As lifelong language learners - by necessity and passion - we have used many different methods for learning a new language:
English and French classes during our school years in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands
Assimil records, tapes, and books
Berlitz and other classroom courses to learn/improve French
Immersion French courses in France
Pimsleur CDs to learn Italian and Chinese
Various CD and online courses, including Babbel, Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, our Gamesforlanguage, etc. to learn Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.
Books and dictionaries for the above and other languages
Classroom courses also involved reading novels and newspaper articles (activities that online add-ons such as Lingua.ly can now also make more accessible for more advanced learners.) And for us, a story or interesting text made language learning both relevant and effective.
Overcoming Boring and Frustrating Beginnings
But beginning to learn a new language with CDs or online was often boring and frustrating: Many courses start out by teaching vocabulary and word combinations that seem useless and nonsensical. (Even Duolingo, a program we like a lot ourselves, started out with strange sentences, but is now constantly improving!) While various grammar points, word order, etc. can obviously be practiced with out-of-context sentences, it's been our experience, that we recall vocabulary much better, if (a) we learn vocabulary in context and (b) we learn useful, everyday language.
With our Gamesforlanguage courses we are using a travel story right from the start: The vocabulary grows from a few simple words in an airplane to phrases and sentences that describe a young man's experiences as he travels through various European cities.
A Mystery Story for Non-Beginners
For our German 2 course, (the first 24 lessons will be online in the fall of 2014), we are using a mystery story. Michael, the young traveler from our German 1 course, returns to Berlin. The young woman who sits beside him in the airplane gives him a book, “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” which she does not want to finish. Without giving away too much, let's just say that this book plays a key role in the story.
Each lesson is built around 4-8 dialog or story sentences, which are broken up into words and phrases - then heard, read, practiced and, re-assembled again, and finally recorded by the learner. German 2 will add another 700 NEW words to the 700 words of German 1, many of which will be recalled in various games of German 2.
Learners will again have to exceed certain point thresholds so they can move on to the next lesson. We believe that getting “to the end of the story” will not only be a worthwhile incentive to learn, but will also make learning more fun AND effective. We are planning to add French 2, Italian 2, and Spanish 2 courses with a similar mystery story in 2015.
During our stay in Barcelona (left, view from Antonio Gaudí's Parc Güell) a couple of years ago, we realized that - In Barcelona Learning "Spanish" is not enough. Since then, we've been following the recent developments in Catalonia with interest. Jordi, our friend in Barcelona, has continued to educate us about the historical background of Catalonia's differences with "Spain." And I certainly did not know - no sabía - that this struggle, has its 300-year anniversary this year.
Here is an excerpt from one of Jordi's recent emails:
When "Spain" was founded by joining Catalonia and Castilia, each of the
kingdoms kept its own laws, its economical and social systems, political
structures, internal hierarchy, and its traditions. All this was destroyed
in 1714, when King Felipe V of Castilia invaded Catalonia and eliminated
all the political, economical, and cultural systems of Catalonia. The language
was part of this process, and Castilian, proclaimed as “the Spanish”, was
imposed as the only language accepted, even in the private sphere.
For the last three centuries, Catalonia has tried repeatedly to recover
the institutions of a free country but has been violently attacked by "Spain"
each time. The “Catalan Republic”, for instance, has been proclaimed five
times. The last one, in 1934, ended when the dictator Francisco Franco
invaded Catalonia, with the help of Hitler's and Mussolini's armies. Since 1714,
we Catalans have never been asked by the Spanish whether or not we
wanted to be part of Spain.
After the Franco period and 40 years of dictatorship, the new winds of
democracy gave Catalonia some hope for change but, sadly, after more than
30 year of transition between dictatorship and democracy, the real democracy
is still not here. Besides, not only have the “autonomy” and recovery of the
Catalan institutions not gone ahead, but Madrid’s government is implementing
a new plan of extinction of the Catalan culture, subtle but persistent.
This Economist article How to Make a Country for Everybody, provides some excellent information about the Catalan language and how other countries are dealing with language issues.
In Part 2 we'll let Jordi explain his view of the Catalan/Castilian language aspects and how the current language policies play out in Catalonia and Spain.
