Weston Ludeke

From Zero to Advanced: How I Drastically Improved My Spanish Listening Skills After Only 100 Hours

Published (updated: ) in languages.

Palacio de Bellas Artes, Ciudad de México – via @david_carballar on Unsplash used under a Creative Commons license

After endless hours of studying Spanish over the past several years, I was frustrated in late 2020 that I could still barely understand anyone when they would speak to me in the language. I had to constantly ask them to repeat themselves and conversations were very painful and slow.

When different language institutes give exams to test a student’s fluency in a given language, they typically test four different skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Because my focus up to that point had mostly been on learning new vocab and reviewing flashcards, I could recognize a lot of Spanish words when I would read them. However, I could barely understand when people would talk to me in Spanish or when hearing it on the tv or the radio. I knew tons of vocab and phrases, and even though I knew how to pronounce them fairly correctly, my brain didn’t register when hearing them spoken by native speakers. It all came at me too fast and my brain would just shut down once it realized it didn’t understand what was being said.

Understanding the Problem

Eventually, the lightbulb clicked on and I came to the realization that my problem was that I had spent next to zero time working specifically on improving my listening skills. I realized that I needed to spend a lot of time improving my listening ability and not just reviewing flashcards with no audio input. Like any skill we want to improve in life, I simply needed to focus on spending the hundreds of hours required to improve my listening ability. I took one of those free, unofficial online fluency tests last year, and it said that I was at a B1 level in Spanish. Though, in reality, I knew my listening skills were likely closer to A1, or even A0, or worse!

One of the biggest problems when trying to find good resources to listen to is that most of the resources are geared towards native speakers and those who are already fluent. Many people who haven’t successfully mastered a new foreign language as an adult will give advice like, “start watching movies in Spanish” or “listen to a bunch of music from Mexico”. While those are good recommendations for a student who is already at an advanced level in their listening ability, it is essentially useless if you’re a complete beginner. Those methods are simply too advanced for complete noobs like I was.

A Life-Changing Recommendation

After realizing I needed to change my studying focus, I started doing some research on how to specifically improve my listening skills as a beginner, reading several posts across a few different subreddits geared around language learning like r/languagelearning, r/learnspanish, and r/spanish. Eventually, I came across a Reddit comment that recommended checking out the Dreaming Spanish website and YouTube channel.

Upon visiting their website, I discovered that Dreaming Spanish makes videos specifically for students who are learning the Spanish language. Their website also very helpfully separates their videos into four different levels: super beginner, beginner, intermediate, and advanced. This allows the learner to choose their level to have the site filter to show only the videos that are at the student’s current level.

While searching for random videos on YouTube can be frustrating as it’s hard to know how difficult the video will be, being able to use a site that has already pre-filtered their videos into different levels based on their difficulty is incredibly helpful.

Beginning My Dreaming Spanish Journey

Roughly around a year ago, September 2020 or so, I created a free account on the Dreaming Spanish (will shorten to DS from now on) website and started watching their free content. I quickly became hooked due to the high quality of the content and how helpful the videos are for new Spanish learners. The site also tracks your progress so I can see how many hours I’ve spent watching and listening to videos on their website.

Another cool feature that I quickly discovered is that DS doesn’t put subtitles on their videos. Admittedly, I was confused at first by this, but then I quickly realized that I needed to spend time actually listening and not reading. I needed to train my brain, to force it to focus on the new sounds and words I was hearing and not on reading them. There are no subtitles in real life!

I started watching and listening to their videos at the beginner level, which are very slow but my listening skills were very poor. I forced myself to focus and to pay attention. Something else DS does that is super helpful at this level is that many beginner videos are done with the aid of a whiteboard. Site founder Pablo uses the whiteboard in many beginner videos to draw different images while talking and/or telling a story. He is also on camera at the same time using many different hand gestures to communicate. Both of these tools are super helpful in the aid of improving one’s listening ability as there is no English being spoken in the videos.

Making Progress

After endless hours at the beginner level, I started to push myself out of my comfort zone and started to watch some intermediate videos. This next-level features videos from many different guides (the term used by DS for the different native Spanish speakers who record videos for the website) who all come from different backgrounds.

