Your pronunciation really matters to understand what you hear

Listening comprehension through pronunciation

(click para la versión en Español)

Everyone who has a second language wants to be good at pronunciation. If you speak or you are learning a new tongue I´m sure you want sound well.

Suppose that your first is Spanish and your second is English. You will experience difficulties when achieving new sounds for vowels and consonants.

Take “talk” for example. At first you will pronounce it as you read it, just as “talco” in Spanish but without the “o”. You will be surprised when learning that it sounds very different to that. How can a word with an “a” and an “l” be pronounced without the usual sounds you give to that letters in your first language?

Weird, but it does.

The word “talk” (hablar) in English sounds just as if you were saying “tocar” (to touch in spanish) without the “ar”, it´s just the Spanish sound for “toc”. Where the hell are the “a” and the “l”? Well, the “a” there sounds like a Spanish “o”, and the “l” does not sounds at all.

Another example. Take “listen”. You may have tried at first to pronounce it as if you were conjugating the Spanish verb “listar” in the imperative for the second person plural: “listen”. Like saying to other people to make a list of something: “ustedes, listen esos items”. You may be or may have been surprised when realized that the “t” doesn´t sounds at all. Just like saying the Spanish “alisen” (del verbo alisar) without the first “a”, just “lisen”.

English is like that. Words do not sound as we could have expected.

What about the verbs in past tense? We can think about “remembered”, just take out the last “e” and you will be doing almost well. The Spanish sound for “rememberd” will be very close to be right. Add changing the first “e” for the way you call that vowel in English, that´s the Spanish “i” sound, and there you have it. Would be “rimemberd” reading it like a Spanish word.

For the last take “repeated”. Besides that the first “r” sounds soft, like in “pero” and not in “perro”, you will not hear there neither the “e” nor the “a” Spanish sounds. The only vowel sound there will be the English “e”, that´s “i” in Spanish, and it takes us to “ripitid”. That´s strange already, but not yet completely. Last “d” sounds more like a “t”, a very short one.

Well, those are just simple examples of the difficulties we Spanish speakers find when moving to English. However, that tells just too little about the solutions. The sound of “talk” is like “toc” but not exactly. The same with “repeated” and “ripitit”, it´s like that but not completely accurate.

Then what!?

Only practice make masters. Listen, talk, remember the sounds, repeat them. Little by little pronunciation goes better and better. But this is not an article about pronunciation. This is about listening comprehension.

We all want to understand what we listen. When it comes to learning languages it is very common –it happens to many of my students –to have good reading comprehension and just a very poor one when they only listen and can´t read.

It´s a common frustration to have been studying for years and not be yet able to understand people talking, or the movies without subtitles, or songs. I have found it in many cases. It can be devastating for one´s self esteem. It can carry you to quit studying and drop off the dream of a second language.

It don´t need to be like that!!

Here I go to the main point of this text: How to get better in your listening comprehension through your pronunciation?

That´s the thing. It has something of neurosciences, which I don´t master at all, but it goes that way. In order to properly understand a spoken word you need to have it already in your mind. Think for a minute about what it is to understand a spoken word. This is to hear a sound, recognize it as a piece of text and realize in the end its meaning. There you have a big clue.

When reading, second and third steps remain the same. The first one changes from “hear a sound” to “see an image”. What kind of image? A graphic pattern called letters that form a word. And which are those letters? The same to what we are used to for our mother tongue! That´s the thing, I say again. If you are learning English as a second language and Spanish is your first one then the letters are all the same… but the sounds are not!!

Catch it?

Hope so because that´s the cornerstone for listening comprehension.


  • to read: see, recognize, realize;
  • to listen: hear, recognize, realize.

When you are at step two you need knowledge, you need to know what the word means. That´s doable by just studying and acquiring vocabulary. The crux here is the first step, and it is so because English and Spanish sounds are different. You don´t have that difficulty when reading because the letters are the same.

Now then, the main thing here is that you need to hear something and be able to recognize it as a word, but the sounds of what you will hear are some you are not used to. The solution fall for its own weight: you have to acquire that sounds!

That´s why going better on your pronunciation has a double benefit. I said at the beginning that we all want to sound as fluent natives when speaking our second language, we know that. That´s one benefit of progressing on your pronunciation. But the main one is this other I´m explaining you now: it is to add those new and different sounds to your own audio memory. Only then you will be able to recognize them fast when listening. Only when you can say the word you will be able to listen to it.

So, repeat after me:

To understand what you hear, your pronunciation really matters.

(Versión en Español: Tu pronunciación realmente importa para entender lo que escuchás)

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