Posted on by Peter & Ulrike Rettig

5 Tips for Dealing with ATM Troubles Abroad (and at Home)

Unicaja - GamesforLanguage.comWhen it comes to foreign currency, traveling has become so much easier: Instead of worrying about how much of the foreign currency you should change at home or at the foreign airport (do you still remember “traveler checks”?) - today you can pay with your credit card(s) in many places or withdraw cash at ATM machines all over the world. Yes, you have to be conscious about the various bank and exchange fees and be aware of the fee differences between the various cards.

But, even if you are, you'll still want to read about our recent experience in Seville, Spain. Here is our story:

Beware of ATM Withdrawals at Night

Ever since an ATM in Barcelona did not return my card a few years ago, I have been reluctant to withdraw money from a cash machine at night. At that time, it happened during the day and I just went into the branch office and recovered my card without much of a problem. If one's card is withheld at night, things might get more complicated, especially if you have to explain your problem in a foreign language.

In Seville, as in many cities in Spain and Italy, dinner in a (non-tourist) restaurant typically starts after 8 PM. As we were returning from a very pleasant dinner out, we walked by a Unicaja ATM and replenishing my depleted funds seemed appropriate. 

Feeling good and confident, I disregarded my usual concerns and went ahead with a withdrawal. I chose the English language option at the machine to avoid any mistakes and everything seemed to go along fine. A prompt on the screen instructed me to take the cash. I waited patiently for a moment, when suddenly another screen came up: “For technical reasons it is not possible to provide you with the cash requeted [sic].” 

Well, this seemed strange, but technical malfunctions happen. I did not see a phone or intercom to report the error right away and took my card when it was ejected. I also waited for and observed the next machine customer (see picture above) as he completed his transaction, apparently without a problem (and fortunately without my cash!)

Check your Bank or Credit Card Account

However, two days later, when I checked my bank account, I saw to my surprise, that 505 euros had indeed been withdrawn (500 euros plus a 5 euro transaction fee).

I returned to the ATM, which is located at one of Unicaja's branches in Calle Sierpes, and reported the problem to the customer service representative at the bank. She summoned others for help, but none of the branch employees' English was better than our Spanish, so we had to explain the problem in Spanish.

After checking the bank's accounts and verifying my credentials, passport and credit card, the manager agreed that it was indeed the bank's problem. (As this happened two days after the initial withdrawal, we were somehow surprised that they had not discovered this issue earlier.)

I signed and received a transfer notice of 500 euros to be put back to my account and assumed that the money would show up in my account within a few days

The Story Continues...

Why did I not just ask for the 500 euros I had been unable to withdraw from the ATM machine? In retrospect, I believe that's what I should have requested. But since I went to another bank to successfully withdraw money from its ATM right after the failed attempt, I did not want any more cash. I also believed that the deposit back to my account would be done quickly, i.e. within a day or two. (Later I found out that such a request would not have been honored anyways, as credit card/bank rules prohibit it.)

When five days later I still did not see the deposit of the 500 euros in my account, I went back to the branch to inquire. By that time, we had also brushed up on our Spanish banking language and explained our situation again. However, we were told that there was nothing they could do, as they had already initiated the transfer back to my account. I was told that I should just be patient.

Fool me Once, Shame on You...

Then I thought, now with the branch office open, let's give the machine another try. And when I tried to make another withdrawal, exactly the same happened: The ominous screen - “For technical reasons it is not possible to provide you with the cash requeted [sic]” appeared again. This time, however, we not only took photos of several of the screens, but also reported the problem right away. As the ATM customer before us apparently also had an issue and was making a complaint, it was clear that the bank was aware of the problem. Our second failed transaction was immediately canceled.

Patience Wearing thin...

A few more days have passed and now it's been more than ten days since my first unhappy withdrawal experience. I've sent several e-mails and we have made several trips to the branch office, but the funds still haven't not shown up in my bank account.

In our latest foray into the Unicaja bank's branch office, we asked for the branch director. His explanation was more differentiated and he reiterated that Unicaja ("Un banco pequeño, pero un buen banco!" - A small, but a good bank") indeed had made the transfer back to the "Maestro" intermediary (Master Card in Europe), but  Maestro, apparently, had not effected the transfer back to my bank yet. And credit card/bank rules don't allow cash payments by the bank for failed ATM transactions. Patience again. 

While Unicaja's branch staff were very nice and tried to be helpful, we were really surprised that none of the staff spoke any English, French or German, the languages we are still more fluent in than Spanish. However, it gave us a great opportunity to practice our Spanish and apply the banking terms we had looked up and tried to memorize.

ATM Lessons LearnedUnicaja ATM - Gamesforlanguages

  1. Never make a cash withdrawal at night, especially in a foreign country.
  2. Check whether the machine has a phone or intercom with which you can report a problem right away.
  3. Only use ATMs during during working hours that are part of a bank or branch office. (In Seville typical bank working hours are from 8:00 AM to 2:30 PM)
  4. Obtain a written confirmation of the deposit back to your credit card and inquire with your credit card company/bank that the deposit was made.
  5. Learn some key banking/financial terms in the foreign language.

English not Spoken Everywhere

While our experience with Unicaja was somewhat annoying, it also gave us an opportunity to brush up on our financial language and practice our Spanish.

The experience with the branch personnel and its manager also confirmed what we had experienced ourselves and heard from others here in Seville. English is not the preferred foreign language in southern Spain. As I've mentioned, no one at the bank spoke English. As a matter of fact, the bank director said proudly: "No hablo inglés, sólo hablo español." (I don't speak English, I only speak Spanish.) Also, to our surprise, our Spanish tutor, a professor at a local university, also speaks no English, and we have heard from others that French and German have come into favor in recent years as foreign languages learned and spoken in southern Spain. 

Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

4 Tips for Improving Your Foreign Language During a One-Month Stay

4 Tips for Language LearningLast fall, American friends of ours spent a month in Dijon. They had rented an apartment over the Internet with the dream of soaking up local life the French way and getting a huge boost in their fluency in the French language. They certainly had a wonderful time exploring the city and the surrounding region, and they thoroughly enjoyed the local food.

But, not surprisingly, they found it difficult to engage with locals in French, beyond their daily shopping chores, ordering in restaurants, sightseeing adventures, and asking for directions and information around town. (see Becoming Fluent in French in 1 Month in Dijon, France - Part 1 )

When we started planning our one-month stay in Seville, we thought a lot about how we could get the most language learning out of our visit.

Our Four Tips

  1. We always use the local language – in our case Spanish - and refuse to use English. When we asked for information in the local tourist office, the young woman was eager to respond in English to our (still imperfect) Spanish, but then continued in Spanish when we did not follow suit. We found an apartment in the old town and have started to frequent local cafés, bodegas, and market stands to the point that the waiters and sales persons know us and don't mind chatting with us, only in Spanish.
  2. We spend mornings (or several hours, as it fits our schedule) learning Spanish on our own. We start with online sessions on GamesforLanguage, Duolingo, and Babbel, where we need to speak up and sound out Spanish phrases and sentences. We follow this up with exercises in a grammar book and by writing out verb conjugations on a sheet (which we carry around for practice in between).
  3. We listen to Spanish TV in the morning as we get breakfast ready, read an article or two in the local newspaper (or online, using and typically watch the Spanish evening news. Most evenings, we also watch parts of a Spanish film or program after we get back from dinner out.
  4. We meet with language exchange partners. No doubt, this last point, meeting with native speakers for extended conversations, is giving us the most dramatic results. It goes without saying, however, that our other efforts are also essential techniques for putting our brain into “Spanish gear, expanding our vocabulary, as well as our sharpening listening and speaking abilities. (Our experience with a local Spanish tutor will be the topic of another blog and can obviously not be separated from the “most dramatic results.”)

Setting up Language Exchanges

On the internet, we found quite a few different language exchange sites. language exchangesWe subscribed to three of them:,, and

While all three are free, we found to be the most effective for us. (Although we had bought a premium membership for and had been able to find several contacts in Seville, none of them has worked out so far.)

On the other hand, allowed us to screen both for Sevilla and for “face-to-face” conversations (both options that does not offer).

Key to finding language exchange partners in the city where you are staying, is to start the search early. Some subscribers may have moved and not all of them check their site regularly.

We've been able to meet with three of our contacts already several times and have been very pleased with the interaction. Though below we describe our thoughts for face-to-face meetings, these may apply as well to skype or other real-time online conversations.

Preparing for our meetings

preparationsWe write out scripts with basic sentences about ourselves plus questions to ask (and continue to do so for every meeting).

This has us figure out the difference between imperfect and simple past verb tenses, for example, and continues to make us look up some basic additional vocabulary about professions, family, hobbies, local politics, European news, etc.

We practice these scripts and our various questions first silently and then out loud.

Meeting with our Language Exchange Partners

During our short first visit to Seville three years ago, we had not really noticed it, three laughing peoplebut several friends have alerted us that Sevillians have a distinct dialect that is not always easy to understand by foreigners. We've already encountered the dropped s that happens not only in final position of words but also in their middle.

Most people in Sevilla say gracia (instead of gracias") and i-quierda (instead of izquierda). When we order two beers, we hear the waiter echo us with do cerveza (instead of dos cervezas) but that is just the tip of the iceberg. (see also Learning Spanish - First Impressions of the Local Dialect in Seville, Spain)

Though the three people we've been meeting, Sara, Carlos, and Marta, are quite different in age, background, and profession, our language-learning experience with each is rather similar.

Dividing up the Time

stopwatchFollowing the advice of more experienced language exchangers, we said right off at each meeting that we'd like to stick with 20 minutes Spanish only, followed by 20 minutes English only (or, in the case of Carlos, 20 minutes German - which he preferred), with the rest of the time open to going back and forth.

We believe that dividing up the time equally is a better arrangement than having each person just speak the language he or she is learning. Listening comprehension is an important skill to practice, especially with native speakers, and in the case of our Sevillian exchange partners, a real challenge for us.

Fast Colloquial Spanish

Sara, Carlos, and Marta are all from Sevilla and speak rapid-fire Spanish with us, dropping their s's all over the place (sometimes even when speaking in English).

It is quite clear that it's hard to have a language exchange with someone who is a total beginner in the language s/he is learning. In order to have anything like a conversation, both parties should know the basics of communication and have an adequate vocabulary. Although it is intimidating at first, jumping into real spoken language is the best way to go.

Listening in a Conversation

When you listen to the radio, watch a film, or listen in when other people are People in Sevillespeaking, you are of course training your listening skills. But that kind of passive listening is a somewhat different activity from listening while engaged in a conversation.

When someone speaks to you, you are expected to respond. In fact, as you're listening, your mind is interpreting what you're hearing and beginning to create a response to what is being said. When this is happening in a foreign language, your brain - including its grammar region - is in in full, active gear. It's the best kind of brain training.

No doubt, after our four weeks in Seville, we'll both better understand and may even have picked up bits of the local accent, though I don't think I'll continue to say gracia (without the s) once we've left this charming town.

Using face-to-face language exchanges in the city you are staying is not only a great way to meet local people, but can be key to improving your fluency in the foreign language. This way, you can certainly level up considerably in one month.

