We have covered the topic of adult language learning in several previous posts. (see Language Building Blocks..., Learning Grammar in Context, etc.) The above article also provides some new insights why just learning vocabulary alone won't make you SPEAK another dialect or a second language.
Interestingly, the Atherton's headline questions the difficulty of mastering "another dialect." In the text, the author switches between "dialect" and "second language." There is no need here to discuss when a "dialect" becomes a "language." The interchangeable use of both terms in the article, however, made us realize again how important "context" is for learning both another dialect and a second language.
Both of us grew up learning different dialects in our native country, Austria. Ulrike grew up with "Viennese" German during her elementary school years and Peter with "Vorarlbergisch" German during his pre-school years. We then learned Dutch and English (Ulrike) and High German (Peter) by the time we finished high school. (Later, Peter picked up Swiss German and French while studying and working in Switzerland and Ulrike polished her High German while teaching English in Germany.)
Looking back, it is quite clear that when we learned our dialects/native language as children, we did it in the context of playing and interacting with those around us and by imitating our caregivers and friends.
In fact, this is also how Ulrike learned Dutch during her two years of primary school in the Netherlands or learned English in high school in Canada; it's also how Peter picked up Swiss German as a young adult - by imitating friends, fellow students and teachers. (It certainly helped Peter's Swiss German that "Vorarlbergisch," like Swiss German, is an Alemannic dialect.)
Today, both of us still UNDERSTAND those dialects quite well. And, after a few days of hearing them, we can also SPEAK them again.
Yes, studies have shown that young children have many more brain connections (synapses) than adults, and we have no reason to disagree with neuroscientist Arturo Hernandez of the above mentioned article:
...some individuals may have a particular neuronal activity pattern that may lend itself to better learning of a second language."
But we also firmly believe - based on our own experience in learning other languages as adults - that learning a second language is much easier with a story and dialogs. This mirrors how we learned our first language: relating the words we heard to the activities and dialogs around us, and making the all-important connections in our brain.
That's why we are using a story with dialogs for our Gamesforlanguage courses.
Learning a new language is a pretty complicated process. When someone speaks to you in a foreign language, there are so many things going on at the same time.
You need to decode the sounds and figure out the meaning of the words; you have to answer some basic grammar questions before you can understand the meaning of a sentence:Which are the verbs, nouns, adjectives? Is it a statement or question? Is it in a past, present, or future tense?
Finally, you have to connect everything to the context of the situation. That's a lot going on at once.
The Power of "Context"
Taking a sample French “core conversation,” I'd like to illustrate how a learner may focus on different aspects of the language at different stages, and why context is important:
A young student called Daniel is at the home of his friend Virginie. He meets her friend Mathilde for the first time.
Virginie: Daniel, don't be so formal. You can say "tu" to each other!
Daniel: You don’t mind, Mathilde?
Mathilde: Of course not. Among students we always say "tu".
Initially you may mostly focus on:
learning their meaning
practicing their pronunciation
practicing their spelling
finding a way to practice the sentences:(Speak them aloud to whoever is willing to listen, type them out, write them out by hand, hang the page up in the kitchen or your study.)
Soon, you may also want to know:
the pronouns: votre, vous, tu, te, nous
other conjugations of the verbs used: enchanter (enchanté), être (sois), pouvoir (pouvez), tutoyer, déranger (derange)
adverbs, prepositions. etc: bien sûr, toujours
Replaying this dialog again later on, you may discover and understand:
sentence structure: the form of a statement, a command, a type of question, a complex sentence
other grammatical forms (eg. negation with an object pronoun [ça ne te dérange pas]; reflexive verb forms [Vous pouvez vous tutoyer!, nous nous tutoyons]; the use of "que" [bien sûr que non])
Key Points to consider:
What is important about the context the dialog provides?
the age of the people (here they are students in their twenties)
how well people know each other
the circumstance of the conversation
Why take a conversation rather than individual phrases or sentences?
you'll better remember the words/phrases related to the context
you'll pick up cultural information (i.e. students say “tu”)
What will you have learned initially?
20 to 30 useful words, in a meaningful context
how to respond when meeting somebody
a typical French expression for emphatic negation "Bien sûr que non."
And, later on either explicitly or intuitively?
all the pronouns
5 verbs and a conjugation of each
3 types of sentences
Once you've absorbed a few dozen conversations and acquired more than 500 content words, you're probably ready to engage in relevant, personal conversations with others.
If you just remember sentences such as: "Enchanté de faire votre connaissance", you'll be able to adapt it later on to other uses and circumstances (e.g. Enchanté de faire ta connaissance", "J'ai fait la connaissance de..." , "Je n'ai pas la connaissance de..." etc.).
And, when you later learn the word "connaître" (to know), you'll make the connection with "connaissance," and will have added another word that you're sure to remember.
Learning a foreign language is all about making connections. The more could can connect the words, phrases, and sentences you are learning in another language to your immediate environment, or topics that interest and engage you, the faster and easier it is for you to recall them.
