Archive for July, 2007

An Unknown Comprehension Killer
Filed under (Spanish Ear Training) by marcus @ 06:25 pm

“You can know every word in a sentence and still not understand”

That’s what the coordinator said to me when I was teaching English in Mexico to post graduate students.

You know what…

She was right, it can happen.

But she believed lack of comprehension was always about grammar and I believed it almost always about words.

You see, if you don’t understand a written sentence, it’s almost always because you don’t know a word. And if you know all the words in the sentence but you still don’t understand, 9 times out of 10 it’s still about the words.

More often than not, it’s not the grammar that stumps you, at least not the grammar that is usually taught.

Let me explain…

It’s the way words are combined to create different meanings that’s often the comprehension killer.

These are called collocations and they are one of the biggest stumbling blocks to comprehension, yet, they are almost never taught.

Let me show you what I mean.

Do you know the meanings of these words? mucho, bien, más, cuando, dar, quiere, cada, como, luz, decir, no, una, si, vez, caer, cuánto, tener, de, que

Most of the words look very familiar right?

How many do you know?

I expect you know at least 10-15 of those words, probably more.

What if we put the words together, do you know the meanings of these word combinations?

cuando mucho
cada cuánto?
dar a luz
tiene que
caer bien
como no
cómo si
de una vez
quiere decir
más bien

Here’s a tip: the meanings are very different from the individual words.

If you don’t know the combined meaning you’ll get confused about what people are saying to you.

Spanish will seem faster than it really is.

Here is an easy solution to building you mental database of collocations.

All you have to do is have someone point them out to you, then learn them as
you would individual words.

If you learn them so well that you recognize instantly, you’ll
make a big improvement to your ear for Spanish.

So, what did those combinations mean?

It may surprise you…

cuando mucho – at the most
cada cuánto? – how often?
dar a luz – to give birth to
tiene que – have to/has to (you should know this one)
caer bien – to be fond of/to like
cómo no – why not, of course
como si – as if
de una vez – once and for all
quiere decir – mean/means
más bien – rather/instead


Some combinations seem to have nothing to do with the individual words.

Could collocations be more important to understanding Spanish than they are given credit for?

Is it possible that this is more important than the usual grammar…

I believe so…

Let me tell you how I got a handle on the most important collocations.

When I was learning Spanish and kept seeing or hearing a collocation, I’d find its meaning and make a flashcard. I’d put the Spanish collocation on one side, the English meaning on the other. I also used to also make up a mnemonic to help me remember.

Then, next time I read or heard it again, it would spark my memory. I’d have a feeling of familiarity with the meaning. It only took me one or two times of hearing or reading it for it to sink in. After that, I would remember the meaning of many of the collocations forever, especially the more frequently used ones.

Here’s the bad news.

I used to make the cards with Rolodex cards. Then, I would carry some and store the rest in a plastic box.

You know where this is going right?


Spring cleaning

“I guess I’m done with these cards? I know the meanings now”.


How helpful they would have been to share with you

Not all is lost though. For the last year I have been busy cataloging collocations.
Actively listening for the most universal (all regions) and the most commonly used ones to share with my students.

I’m going to put the most common ones into a PDF and share them with you, gratis of course.

It’ll help you build a solid database of the most common collocations and improve your understanding of Spanish.

Over the coming months, I’ll be sharing more extensive information on this and 6 other ways you can build your comprehension of Spanish.

If you signed up for my Spanish Ear Training information, look for emails about the reports. If not, you can join the update list for my here.

Also, I’ll be soon opening a Spanish Ear Training Coaching Program for just a few people. We’ll have even more details of these hidden secrets to comprehending more Spanish. Plus, members will have access to step by step methods to actively build their understanding of Spanish every month.

I’ll have more details on the program shortly.

Please leave your comments.

Más despacio por favor
Filed under (Spanish Ear Training) by marcus @ 06:51 pm

At times Spanish just seems to fly by so fast.

The average is 4 words per second and sometimes it seems like some people speak even faster than that.

rat at tat tat

A machine gun volley of Spanish words flying at you so fast you start to feel lost.

What can we do?

Can anything be done?

Yes, there is a lot that you can do. The most important factor is the approach you take to learning.

Just like any skill, it’s how you learn that makes all the difference.

Let me explain…

I almost pulled my daughter out of her ballet class after watching her teacher chastise her and her little friends.

He’s Ukrainian, has lived in Mexico for 10 years, speaks great Spanish and English and perhaps more languages, he is a professional dancer in San Diego and looks like a ballet god.

so he has some gifts.

But teaching isn’t one of them…

Like many teachers, he blames the student for not learning.

I have taught language to students of all ages, social levels and education background, from factory workers to directors of big companies to PHD university students. While some people just don’t want to learn, most do want to get the thrill and reward of the result of learning how to do something… and its a shame when they aren’t able to learn because of a flawed approach.

Instead of complaining about the students as many teachers do, fixing the system, the approach or the method would be a better use of time and energy.

The ballet teacher’s approach may seem like it has nothing to do with learning Spanish, but it actually has everything to do with learning Spanish.