You can't become fluent in a foreign language without practicing to speak. This appears to be self-evident. But learners often seem to forget it, when they practice flashcard apps on their phone or on mobile devices, and do so without repeating and pronouncing the foreign words and phrases. Yes, learning vocabulary is important and yes, it's difficult to practice aloud in public, at work, or even at home while others are listening. However, there are no shortcuts: You have to practice your pronunciation and learn to speak.
The opportunities to speak are obviously greatest with week- or month-long language immersion programs, and also exist with private tutors or even in classroom settings. Learners are constantly encouraged and challenged to speak. With textbook- and CD/DVD-based, or online language programs speaking can become an option. Even with popular programs, such as Duolingo, speaking is only required in, maybe, 30% of the exercises. However, in most online programs, including Duolingo and our GamesforLanguage, learners obviously have the option to repeat the foreign words and sentences they hear and read.
All our GamesforLanguage courses have a “Say It” sequence, which is especially popular with many beginners who are reluctant to use the “Record It” feature towards the end of each lesson. In “Say It,” the learner hears a word or phrase spoken by a native speaker, which then is followed by a “Say It” command. With time to repeat the word or phrase several times before it appears on the screen, the learner can then correlate the audio, i.e. what s/he heard with the spelling of the word/phrase. In these examples for German and French, you can see how it works. Repeat each “game” a couple of times and you'll be surprised how much you'll learn and remember.
Many online programs now provide recording options for learners. While for some hearing their own imperfect intonation (compared to that of the native speakers) is stressful when played back, frequent use of recording features will not only improve your pronunciation, it will also make you more confident when speaking. (And if the voice recognition feature of your favorite language program frustrates you – just turn it off. )
As your language skills start to improve and you begin to read paragraphs, articles, and maybe soon books, read aloud whenever you can. Don't worry, if you can't yet pronounce each word correctly. At the start, it's more important that you keep trying to convert the written words into spoken language than trying to sound like a native. Think about how long it takes children to pronounce each word of their own native language correctly and give yourself time to improve.
The earlier you start using your speaking skills in real life situations, the better. But unless you are living in a foreign country or a neighborhood were the language is spoken, have a foreign-language friend or partner, or are traveling, your options will be limited. Online communities, using Skype, Facetime and similar networks can open the doors to speaking and communicating, but such arrangements have to be planned and scheduled.
The truism proposed at the beginning: “You can't become fluent in a foreign language without practicing to speak it,” also means that any adult serious about language fluency has to plan where and how to practice speaking. In addition to the suggestions above, you'll also want to include speaking opportunities into your language practice plan.
We are often asked whether you can learn and/or practice German, French, Italian etc. by just using our GamesforLanguage program. Our honest answer is no. The same way one cannot learn a foreign language by just studying a text book, you shouldn't just use ONE approach or program to learn a new language.
How About Language “Immersion”?
In our opinion, language immersion is likely the most effective way to learn a foreign language rapidly. Ideally such “immersion” takes place in the country whose language you are learning, supported by personal tutors, classroom sessions, or self-teaching courses, books, audio/videos, etc. (And I don't mean "immersion" CD or online language courses!) There are language immersion schools in the US and in many other countries. In the US, the Center of Applied Linguistics (CAL) provides a directory of foreign language immersion programs in US schools. Many colleges and universities operate study-abroad programs and/or summer immersion programs.
Adults who have the time (and money) will certainly benefit greatly from such immersion courses (abroad or in the US), especially, if they continue to learn, and practice reading, speaking, etc. afterwards.
Classroom Courses and Personal Tutors
Many adults who have taken classroom courses during their school years know that they never became fluent or proficient without additional work and practice. But for some adults classroom courses are a way to stay focused and motivated. And, if they supplement their course learning with other materials, e.g. books, audios, online courses and/or apps, audios, videos, movies/TV, find a conversation partner, etc. they are sure to progress. Personal tutors can also accelerate your learning with individual attention as they can focus on your strengths and weaknesses.
Self-Teaching Books and Programs
Many self-teaching books (a popular one is the “Teach Yourself” series) have now been joined by CDs/DVDs, online courses and, increasingly, apps for Apple or Android mobile devices. The self-teaching programs have many advantages. In fact, we subscribe to LingQ's Steve Kaufmann's notion: “Nobody can teach you a language – You have to learn yourself.”