Posted on by Peter & Ulrike Rettig

Learning Spanish - First Impressions of the Local Dialect in Seville, Spain

Las Setas, Seville, at nightWe are now in Seville, Spain, staying a stone's throw from Plaza de la Encarnación and right in the middle of Seville's extensive "casco antiguo" (historical town). 

Three years ago, after staying in Barcelona for a month, (see: In Barcelona Learning "Spanish" is not Enough), we also took a trip though southern Spain, and stayed three days Seville. We immediately took a special liking to this lively and charming town. We had fun retracing the steps of David, our young Gamesforlanguage Spanish 1 traveler, whose visit to Barcelona, Granada, Sevilla and Madrid provides the basic narrative for our Spanish 1 course. This year, with the plan to again improve our Spanish, we chose Seville as our one-month home.

When staying in a new city, the first few days are always a time to get one's bearings. In Seville, it's easy to keep getting lost in the narrow streets of the old city. They seem to run criss cross in no predictable direction, and the height of the buildings prevent you from orienting yourself with the sun's position. But Seville's "casco antiguo" is a very walkable part of the 700,000+ inhabitants city. Once you've learned the major street patterns, you can easily reach all historical sights on foot.

The Metropol Parasol, dominates the plaza and surprised us during our first evening (see picture above) as we explored the neighborhood. Suddenly we found ourselves under what Sevillians call "las setas" (the mushrooms). It is a giant structure, designed by the German architect Jürgen Mayer and constructed of wood panels and steel Top of Las Setas, Seville and built between 2005 in 2011 to replace a defunct and derelict space. We should note that this structure has created much controversy, both due to its form, as well as due its construction cost and cost overruns. We found it quite appealing, with the giant Plaza full of life, outside seating areas for cafés and restaurants. A fruit, vegetable, fish and meat market is easily accessible on the street level, and, from a viewing platform on top, you have a wonderful view of the city, including La Giralda and now the newest item of controversy, the "Pelli Tower".

The 580 foot, 43 story high tower, designed by Cesar Pelli's (former dean of Yale University's School of Architecture) New Haven firm, is currently being completed on the site of the 1992 Expo across the Guadalquivir river from Seville's historic city centre. As you can see on the picture above from the top of "las setas", the Pelli Tower in the back ground not only exceeds in height any of Sevilla's buildings, but is even nearly twice as high as La Giralda. Seville had to fear for its status as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2012. But after assuring the Unesco Commission "that there will be no more buildings of such great height in the area", Seville was not put the Unesco "danger list".  

La Giralda, Seville s Spanish A cousin came to stay with us for the weekend, so we started out with visiting again La Giralda (the Almohad tower of the cathedral, picture left) and the Alcázar (a Mudéjar palace, picture below, right). We marveled not only at the wonderful architecture and mosaics, but also at the many orange trees, full with oranges, in the courtyards and gardens. Coming from New England and escaping the snow and cold, the weather here in Sevilla is a special treat. Sunny days with temperatures in the mid to high seventies encourage us to have lunch outside. The nights cool down into the high forties, providing perfect sleeping conditions.Games for Spanish Learning  - El Alcazar, Sevilla

On Sunday, the three of us ventured to Triana, a neighborhood with a traditional tile and pottery industry as well as a lively flamenco culture. Sitting in a sidewalk restaurant on the Calle San Jacinto, we experienced a somewhat funny exchange with the waiter, which made us pay special attention to the local dialect and pronunciations. I ordered three beers, and - being under pressure - let my Italian interfere. I said: “Tre cervezas, por favor.” The waiter gave me a quizical look and asked in turn “Un? ... Dos? ... Tres?” and when I confirmed: “Tres, por favor” he nodded and said: “Tre, vale.” We found this amusing because I had mistakenly said "tre," very much in the way he then acknowledged my order. He clearly had not expected a "Sevillian dialect" from me!

In Seville, final consonants, or consonants at the end of syllables are often dropped. So, we mostly hear "gracia" (instead of "gracias" [thanks]) and "die" (instead of "diez" [ten]). We've also been noticing - in our frequent queries for directions - that Sevillians say "i-quierda" for "left" (instead of izquierda).

A closer, more academic look at the dialects of southern Spain provides a much more complicated picture, of course. For now, we are happy to soak up the language as it happens to us and to speak as much Spanish as we can. 

In one of our next blogs, we'll report on how we are progressing with our fluency goal. 

Posted on by Peter Rettig

2 Language Learning Essentials: Motivation and Engagement

GamesforLanguage: Motivation and EngagementWhy is language learning such a challenge for many adults? People often say that they are "not good at languages" to explain why they didn't stay with a language that they started to learn. But there may be a better answer: Adults who start a language get discouraged easily, stop much too quickly, and don't trust their own abilities enough.

How can you keep yourself from giving up too easily? As with any long-term project, you have to stay really motivated, ideally with specific interim goals in mind. But this is not enough, you also need continuous and full-hearted engagement.

Good and Bad Reasons to Get Started

For adults who set out to learn a foreign language (I am excluding school children here), there may be good or bad reasons for getting started. Among the “bad” reasons one could include: trying to impress somebody; falling for a quick learning scheme; keeping up with the Joneses. On the other hand, “good” reasons for learning a language are those related to work, travel, living abroad, family and heritage, friends and lovers, professional interests and study, curiosity about language and culture, just to name the most common ones. And, for any of these, the real NEED to know the language makes the most powerful motivator.


