Speed is relative.

The less familiar you are with the words in a sentence, the faster it seems. Knowing a sentence backwards and forwards means that no amount of slurring or speed can prevent your brain from filling in the blanks.

It might seem counterintuitive, but to get better at understanding fast Spanish, you should focus on internalizing slow Spanish. What makes this challenging is mastering the subtle connections between each word, and training your brain to accept more complicated structures than the ones you’re used to.

Here are four key principles you can use to internalize challenging sentences and gain acceptance into the fast-paced native Spanish club.

  • Taking inventory
  • Deciphering the meaning
  • Building a mental scaffold
  • Collecting key sentences

We’ll use the following sentence to illustrate them:

Solo he entendido «cilantro».

If that felt impossibly fast, here’s a slower version (it’s one second longer). However, if the previous sentence felt like an interesting challenge, skip this one until you’ve gone through the article (you can always come back to it later).

Taking inventory

Your main priority when trying to decode a fast sentence should be to figure out when one word ends and the next one begins.

An English speaker would pronounce a sentence like Todo esto está aquí by breaking it up into four distinct sounds (All, this, is, here). A Spanish speaker would almost always link the vowel sounds and pronounce the whole thing as a single word: Todoestoestaquí (To-does-toes-ta-quí).

This is another factor that makes Spanish seem faster than English. The sooner you embrace this reality, the better you’ll get at teasing words apart.

You can practice by listening to the audio multiple times and trying to write down what you hear. If you need help getting started, here’s the sentence skeleton:

aquí , así que . Pero si quieres amigos, no pidas cilantro.

This exercise is effective because writing forces you to slow down, which enhances your ability to pick up on subtle differences between what you’re hearing and what’s on the page.

If you want to go beyond this example, I encourage you to transcribe sentences from your favorite Spanish podcast. To check your attempt, you can try using spellcheck, and asking a native to correct you (if you use Lang8.com, remember to include the link to the audio so that they can compare your attempt with the original version).

Deciphering the meaning

Once you’ve identified the words in the sentence, it’s time to dig deeper and decipher the meaning of the words you don’t know. Resist the temptation to go straight to the dictionary. Instead, try to think it through in Spanish:

Venir aquí fue idea tuya… ¿tuya? ah, tu idea… así que fío de lo que me elijas… ¿me elijas? ah, no: me fío de lo que elijas… pero si quieres que sigamos siendo… sigamos? ah, siga, seguir, que yo siga, que nosotros sigamos

The first time you read it, you’re likely to skip over some words and miss the connections between others, so the magic only happens when you read it multiple times. If you jump straight to Google Translate you miss out on two things:

  1. The warm feeling of figuring it out on your own.
  2. The emotional connection between the words and the meaning.

It’s okay to look up completely unfamiliar words; but for vaguely familiar ones, it’s better to try to guess the meaning first. If you later realize it was another meaning instead, you’ll remember it better because you were emotionally invested in learning it.

Building a mental scaffold

Whenever you come across a challenging sentence, practice saying it out loud. Read it multiple times until you can recall it from memory with minimal effort. I call this process scaffolding because it helps you reinforce the areas where your memory is weakest.

The first time you try to repeat the sentence from memory it might come out like this:

Venir aquí fue tu idea, así que me fío de ti. Pero si quieres que sigamos amigos, no pidas nada con cilantro.

Now is the time to go back to the original version and compare it to what you actually said. This allows you to clearly see the path that your brain chose to avoid the discomfort of unfamiliar expressions:

Venir aquí fue idea tuya, así que me fío de lo que elijas. Pero si quieres que sigamos siendo amigos, no pidas nada que lleve cilantro.

The best way to fix these slips ups is through spaced repetition: once you’re able to recall the entire sentence perfectly, forget about it and try again in a few hours. If you can remember it a few days later, it’s an indication that it has become permanently lodged in your brain. At that point, a trigger like ¡Ven aquí! is all it takes for the whole sentence to pop back into your brain.

Collecting key sentences

When your brain insists on saying nada con cilantro instead of nada que lleve cilantro, it’s trying to let you know that it doesn’t feel safe with that subjunctive. It understands the meaning, but it hasn’t internalized it.

You could take the rational path and re-read the subjunctive chapter in your grammar book. Sometimes that’s useful, but most of the time you’ll need a more intuitive approach.

If memorizing the rules hasn’t worked, try memorizing the sentences. Build your own collection of useful challenging patterns and focus on internalizing those:

  • No salgas con nadie que te haga sentir mal. (Don’t go out with anyone who might make you feel bad.)
  • No viajes con nada que se pueda perder. (Don’t travel with anything that might get lost.)
  • No te preocupes por nada de lo que te digan. (Don’t worry about anything they might say to you)
  • No pidas nada que lleve cilantro. (Don’t order anything that might have cilantro in it)

Once you’ve noticed the common thread between them (a command followed by a hypothetical statement), you can start looking for other sentences that fit that pattern. Having that as your baseline will prepare you for all of the other variations you’re likely to encounter in the wild.

Spanish takeaways

I hope that it feels a bit more manageable now.

The real challenge isn’t the speed, it’s developing a familiarity with the contents. By working through it slowly, you can build up your intuition about the important details and let your brain fill in the blanks.

Fast understanding comes from slow practice.

If I ever learn Chinese, I’m getting that tattooed.

Next time you come across an impossibly fast sentence:

  • Take inventory: identify the individual words.
  • Decipher the meaning: guess before you look it up.
  • Build a mental scaffold: try to recall, check your answer and repeat.
  • Collect key sentences: look for sentences that share similar patterns.

Let me know about how your Spanish journey is going, I’d love to hear from you.