Cost - there are many entirely FREE language programs, including Duolingo, Gamesforlanguage; “Freemium” programs with a free base version and premium upgrades, such LingQ., RocketLanguages, etc.; and pricey programs such as Rosetta Stone, Fluenz, etc., to just name a few – however, all are likely to be less expensive than immersion programs or classroom courses and tutors.
Flexibility – you can learn by fitting them into your work schedule or life style. This advantage works for highly motivated and disciplined learners, but flexibility can become a disadvantage when motivation fades.
Focus on particular skills – Some learners want to improve a particular skill (e.g. reading, listening, writing, speaking) and you can find programs that focus just on one or more skills.
Exposure is Key
One reason immersion programs are quite effective can be explained by the amount of time a learner is exposed to the new language. Hours and days of hearing a new language, being challenged to remember new sounds, words, and phrases and, most importantly - to speak - all will impact both your short and long-term memory. A weekly 1-2 hour class or online session gives you only a fraction of exposure time to a new language, when you compare this to an immersion course of several weeks. So, unless learners that use self-teaching programs can substantially increase their language practice/exposure time (often limited by work, family etc), they will have to accept a slower pace of learning.
Clearly there are approaches and programs that can accelerate your learning: They all require motivation, time, and money in varying amounts. As we outlined in previous posts for Beginners and Non-Beginners, there are a number of steps you should take BEFORE and AFTER you start learning a foreign language. And, by all means, use several programs and/or approaches so learning remains fun, exciting, and motivating.
We've just started German - A Game A Day and have been encouraged by the response to date. As these games can be played without registering, we are looking forward to attracting more players to our site. And, we are planning to extend this idea to our other languages as well.
Several months ago, we added "Quick Games" to our 36-lesson language courses and already have over 70 games for our four languages (plus one (1) Quick Game for our course "Inglés para hablantes de español", currently under development, with six (6) lessons already online.) They include Trivia Quizzes, games for numbers, days-of-the-week games, common verbs, common phrases, and now "German - A Game A Day," which we also post on our Learn German Facebook page.
German - A Game A Day
However, with German - A Game A Day, we are adding a language game daily: We are taking one or two German words or expressions and put them into a game to teach and practice certain grammar points. For example, the first few games practice the gender of compound German words, present tense verb forms, separable-prefix verbs, verb/subject inversion for questions, how the article for a masculine direct object changes, etc. The games let the user discover key grammatical structures on his or her own, and provide brief explanations that sometimes confirm a learner's insights. We'll re-evaluate whether to continue with German - A Game A Day after one month.
Reading Ana Hoffman's Seo-traffic and some of her other "Get More Traffic-Tutorials" have given us some great ideas on how to grow our following.
Let's be honest: Most adults don't classify learning a foreign language as one of their favorite fun activities! It's not because it's really difficult. But it requires persistence and endurance. You don't learn to understand, speak, read and write a new language in a few days or even a few months. A “foreign language” isn’t something you cram for a week and then it’s yours. Learning a language is a journey of discovery. Putting the journey into a games format can definitely lighten the experience.
Stories for Learning German
I remember how we enticed our American-born sons to learn German. We didn’t just give them the German translation of our daily vocabulary. Stories were key. We read stories to them. We unabashedly made up tales as we talked. We built on the stories that they invented. All of this in German, with explanations when they were needed. Our sons ended up mastering the German language pretty well. As the boys were growing up, video and later computer games were becoming enticing activities. How often did I wish that some of these games had a fun and worthwhile component for learning German!
Games Can Make Learning Addictive
That's how the idea for Games for Language was born. Google it, and, in addition to GamesforLanguage, you'll find many entries for language learning games, an ever increasing number for the educational market. And even if programs like Duolingo are not listed here, most online language programs are now using games or gamified features, all for obvious reasons: Learning becomes more effective if the playing becomes addictive: the learner keeps learning because s/he wants to improve the score, beat the game clock, earn a badge, doesn't want to lose a streak, etc.
Games can provide short intense challenges with quick closure. Done right, they can put you into a kind of quick “flow learning” that bypasses slugging things out mentally. An online language learning site is a great resource. You can go there to play games when you feel like it - maybe even on an iPhone while you're waiting or just sitting around. You want to get into the game setting easily and pick up the game where you left off earlier.