It's no secret that many adults that start out learning a foreign language oftenLion's roor give up after only a short time. Surveys show that “keeping up the motivation” and “not enough time” are the two principal difficulties that learners list when learning a foreign language. And while the excuse that there's “not enough time” may also hide other reasons, most adult learners are usually quite motivated at the outset, only to realize that real progress is slow and takes more time and effort than they had anticipated.

Also, there clearly are different levels of motivation. The need to understand and speak a new language may be different for someone who has a new job assignment and career in a foreign country than for someone who intends to travel there for a short vacation. But “keeping up the motivation” is certainly a difficulty that cannot be underestimated.

There are very few things (if any) in life we can really learn half-heartedly. As children we seem to learn many things playfully, but it takes us quite a few years to fully acquire our first language, as well as complex skills such as playing various sports. And, the motivation to learn is likely both genetic (“wired” for language, walking, running, winning, etc.) and environmental (copying, competing with, encouraged by siblings, friends, parents, teachers, etc). As adults, the goals and challenges we set ourselves arise from various sources, family, friends, jobs, as well as our own interests, desires, fears, etc.

Learning a foreign language as an adult is one activity that will show progress only if we have regular and frequent exposure to the language and use it with increasing frequency. Those learners who engage themselves with the language in many different ways will also find that they will stay motivated.


What does “engagement” mean in this context? To be “engaged” in learning a foreign language implies that you do more than just attend a language class once a week, listen to a couple of CDs or online lessons once or twice per week, or open a vocabulary app or a course book from time to time. It means that you have been hit by the language Fun Menubug and are getting involved with the new language in many different ways: frequently reading newspaper articles and books, watching TV and movies, regularly listening to audios and podcasts, meeting people to talk to, either in person or online. (Taking with native speakers is really the best way, and many believe the only way to practice speaking and to improve your fluency.)

You may be planning a trip to the country where the language is spoken and start learning about its culture, history and politics. If the country's food or wine interests you, great – another entry point to learn about it and get engaged in discovery. Just imagine how engaged you are with any activities you consider fun. The more you can connect the target language with those aspects of life that are fun to you or you feel passionate about, the more engaged you will be, and the more fuel you will add to your motivation.

So deciding which language class to attend or which online language course to subscribe to are only initial steps in your long-term learning project. Maybe you'll even hold off on that decision until you have thought further about what really motivates and engages you.

Once you understand and accept that learning a foreign language as an adult is a long-term, even a life-long project, you can go about making a plan for how to accomplish it. (In a previous post, P.M. Tools for Language Learning..., I had also suggested that applying certain project management tools to such a long-term project will be helpful.)

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

“Immersion-Style” Foreign Language Learning?

three men in the waterOn our Gamesforlanguage home page, as well as on our social media pages, we say that we provide "immersion-style" language learning. What do we mean with "immersion-style" language learning? To answer this question, let's first back up a little.


Whether you can learn a language through "full immersion" is a much-debated topic. On the one hand, many agree that full immersion - living in the country or in a community where the language is spoken - is the best way to become fluent in a foreign language. On the other hand, much has been written about the numerous immigrant children who have difficulty keeping up in their new school and about adults who've lived for years in a foreign country but haven't really mastered its language.

I experienced full immersion in a foreign language twice as a child, once at age 9 (Dutch) and once more at age 11 (English), neither language I had learned during my early school years in Austria. In both the Netherlands and Canada, I attended school and got special help from teachers to learn how to spell, read, write short compositions, and give brief oral reports. It was all pretty intense because I learned all other subjects (maths, geography, history, social studies, etc.) through a language that I was also just learning. And, of course, I continuously improved my language skills by being with friends.

My husband experienced full immersion in a foreign language twice as an adult, once at age 23 (French) and once again at age 28 (English). In both French Switzerland and the U.S., he literally acquired language fluency "on the job." In both cases, his learning was based on language skills (reading, writing, speaking) that he had learned in school in Germany. Discussions with friends and the tasks of daily life provided him with ample opportunities for further practice.

It seems clear that you need more than just living in the foreign country to become fluent in the language that's spoken there. You need the kind of learning environment that's right for you and often extra, personalized instruction. Above all, while you are "immersed" in a foreign language, you need to understand what is being said and what's going on around you, otherwise it all goes over your head. Especially for an adult, it's useful to be able to relate a foreign language to one's native language: understand what's similar, what's different - until your new language becomes a natural and intuitive tool for communication.

Under the right circumstances, full immersion will work. But not everyone has the time nor the opportunity to go live in another country just to learn a language. We therefore have to employ other strategies and methods, and create, as Brian Powers calls them Simulated Language Immersion Environments


You can set up your own simulated language immersion by setting aside times during the day when you hear or use only the language you're learning. Among our favorites are these five examples:

-Watching a foreign movie with (or even without) subtitles in that language.

-Reading a book in the foreign language without looking up words.

-Conversing with someone only in the foreign language.

-Listening to an audio that's completely in the foreign language.

-Talking to yourself only in the foreign language.

Such bouts of short-time immersion, if done frequently, can yield good results. In my experience, you can get the most out of them if you already have a good basic knowledge of the language.

Still, even if you are a real beginner, there are skills to be gained during these short-term language immersions. You'll become familiar with sounds and rhythm of the language just by listening attentively; by looking for visual context clues in a film or video, you'll learn about non-verbal communication; by reading simple texts you'll start internalizing the look and spelling patterns of a language; and by memorizing basic conversational phrases and repeating them to yourself, you'll practice basic sentence structure and the mechanics of sounding out words. 


Aside from full immersion and short-term immersion, there are, of course, other ways to learn a language. Rather than limiting yourself to one only, it's often best to use several different methods and resources. In the long run, these have a way of complementing and boosting each other.

