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

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61 Comments posted on "An Unknown Comprehension Killer"
AnnNo Gravatar on February 13th, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

Hola Marcus (I’m practising)

Though I did not have any problem as yet, I appreciate this informacion. I wanted to use the Spanish for ‘appreciate’ but I was unsure of the conjugation so, perhaps, next time.
Muchas gracias!



Jim WallsNo Gravatar on January 6th, 2013 at 7:39 pm #

Thank you so much for the work that you are doing Marcus. I am now a resident of Mexico and have found a beautiful compañera who is learning English. We share the problem mentioned above in BOTH languages. Yesterday I said to her “common” (meaning to say “Come on”) and she asked “what does that word mean and how do you spell it?” It will take time for us to learn each others collocations and colloquialisms. But we have learned the key for us is to speak clearly and distinctly and “NOT SO FAST !!! :}
On a side note – She speaks Mexican and I speak American.


JimNo Gravatar on September 2nd, 2012 at 6:05 pm #

Marcus, until you can come up with some good lessons on how the Spanish speakers really speak by combining their words, I am still going to be in the dark. For example, they say “dondesta” instead of “dónde está”,”cuan doi ba mos” instead of “cuando íbamos”, “miul ti mo” instead of “mi último”. Well, you get my meaning. I love all of your other lessons and they have helped me tremendously. Thanks. Jim


Naomi AbrahamsNo Gravatar on September 2nd, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

This is going to be really useful for me when I get the time to sit down with it. Thanks very much


Patricia HinsonNo Gravatar on September 1st, 2012 at 4:06 am #

The free lessons you send me has helped me alot. I now can write some sentences instead of only knowing spanish words. Thank you very much.


OssieAdel95No Gravatar on August 9th, 2012 at 10:57 pm #

I applaud the writer.


joan storerNo Gravatar on April 28th, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

Marcus, gracias por todo ayudo. thank you again. I had never heard of collocations before you explained. I hope to join you at a later date.


KrishnamoorthyNo Gravatar on April 9th, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

Small steps, but go a long way to understand and enjoy the pleasure of learning the glorious language of Spanish. God bless you.


Gloria JoyceNo Gravatar on March 24th, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

Thank you for the Spanish Beyond the Dictionary part 2. Where would you locate part 1? I never received this. I would love to join Spanish Ear Training but I know I am not up to this level yet. I will hold on to your e-mails for future consideration. thank you Marcus.


beckyNo Gravatar on March 23rd, 2011 at 10:41 pm #

gracias, me encanta tu pagina, es divertida e instructiva, si alguien desea practicar conmigo, puede hacerlo. Becky


Lee PaulNo Gravatar on December 12th, 2010 at 8:56 pm #

Spanish is actually my third language, after English and German. I had a lot of trouble with German because I learned it in College, the old way, by grinding out every word individually and every verb conjugation “vertically”. What a drag!
I hope your students realize this “horizontal” way you teach is by far the most practical, quickest, most logical, efficient and natural way to learn anything, especially language, and I think mathematics too.
These collocations are another in your fine system of learning aids which I really believe in. And although there is some hard core memorization involved, it’s so well worth it that I find it enjoyable to learn this way. Thank you for all the thought and work you and Elena have put in to your method to make learning Language so much easier than it ever used to be. Muchas gracias, Lee Paul


marcusNo Gravatar Reply:

Hi Lee

Thanks for the comments and the reminder to me to again emphasis the importance of horizontal approach. It’s one of my biggest teaching breakthroughs. It makes even the most complex Spanish attainable. Great that you appreciate it.



Donna GriffithNo Gravatar on December 15th, 2009 at 11:20 am #

I am quite excited to start this program because I have difficulty with that exact topic. When do we begin Marcus?


Ray DeclouxNo Gravatar on December 14th, 2009 at 3:07 am #

I Look forward to every email and all information that you send….
Languages, and especially Spanish, are my passion.


