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Dodging the machine gun Spanish bullets

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

Are you learning Spanish? Of the four main skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking, which do you find the most difficult to make progress in?

Might it be fair to say that you are finding it easier to read it, especially if you have some prior knowledge of another Latinate language, than trying to understand what you hear? Those native speakers just speak so fast, right?

Granted, this could be a complaint made by anyone learning any foreign language, but in the case of speakers of Spanish from mainland Spain, it is literally true.

There is a French linguist called François Pellegrino who conducted research into how rapidly native speakers of different languages typically speak. Whilst English and German speakers utter around six syllables per second (just over and just under, respectively), Spanish manage almost eight. “Uzi machine guns”, he notes for comparison, “fire about 10 rounds per second.”

As well as being measurably faster, there are two further reasons why Spanish sounds so unfeasibly fast:

Unlike English, which is a stress-timed language, Spanish is syllable timed. This means that the vowel in every single syllable is pronounced in the way it should be, according to how you were taught when you learned the alphabet. This may sound obvious, but consider the English phrase: “problematic circumstances”. No native speaker would pronounce the ­‘e’ in problematic or the ‘u’ in circumstances as anything other than the dull, devoiced, neutral vowel sound, known by linguists as the schwa. This could be why it is so famously difficult for non-native speakers to master English pronunciation: it is surely easier to learn how pronounce sounds than how not to pronounce them!

The other reason that Spaniards are able to fire off words at such an astonishing rate is that their syllables tend to be less packed with phonemes – the individual units of sounds that make up any given word. The majority of Spanish syllables are made up of a single vowel and a single consonant. Compare this to the one-syllable English word “stretched” which has five phonemes (or six, depending on the individual speaker) and nine letters!

I don’t have the wherewithal to conduct an accurate experiment, but I would suggest that the eight-syllable Spanish word “desafortunadamente” (unfortunately) takes the average Spanish speaker a similar amount of time to utter as an English speaker saying “stretched”. Aurally, it’s very much the machine gun versus the canon shot.

So, if you are learning Spanish and feeling under fire from those verbal bullets, take heart from the above facts: it is not just your perception. The good news is that listening, more than any other of the language-learning skills, can be “rapidly” improved with practice. Even if your improvement is not as rapid as machine-gun fire, just a few minutes a day, and you will soon start to notice the difference.

Andrew Wenger has been teaching Spanish to English students and English to Spanish students for nearly thirty years, and is all too familiar with what frustration feels like – but also those moments of joy at being able to successfully communicate an idea, rather than merely re-saying learnt words.

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