GamesforLanguage's (G4L's) “immersion-style” learning is simply one such approach. I'll outline what we consider immersion-style features of our courses by contrasting them to a couple of other popular programs and approaches.

  • G4L puts you right into the middle of spoken language. For example, you could be using an expression with a subjunctive or conditional in one of the first course lessons. This is different from textbook learning, or Duolingo, where you start with simplified language.
  • With G4L you hear only the language you're learning, and no English (except for a brief introduction giving the context). This is different from Pimsleur (an audio program) where around 50% of what you hear are cues in English to prompt the learner's translation.
  • G4L strengthens listening and speaking with various games and exercises: With “Say It” you repeat what you hear and then only see the written foreign word or phrase for a brief moment; in other games, you have to identify the foreign word after only hearing it. Finally, by recording and playing back the story dialog, learners can improve their pronunciation and also begin to memorize expressions and sentences.
  • G4L's short written exercises have you writing only in the foreign language. This is again different from Duolingo, where between 10-20% of what you write is in English.
  • G4L does not use pictures but works with text only. Yes, sometimes pictures do help one to remember a word. But once you get beyond objects and some simple actions, the technique of using pictures is limited. That's what happens in Rosetta Stone's programs. Once you get beyond basic objects and actions, it's not always easy to figure out what a picture is supposed to mean. Besides, as you learn learn new words and expressions, it makes a lot of sense to create your own mental image or scenario. And, there are various mnemonic techniques that provide powerful ways for improving vocabulary memorization.(Try The Universe of Memory for a free course and very helpful information on memory and learning!)
  • In each of the G4L lessons, the learner plays several games that break a segment of the travel story down into its component words and phrases. Then follow a couple of games that have the learner reassemble the story again, with a final exercise to "record and replay" the full segment.
  • Finally, G4L uses games and a story as teaching tools. Games make learning more fun and help to put you into a state of flow as you memorize new words and figure out grammatical patterns. The story provides the kind of context that lets you imagine a scenario that you're involved in, and gives you the precise meaning of the words you're learning. Just learning lists of individual words, as in Memrise, Mindsnacks, and others, is not sufficient for learning a new language, although vocabulary learning is important and clearly necessary for communicating.

Neither online or typical classroom courses can ever create complete immersion environments. For such an experience, you have to live in the country or be a full-time participant of immersion language courses that also use the target language for teaching. However, we've made a step in that direction by adding immersion-style features with the goal to maximize the learner's exposure to and involvement in the target language.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

La Paloma - Carmen - Cuba: Spanish language connections

DoveThe recent thaw in the relations between Cuba and the U.S. brought to mind that La Paloma, a song that over the years has been adapted and sung in so many languages, actually originated in Cuba.

In an earlier post, La Paloma Lyrics - Learning Spanish with a Song, we focused mainly on how you can learn some typical Spanish expressions by saying or singing the song's lyrics. In addition, we gave a brief summary of the song's history: Composed around 1860 by the Basque composer Sebastián Iradier after his visit to Havana.

La Paloma - A Song for the Ages

When you google "La Paloma song," you'll find a Wikipedia entry which tells you not only details about the song's motif (the dove), dating back to 492 BC;  some of its history (a favorite of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico); early translations into French and German in the 1860's, with new lyrics in different languages, interpretations by famous artists; as well as the many movies in which a version of the song occurs.

La Paloma is arguably the most frequently played song and melody in the world. I've read that in Zanzibar it's being played at the end of weddings, in Romania at the end of funerals. In Germany it's a sailor's song, made famous by Hans Albers in his movie "Grosse Freiheit #7" in 1944.

The La Paloma - Carmen connectionCarmen Opera Singer

When digging a little further, I discovered that there's a connection between Iradier's "La Paloma" and the "Habanera" aria in Bizet's Carmen: "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle," which is said to be very close, melodically, to "El Arreglito," another song composed by Sebastián Iradier. Both are "habaneras," the name used outside of Cuba for the Cuban "contradanza," a type of dance music that became popular in the 19th century. Bizet originally thought El Arreglito was a folk song, only to discover that it had been written by Iradier who had died ten years earlier. Bizet then added a note to the vocal score of "Carmen" to acknowledge the source.

Cuban Music History and Future

Cuba MapAnother Wiki entry further explains: "The Cuban 'contradanza' (also called contradanza criolla, danza, danza criolla, or habanera) was a popular dance music genre of the 19th century. ... Its origins dated back to the European 'contredanse,' which was an internationally popular form of music and dance of the late 18th century. It was brought to Santiago de Cuba by French colonists fleeing the Haitian Revolution in the 1790's ... During the first half of the 19th century, the 'contradanza' dominated the Cuban musical scene to such an extent that nearly all Cuban composers of the time, whether composing for the concert hall or the dance hall, tried their hands at the contradanza."

It's interesting that the language circle was completed when Iradier brought back the habaneras from his visit to Cuba and when Bizet used "El Arreglito" for his French opera "Carmen." Buena Vista Social Club

Many of the well-known dance styles such as rumba, salsa, mambo, chachacha, reportedly began in Cuba. In the coming years the rediscovery of Cuban artists, which began in the 90s with the popular "Buena Vista Social Club" album and Wim Wender's 1999 movie about the band, will very likely continue. And, if you're interested in the island's music and are maybe even considering a visit, the website will give you some worthwhile information and insights.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

GamesforLanguage's Most-Read Posts in 2014

2014This is our 200th blog post. Every January, we'll publish our 10 most popular blogs of the previous year.

2014 has been a wonderful year at GamesForLanguage, not just because we've grown our number of followers on Facebook and Twitter, but - as of December 2014 - our blog has gotten over 36,000 views.