Benny Lewis is certainly right when he advises you to speak your target language immediately. Maybe not everybody can muster the time or commitment that he promotes with Fluent in 3 Months. But listening to stories, reading them aloud, singing foreign songs, etc. will create more connections in your brain. They will help you not only to retain vocabulary better, but also to use them right away in conversations.
Disclosure: The link above are to a partner's program with revenue-sharing, should you decide to buy or subscribe.
If you're learning Italian, you surely know that what you read in books is not enough. There are lots of expressions that you won't find in a dictionary, but that you'll learn on the street or hanging out with local people. Understanding and using these expression in your conversations means that you're actually improving. Moreover, your way of speaking will turn out to be really funny!
Here's a short list of strange expressions that Italians use, compiled for you by The Language Class.
"Che figata!" [keh fee-GAH-tah] is a very common expression. It was at first used by younger people, but today everyone says it. We can translate it with the English "What a cool thing!", but unfortunately it cannot be directly translated.
Therefore, you can use it in many different situations, as it expresses both amazement and admiration: If for example, you're amazed should someone tell you: "I've met Leonardo di Caprio in person!" or admire your best friend, if she tells you: "I've learnt to make tiramisu!" You could answer in both cases: "Che figata!"
"Dai!" [dahyee] is a commonly used expression as well. The pronunciation is actually similar to the English verb "die", but the meaning is absolutely far from that!
If we want to give it an English translation, we can simply choose "Come on!" and we can insert it, as Italians do, in almost each of our sentences! For example, if you suggest to a friend "Let's go to the beach!" and he or she answers "No, I really don't want to", your response will inevitably be "Dai!!!" Or you would use it even to encourage someone to do something that he or she does not want to do at all: "Another beer, dai!"
Don't forget that the expression can also be used as a way to stop someone from doing something! If your friend does not stop stealing your dessert, you just have to say a curt "Dai!"
In Bocca al Lupo
"In bocca al lupo!" is an expression that demonstrates that the Italian language is very... creative! It literally means "into the mouth of the wolf" and is used to wish someone good luck by inviting him to be eaten by a wolf. (The English expression "Break a leg" has a similar meaning!)
The answer to this expression is "Crepi il lupo" and we must admit that at least this seems a bit more logical, as it means "The wolf shall die". When someone wishes you "In Bocca al Lupo!" you certainly don't answer with "Grazie", as this implies bad luck. You don't want to be thankful for being eaten by the wolf.
"Magari!" [mah-GAHR-ee!] is the Italian corresponding to the English "I really wish!" or "Let's hope so". It is clear that we use this expression when we really wish something from the bottom of our heart - but not only.
In fact, in many cases we would use it with an ironic connotation. If your friend asks you "Would you ever marry an American billionaire?" you'd say "Magari!" meaning that of course you would, even if, in all likelihood, it will not happen!
"Meno male!" [MEH-noh MAH-leh] literally means "less bad", but it is not used with this meaning. On the contrary, we can translate it with "Thank God!" and we use it when we actually feel blessed!
Did I really pass the test? "Meno male!" And, don't forget that you can also say "Grazie a dio!" which has the same meaning.
Mini Bio: Gabriele Monti studied Modern Languages at South Bank university in London, and he has been teaching languages ever since in many countries including Japan, Great Britain and France. Currently he loves to write about learning languages and travel.
We're always looking for multiple resources for learning and practicing a foreign language. Different programs teach you different things and will often complement each other.
GamesforLanguage's mission is to find ways of making language learning both fun and effective. We've seen that games and a story will make learners come back again and again. Nothing against traditional methods. It's just that adding fun elements - and context - to language practice makes learning so much more engaging and motivating.
We've been on the lookout for other online programs with some of the above characteristics. In addition, motivated learners - perhaps after completing our free GamesforLanguage's French 1 course - may be ready for a next step: individualized lessons, more explanations, more grammar exercises, and other ways to test their language level.
From that point of view, Frantastique is definitely a winner in our eyes. Here's why this program could lift your French to another plateau.
The idea is unique: The program consists of a regular email (5 times a week), a (somewhat) crazy story or text used as a frame, a number of exercises, detailed explanations, and an immediate email back with corrections.
As part of our partnership arrangement, Frantastique provided my husband Peter and me with a free 4-month Basic subscription.
Lessons are personalized right from the beginning. After seven lessons, Frantastique assigned us a skill level. Frantastique uses the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages:
Mine started at 4.2-4.4 (B1-B2). After 24 lessons, I am now pegged at a straight 4.5 (B2). Peter, who speaks French more fluently than I, but is weaker in spelling and grammar, started with a 3.4 (B1) level. Now (after lesson 24), he has moved up to 3.7 (B1).
The Setup: an Email, a Brief Review, an Ongoing Story, Exercises, Correction
Five times a week early in the morning, you receive an email with your 15-minute lesson. It sits in your inbox, waiting.
Obviously, you can do it any time that's convenient for you. If you skip your lesson, you'll get a reminder after three days.
Your lesson starts with a review. If you made any mistakes in your previous lesson, the Review will cover them again with detailed explanations. To see if you've understood, you'll be asked to do another couple of related questions.
You'll then find a brief review of some grammar points or expressions for which you can get a translation.