Mary FleetNo Gravatar on December 13th, 2009 at 5:18 pm #

Can’t wait to see if it works for me. It will be just what I need so I let you know as soon as I get started


Dick BrownNo Gravatar on December 10th, 2009 at 2:45 pm #

I hear you Marcus. I like the way you think. I like your creativeness. You perceive a problem and go to work on it.


jannettNo Gravatar on December 9th, 2009 at 6:54 pm #

I gave up my spanish school coz i never learn anything..thanks for having this lesson marcus you teached us a lot.


Dave hallNo Gravatar on December 9th, 2009 at 5:58 pm #

looking forward to the collocations gracias Dave


LarriNo Gravatar on September 1st, 2009 at 10:11 pm #

I am ready to roll! How can I purchase this now!


Lucie HerendeenNo Gravatar on February 2nd, 2009 at 5:36 pm #

Marcus, I signed up for the first two months of your spanish ear training and loved every minute of it! I canceled my subscription in my attempt to cut back on expenses but I find that I really miss your methods and want to start up again soon. Please let me know if you have some sessions that are more advanced…I will cut back on something else so that I can continue learning with you! Gracias. Lucie


Patti CotaNo Gravatar on January 14th, 2009 at 12:44 am #

The collocations are interesting, but can you show us how to use them in a sentence?


William SkellyNo Gravatar on November 13th, 2008 at 9:23 pm #

Marcus, just wanted to say how much benefit (massive amounts) Im getting out of Synergy Spanish/Bola De Nieve. Really looking forward to more of this Spanish ear traning business?!

Cheers, Billy (Sydney, OZ)


Martin BasisztaNo Gravatar on October 9th, 2008 at 12:49 pm #

¡Mil gracias!


TangoNo Gravatar on November 1st, 2007 at 3:16 pm #

Please teach more collocation. Its just what I have been looking for. I learned more from you in 1 lesson than I have in 3 months in a language school. You are a genius in teaching language.


Betty WarkentinNo Gravatar on October 23rd, 2007 at 2:00 am #

Hi Marcus, I am unfamiliar with blogs. I just found yours. I am slowly studying “How-to-speak” You were going to give us transcripts for Lecions 8-31 audio. I have somehow missed receiving them. Is it too late for me to get them now? I love to learn Spanish when I feel well enough. Thank you for your help. Betty


Anne ThorntonNo Gravatar on October 5th, 2007 at 1:39 pm #

Your approach makes complete sense to me. I enjoyed learning some Spanish at school many years ago, and have just completed a year’s beginners course at my local college. I’m just starting another one year course, at the end of which I hope to gain a GCSE/”O” level (Nationally recognised subject qualification in Britain, which you do usualy at the age of 16yrs at school). More importantly though, I want to gain some real spoken fluency.
Going back to Spanish after such a long break, I was amazed to discover that what I remembered most were the commom idioms and everyday phrases, just as you’ve described: e.g. “Yo creo que…”, etc. These “building blocks” can make you sound quite fluent, even when you only have a limited vocabulary!
I look forward to joining ASAP(!)as I know that it will be really useful to me. Many thanks, Anne


TheresaNo Gravatar on August 15th, 2007 at 11:44 pm #

I missed it too. But, I would like to know how to access the letter that answered questions. I read about it in the second email but could not figure out where it was. If someone could tell me where to find it, I will be ready for the next class with all my questions asked before hand. Thanks


Janece McKinzieNo Gravatar on August 3rd, 2007 at 9:09 pm #

Wanted this badly but missed the window of opportunity. When, oh when will the next window open? Make it soon! Janece


annieNo Gravatar on August 1st, 2007 at 6:04 am #

cannot wait – why can I not have it now?