Thanks for your interest and support! That's what fuels us - as well as the thousands of monthly visitors that come to our free language learning site.

We started GamesForLanguage 4 years ago as an experiment combining (fun) games and (serious) language learning for adults - and enlisted native speakers of French, Italian, and Spanish to our team. Yes, language games are very popular with kids, but we've been delighted by the positive and constructive feedback that teens and adults have given us about our approach. We always want to hear from you, and we'll get back to you quickly.

We look forward to another great year. It'll include creating new courses and lots of new Quick Games. Last but not least, we're both going for a spurt to fluency in Spanish and for a fresh start with a new language - Swedish for Ulrike and Dutch for Peter. It's a good way to stay sharp and humble, language learning wise.

Here are our 10 most popular blog posts of 2014:

  1. La Paloma Lyrics – Learning Spanish With a Song 
  2. 5 Key Steps for Re-Learning a Language 
  3. Fluency vs. Proficiency in Foreign Language Learning 
  4. Three (3) Ways to Better Engage in a German Conversation 
  5. 3 Steps for Training Your Ear When Learning a Language 
  6. Learning French - Cézanne and Banking 
  7. 12 Social Media Terms When Learning Spanish
  8. Si tu n'existais pas – Learning French with a song 
  9. The “Context Approach” for Language Learning 
  10. Not enough time? Really? Language Learning and Setting Priorities 

While several of the posts date back to previous years, it's surprising that #10 "Not enough time? Really? Language Learning and Setting Priorities" made it on the list, as it was only published on December 17, 2014. Apparently this post hit a nerve.

The La Paloma post has been a frontrunner since it was published in June 2013. Learning a language via well-known songs is clearly compelling. There are several other websites using this idea.

We recently published a post on French Social Media terms and are interested to see how it does this year. Social Media sites continue to be great places to practice and improve a language and being familiar with social media language is a good tool.

We welcome your comments and suggestions for new blog post topics! Wishing you an excellent and fun new language learning year!

Posted on by Peter Rettig

P.M. Tools for Language Learning: Motivation, Timeline, Resources, and my Plan for Spanish & Dutch

Time ManagementLanguages Around the Globe's (ATG) 10th most popular Post in 2014 - 10 reasons your language Project is Failing and What You Can Do about It – lists “Lack of Motivation” as reason #1 and Poor Time Management as reason #2. This is consistent with the unattributed survey graph we discussed in our previous post, Not enough time? Really? Language Learning and setting Priorities, although the graph had the order reversed: 24% of the respondents had voted for “Not enough time” and 16% for “Keeping up motivation” as their main difficulty when learning a new language. (We had also speculated that the “not enough time” response may hide other reasons, so the discrepancy matters little.)

Lack of Motivation or Waning Motivation?

Maybe “lack” of motivation is not the right term. Most adult language learners are quite motivated when they start learning a new foreign language. The strongest reasons are typically related to immigration, a new lover or family member, travel to or work in a foreign country, job or study requirements, and similar clear needs to be able to communicate in the foreign language. There are other reasons, such as getting in touch with your family/language roots, religious interests, challenging yourself, or even just a passion for language learning. There is, however, an obvious correlation: The stronger the NEED, the stronger the motivation.

Even if motivation was strong at the start, it can easily weaken as the magnitude of the language project becomes clear. This is especially true for those learners that get caught by slick marketing slogans and ads. And, motivation may also wane for those who have not learned to manage the essentials of what is really a long-term project. They will discover that learning a foreign language as an adult is not difficult per se, but that they will have to commit time to learn and practice. My father often quoted a (German) saying: “Vor den Erfolg haben die Götter den Schweiß gesetzt” which translates as “The gods have set  sweat (hard work) as a condition for success.

Well, learning a foreign language does not involve sweat, but it does require sustained effort. And those who indeed approach language learning as a long-term project could benefit from applying some of the Project Management tools they may already be using in their professional life.

What is a “Project”?

While not all elements typically found in Project Management handbooks are present in a foreign language learning project, important ones are: Projects follow a plan and organized approach; they have a beginning and an end and thus need a time schedule; they need resources; they have an end result or achieve a goal. What is, however, quite different from the typical “project,” which often involves many people, is that YOU alone are all of these in one: the Project itself, its main participant, the Project Manager, both a resource and a resource consumer, the judge of success, etc. Which P.M. Tools should you then apply?

Schedule – There are really two parts to this: (1) How long you have, and  (2) How much time you can commit. Both are obviously closely related. If you have only, say, three months to become proficient, you'll have to commit lots of time, take an immersion course, or find a tutor, etc. (See also our post: 10,000 Hours for Foreign Language Mastery? We state there, for example, that for languages in Group I, Language Testing International (LTI) estimates that it takes a person with Average Aptitude” 240 hours of training under the supervision of an instructor and with 1-4 students per class to reach Intermediate Mid” proficiency.)

On the other hand, if you have much more than three months, you have many more choices and decisions to make. Such a schedule or timeline does not have to be complicated and is not difficult to create. For my timeline, I use an Excel-type spreadsheet; below, I show my current plan for improving my Spanish and learning Dutch. (More about my reasons for learning Dutch below.)

ResourcesHere, money, teaching materials, and human resources come into play. Again, your how long you have and available resources are important. From free to pricey online courses, library materials, books, CDs, audios and DVDs, adult education/community college/university courses, to immersion courses in your country or abroad – the choices and decisions are yours. The question of “What is best for me?” or “What is the best value for me?” is difficult to answer in general, but, if you google such questions, you can find many blog posts and reviews (including ours) for opinions and recommendations.