After each of these, you have a number of options: You can click on "inutile to reviser" (don't need to review) or “je savais” (I knew), etc. When you do, these particular grammar questions won't be included in a future review. Or if you don't know or are not sure, you'll see them again. This is also a way your lessons become personalized.
The Ongoing Story
Each lesson gives you a small piece of the story, either related to the Extraterrestrials and Victor Hugo or a humorous, made-up story in the form of a newspaper article. (Clicking on the image left will let you play the beginning of the Victor Hugo story.)
The story chunk you get consists of a short article, video, cartoon, or just audio. Typically, you'll see the written dialogue of the audio or video clip when you receive your corrections.
The story itself is a little crazy: A naked, fully-bearded Victor Hugo traipses around Paris together with a couple of aliens from outer space. Hard to believe, but their conversations are eminently practical and fun.
These come in the form of questions about an idiom, expression, grammar point, or cultural topic.
You answer these by typing fill-ins, choosing pull-downs, or writing what you hear. Most of the questions have a small audio with it. This way you can hear French spoken at normal speed by native speakers throughout the lesson.
When you're done, you send off the email with your answers.
Before you can say “Victor Hugo,” your corrected lesson will be in your inbox. If you look at the corrections right away, everything you just wrote will still be fresh in your mind.
For each question you answered, there's a brief explanation of the rule. This is especially helpful for understanding why a guess was correct. If you've made a mistake, you'll also see why your answer is wrong. How better to learn and remember an expression, a way of spelling, or a grammar point.
There are advantages to not receiving corrections the same moment that you write them (as you do with many language programs and apps, including GamesforLanguage). By getting the corrections AFTER completing a lesson, there is no trial-and-error guessing. Also, with the accompanying explanation, you'll better remember both the correct answers as well as the corrected mistakes.
With potentially 340 lessons (at 5 lessons a week), you'll have over 1.5 years of study.
There are a number of settings you can chose in your account tab:
Reception Days: You can only select 5 days, which is ok if you don't want to learn during the weekend.
Vacation Days: Each subscription allows for a certain number of “vacation days” during which you postpone your lessons. (For example, a 6-month subscription allows for 4 weeks of vacation.) These days will be added automatically to the end of your subscription.
Lesson Length: Five (5) Options range from “minimum” (no story) to “maximum.” We have “standard,” which is the default.
Spicy Mode: You can opt out of receiving “spicy” content.
Low Level mode: Activating the “mode bas niveau” will give you the same modules, but they are less difficult.
Pedagogy: The Pedagogy tab lets you view your latest lessons, vocabulary, and grammar to review. It also provides various progress statistics.
Ipad & Android Apps: The iPad and Android apps are well integrated with the online version, but obviously need WiFi access to the email account.
Frantastique has 3 different fee categories: Basic and Premium (for individuals) and Pro (for companies and institutions). Prices for individuals range from $49 - $69 for Basic, and $77 - $111 for Pro subscriptions. For further information: link to the online shop
What We Like
The lessons are fun and immensely enjoyable because of the humorous context of the Victor Hugo story or the funny, made-up newspaper articles as this one on your right.
The expressions and grammar points you learn or review are all practical.
Corrections arrive seconds after you've finished the lesson and reinforce your learning.
The lessons arrive five days a week, which helps you to build a learning habit.
The course lessons are indeed tailored to your skill level. Peter's are different from mine.
There are multiple short audios in the lesson.
You'll hear various voices and different accents, besides standard French.
In your “Account” you'll see all your episodes and corrections in the “cahier de cours.”
Other Points to Consider
The lessons are not for complete beginners (although you can opt for the “low level mode”).
The playful mode disguises the fact that Frantastique is a serious and effective course.
To practice your pronunciation you should repeat everything you hear and read.
The standard lessons are short – it takes me about 15 minutes for each lesson
In addition to English, Frantastique is currently fully available also for German, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese, with Chinese to be added soon. Other languages are being developed.
By trying out Frantastique for FREE for a week (or during special promotions even for a month), you can determine whether it works for you.
If you already have same basic knowledge of French, but want to get to a next level and improve your listening, reading, and writing skills, and do so with a fun and engaging course that prompts you with lessons 5 days a week – then Frantastique is your ticket.
The extra video and audio clips of “Le dessert du jour” (as this Jean Belmondo clip on the left) that accompany each lesson often make you smile. And when you are looking forward to the next lesson, it'll motivate you to learn and practice even dry French grammar points.
Frantastique's sister site Gymglish uses a very similar approach for teaching English (e.g to Spanish speakers) with a story set in San Francisco - and, by using any of the links above you can now try out both sites ONE MONTH FOR FREE.
Disclosure: Links above are to a partner's program with revenue-sharing, should you decide to buy or subscribe.
For most of us who are learning a foreign language, speaking fluently is the ultimate goal. Having a conversation in a foreign language, being able to express feelings and ideas, voicing opinions – all are proof that you have reached a new plateau.
Your accent may not be perfect, but you now have the confidence to express what you want to say. And even if you can't find the absolutely right idiom or expression every time – you now have also other ways to say what's on your mind.