DonNo Gravatar on July 31st, 2007 at 3:22 am #

Mr Sanatmaria,

Thank you so much for your extremely helpful insight into the acquisition of the language. Icing on the cake!!!


nandita shaunikNo Gravatar on July 26th, 2007 at 7:39 pm #

It has been a great help to work with your audio courses and be understood enough to get by in my business visits to Spain


EleanorNo Gravatar on July 25th, 2007 at 4:45 pm #

Thank you Marcus, I can’t wait for the next programme.

Best wishes.


Philip NashNo Gravatar on July 24th, 2007 at 2:39 pm #

Hi Marcus,
Your work has been of considerable assistance to us.
Muchas gracias.
Philip Nash


Melvyn Follows (England)No Gravatar on July 23rd, 2007 at 6:47 pm #

Just a few words to confirm what everyone else is saying.We know (muchas palabras) but can’t make sentences,don’t here much spanish in England


reubenNo Gravatar on July 23rd, 2007 at 1:28 pm #

Your steps to teaching is extraordinarily good. I can now make simple sentences without mistakes. My problem of inability to capture properly a spoken spanish from the experts as they speak would be likely resolved by the use of this new method. You are really good. Gracias


MNo Gravatar on July 23rd, 2007 at 3:47 am #

You are without doubt the best accident (I literally stumbled onto your site) that has ever happened to me!

All of the above and the little poem too! :O)


delNo Gravatar on July 22nd, 2007 at 10:31 pm #

just want you to know that i am looking forward!


Richard I.BaumNo Gravatar on July 22nd, 2007 at 3:21 pm #

Collocations! What a word
A secret that’s within
And Marcus will reveal to us
So it won’t be so grim
Traducion of collocations
Now really I must say
I really want to ask you Marcus
How I’d say Oi Vay!!!!!!
Muchas Gracias to Marcus
This man has the key
To make us Spanish speakers
Adios from little old me!


DavidNo Gravatar on July 22nd, 2007 at 11:36 am #

thanks Marcus, i am greatly looking forward to this next step in comprension – my skills in reading writting and speaking in spanish have all improved dramaticaly with your courses – my big weakness is the understanding of the spoken words in normal conversations – cant wait to enroll – cheers


Lorena OlizaNo Gravatar on July 22nd, 2007 at 5:27 am #

Its a big opportunity to us to learn more Spanish,thank you very much for the non stop support.God bless always and more power.


MaríaNo Gravatar on July 22nd, 2007 at 12:28 am #

¡Hola! This is exactly what I need. Puedo escribir y leer español un poco, pero no puedo entender español cuando lo oigo. I am sure I have made some mistakes. Espero que usted me entienda. ¡Muchas gracias!


NachaiyaNo Gravatar on July 21st, 2007 at 10:57 pm #

Going down your individual list of words, I thought to myself, I know all of these. Then when it came to
your list of collocations, Yipes! What a eye opener your list was. I said to myself, “Oh my God”, is this what the combination of these words mean. Wow, I really need this training. Thank you for putting this together for me and the others who are eager to learn Spanish proficiently.


Mark S. Reed Sr.No Gravatar on July 21st, 2007 at 8:29 pm #

Well, I can only say thank you for switching on that little light of comprehension, as I am sure it was the same for many. I know “muchas, muchas palabras”, however, it “is” the meanings of “word combinations” that have stented me from learning to speak Spanish more proficiently.
Thank you Marcus, your bringing me closer to my goal!


LylaNo Gravatar on July 21st, 2007 at 5:04 pm #

Thank you Marcus, SOOOO much for all your input into helping us all with our Spanish. There are so many great comments already, it is hard to think of any more! Just thanks again and please know how grateful we all are for your hard work.


Evelyn CawthornNo Gravatar on July 21st, 2007 at 12:42 pm #

Marcus – another winner it seems! I am looking forward to the forthcoming ear training. We need you in the UK to get our young people interested in languages. They are so bored with the old style teaching methods many don’t take languages if they can help it. So carry on making it interesting for us. As they say in America “Appreciate it!”


julianNo Gravatar on July 21st, 2007 at 12:12 pm #

Currently plateaued or even sliding with my Spansih. I can’t wait to start this!


