The single most common difficulty that Spanish students complain about is that of understanding the spoken language. This is unsurprising for a number of reasons. Firstly, of the various language skills, listening is the most difficult because of the ephemeral nature of the spoken word. Even in our own language we may misinterpret, forget or simply not hear what someone says correctly and we often need to see things written down to fix them in our minds or give us the chance to interpret them. In a foreign language this difficulty is multiplied by our struggle to understand unfamiliar words and other factors that may put us off such as gestures, tone of voice or attitudes which are hard to interpret or which we may even find intimidating.
When talking specifically about the Spanish language, other factors also come into play. The clarity of spoken English depends strongly on consonant sounds. We distinguish, for example, between the “ch” and “j” sounds in “choose” and “jews”, between the “s” and “z” sounds in “jews” and “juice”, between the “d” and “t” sounds is “drew” and “true” and so on. Although the differences between our vowel sounds are also important, we are able to tolerate these being less distinct. It is usually the vowels that differ in regional accents and whilst they may be hard to understand at first, we can usually cope with them provided the consonant sounds remain the same. I often use my own name, Jane, as an example of this phenomenon. If you think of Jane pronounced in various regional accents, you will hear that whilst the vowel sound varies the “j” and “n” sounds remain identical.
In Spanish the exact opposite is true. The five fundamental vowels and vowel combinations (diphthongs) are practically identical throughout the Spanish speaking world, whilst consonant sounds tend to vary considerably. Consonants can be stronger or weaker depending on region and on their placing in a word. In addition, in fast speech, there is a tendency to slide over consonants and even for them to disappear altogether. If we add to this difficulty the fact that many words begin and end in vowels, the result often sounds to us like a long sequence of vowel sounds with no clear consonants breaks at all. Realizing this difference is the first step towards understanding spoken Spanish.