What’s really great about DS having multiple different guides is that many are from different Spanish-speaking countries. Founder Pablo Román is from Spain as are a few other guides, but there are also guides from México, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina amongst others. This gives students the opportunity to hear different accents and different Spanish terms from across the diaspora, not to mention to learn about cultural differences.

After spending several dozen hours listening to videos at the intermediate level, I eventually started watching some advanced videos. As of now (Aug 2021), I’m currently watching a mix of intermediate and advanced level content. Some of the guides are easier for me to understand than others, and I don’t completely understand everything that’s being said in all of the videos, but I’ve made a ton of progress.

100 Hours Completed

Recently, I reached the mark of having watched 100 hours of videos on DS. I still have a long way to go until I’m able to understand Spanish at the level of fluency. But, after putting in 100 hours of hard work, I’ve made a ton of progress and greatly improved my listening abilities by leaps and bounds since before starting DS. 

I now struggle a lot less during my italki lessons and the conversations flow much more fluidly. I’m also able to pick up a lot more in my daily life when I hear native Spanish speakers talk to one another or to me. I can pick up more of what’s being said when I listen to local radio stations in Spanish, and I’m even able to understand some other random YouTube videos in Spanish (if they’re not speaking too fast).

Most Spanish sounds similar to me in that I’m not able to discern the differences between the Spanish speakers’ locations yet based on their accent alone. Spanish from Latin America sounds almost the same to me as does Peninsular Spanish, but my focus at the moment is more on comprehending the language as a whole as opposed to worrying about specific regional differences. Although, because I’m around a lot of native Mexican Spanish speakers, I am sometimes able to discern that a speaker is a native of Mexico.

Trying to watch television or movies in Spanish is still mostly too difficult for me. I recently watched “Fariña” on Netflix (titled “Cocaine Coast” in the US) and had trouble understanding a lot that was being said. Partly this was due to a lot of the Galician language being spoken instead of Spanish during parts of the series, but also a lot of the Spanish that was spoken was spoken incredibly fast. The good news is there were some parts of the Spanish dialog that I did understand and that was pretty cool! Especially, since there’s no way I would’ve picked up on any of it a year ago.

I believe I created my account on Dreaming Spanish in September of 2020 and reached the 100-hour mark in August of 2021, so it took me roughly eleven months of studying. A student with more free time will be able to progress much faster, but the most important factor that will determine one’s success is consistency over a long period of time. High performance in any skill is achieved as a result of long-term consistency and the discipline of studying/practicing a little bit each day, not due to intense effort on a random, infrequent basis.

Also, I should mention I eventually decided to upgrade my DS account to the paid tier of $7 USD per month. The paid plan gives me access to many more videos and also allows me to support the Dreaming Spanish team for their hard work.

Learning Tips and Setting Goals

The reason why I’ve made so much progress with Dreaming Spanish is the website is designed around the principles of Comprehensive Input. I’m not going to spend time explaining how this concept works, but I highly recommend that other students do research on the topic as it is one of the single most important concepts for successful foreign language acquisition.

If I was starting a new foreign language from scratch, I would first learn some basic vocab using free tools such as Duolingo and Memrise. I would also use a good spaced repetition software tool such as Anki to make flashcards. Then after learning some basics of vocabulary and grammar, I would then move into focusing on Comprehensible Input. If the target language is not Spanish, I would try to find a resource similar to Dreaming Spanish for the desired language.

Last, I would recommend defining a clear and attainable goal. Do you want to be conversationally fluent in the foreign language you’re studying? Or, do you want to be able to take a university class that is completely taught in the target language, and in a native country? Or, do you not care about conversations and you’d simply like to be able to read novels or books in the target language?

Because my biggest focus right now is on attaining conversational fluency, Comprehensible Input tools like Dreaming Spanish are incredibly useful for me. If your goals differ then the tools that work best for you will likely differ as well.

Going Forward

I still have my work cut out for me as I continue ahead along my journey towards fluency and mastery of the Spanish language. But, I’m very proud of the progress I’ve made so far. I wish you the best of luck on your language learning journey!