Translating words from one language to another can be a very tricky thing and translation errors are common across the world. Even if you are proficient in a foreign language, specialized or technical language will often require professional translations.
In some cases, it is obvious what those making errors were trying to say (even if JFK had told the German people he was a plump and juicy jelly doughnut as a persistent myth suggests, it would have been very obvious as to what he really meant) whilst others simply boggle the mind (such as a sign above a restaurant in Thailand declaring that their “food is guaranteed not to cause pregnancy”).
The fact that saying you are a Berliner (or a Frankfurter or Hamburger for that matter) may mean very different things depending on the context, highlights just how troublesome a minefield translation can be. Whilst such lingual faux pas are amusing in certain contexts, many of the culprits no doubt wish they had visited translation experts such as thebigword rather than relying on free online tools.
Fortunately for all of us, some of the more extreme translation gaffes are simply hilarious and, rather than landing people in serious trouble, have simply given us something to brighten our days.
Translate Server Error
It is probably not uncommon for individuals to find the words ‘Translate Server Error’ staring back at them when online translations go wrong, although few would think that this is the direct translation of the words they fed in. Yet this is exactly what one Chinese restaurant owner assumed, creating a huge sign to hang above his restaurant entrance declaring that ‘Translate Server Error’ was the name of his business. If translating the name into English was a plan to attract more interest, we would say the restaurant very much succeeded.
What’s that smell?
One of the most common areas for a translation to fail is on a menu, some of them are simple spelling mistakes or written out of context, but few are quite so off-putting as the one which declared that a restaurant’s rice smelled of wee. We are not quite sure what they meant to say, but we are hoping that ‘Hele soup smell of urine’ wasn’t the exact translation they were going for. If it was, they get top marks for honesty at least.
Not all confusing translations are outright hilarious. Some are also kind of sweet. In one Chinese town, a sign asking individuals to keep off the grass had its meaning lost in translation in a very wonderful way: “Do not disturb. Tiny grass is dreaming.” The baffling demand is most likely the result of back translating from English to Chinese to English since the Chinese translation above also makes no sense. However, who needs sense when you have something so whimsically delicious to enjoy?
Boots of Ascension
It isn’t just those in the East who have trouble translating words. Even right here in Europe where English is a much more common tongue, and our culture is not so alien, the same language issues can raise their funny little heads. In one Austrian hotel, skiers were asked “not to perambulate the corridors in the hours of repose in the boots of ascension”. Whilst it starts off well, if unnecessarily grandiose, it is unlikely that many people in a ski resort will have a special wardrobe of shoes to ascend to a prominent position. Nor is it likely that Jesus will be popping in to say hi.
Getting what you asked for
Either the following translation lost its true meaning en route, or there is a hotel manager in Athens who is very much a masochist. The sign declaring that “visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11 am daily” will not be very comforting to new guests and is either a poorly translated phrase or a master class in honesty and resignation.
Obviously though, these are worst case scenarios to translation that can lead to funny if not serious repercussions. This is where professional translation really is a requirement for businesses and individuals alike. In today’s world of instant communication, ever shrinking business borders and online reputation management, professional translations can be the difference between being seen as credible and trustworthy or, the complete opposite.
Author Bio: This article was provided by Gino De Blasio from thebigword. The Big Word is a global, technology-enabled language solution provider that delivers translation and interpreting services.
Recently, a New York Times article on language learning has stayed on the most e-mailed list for several days. It's called Inventive, Cheaper Tools for Learning a Language. This goes to show that plenty of Americans strive to overcome "monolingualism" - and are looking for tools to do so.
I posted the New York Times article on my G+ account, adding: "Language learning for adults has become easier than ever!" and shortly thereafter got a comment by a fellow language teacher. He didn't deny that fun, inexpensive tools are a boon to language learning, but simply said: "Although, being immersed in the language as it is being lived is still the best way. And it is easier due to the ease of travel!"
Prepare for Language Immersion
Can't argue with that one. Acquiring a language through immersion by being in a country where the language is spoken is the ideal setup for learning. I learned two languages that way as a child (Dutch at age nine, English at age eleven), and three more as an adult, during prolonged stays in Rome, Paris, and Barcelona.
