa y después en sílaba inversa. Ejemplos para el fonema “r”: caramelo, marino, oruga, marisco, farol, comer, pastor, martillo, formado, mirar y servir”.
Exercise #9: Recognizing the sounds. Alicia’s favorite exercise to enhance your listening comprehension
To improve listening skills, the student needs to be exposed to the Spanish language either by watching movies, listening to podcasts, music, or speaking the language with native speakers (which I highly recommend).
Anyway, I prefer to select or record short dialogues that contain the phonemes (sounds) we’re working on and that the students point out those phonemes. That helps them become aware of their pronunciation too.
I think it’s better to start with videos since watching the movements of the mouth helps to recognize phonemes, and it’s easier in general.
Once the student can capture a large part of the sounds, it is time to move on to the audios.
“Para mejorar el “listening” es necesario que el estudiante se exponga a la lengua española ya sea viendo películas, escuchando podcasts, música o exponerse a la propia lengua española hablando con nativos (lo cual recomiendo muchísimo)… De todos modos, yo prefiero seleccionar o grabar diálogos cortos que contengan los fonemas trabajados a los estudiantes y que ellos/as seleccionen dichos fonemas dentro del diálogo; esto les ayuda a tomar conciencia sobre su pronunciación. Creo que es mejor comenzar con vídeos, ya que, ver los movimientos de la boca facilita el reconocimiento de los fonemas y resulta más fácil en general. Una vez que el alumno/a sea capaz de captar gran parte de los sonidos, es hora de pasar a los audios”.
So how do you know whether an exercise will help you improve your speaking?
One thing is clear: they all agree that any activity that helps with your speaking shares these features:
- Deliberate practice
Most of the exercises Paco, Pau, Karo, Alicia, and Nacho recommend will not only enhance your listening and pronunciation, but will also improve your fluency, vocabulary, and grammar.
How long and how often do you have to practice?
How much time do you have?
Paco recommends listening to “at least, a daily podcast episode, some YouTube videos, a chapter of a TV series…” But remember it should involve deliberate practice.
Listening to a Spanish podcast while you’re cleaning the kitchen won’t make you progress.
Don’t do anything else while you’re practicing your Spanish (or any other language). Don’t be relaxed. Playing a video in the background won’t make you progress. You need to pay attention to what you’re doing.
It’s better listening to a 7-minute-podcast every day (49 minutes a week) than watching a couple of movies on Sunday evening (which mean, at least, 200 minutes).
I think frequency is more important than the total amount of time invested.
Nacho also thinks that “it’s a good idea to spend short but relatively frequent periods of time”.
No excuses. We all can find a few minutes to practice.
Do you think that having your day 1433 minutes (23 hours and 53 minutes) instead of 1440 minutes (24 hours) will make any difference?
7 minutes a day can make a big impact on your pronunciation but you should be focused on what you’re doing.
How to choose a video (or an audio) that suits your level and needs?
There are 4 things you should take into account:
1. Video or audio?
Alicia considers (and I totally agree) that “it’s better to start with videos since watching the movements of the mouth helps to recognize phonemes” (sounds) and then move on to the audios.
Ensure the audio/video has an appropriate level of difficulty.
As Alicia points out, videos are easier to follow than audios because the image helps you understand what they are saying.
Karo states that “when the student understands 70% of the content, he/she is able to intuitively grasp much of the remaining 30% thanks to the context”. That will “provide the learner with a sense of success”, which is very important if you don’t want to get frustrated and abandon.
However, Paco got to develop his listening skills in Greek from 0 by watching Pokemon when he was young. In the beginning, he understood virtually nothing but little by little he got to improve his listening comprehension and learned new vocabulary.
When you’re living in a country where people don’t speak your target language, it may be more satisfying to pick content which you understand, more or less.
Nonetheless, it’s easier to watch or listen to more challenging content when you have the chance to make some kind of immersion, because you have no choice (yes, you can always open your Instagram but you know what I mean).
It’s up to you, the most important thing is that you enjoy what you’re doing and don’t get frustrated.
The content you choose to develop your listening should be more challenging than the content you use to enhance your pronunciation.
Nacho has the answer: “although there are millions of possible phrases, the number of sound combinations in Spanish is limited. So deliberately practicing with a small number of sentences can provide a major improvement in your ability to speak fluently”.
It should be interesting and useful.
The video/audio should contain vocabulary you can use in your daily life.
Choose something you enjoy watching: something stimulating that you don’t mind listening to several times. For example, Nacho loves TED Talks but you can choose a TV series episode, a documentary, a film, or a podcast.
And take Paco’s advice: the problem shouldn’t involve a sacrifice. “If you listen to boring podcasts or watch videos that you aren’t interested in, simply because they are consistent with your level, or because they include the subject of grammar or vocabulary you’re studying, sooner or later you’ll abandon that commitment”.
Having a list of videos you want to watch will reduce the chances of you feeling lazy to choose one, and skipping your listening practice.
4. Transcription or not?
Nacho prefers to have the transcription (don’t worry about that, Netflix and a lot of YouTube videos allow you to activate the subtitles).
Having the transcription is interesting because you can:
- Compare what you hear and what they actually say (surprisingly, it’s often different; not only the meaning but also the sounds).
- Hear what you really say and correct your own mistakes.
However, it’s vital to use the transcription at the right time because there’s a problem with reading: our mind has already established a connection between the symbol (letter) and the sound we are supposed to say.
For example: when you see the letters B or T in “a boat” your mind immediately associates those letters with a sound.
Your brain does that automatically.
And that works with your native language, but not when we learn and read a new one. You already have a mapping sound to the script.