There is no question that the so-called passive skills – reading and listening – are important for achieving fluency. And yes, having a good vocabulary is necessary as well.
However, my own experience also tells me that even when you can read a foreign language and understand it fairly well when it's spoken, SPEAKING it fluently is another step.
Online- vs Classroom-Learning
One of the big drawbacks of online learning is that learners can do so silently. You may do all the exercises, but few online programs “force” you to speak out loud.
(We, at GamesforLanguage, in addition to the “Record-It” segment at the end of each lesson, also invite learners to “Say-it”, i.e. repeat words and phrases they only HEAR, and then briefly SEE spelled out. You can try “Say-It” with one of our German or French Quick Games.)
On the other hand, in the classroom, and especially with a one-on-one tutor, you typically have to speak, formulate answers to questions, etc. (The size of a class obviously matters greatly here.)
For beginners, repeating and saying words and phrases aloud, or reading out loud is an important first step.
Especially with languages that have sounds that don't exist in English, getting your “mouth mechanics” working correctly is another crucial task. (Benny Lewis - see below - may disagree!)
From Hearing to Speaking
HEARING and then REPRODUCING sounds that are different from our native language are not an easy task. Just think of the French nasal sounds, the German “umlauts,” or the many subtle sounds of the Asian languages.
Now, we also know that our ability to HEAR sounds that don't exist in our native language diminishes from early childhood on. (This was the topic of a previous post: Beyond Learning a Language Like a Child, in which we discussed the concept of “Categorical Perception.”)
So, the challenge, especially for all online-learners is this: SPEAK as much as you can, repeat ALOUD the words, phrases and sentences of all the exercises or games you are doing. And once you are able to start reading articles and books, read these out loud as well whenever you can. (And when this is not possible, try “reading aloud silently,” by just moving your lips!)
The sooner you feel ready to participate in real-life conversations, the faster your fluency will improve.
Try to find someone in your neighborhood or among your friends to practice your new language with. But if you can't, you can join language communities such as Speaklikethem, which we personally like a lot, or Italki, where you can find an online teacher for personal language lessons and conversations.
The Benny Lewis Method
Maybe not everybody can muster the time or commitment that Benny Lewis promotes with Fluent in 3 Months. But if you watch his clip and consider the points above, you will conclude as well:
To become fluent in your target language, start SPEAKING it whenever you can - right from the start!
Creating a habit is not easy – but the start of a new year is a great opportunity to set some goals. Make 2016 YOUR year to become fluent in your target language!
Disclosure: Links above and the banner below are to sites with revenue-sharing, should you decide to buy or subscribe.
If you’re a language lover like me, you’ll most likely find that almost any excuse is good enough to start learning a new language, or relearning one you put aside.
Travelling to a foreign country is perhaps one of the best of those reasons. Indeed, wherever you plan on visiting, being able to speak the local language, even if not fluently, can bring along a number of great benefits. That is, of course, apart from the fact that you’ll be able to speak a foreign language in itself.
Being a translator and a travel enthusiast, I often come across situations in which the ability to speak a foreign language is greatly advantageous.
Picking up new lingo before you travel really doesn’t need to be too demanding. Personally, I only take about 45 minutes to an hour a day for 2-3 weeks before visiting a foreign country.
Sure, I am not able to speak the language fluently. Nevertheless, the bits and pieces I pick up are usually sufficient to work in my favor!
Here are my top 5 reasons to learn a new language before you travel.
1. MEET NEW PEOPLE
Many people whose first language is English, tend to forget that not everyone else in the world is also fluent in English.
I'm a native English speaker myself and provide English translation services professionally. I’ve noticed that the ability to speak a language of a country I am visiting allows me to meet more people and be able to talk with them more easily.
Even if you don’t speak the language fluently, your efforts will be appreciated by the locals. As a result, they’ll be more approachable in general.
My travels to Thailand are a great example of this. I am only able to put together a few phrases in Thai. But it seemed enough to work to my advantage! I could easily find my way around hectic streets of Bangkok and negotiate discounts which otherwise are not available to tourists!
2. Test your language
Each of us prefers to approach language learning from a different angle. Some like reading books, while others like video tutorials or going to group classes. There are lots of different ways you can learn a language.
Before I started translating for Language Reach however, I learnt that there is one certain way which will test your language skills completely – and that’s talking to a native speaker.
Discreet things which we may not even consider when learning a language, such as different accents of people, can influence our ability to communicate.
Visiting a foreign country is the perfect opportunity which will allow you to take your language skills for a test run in ‘the real world’. (Do you know what this eye-chart above suggests - in German?)
Whether you like it or not, emergencies and other unforeseen situations can happen even when you’re exploring a foreign country (or perhaps - especially then).
Therefore, whether it’s informing a hospital about your allergies or medications, explaining something to the police officer or asking for directions when you’re lost - knowing how to communicate in the country’s language can be crucial.
Often when trying to explore and see as much as possible, I find myself in such situations. Especially during my escapades in Asia, my ability to communicate - be it every so slightly - allowed me to safely find my way back or to avoid foods and spices to which I am allergic!