One note of caution: There is no single “best” program or approach. Money alone does not buy you proficiency in a foreign language. Nobody can do it FOR you. You have to do the learning YOURSELF! There may be approaches and methods that fit the way you learn better than others. Do some research and try out some approaches. Most importantly, find the course(s) – in whatever medium – YOU ARE MOST LIKELY TO STICK WITH. But once you have decided on one or, even better, several teaching resources, you should show these and your practice/attendance on a simple timeline. (see below)

A schedule then serves several purposes: It documents your plan visually, you can add, modify or delete activities, it shows key milestones: reading an article; understanding a conversation, an audio, a video; participating in a conversation; writing emails, texts, a journal; proficiency tests, etc.

Accomplishment/GoalHere, language learning deviates from the typical “project completion” celebration as learning a foreign language as an adult is often a life-long project.

Take my case: I've been in the the U.S. for many years, but have never been able to completely eliminate my German accent – it's not as noticeable as Henry Kissinger's, but it's still there. I took “accent reduction” classes and have to be conscious of how to pronounce “Ws” and “Vs.” I also occasionally find words that I have not heard before. On the other hand, I read German newspapers to keep up with German as well. As with all languages, German is constantly evolving alongside new social developments.

However, by setting certain milestones and targeting your learning to achieve these milestones, you can celebrate your accomplishments and then set yourself the next one. If your goal is acing a proficiency test you need to take for college or work, it's an obvious one. But as you can see from my schedule example below, I also have a very specific goal for learning Dutch.

Why Learn Dutch?

Dutch is not a language one would learn without a very good reason. (A Google search surprised me, though: There are over 23 million people speaking Dutch, the majority living in The Netherlands (16 million) and the Flemish part of Belgium (6 million). Islands in the Caribbean (Aruba, Netherlands Antilles, St. Maarten), Suriname (South America), and elderly Dutch speakers in Canada and Indonesia make up the balance. In addition, Afrikaans, one of 11 official languages used in South Africa, is based on Dutch, and Afrikaans and Dutch speakers mutually understand each other. (This adds another 7 million.) Now, the reason I want to learn to UNDERSTAND Dutch is this:

Every couple of years, my wife and I attend a family reunion in The Netherlands. My wife understands and speaks Dutch fluently and with my German background, I sometimes can make out a little. But that's not enough to really be part of a conversation – even if I were to answer in English or German. Now you may know that the Dutch probably speak better English than most of their European neighbors and our relatives are no exception. But when joining a table where everybody speaks Dutch, I often found that making all switch to English seemed like an imposition. My goal therefore is quite simple: I just want to UNDERSTAND the conversations of our Dutch relatives. This way, when I am sitting at a table where Dutch is spoken, I can participate in the conversation and not force the whole table to switch to German or English. My longer-term goal is obviously to also speak Dutch, but I'll be happy with an interim step by September.

My Plan for Spanish and Dutch

The timeline below shows my current plan. Gamesforlanguage learning scheduleMy focus is on completing the Spanish Duolingo course, as well as our GamesforLanguage Spanish 1 course (for the second time), before we head to Sevilla in the spring. During our stay in Sevilla, we plan to hire a tutor for regular daily practice. My wife and I will make every effort to converse in Spanish and obviously take every opportunity to practice our Spanish while shopping, sightseeing, etc. We'll evaluate ourselves on our Spanish fluency at the end of our stay.

After our return in the spring, I'll increase my Dutch learning efforts, complete the Dutch Duolingo course, and subscribe to one or more online courses, most likely, Babbel and LingQ. My goal is to understand Dutch conversations during our stay in the Netherlands. I do not know yet what I will do after getting back home. I'll probably start reading some Dutch books, maybe watch some Dutch YouTube clips, and, yes, start talking more in Dutch with my wife. 

As for Spanish, assuming our fluency has further improved, we'll look for conversation partners among our friends and on online language exchanges, continue reading Spanish books and newspapers online, and watch Spanish movies and videos - because we know: "If you don't use it, you'll lose it!"


Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

15 French Social Media Terms When Learning French

Social Media Just starting to learn French? So, how soon could you begin reading real French texts online? The question of how soon one can master the basics of a language gets hotly debated in many of the polyglot forums and language learning sites.

Duolingo gives a pretty precise answer. When you've reached around the middle of its French course, you'll get a message saying something like this: "You are now able to read and translate 53% of French articles on the Internet." And you'll see the call to action: "Start translating." That means with around 800 French words which can be learned in 4 months or so, you can start reading, understanding, and even translating online articles. (I noticed that for me with GamesforLanguage Spanish, it was 750 words and also took me 4 months.)

I hasten to add that it is crucial to learn a language in context. Learning lists of individual words does not prepare you to communicate beyond one-word or two-word sentences, or with English sentences that are clothed in French words. To truly communicate in French, you have to get an intuitive feel of how the language works, understand when to use formal or informal expressions, and be aware that the meaning of words can change in various contexts.

The early milestones of mastery are important but they are just a beginning. Once you've gotten the basics in reading, writing, listening, and speaking, you then own the tools to build your skills.

If you regularly read online articles in French and participate in French online conversations, your level of mastery will increase dramatically.

Here are 15 basic social media terms to get you started:

partager - to share

suivre - to follow; suivez-nous - follow us

j'aime - I like (Facebook)

commenter - to comment

continuer la lecture - continue reading

envoyer - to send

rechercher sur - search on

fermer - to close

s'inscrire - to register, subscribe; vous désinscrire - to unsubscribe

mis à jour - updated, disclosed (on)

poster quelque chose - to post something

répondre - to reply

se connecter - to connect (oneself)

créer un nouveau compte - to create a new account

réseau social - social network; réseautage social - social networking

Learning a language has never been easier than now. The internet provides a wealth of resources and information for anyone with a little time and dedication. But it's more than information to be consumed. On the internet, you can participate, write comments, exchange information with those who have similar interests, you can learn and help others to learn.