The problem is that English, Vietnamese, and Spanish native speakers have a different mapping to sound: they would read and pronounce those letters in a different way.
Most of the mispronunciations are the consequence of reading a symbol (letter) and saying it as we’d do in our native language. It’s very tough to shut that association off.
(I already spoke about the IPA symbols that allow you to read and pronounce any Spanish word).
What if they speak too fast for me?
You may find a video you want to watch but you barely understand because they speak too fast. I recommend you pick another video but if you’re particularly interested in watching it, you can always:
- Break the sentence down into small pieces.
- Slow it down. How?
There are lots of digital resources to do so, for example:
- YouTube (look at the image below if you don’t know how to do it)
- Audacity (it’s a free program that allows you to slow down the audio).
Upgrade your listening skills in 7 minutes
“One of the best ways to develop your listening skills is dictation” – says Nacho. “In other words, transcribing audio fragments word by word“.
For lower and intermediate levels, I recommend watching videos (Youtube, films, TV series…) from native speakers.
If you already have a high understanding of Spanish (or any other target language), hearing audios with different accents (including non-native speakers) will also improve your listening skills.
Just avoid speakers who share your mother tongue.
Step 1: Listen to the audio/video
Play the video/audio and listen actively.
Step 2. Write what you hear (don’t look at the transcription yet!)
Play the video again and write what you hear word by word.
You can listen to the audio several times, but I suggest you write the new information on a different line (or with a different color) so that you know what you wrote on each attempt, and what sounds or clusters you need to work on.
Step 3. Compare what you hear and what they actually say
Once you get to write the sentence, Nacho recommends comparing “your initial attempt with the official transcription and realize:
- Which sounds you didn’t recognize due to lack of attention
- Which sounds were really blind spots”.
And that’s all. Don’t forget to enjoy what you’re doing: choose useful content you fancy watching (or listening to).
A 7-minute exercise to upgrade your pronunciation (step by step) that sums up all that the 5 experts recommend
Paco, Nacho, Pau, Karo, and Alicia have mention repetition at some point and I entirely agree that repetition is the key to improve your pronunciation.
Pick a video or audio from a native speaker.
Some people get a very clear accent in the target language. Karo is an example of that. Hearing different accents will improve your listening skills. However, when it comes to mimic someone, it makes more sense that you choose a video from a native speaker so that it’s easier to get a more native-like accent and avoid repeating any possible mistake they make in their pronunciation.
Choose a character you like (the way he/she speaks, moves, acts, laughs…).
Step 1. Listen
Play the audio or video and listen actively.
As Paco says, developing your listening comprehension helps you enhance your pronunciation as well, “as long as you make an effort to pay attention to details (e.g. the different pronunciations of /b/, /d/, /g/) and to reproduce them when you talk“.
Step 2. Write what you hear
Literally: write what you hear. It doesn’t need to make sense.
For example, if you hear “awa marija” (agua amarilla) or “helada” (el hada), then write it down the way you hear it. You don’t need to write correctly.
That’ll help you remember the pronunciation.
If there’s something you don’t understand after a couple of attempts, take a look at the transcription.
Then play the audio again and look at all the details Nacho says:
- “Where are the breaks?
- Which syllables are pronounced stronger (stressed) than others (unstressed)?
- How does the intonation of the sentence change (in which parts it rises and in which it falls)?”
Step 2. Mimicking (or shadowing)
This is Pau’s favourite exercise: play, listen, stop, repeat.
Listen to the audio again, and repeat the sentence, preferably with headsets or earphones.
Remember Paus’s advice: “act as if you were a native, exaggerate the accent and move your arms and body in the most expressive way“.
Try to mimic every single detail:
The way they speak, their intonation, their voice, the way they move, their gestures (if you’re listening to audio just imagine how they’d be acting)…
The more you get into character, the faster you’ll improve. Have fun!
As Paus says, “when we imitate and joke with any accent and language, we end up with a pronunciation that sounds much more native-like than if we were in a class afraid of looking too pretentious”.
Step 3. Record your voice and compare
This is Karo’s favorite part: recording yourself.
You should do it even if natives often give you feedback.
It’ll allow you to identify and work on your weaknesses (certain sounds, intonation, linking words…) as well as being able to track your progress.
Human beings need positive emotions of achieving something to keep moving forward, so don’t be shy and record yourself every day. You’ll notice your improvement in a matter of days.
Record your voice every attempt, and then compare it to the native speaker’s, and realize:
- Which combinations of sounds you need to work on
- Which syllables you need to pronounce stronger
- The rhythm and intonation of the sentence.
Discovering the mistakes you make on our own is one of the best ways to learn.
You can record your voice with your phone, there are tons of free apps and most of them are rated over 4.5 stars.
My recommendation is that you download an app that allows you to pause the recording so that you don’t end up with 5867 3-second files.
Step 4. Be aware of your progress
When you’re happy with your pronunciation, compare your first and your last attempt. You’ll freak out.
An extra exercise to improve your speaking skills
Repeat from memory at the same time as the native speaker
Do this exercise the last. The native and you’ll speak simultaneously, so you can’t truly hear and focus on the sounds the native speaker is producing, nor the sounds that are exiting your own mouth (you should do that work before with the previous exercise).
This exercise is good for:
Your speaking will be kind of blocking your listening so it’s more challenging than mimicking (listen, stop, repeat).
Use the same audio/video you used for the previous exercise.
If you have trouble with the Spanish pronunciation, here you can see how to pronounce every Spanish sound, and how to place your mouth to correctly pronounce the Spanish vowels (often mispronounced by English natives).