4. Explore More
Surely, it’s possible to see and explore a country without speaking the language. You simply follow the well-known tourist routes with other tourists alongside you – perhaps, all taking the same picture in the exact same pose.
Nonetheless, knowing the language during your travels will allow you to explore a country in much more depth. You'll find and discover places perhaps only known by the locals. Remember, not everyone speaks English!
A few months ago, during my visit to Krakow, Poland, I was able to talk with a local shop owner who advised me to visit a restaurant with live jazz music located just outside the city centre.
Imagine how shocked I was to find that such a lovely place wasn’t to be found in any of the books or blogs I ever read about Krakow! Indeed, it seemed that I was the only tourist there.
5. Understand The Culture
Charlemagne once said that ‘to speak another language is to possess another soul.’ Can any other statement be more accurate, especially as you travel to unknown, foreign countries?
By being able to understand the language – how polite and casual forms of address differ, how people express their emotions, etc. - you'll understand the country’s culture much better.
Learning a language before travelling will also allow you to speak directly with locals who may not speak any English. You'll understand their way of life and customs in much more depth.
In short, being able to speak the language of a country you’re visiting can be a great asset. From understanding menus in restaurants and finding your way around the city, to learning about the culture, and meeting new, exciting people – the list just goes on.
Even if a particular language isn’t on your ‘to learn’ list, it's been my experience that just a few simple phrases can make a great difference. And, perhaps the country you’re planning to visit will fascinate you to such an extent that learning its language will be the next, natural step!
Bio: Hidaya Warsame is a translator and an account manager for Language Reach. She loves languages as much as traveling and spends any free moment she finds mastering her lingo.
2015 has been a fun and adventurous year for GamesforLanguage. We have also realized that many learners use other programs and apps to drill conjugations and grammar rules. They come to us, though, for practicing their language with games and a travel story (and a mystery story for German 2!).
We've seen an increased stream of steady "players" who've made it a habit to engage with French, German, Italian, or Spanish frequently - to keep their brains buzzing.
Learning a language as an adult is a challenge. But it's one that can give a lot of pleasure and can reap all kinds of extra benefits: when traveling abroad, applying for a job, or finding a new partner.
A key to playing effectively at GamesforLanguage is saying everything ALOUD. When you actually SAY words and expressions - rather than just reading them - you are practicing a physical skill. You make specific movements with the muscles of your jaw, and with your tongue and lips. These mouth mechanics (the topic of one of our most read of 2012 posts) produce the sounds that are part of the foreign language you're learning.
Our Blog posts cover language learning, travel and cultural topics.
Not a surprise: Our 12 most popular posts in 2015 are related to language learning. (Click on the blue titles to read.)
Yes, immersion is the fastest way to learn a language. But who can just pack up to live (and work) in another country? The rest of us have to be more patient and build foreign language confidence step by step, as we make a foreign language part of our life. Get some tips and practical advice here.
Duolingo (free) and Babbel (fee based) are two popular programs for language learners. We've used both for Dutch, Swedish, and Spanish. Both programs are online and have apps, and both use gamification features. But what are the differences? Here's what we have found.
One of the most interesting talks at the 2015 Polyglot Conference in New York was by Taghreed Al-Saraj, whose topic was "The Anxious Language Learner - A Saudi Woman's Story." She got us thinking about ways anyone can overcome the fear of speaking up in a foreign language.
False language friends (or false cognates) can be a source for awkward misunderstandings. But they sure are fun to discover. English and German, for example, share many words that have different meanings. The English word "gift" exists in German, but - oops - it means "poison" in German (das Gift). Going to Germany? Be prepared!
5. Two (2) Strategies for Relearning a Dormant Language
Recent brain imaging studies have shown that a second language - even when you seem to have forgotten it - retains a presence in your brain. However, you may want to use different strategies for relearning a language, depending on whether you learned it as a child or as an adult.
Another talk at the 2015 Polyglot Conference in New York we really liked was Michael Erard's "A New Metaphor for Language Learning."We had never before considered why the way we think about language learning is so important. So, how can "weaving a language rope" give you some insights?
Kids learn a language fast and painlessly (we think) - and we envy them for that ability. But why is learning a language harder for adults than for children? And how can we as adults overcome those hurdles?
When traveling to a foreign country, knowing the numbers is a huge asset. You'll use them for shopping at a market, for addresses and telephone numbers, for making appointments. For practice, we've added links to a couple of fun games. (We also have blog posts and games for numbers in French, Italian, and Spanish.)
If you want to improve your French pronunciation, you'll probably need to practice some of the difficult sounds aloud. We've got some tips and games to get you started with the French "r", "u", and "nasal vowels."
(In Frantastique, our partner's French course, you'll hear many different French voices and accents, which will make you aware of the great variation of sounds within the French language. Try it FREE for a week, or longer, if you contact us.)
Adults as well as children learn well with games. Though it's unlikely that you'll become fluent just by playing a few language games, you can certainly use games to build basic speaking, reading, listening, and writing skills. Besides, if it's fun, you'll stay motivated.
We've come to enjoy writing blog posts on a weekly basis. We now have over 250 blog posts about language learning, travel, and culture. As a result, our readership has increased dramatically.
