Understanding a Language in Stages

We were watching a soccer (football) match on television a few months ago when it hit me: I understood him—the commentator, that is. Even when a goal was scored and his words flew out faster than I thought possible, I understood. I wasn’t even trying. A few years ago, I would have been astounded to understand such commentary. (If you don’t know, they tend to speak very quickly.) Nowadays it’s almost old hat. What a change!

And I’m not saying this to brag. I got to thinking about the different levels of understanding a language. In my case, it’s Spanish, specifically Spain Spanish.

Of course you could go with levels, but I prefer my own method here:

  • I can understand a few words here and there, words like hola or adiós or queso. The most important word here is obviously queso.
  • I can understand my teacher.
  • I can understand another teacher. You have to get used to each teacher, so the ability to understand more than just your own teacher is important.
  • I can understand a native. Sometimes the gap between non-native teacher to a native is a big one. I could often say a word in English to my students, and they wouldn’t understand, but they would understand their non-native teacher’s pronunciation.
  • I can understand a lecture. A lecture given by a native.
  • I can understand a radio program. Again, it depends on the program, but I’m thinking more of a slowed-down, NPR-like program.
  • I can understand the television news.
  • I can understand a fast-speaking native. We all know these people, people who often seem proud of the fact that they alone are difficult for you to understand.
  • I can understand a game show. It depends on the game show, but try watching the popular Spanish game show Pasapalabra.
  • I can understand a soccer commentator.
  • I can understand an auctioneer.  Wait, I can’t do that in English.

Where would you be on this scale?

20 comments

  1. I find it all very difficult. I live in the uk and sometimes listen to Spanish radio snd watch TVE. It Is so disheartening. Maybe if I was there all the time. At present it is just a few words I can pick out.

    1. I get where you’re coming from; I really do. It would help if you were immersed, but if you can’t do that, consider finding an intercambio (in real life or online).

  2. I’ve thought about this a lot too. Another level I would add some where in there (which I discovered recently I’ve reached) is that I can’t tune out a Spanish conversation or the TV to focus on something else. It used to be easy to read while Pepe had the TV on but now I can’t help but understand what’s being said!

  3. Hmmm I don’t know where I’d be because as much as I’m not fluent in Spanish, I can understand football commentators. I guess being a football fan helps.

  4. This is so good! I am always re-evaluating my Spanish ever since I stopped having to speak it in complex, academic formats for school / life / with my husband. We only cover so much teaching level 1 and 2. I’ve definitely gone down a few steps since probably being at my best, which was TV show / fast-talking (or mumbly-grumbly) native (like my Spanish host father!) Immersion is definitely key – I never had an intercambio, but I imagine it would be really helpful as well.

    1. Immersion is key, and unfortunately you can definitely go backwards on the scale! In no way was I trying to imply that I’ve gone as high as I can go either. I’m just trying to fathom what the next rung up would be!

  5. I do not watch the TV news, so I do not know if I have reached that level yet. I can understand some Spanish radio programs, but most of the programs that I have found (in podcast form, and which interest me) are casual on site interview types, so the sound quality suffers. It might not help that I listen to them when I am out-and-about and it is noisy. If anyone has recommendations of good programs…
    So who knows where my level is at? I have had several Spaniards tell me recently that my level is very good, but as we were at a social gathering, they could have been just being nice. My self-esteem in Spanish is rather low. LOL.

    1. I kind of hate it when people tell me my Spanish is really good, because you never know what their intentions are. I am NOT aware of any great podcasts in Spanish, which is a shame, as I love a good podcast.

    1. It’s impossible for me in English. We took my in-laws to an Amish auction this summer and they were all asking me what the guy was saying. I was like, “Heck if I know!” I could not figure it out at all.

  6. Pasapalabra! Oh my gosh. I saw that for the first time this week and thought to myself, I’ll know I’ve arrived when I understand this show! A noble enough goal. :)

  7. I live in Spain, but in an area with lots of English people. Being American, understanding them has been almost as tricky as the Spanish! Not being at school with Spanish coworkers has definitely hurt my level, as has having English television :(

    I found that dumb, dubbed shows such as Dos Hombres y Medio and the Mexican overacted novelas were great for my starting Spanish TV level, as well as Atrapa Un Million and Ahora Caigo. Documentaries were also easier to understand than shows with dialogue between characters. I wish there was something like a podcast for listening to during my commute.

    1. Have you listen all the way through “Notes in Spanish” yet? That podcast really boosted my level. It is a Madrileña and her Englush husband talking in Spanish. There are three differnt levels too. It is one of my favorite podcasts.

  8. There’s also the level of understanding a conversation of fast-talking natives who are arguing/talking all over one another to make a point while not getting distracted and making a mental list of what you need to do when you get home/ or using the opportunity to serve yourself extra tortilla de patata, jamon and tinto de verano.

    But seriously for me the hardest thing is a conversation between 4 or more natives who are disagreeing about something. On my way to work I’d carpool with four other teachers who disagreed about everything and pretty much everyday I’d go home with a headache. When I can understand that, I’ll be ready to move on to another language.

    1. THIS!! I totally do the whole “awkwardly look away and drink/eat” thing and pretend I’m just super hungry in those moments. :) I also sometimes just take a minute and let myself get lost in my own thoughts. I confessed this to a Spaniard recently and she laughed and said “sometimes we all need a break.” Ugh, but the worst is people who only speak in bromas…. this weekend I was hanging out in a group with a guy who only speaks sarcasm, and someone had to tell me that “he’s always pulling your leg.”

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