Here’s his approach to a problem, which is unfortunately quite common

1) chastise 3 and 4 year old girls with comments like;

pobre piso (poor floor)

bailen como elefantes

muy mal, niñas

2) Instead of fixing what they were doing wrong, go onto the next part of the lesson (because we have to do all the things in the lesson list in the allotted time).

I could have taught them better myself… There’s an image for you, me teaching ballet.

I could have taught them to improve what he was complaining about in a few minutes. Here’s what I would have done

1) I would have got them to slow down the movements

2) I would have broken the movements into pieces.

lift knee

step forward with same knee

lift other knee

step forward with same leg

3) Then all the parts in one movement, slowly.

4) Then speed it up.

Do you think that may have worked better than doing it full speed every time?

Instead of looking like they had some kind of muscular disorder, I guarantee within five minutes they would have made plenty of improvement and his pobre piso, wouldn’t have had to suffer las niñas elefantes anymore.

Why the long story, and what’s it got to do with understanding Spanish spoken quickly.

I hope you can see the parallel, learning any new skill, dancing, music, martial arts, driving a car… it doesn’t matter what it is…you need to first start slowly.

You didn’t learn to drive in the Indy 500 or the Monaco Formula One.

You learned to drive first, slowly, one gear at a time and without distractions (other cars).

To develop your ear for Spanish you need to do the same.

Break it into smaller pieces.

Slow it down

Learn in steps.

Clarify the confusing parts.

Then when you are comfortable with the theme, put it together in longer combinations

Speed it up

and get involved

Well what do you know… That blur of words is not such a blur anymore. You can actually start to make sense of it all.

I am very close to finishing the first installment of my new Spanish ear training audio newsletter, which will help you develop your ear for Spanish in an easy to follow systematic approach.

If you think your ear could do with a tune up, and you’d like to be able to keep up with people when they speak quickly, you can get on the audio newsletter list by adding your name and email below.


I’m very excited about this project, as it is something that has never been done before. This bottleneck that gets in so many people’s way and stops them advancing their Spanish has never been addressed until now.

I look forward to helping you advance in your Spanish in ways that significantly improve your ability to interact in the real world with real native Spanish speakers, which is the point of learning Spanish in the first place, isn’t it?I’d be delighted to hear your comments. If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment below.

Problems with Spanish
Filed under (Spanish Ear Training) by marcus @ 04:30 am

Quite a few people asked if I would be able of help them with dealing with Spanish spoken quickly.
The answer is yes, large sections of the audio newsletter will be dedicated to training your ear for Spanish. You’ll learn to understand everyday Spanish, the way people naturally speak and express themselves, and you’ll learn to handle the pace at which they speak.

You can expect to get a significant tune up for your ear every month and improve you ability to deal with the rapid pace of spoken Spanish.

That’s why; I’ve named this blog Spanish Ear Training so we can get focused on helping you develop your ear for Spanish.

Many people also asked, will I be teaching the subjunctive, por vs para, reflexive verbs etc. The answer is yes, I will, but not in way you’re used to.
After all… the way that many of you have been taught these structures, is the reason why you’re so confused by it all.

Frankly, I think the importance of these parts of Spanish are very often overemphasized. Especially, when they are isolated and taught as a formula to memorize. That works in an exam, but out on the street… good thing it’s not self defense… or you’d be dead.

Instead, I’ll explain these parts of the language as they come up in real Spanish conversations, contexts and situations. I’ll show you what’s behind these structures, so you’ll understand on a much deeper level. Then your Spanish becomes more intuitive.

In fact, any Spanish that will really serve you, has to be intuitive… it all passes by too fast to be thinking about the 28 rules that govern “por vs para” and so on.

Let’s get real

Who can possible be juggling 28 rules for por vs para, while simultaneously trying to listen to Spanish spoken at 4 words per second?

What you really want is to be able to keep up, and to do that you can only focus on one thing.

You either focus on listening or you focus on rules.

It’s been my experience that once your ear develops enough for you to participate in conversation your skill on all parts of Spanish develops very quickly. Then one day, you realize you don’t have to think so hard about it – and you don’t have to concentrate so hard to understand either.

And the rules — they just seem to fall into place all by themselves, just like they did when you learned English. It becomes more intuitive everyday.

That’s the end goal here, and that’s what we’ll really be trying to help you develop with this newsletter.
Expect to meet Spanish in real contexts and from real life Spanish sources.

If explaining why the subjunctive, por vs para or reflexive verbs were used in the real context leads you to better intuition, then sure… I’ll be glad to explain it.

However in at least 3/4 of the audio newsletter you won’t be passively listening to explanations. Instead, you’ll be actively involved in expanding you ear and also extending your speaking ability to be able to talk on a wide range of topics.

That way, you’ll have a much deeper, more intuitive, more natural understanding of what’s really happening in the Spanish you hear. You’ll be much better able to keep up, tune in and get involded in real world conversations.

The third thing people told me was that they had a problem finding people to practice Spanish with, they live in places without a Spanish speaking population.
Obviously that’s not something that I can help with very much. However, here is a webpage that I wrote some time ago with a couple of options that you can use wherever you live.

And here is an group that helps people make exchange visits to other countries.

Please leave your comments on this blog, I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts.

Bad Behavior has blocked 231 access attempts in the last 7 days.