If our topics of language learning, travel, and culture interest you, you can subscribe to our posts HERE.
Happy New Year and why not make learning a new language one of your 2016 goals!
Spanish (or Castilian) is the official language in Spain, Equatorial Guinea, and 19 other countries in the Americas.
It is estimated that about 400 million people speak Spanish as their native language and another 70 million as their second language. This makes Spanish the third most spoken language in the world after Mandarin and English (Wikipedia). For a Wikipedia list of countries where Spanish is an official language, click HERE.
While most of the"Nochevieja" (old night) traditions also apply to the other Spanish-speaking countries, we'll mainly focus on Spain, Mexico, and Cuba
New Year celebration in Spain starts with a family dinner, which often takes place in a restaurant that also offers live music. Towards midnight, many Spaniards go into the streets and to public squares to meet with friends and clink glasses to ring in the new year.
New Year's celebrations are lively, with mostly private fireworks and all kinds of noisemakers. In the town hall, sparkling wine and grapes for good luck are distributed.
In Madrid, people flock to Puerta del Sol for the city's big communal street party.
In Barcelona, Placa Catalunya in the heart of the city, is the place to be.
But no matter where they live, Spanish people share the custom of the twelve luck-bringing grapes: at each of the twelve strikes of the midnight clock (the Puerta del Sol clock is televised), you eat one grape and make a wish. At strike 12 all grapes must be gone or else you risk getting bad luck.
The strikes of the town hall clock are 3 seconds apart, so the official countdown starts 36 seconds before the hour. Throughout the country, everyone can watch the countdown on television.
It is said that the custom of the 12 grapes goes back to 1909. In that year the grape harvest was overly plentiful and someone had the idea to use up the excess grapes in this way.
I just came across this post which traces the origin of the custom back to 1882 and the mayor of Madrid. (As so often happens, taxes may have had some unintended consequences to create the "grapes-at-midnight" tradition...)
There are even special 12-grape holders as shown in the picture above.
Spaniards also believe that wearing red underwear on the last day of the old and the first day of the new year brings the wearer luck, health, and love. Importantly, the undergarment should have been given to you by somebody else.
I've read that this custom goes back to the Middle Ages when people did not wear red garments. The color of blood was associated with the devil, witchcraft, and evil forces. Women (of pleasure?) who wore red underwear on New Year's Eve, however, were said to find love the following year. They would be lucky in their relationships, attract wealthy men, get married, etc.
(Recently, I learned that the Chinese also believe in the magic powers of the red color. Red underwear is one of the most popular gifts that sweethearts exchange around the Chinese New Year. In 2016, it falls on February 8, when the Year of the Monkey begins. So, just maybe, it was Marco Polo, who brought this superstition to the west around the 1300s...)
In Mexico, a family dinner, either at home or at a special restaurant is at the center of New Year's celebrations. Tradition has it that the meal should start with a bowl of lentils, a symbolic promise of wealth and prosperity.
Grapes and Red (& Yellow) Underwear
The preferred drink is often tequila. Shortly before midnight grapes are handed out for the traditional luck-bringing ritual. As in Spain, you should eat a grape and make a wish at each of the twelve strikes of the clock at midnight. The grape tradition seems to have migrated to most other Spanish-speaking countries as well.
Also, in Mexico there is a slight "refinement" from Spain's tradition. Mexicans have to choose what is more important to them: Wearing red underwear lets the owner be lucky in love, wearing yellow underwear makes the owner wealthy in the New Year.
(And, if you'd like to practice your Spanish, you can click on the "Spanish" link, right on top of the text.)
And as Angelica explains:
"...Most assuredly, the custom called el 'recalentado' (the 're-heated') is a long-standing tradition rooted throughout Mexico, quite in keeping with the festive and generous character of the Mexicans and also with the abundant and delicious national gastronomy. It consists simply of sharing the next morning what was left over from the dinner with either the same or other guests. It is said that the recalentado is even more delicious than the dinner itself …"
Cubans also continue with the Spanish tradition of eating twelve grapes before midnight.
But they added others that are to give the New Year a fresh start: The Año Viejo doll - burning of a doll, is meant to help forget (burn!) the bad things that happened in the past; and throwing water on the street (watch out!), similarly, gets rid of bad memories and/or drives out bad spirits.
Many Spanish-speaking countries and communities have added other traditions. However, the grape-eating ritual before midnight seems to be quite universal.
But wherever you are, from midnight on, it's time for toasts, hugs, and well-wishing, champagne, cider (Cuba) or other libations, and often noisemakers and fireworks!
Besides Italy, Italian is also an official language in Switzerland (Ticino & Graubünden), San Marino, and Vatican City, and a second language in Malta, Slovenia, and Croatia, but we know little about particular end-of-year traditions in these regions or countries.
The fourth-century Catholic pope and saint became associated with New Year's Eve. This was after the reform of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, when the last day of the year became December 31, the day of his death in AD 335.
Italy, where San Silvestro died, obviously has a special relation to the Saint and uses the term "Notte di San Silvestro" (as well as "Vigilia di Capodanno") as names for New Year's Eve.
