Spanish Listening Practice through Eavesdropping

Listening to strangers is a fun and effective form of Spanish listening practice. Guest poster Eduard Messett inducts us into the subtle art of eavesdropping in public.

Sit Quietly While the Adults Talk

Spanish cafe - Spanish Listening Practice through Eavesdropping

COSTA BRAVA, SPAIN. An older lady sits alone, chain-smoking at the next table. Deep, purposeful draws with her chin propped on one hand. Fifteen solid minutes of smoke. Were this not an outdoor café on a breezy morning, and were she not downwind, it would really, really bug.

A thin young woman in a slinky blue dress strides up the cobblestones. Bulging shopping bags swing from her shoulders. A little girl, probably three, bounces beside her.

“Raymonde!” the older woman calls. Down goes the last cigarette. The saucer cum ashtray is cast aside. She bats away the last traces of her nicotine cloud.

Raymonde bumps between tables and chairs. The bags slap against her. She’s a whir of blonde poodle curls and springy, nervous ballerina legs. An unmistakably French face, she’s almost too pretty until her profile surprises with a great beak of a nose, what they used to call a schnozz.

“Este hijo tuyo, Marlene, ya-a… que más molaba, me hecha pa’ tras. Me tiene frita” (This son of yours, Marlene… everything I thought was so cool about him, repulses me now. I’ve had it), she says.

She plops a rose gold iPhone on the table, then a plush toy dog, then a purple dinosaur. Last, a packet of tissues.

Everyone gets dos besos. The little girl slips a hand around the older lady’s fingers and begins to fiddle with the woman’s rings.

“¿Quieres pasar unos días con la yaya? Sí, sí, sí” (Want to stay with Nana a few days? Yes, yes, yes), the older woman says. The little girl looks at her mom.

The older woman repeats, more emphatically, “¡Sí, sí, sí!” She shakes the plush dog in the girl’s face, and says in a lower, funny voice, “Romeo dice que sí, sí, sí!” (Romeo says yes, yes, yes!)

The little girl isn’t laughing. For a while the three say nothing. The older woman inspects the purple stegosaurus, scrapes some child-borne crud from it and says, “Pues, ya has salido de la duda” (Well, now you know).

Toulouse-Lautrec in a café by Ricard Opisso

Nobody invited me to this conversation and I have no business listening. In medieval England and Puritan America, eavesdropping was a crime; I might have been chained to a log and brought to the pond for a long dunk. Or bolted into one of those charming metal shame masks with the big ears.

Today, while it’s criminal to tap a phone call, shameless nosiness in a restaurant shouldn’t get you arrested. Legalities aside, I still feel a twinge of crumminess just because my parents raised me better than to eavesdrop.

But there may be no better or other way to learn how native speakers actually communicate. In two minutes, Raymonde and her smokestack mother-in-law teach volumes.

No matter how you provoke her, your language prof is never going to say, “Me tienes frita” (I’ve had it with you). I’ve been criticized for speaking a bookish, affected Spanish. Fluency demands you struggle with actual speech, not dialogue from telenovelas, or a teacher’s pedantic musings. No condescending hotel clerk or polite partner at an intercambio will talk to you this way, the real way.

So, does that make it okay to listen in on Raymonde’s plans for her cheating husband? To gauge her mother-in-law’s (kind of shocking) indifference? On the other hand, is it really so very bad?

The Benefits of Eavesdropping

Spanish Listening Practice through Eavesdropping

Recent scholarship argues that eavesdropping — and not just human-on-human snooping— has a long history and may be beneficial from an anthropological and pedagogical standpoint.

In Eavesdropping, An Intimate History, CUNY Speech-Language and Hearing Sciences professor John Locke presents evidence that we are biologically predisposed to this phenomena. Other primates do it. At its root, early human societies policed themselves by knowing what their neighbors really thought. Listening to the next table isn’t anything new.

Likewise, in her article for Psychology Today Children Should Eavesdrop,” developmental psychologist Susan Engel, PhD, states that children benefit from overhearing adult conversations.

“Not only do children learn about complex and invisible phenomena through what other people say, they also use overheard conversations to learn how their community views the world, and different ways to think about objects, people and events.”

I’m in the same position as a child. I’m trying to pick up a working vocabulary — just the right phrase and intonation to convey exactly what I want to say. Parsing that eavesdropped exchange, there were a dozen fine points to incorporate in my own Spanish. Thank you Raymonde and Marlene.