Wendy JonesNo Gravatar on July 21st, 2007 at 9:16 am #

I have just returned from a six week motorbike touring holiday in Spain. Thanks to your lessons I was able to make myself understood, however, listening to the native speakers talking among themselves I had no idea what they were saying. I would really appreciate extra help in understanding the spoken word.


AdrienneNo Gravatar on July 21st, 2007 at 9:08 am #

Your methods for teaching are so simple and yet so incredibly clever!Because of your clever individual ideas, your courses make learning so much fun. I could have done with you when I learnt French at school! Gracias!


dafna ronn-oxleyNo Gravatar on July 20th, 2007 at 11:42 pm #

I appreciate very much your continuous attention to developing your system and to the real need of students of Spanish. I am looking forward to the new collocations. I also would like to add that it is impossible for one to express one’s thoughts in Spanish without the use of the subjunctive. I am sure that you are very well aware of it. Is there a chance that you would continue your language programs (recorded) to a higher level? I’d be very interested in it. Subjunctive is not the only one which is missing, conditional and other tenses or “moods” too. I know very well that I am asking a lot – but after all, what can I loose…..
Que te vaya bien,


DonaleeNo Gravatar on July 20th, 2007 at 10:47 pm #

I can’t wait especially for the coadhing programs


Beverly AdamsNo Gravatar on July 20th, 2007 at 10:30 pm #

YES, we hear this spoken all the time!! We speak like this in English also, and it’s not taught in ESL classes either.
Thanks so much for helping us learn “real” Spanish.


ShawnieNo Gravatar on July 20th, 2007 at 10:23 pm #

Marcus – I am so excited! I can’t wait to get started! Muchas gracias!


Jerroll FryNo Gravatar on July 20th, 2007 at 10:20 pm #

I don’t know how you come up with these things,but you’re making a lot of Gringos happy.


ChristineNo Gravatar on July 20th, 2007 at 10:17 pm #

I can not wait. I live in a country where Spanish speakers are few and far between and my Mexican Spanish teacher only sees me once a week. She is trying to think of ways to make it better for me in my understanding. Like the others I am very grateful for all that you have done. I know it is a lot of work but please hurry hurry hurry.


Pamela BarsbyNo Gravatar on July 20th, 2007 at 9:50 pm #

I realy like the sound of all that is comming up. Pamela.


Mary MizeNo Gravatar on July 20th, 2007 at 9:36 pm #

I LOVE this program. I have learned so much and am able to understand quite a bit of Spanish yet aware that I need to learn so much more. Your help and teaching is greatly appreciated. I have bought many programs prior to finding yours and have just thrown money away. Thank you, again.


Barbara PombierNo Gravatar on July 20th, 2007 at 9:29 pm #

Sounds great, now maybe I will be able to understand what I have learned in Synergy Spanish and Spanish made simple. It all sounds like noise to me so far. I was ready to hire a Spanish speaking person to come and talk to me. You are bound to be less expensive then that. Look forward to it.


Pam KleinNo Gravatar on July 20th, 2007 at 9:19 pm #

I am always looking for ways to improve my listening and talking skills now that I have the basics. I enjoyed your other lessons, and they were easy to use and learn from. Thank you so much


FelipeNo Gravatar on July 20th, 2007 at 9:08 pm #

Your ear training sounds (no pun intended) like just what I need. When to we begin?


Paule CarrierNo Gravatar on July 20th, 2007 at 9:02 pm #

I am very excited about all this and I am anxious to begin with hasta luego Paule


Sunny BowesNo Gravatar on July 20th, 2007 at 6:57 pm #

Marcus, you are undoubtedly our ‘life saver’……….we’ll be indebted to you for life!!!!
Thank you so very much for all that you’ve taught us so far and we look forward to more time spent with your incredible classes.


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