There are some particular Italian Notte di San Silvestro traditions that you may not know about:
The most curious one must be to wear red underwear during the last day of the year. It is supposed to bring you luck, health, and love. Importantly, a piece of red underwear should have been given to you as a present, for example for Christmas, and you'd be wearing it for the first time on New Year's Eve. This centuries-old custom, originally just observed by women, is now also being adopted by men! Anything for luck, health, and love, right?
Lentil Stew & Pork Sausage
The San Silvestro dinner, eaten with family and friends, varies quite a bit from region to region, but it often includes fish and seafood. At midnight when the bells ring, a traditional lentil stew is often eaten, one spoonful per bell, served together with "zampone" (pig's trotter, stuffed with spicy ground-up pork, usually dried and cured) or "cotechino" (a rind-and-pork-meat sausage). The round lentils, representing coins, are supposed to bring wealth and good fortune.
Grapes and dried fruit are traditionally served at the end of the dinner. Preserving grapes for the Capodanno dinner - rather than eating them earlier - means that you have willpower and are a frugal person. Everybody at the table eating the grapes will therefore be frugal and wise with their wealth.
Throwing out old "Stuff"
Throwing out of the window unused or unusable stuff - pots, pans, clothes, and kitchen utensils - will "clear the deck" for next year. While few Italians still seem to practice this tradition - it was more prevalent in southern Italy in the past - you may still want to watch you head when celebrating New Year's Eve in Naples and further south.
At midnight, fireworks are also displayed across much of the country and the first day of the year, "Capodanno," is an official holiday in Italy as in many other parts of the world.
French is the second most widespread language worldwide after English, as only these two languages are spoken on all five continents. French is an official language in 29 countries, most of which form la francophonie (in French), the community of French-speaking countries.
While particular end-of-year traditions exist in most of these countries, we'll just focus here on France.
In France, huge municipal firework displays were not the customary way to usher in the New Year. This has changed however in recent years, and the Eiffel Tower fireworks and light shows in Paris have become quite spectacular.
Nevertheless, French people tend to take things more quietly and celebrate with friends at home or in a restaurant. These New Year's Eve celebrations - le réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre - traditionally are a feast that includes plenty of champagne and foie gras or oysters, symbols of prosperity and good fortune.
As in many other countries, the last day of the year in France is named after the fourth-century Catholic pope and saint. This was after the reform of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, when the last day of the year became December 31, the day of Saint Sylvestre's death in 335.
[You say "la" Saint-Sylvestre because it's short for "la fête de Saint-Sylvestre."]
In Paris, the city of lights, New Year's Eve becomes a visual feast: from many vantage points in the city you can see the iconic, illuminated Eiffel Tower.
And, you'll find the biggest New Year's party on the Avenue de Champs Elysées, where hundreds of thousands of people gather to celebrate, wish each other "Bonne année" (Good year), and exchange "bises" (kisses on the cheeks) at the stroke of midnight.
In 2014, Paris added a first-time spectacle before the final countdown: a 20-minute video show projected on the Arc de Triomphe, highlighting the Parisian "art of living." This RTL clip lets you practice your French listening skills and you'll learn that not everybody was happy with the show.
If you click on the image on the left you can watch a YouTube clip of the 2014 light show and fireworks.
Due to the recent terror attacks, there is some question about the extent of the official New Year's celebrations in Paris this year.
A Less Joyous New Year Tradition...
Even in previous years there were some clouds on the New Year horizon:
"The infamous custom can be traced to the northeastern city of Strasbourg that straddles France’s border with Germany. Strasbourg, which hosts thousands of tourists who flock to the city for its renowned Christmas market, first began to be blighted by holiday season vehicle arson in the late 1980s. But the phenomenon exploded to alarming levels during the 1990s."
Le Réveillon du Nouvel An
Nevertheless, in spite of such statistics and recent events, I'd be very surprised if the French were not on the streets and celebratingle réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre.
Update: This France24 article of December 28, 2015 confirms that the celebrations will indeed take place in Paris, although under heightened security. The Arc de triomphe light show will be reduced to 10 minutes.
On New Year's Day, it's the tradition to have a large family dinner and to give presents to the children as a way to celebrate the arrival of the new year.
The King's Cake
The New Year holiday season comes to an official end on January 5th, Epiphany, the day when it is believed that three wise men presented their gifts to the baby Jesus.
The French celebrate by making a unique kind of cake, the "Galette des rois." In many regions the "galette des rois" is a flat layer of puff pastry filled with almond cream, in other communities, e.g. in the south of France, the "gâteau des rois" is a round brioche with candied fruits and sugar, shaped like a crown.
Common to all versions of the King's Cake, is a small trinket, a plastic or porcelain figurine of the baby Jesus hidden in the cake. The one who finds it (watch out to not swallow or bite on it!) is the king for the the day (and can wear the paper crown, often sold with the cakes).
Young kids obviously love this tradition and families use various rules to ensure a fair distribution of the cake to all. (Wikipedia)
German is the only official language in Austria, Germany, and Lichtenstein.
