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This hurdle can be a true challenge to overcome. I have students who can do all the leg work of the language but freeze when they have to face a native speaker. These feelings are not only valid but normal and part of the process. Here are some tips to help you overcome this difficulty.
I don’t understand all native speakers and I am one. I can’t understand everyone’s English either, and I was born and raised in the US. Since my family is originally from Paraguay, we spoke Paraguayan Spanish at home. When I went to Spain for an exchange program I was reminded constantly that what I was speaking was not REAL Spanish. At first I was appalled and insulted but as I studied I realized they we were right, I spoke a Spanish that was mixed with words from our native tongue Guarani. It took me years to understand Costa Ricans and for them to understand me completely. Even today I find myself understanding about 70% max of any Spanish dialect I hear. You get an ear for it but you also have to accept that you are not going to understand everything everyone is saying. More importantly some of my funniest anecdotes come from the confusion between our respective dialects.
It is more about how you listen than anything else. Just like that Facebook meme about only needing the first and last letter of a word to read it, filling in information is what our brain does all the time. When we listen we hear main ideas and details and can normally fill in strangely pronounced words, we make an educated guess and move on. We also don’t just use the words as an anchor to what is being said, there is so much more information we are gathering. The tone of voice, facial expressions and even the vibe all come together to create meaning for us. The brain is throwing memories, feelings and images at you quickly in order to understand someone. When we listen to a foreign language we tend to get stunted in only listening to the words and forgetting the rest. Listening is much more holistic than that.
To begin with, start listening to EVERYONE: at the bank, in line at the supermarket, on the beach, on TV; if someone is speaking Spanish listen to it. This is a stress free situation that does not require any action from you; it is a great moment to try out different ways of listening. I like to call it Zenning out, do not focus on the words, let them wash over you and you gather as much information as you can without any inner dialogue about it. Most of the time when we focus on words we find ourselves wondering about the meaning of a word or travelling back to High School Spanish class while the speaker is rattling away. You want to be receptive to all the other stimulus the speaker is sending you and trusting your brain when it gives you a general meaning to what they are saying. A general meaning, that’s it. In the beginning if you can get that you are doing great.
Guesstimating meaning is your best tool. When you are reading or listening to Spanish, making educated guesses is the key to being a better listener and training your mind to decode quicker. The people that want to understand every single word or want to speak perfectly before engaging natives is stuck and frustrated. The playful joker that accepts being wrong A LOT and being able to laugh it off has a much better chance at reaching fluency. It is important to remember that Ticos and other Spanish speakers are not annoyed at you when you try and fumble, they are annoyed when you don’t try at all and impose your English on others. This is a very kind and understanding population that will sit through your pantomime act and ill pronounced words, they are thankful and tickled by your effort.
Stop holding yourself at too high an expectation. Once you can understand the main idea of a conversation slap together some words you know and try them out. When speaking, the golden rule is to say what you can say not what you want to say. It is vital to understand the learning curve is steep but when it clicks, it clicks and then learning becomes swift and natural. Be kind to yourself and allow yourself to be make mistakes by congratulating yourself each time you make one. If you make a mistake it means you tried and you stepped out of your comfort zone and that is grounds for celebration in my book. Later you will fondly remember those blunders and tell the story in fluent Spanish to a Tico you were brave enough to engage with and befriend.
Sylvia Monge owns Spanish for Expats (spanishforexpatscr.com ) and thinks the brain is ridiculously cool. She uses her knowledge and study of the brain to make learning Spanish and English easier, more entertaining and engaging. She dreams of a world where brain potential is finally realized

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