The Costa Brava in-laws have also opened the drapes on a very different way to think about marital fidelity. I am surprised the (alleged) cheater’s mother is involved and that she seems so unperturbed; the presence of the three-year-old at this conversation is altogether baffling. There’s a lot I don’t know about Spain besides the proper conjugation of the imperfect subjunctive.

I ask myself how would I feel if someone listened to my chatter? I might be flattered, certainly curious to see their notes. If I knew they were listening and I were in a mood, I might pepper the conversation with questions like “And you left him in the trunk? With the snakes?”

On the other hand, if it were a serious, confidential, or otherwise private conversation, I wouldn’t have it in a crowded café. The expectation of privacy may be different between Europeans and Americans.

One other consideration separates my hungry ears from actual spying: I don’t know these people — my eavesdroppees — I likely never will. I have no intention to use anything I might accidentally learn, and certainly not against them. I’m not as interested in them as in how they speak.

Improve Your Spanish by Listening to Strangers

Improve your Spanish through Eavesdropping

This is no beginner exercise. If you want to try eavesdropping toward fluency, you need serious language skills. Remember there’s every chance you’ll hear nothing useful and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t exactly change the subject when you’re not a party to the conversation.

Still, there are ways to improve your odds. Follow these rules to successfully eavesdrop and improve your Spanish listening comprehension:

1. Pick the right place

A café beside a karate dojo: the perfect eavesdropping location?

A café beside a karate dojo: the perfect eavesdropping location?

Choose a venue where people tend to talk. Two adults alone, especially a married couple, may say nothing. Add children, and the prattle goes on nonstop.

The conversation above occurred in a café beside a dance school, where parents waited with little brothers and sisters for older siblings to finish class. A café beside a karate dojo, soccer field, ice rink, gymnastics gym, or music school could be good bets. Ditto the coffee shop beside the art-house movie theater. A restaurant where half a dozen people are holding an off-site office meeting is beyond golden — especially if the boss is a jerk.

You’ll know it when you see it. Avoid places millennials frequent because even in Spain most just stare at their phones, wordlessly. Can’t learn Spanish from an automaton.

2. Pick the right table

Improving your listening comprehension

Sorry, you don’t get the table by the window, even if the maître d’ offers it. You want the table next to the table by the window, so the chatty family can pick the table by the window.

3. You need a prop

Listening to Spanish conversation

And you already have one: your phone. It cannot be obvious that you’re writing down what you’re overhearing. Instead, make it appear you are taking feverish, important notes on an email. You’re concentrating on that message, not whatever’s going on in the cafe, much less at the next table.

In lieu of your smart phone, a book will work. Actually take a few notes from it. Verisimilitude, baby.

Earphones that don’t actually affect your ability to hear are a nice touch. Make sure you actually have a device to plug them into, otherwise you just look nuts. Ditto sunglasses if it’s not sunny.

4. Look as guiri as possible

Look as guiri as possible

Guiri = tourist. Play innocent. Don’t speak Spanish to the waiter or if you must, speak it poorly. Very poorly. Lay it on thick — mispronounce words and make no sense.

In the loudest, worst accent you can muster point at a light fixture above your table and try: “¿Puedo aparcar el aerodeslizador aquí? Tiene mucho hambre” (May I park my hovercraft here? It’s so hungry).

The next table will think speaking in front of you is as private as talking in front of the dog. You can leave the waitperson a nice tip.

5. Never look directly at the people you are listening to

No matter how curious you are, or whatever nonsense they might say about leaving someone in the trunk, with the snakes.


Guest poster Eduard Messett is a writer-communicator-collaborator and recovering trial lawyer. We became friends at an ongoing Spanish language intercambio. He has decades of experience bringing messages to a wide public.

Photo credits:
– Banner: By Terence S. JonesFlickr: Latin Quarter, CC BY 2.0, Link
– Spanish café: By Oh-Barcelona.com from Barcelona, Spain – People enjoying the Spanish lifestyle in a café, CC BY 2.0, Link
– Illustration: Toulouse-Lautrec in a café by Ricard Opisso. Photo by Eduard Messett
– Paris café: By Martin Robson from Brighton, UK (20130808-IMG_7203) [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
– Paris Latin Quarter café: By Terence S. JonesFlickr: Latin Quarter, CC BY 2.0, Link
– Café beside a karate dojo: Photo by Eduard Messett
– Paris café: By ProtoplasmaKidSelf-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
– Woman using phone: Photo by Pete Bellis on Unsplash
– Guiris: Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash


Have more tips on how to learn Spanish by listening? Please share your suggestions for Spanish listening practice in the comments.

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