If you want to get started with news or some fun, colorful articles in their Lifestyle sections, here are the links to The Huffington Post France and The Huffington Post Québec:

Go to Facebook and find pages in French. You can look for pages around interests that you have, follow trends, learn new words and phrases, and discuss language issues.

If you're particularly interested in French language questions, here's a great Forum in which to participate:

Forum mondial de la langue française

We're always happy to see you on our GamesforLanguage Facebook page. We follow some of the polyglot personalities on their language adventures, post blogs and articles on language learning in general, and tricks and hacks on learning the four languages that we teach: French, Spanish, Italian, and German. And, we always welcome comments in French. Bonne année et j'espère à bientôt!

Posted on by Peter Editor

Molten Lead, Red Underwear, Grapes, and other End-of-Year Traditions in Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Spain, and Mexico

FireworksNew Year's resolutions (and Fireworks!) seem to be universal in many countries and many of us use the beginning of a new year - whenever that may be - as a moment to both look backwards and forwards.

And, as the biggest New Year's Eve party in the U.S. is arguably held at Times Square in New York City, other countries also know how to party in their capitals or major cities. Around the London Eye (the giant Ferris Wheel), huge fireworks light up the sky and the New Year's Day Parade with dancers, acrobats, and musicians is the place to be.

The Arab world does not celebrate the New Year, Dubaithe notable exception being Dubai, where this year another spectacle will likely eclipse last year's event at which nearly 500,000 firework rockets lit the sky during just 6 minutes. This year the entire façade of the Burj Kalifa, at 2480 feet the highest building in the world(right), is to be covered with LED screens, which will be part of the fireworks, laser, and video show.

China celebrates its New Year according to its moon calendar, in 2015 on February 19, when the year of the sheep begins with the traditional Chinese fireworks and the country comes to a standstill for nearly a week. However, January 1 is also a holiday in China and in the larger cities the young celebrate the day by eating out and going to parties.

In countries where the four languages of our gamified Courses and Quick Games are spoken, the end-of-year traditions vary quite a bit, even by region in each country. The summary below can only list a fraction of the events and traditions and we invite our readers to comment and add others they know about.

German Speaking Countries

German is the country's only official language in Austria, Germany, and Lichtenstein. It is the "majority" language, and shares official status with the other languages, in Switzerland and Luxembourg.


New Year's Eve in German speaking countries is also called "Silvester," as December 31 is St. Silvester (or Sylvester) Day. This fourth-century Catholic pope and saint became associated with New Year's Eve, after the reform of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 when the last day of the year became December 31. (Apart from the German-speaking countries, 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.)

RummelpotlaufenIn 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 pig skin 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. Bleigießen:LeadpouringBefore 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 Vienna tradition as is a glass of champagne, and after the midnight countdown, the Danube waltz plays on all radio and tv stations.

I'm not familiar with any particular Silvester traditions in Switzerland, Lichtenstein, or Luxembourg that differ from those in the other German-speaking countries and regions.

French Speaking Countries

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. It is spoken as a first language in France, southern Belgium, western SwitzerlandMonaco, the provinces of QuebecNew Brunswick and some parts of Ontario in Canada, parts of the U.S. states of LouisianaMaineNew Hampshire and Vermont, among educated classes in North AfricaHaiti, French Polynesia and by various communities elsewhere. [Wikipedia]

While particular end-of-year traditions may exist in most of these countries, we'll just focus here on France.


In France, huge municipal firework displays are not the customary way to usher in the New Year these days. 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. [You say "la" Saint-Sylvestre because it's short for "la fête de Saint-Sylvestre."] At midnight, everyone kisses under the mistletoe and offers their good wishes for the new year.

In Paris, the city ofEifel tower lighted at night 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 and wish each other "Bonne année" (Good year). This year, Paris is adding a first-time spectacle before the final countdown: a 15-minute video show projected on the Arc de Triomphe, highlighting the Parisian "art of living." At the stroke of midnight, the skies will fill with illuminations.

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.


Italy, where San Silvestro died on December 31, 335, 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.

Red Underwear Christmas Present

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, it should have been given to you as a present, for example for Christmas, and worn 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! 

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.

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 most other parts of the world.

Italian is also an official language in Switzerland (Tessin & 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.

­Spanish Speaking Countries

Spanish is a national language in 20 sovereign states and one dependent entity, totaling around 442 million people. For a Wikipedia list of countries where Spanish is an official language, click here.We'll focus here on Spain and Mexico.


New Year celebration in Spain starts with a family dinner, which often take 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 fireworks and all kinds of noisemakers. In the town hall, sparkling wine and grapes for good luck are distributed.

Grape holderIn Madrid, people flock to Puerta de Sol for the city's big communal street party. 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 at the Puerta del Sol clock, you eat one grape and make a wish. (There are even special 12-grape holders as shown in the left picture) 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 that someone had the idea to use up the excess grapes in this way.]

From midnight on, it's time for toasts, hugs, and well-wishing, but not before each person has tossed a golden ring into his or her glass, for good luck.

And similar to the Italians, 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.


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. 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.

Family Traditions

And as countries and regions have developed particular traditions and celebrations, so have many families: In my father's family in Berlin, Germany, the after-midnight snack was "Heringssalat," a Scandinavian/Northern Germany specialty that has many recipe variations. The herring, potato, apple, and pickle combination makes a welcome change after the sweet treats of the Christmas season and we are now continuing this tradition with our extended family here in the U.S.

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