It is the "majority" language, and shares official status with the other languages, in 17 cantons of Switzerland.
It is the co-official language in Luxembourg and Belgium, as well as in another four (4) Swiss cantons and the Italian Autonomous Province of South Tyrol, where it is also the majority language.
In France, the German spoken in the Alsace and Moselle regions is deemed a "regional language," and German speakers (who are often bilingual) also live in the border areas of Denmark, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary.
With the pockets of German-speaking communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kazakhstan, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, and even parts of Africa, it is estimated that about 10 million people speak German as a second language.
New Year's Eve in German-speaking countries is also called "Silvester," as December 31 is St. Silvester (or Sylvester) Day. The fourth-century Catholic pope and saint became associated with New Year's Eve.
This was after the reform of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, when the last day of the year became December 31, the day of his death in AD 335.
(Not only the German-speaking countries, but also Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Israel all use a variant of Silvester's name as the preferred name for New Year's Eve.)
St. Silvester, Germanic Gods, and other Superstitions
Watch out for fish bones - St. Silvester had a frightening reputation: It was said that non-believers would suffocate in his presence. As he died on December 31st, superstitious Germans are very careful when eating fish on the last day of the year.
No laundry - The superstition not to wash and hang up any laundry for drying around New Year's Eve, traces back to the German god Wotan. This custom is said to keep Wotan happy who, together with his buddies, supposedly roams through the gardens on the night of Silvester.
No work - At the end of each year, the gods let the wheel rest to which the sun is attached. Mankind should therefore follow suit and let all work rest on the last day of the year.
In Germany's northern state Schleswig-Holstein, quite a few old traditions survive:
"Rummelpottlaufen," quite similar to Halloween in the U.S., sees costumed children with a self-made music instrument (a can covered with pigskin or thin leather, pierced by a willow-stick, which when turned and rubbed makes hollow and scary sounds), going from door to door on New Year's Eve, singing old tunes and being rewarded with candies and sweets.
Berlin is the site of Germany's biggest New Year's Eve party, which takes place around the Brandenburg Gate; "Berliner" (jam-filled doughnuts) are a particular favorite in Berlin, as in many other German-speaking countries during Silvester.
In the southern parts of Germany, originating from Austria and Switzerland, a cheese Fondue or Raclette is often also a typical New Year's dinner.
At midnight a "Feuerzangenbowle," a punch made with red wine, orange peels, cinnamon, cloves, and poured over a burning sugar cone supplements or even replaces the German "Sekt" (sparkling wine).
In Austria, Vienna clearly holds the top spot for New Year's Eve celebrations.
Before midnight, small marzipan or chocolate "fortune gifts" (figures of chimney sweeps, little fortune piggies, four-leaf clover, etc.) are exchanged.
As in many other German-speaking regions, "Bleigießen" (lead pouring) - the melting of small pieces of lead, dropped into cold water - results in a popular, fun game: the various forms of the the hardened lead pieces let the participants speculate what a person may experience in the coming year.
This YouTube video of an ARTE.TV video (see also our post on how to connect to ARTE.TV) explains to a French audience (in German) how "Bleigießen" is done.
Impressive fireworks are part of the Viennese tradition as is a glass of champagne. After the midnight countdown, the Danube waltz plays on all radio and tv stations.
In Switzerland there are many different and often quite curious traditions. We can only highlight a couple here:
"Altjahresu" - Schwarzenburg (Canton Bern)
In this small town near Bern, about 40 participants dress up as various characters for the "Altjahresu" (old-year-donkey) performances: the donkey guide, the musicians, the priest, the devil, the barrel carrier, the newlyweds, the mailman, etc.
They go from bistro to bistro with their donkey, the musicians play, the newlyweds dance, the mailman distributes the old year's newspaper, the barrel carrier collects white wine in his wine barrels, etc.
At the end of the day, around 9:30 PM, the priest then reads his "sermon" at the town center to the great amusement of all spectators. Some pictures from last year above and the 2015 event HERE.
"Harder-Potschete" - Switzerland's longest Silvester in Interlaken
The Silvester celebrations end in Interlaken only on January 2. Until 1956 the "Potschen," scary- looking figures with masks - representing dead people - were roaming the streets, screaming at spectators and pulling them along.
That often got out of hand. So, in the late fifties, a new custom was added to tone down the rowdiness. It combined the legend of a delinquent monk marooned on the "Harder," Interlaken's town hill, with that of the masked characters. The scary masks are still there but the celebrations are not as wild as before. See last year's masks in the picture on right above.
I'm not aware of any particular Silvester traditions in Lichtenstein and Luxembourg that differ from those in the other German-speaking countries and regions. (If you do, please let me know!)
As countries and regions have developed particular traditions and celebrations, so have many families. We are now continuing a tradition with our extended family here in the U.S. that started with my father's family in Berlin, Germany:
The after-midnight snack is "Heringssalat," a Scandinavian/Northern Germany specialty that has many recipe variations. It is served with "wieners" or "frankfurters." The herring, potato, apple, and pickle combination makes a welcome change after the sweet treats of the Christmas season.
And strangely enough, it even goes well with a glass of champagne!