But the experience of language immersion reaches a new level when you've done some preparation beforehand. It goes without saying that if you're planning a stay in another country, you'd enjoy arriving there with some basic knowledge of the language - before soaking up a lot more during your visit. And afterwards, you may want to continue to learn your new language, just as I have maintained my languages, by reading foreign newspapers, watching films, and sitcoms, participating in social media, and using various online language learning tools.
Short Trips, But a Life-Long Hobby
The point is that trips are short, though they provide vivid experiences that deepen our understanding, as well as allow rapid learning of a language. On the other hand, learning another language can become a wonderful life-long hobby that we start before a trip and continue long after. With the new, free or cheaper, inventive tools available online, it has become easier than ever to continue learning a language, forever.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend wrote me: "Language learning is definitely on top of my list. I especially want to learn Spanish. But life is too hectic!" My reply to him: "Ten to fifteen minutes a day can boost your Spanish significantly. Just use the time - that you would otherwise waste - by jumping on Duolingo (gamified lessons); or Memrise, Anki (flashcards); or Digital Dialects, Mindsnacks, Gamesforlanguage (language games); Tunein (foreign language radio stations).
So, plan that next trip for language immersion, but add some preparation and follow-up with online tools, a language exchange partner, a tutor, or a local class. Not only will you enjoy the pleasure of communicating in your new language throughout your life, you brain will also thank you. But that's another story.
For many, speaking in a foreign language is the goal and reason for learning it. And, the best advice for learning how to speak, is: Just do it! Speak as often as you can, including reading aloud, repeating and practicing phrases, recording yourself, and obviously finding a native speaker to talk to.
Now, once you've reached a level of fluency where you can hold your own during an hour-long casual conversation in your second language, you may be surprised to find that you've hit a plateau.
That's what happened to me in French. I had been meeting a friend for a bi-monthly French-language lunch but I wasn't thrilled with my progress in speaking. So, I started reading the Harry Potter series in French. From meeting to meeting, I did notice that my vocabulary was increasing. However, after a few months, when I was getting well into the fifth Harry Potter tome, I again noticed that I had hit a learning plateau. I was improving some, but not to my satisfaction.
Then I decided to do an experiment. I put Harry Potter aside, and started writing as much as I could in French: e-mails to friends, journal bits, posting some on Lang-8.com, and racing through Duolingo.com, which includes translating into French, and writing down dictated sentences.
At my next French lunch chat - which was a few days ago - I clearly felt that I had again broken through a plateau. And this time, it was writing that had gotten me there. Yesterday, I came across the YouTube video of a talk by Judith Meyer, that she held at the June 2014 Polyglot Gathering in Berlin. She too experienced writing as a useful supplement for improving conversational skills.
So if you've reached a plateau in your second-language conversations, try adding some writing practice - chats, e-mails, journal pieces, etc. - in that language and you may find yourself happily moving to a higher fluency plateau.
We all marvel at the ease with which young children can learn one or even more languages. They can't read or write, but when they are immersed in a language, they learn to understand and speak it within weeks.There are some self-teaching language programs that would like you believe that their method can make you "learn a foreign language like a child." The implication is clear but wrong: no method lets an adult learn like a child does.
A recent Op-Ed article by William Alexander in the New York Times, The Benefits of Failing at French, summarizes some of the key differences between the ways adults and young children learn languages:
"...[a 2-year old brain has] 50% more synapses - the connections between neurons - than an adult brain..."
"...adults can't help but hear the second language through the filter of the first..."
"...[we] try to get everything right from the get-go and are self-conscious about our efforts."
Train your Brain while Learning
Yes, learning a foreign language requires more effort for an adult than for a (young) child. (The learning advantage that children have over adults begins to disappear between the ages of 6 to 8, according to some psycholinguists.) But think about it: for an adult it's a "twofer." Even while we grown-ups are struggling with learning a language, our "older" brain is gaining some huge benefits. There are even studies that conclude that language learning is likely to be more beneficial than popular brain exercise programs such as Luminosity. (see also our post Baby Boomers and Foreign Languages.)
And as Mr. Alexander points out: "Not only is that [i.e. studying a language] a far more useful and enjoyable activity than an abstract brain game, but as a reward for your efforts, you can treat yourself to a trip abroad"...