What are some good techniques to improve my ability to understand spoken Spanish? If people talk slowly I can follow along but at "full speed"I am lost.     -Darren

There are two modes of listening practice, each at opposing ends of a continuum. On one end, there is the kind of listening session in which you sit down and watch a clip from a movie or broadcast and analyze it for meaning, grammar, vocabulary, etc., likely with the help of a teacher. We'll call that mode 'quality'. On the other end there is the experience of, say, sitting around a table with a group of native speakers all speaking a mile-a-minute with no way to pause or rewind. We'll call that 'quantity'.

'Quality' is great when you can get it, but a person's listening comprehension ultimately comes from 'quantity'. And the key to being successful in the 'quantity' experience, is learning to listen less to individual words, and improving your ability to guess and get the main idea.

My listening strategy checklist is as follows:

1. Establish context.

2. Listen for keywords.

3. Get the main idea.

When students of mine claim that they aren't understanding anything from Spanish TV, I tell them next time turn the TV on mute. You'll be surprised how much you can guess just given the context of what you see on the screen.

Once you turn the volume back up, you'll find that just a few keywords will support your initial guess. For example, you can tell from mute that the show is a Mexican telenovela -- sort of like a soap opera. And you can see from mute that a married couple is fighting, and the woman just slapped the man (typical scene). Now if you're listening to the words, and you hear "¡...con María!, you can probably fill in the blanks that she suspects the man is cheating on her with Maria.

When you listen to people speak at a high-rate of speed, naturally, natively, make a quick assumption about what the context is. Ask yourself, in general, what are people talking about here? Make your assumption as specific as possible, but don't be afraid to let it be a bit general just to keep yourself in the ballpark.

Once you've decided on the context, or topic of the conversation, relax your ears and mind and just listen for the words that pop out at you. Your mind will fill in the blanks.

The trick to the 'quantity' mode is in quantity, meaning that your skill at guessing and letting your mind fill in the blanks happens over time, and in a variety of situations. Practice this approach using TV, movies, music (you can look up the lyrics online), and of course real conversations.