Posted on by Peter Rettig

Foreign Language Learning While You Sleep?

sleeping woman with earphones - Gamesforlanguage.comHave you dreamed about leaning a foreign language during your sleep? I certainly have.

Just imagine, a few electrodes attached to your head will infuse your brain with a new language while you sleep.

Unfortunately, it's still science fiction stuff: A nice idea, but clearly not yet realistic at this time!

On the other hand, Swiss scientists have proven with a number of tests that you can indeed enhance your vocabulary retention during sleep. At least it's a start!

I first found this on PsychCrunch's podcast Episode 5: How to Learn a New Language, which includes an interview with Professor Björn Rasch from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

I contacted Prof. Rasch and he was kind enough to send me three articles, the latest one titled: “The beneficial role of memory reactivation for language learning during sleep: A review,” authored by him and Thomas Schreiner. (The article is available now on's “Brain and Language” and can also be obtained via ScienceDirect.)

Language Learning Stages

I found the Schreiner/Rasch article fascinating because it examines the close tie between language learning and the basic processes of memory. As you learn words in a new language, you go through three core stages: encoding, consolidation, and retrieval.


When we first hear new words (also called labels) for objects, human brain encoding - Gamesforlanguage.comactivities, feelings, etc. in a foreign language, our brain has to encode them. That means, we change the information into a form that our memory can cope with.

There are three main ways in which information can be encoded: with a picture (visual), with sound (acoustic), and with meaning (semantic). For example, to learn the German word for “dog,” you could use an image of a dog plus the audio and/or written text “Hund.” That's the encoding.

The authors remind us that, “during encoding, new and initially labile memory traces are formed that are still highly susceptible to interference.”

Nevertheless, such “memory traces” are no longer just conjecture. They can be made visible today with MRI brain scans.


During this stage, the newly encoded memories are “stabilized and strengthened” and “gradually integrated into pre-existing knowledge networks on the cortical level for long-term storage.”

This must be the stage where practice and interactive learning comes into play. Whether by associations with images or feelings, repeating and saying aloud, spaced-recall exercises, writing, or other drills - consolidating new memories is essential for learning a foreign language.

It's especially at this stage that sleep is key. Before reading the article, I was not aware of how important sleep is for memory functions.

Schreiner/Rasch note: “While encoding and retrieval are clearly tied to wakefulness, sleep plays a crucial role in the consolidation of newly encoded memories.

There is a vast amount of research that documents the beneficial effects that sleep has on memory.


dog cartoon with big bone - Gamesforlanguage.comIn this third stage, memories can be accessed and are available for active use. We know what that means when we start practicing a foreign language: We not only understand the meaning of the foreign words, we can also use and apply them when listening, reading, speaking, or writing.

Understandably, the memories stored in our brain are more like a collage, or even a jigsaw puzzle, than a series of lists. And thus, associations (helped by context, specific questions, or other cues) play an important role in the retrieval of information.  

Sleep/Language Study Set-up

A group of Germans was given 120 Dutch-German word pairs to study before 10 PM.

Then, half of the group, the “Sleep Group,” slept for three hours, while the other half, the “Control Group,” stayed awake.

The Sleep Group heard a portion of the words - referred to as “cued” words - during their sleep, but during their “Non -rapid eye movement” (NREM) sleep, which typically occurs during the first few hours when you do not dream.

The same words were replayed to the Control Group. After three hours both groups were given tests. The Sleep Group had better recall of the (“cued”) words they had heard during sleep than the Control Group who had listened to them while awake

Schreiner/Rasch Test Setup -

The image A above shows the set-up and when the Sleep Group heard the “cued” Dutch words.

Graph (B) shows that in the Sleep Group, recall for the GermanGraph B - translation of the cued Dutch words (black bar) was significantly improved when compared with uncued words (white bar).

In the Control Group, there was no significant difference between the recall of cued and uncued words.

There are more study details and observations by the researchers than can be discussed here (including the cueing timing and intervals).

The study seemed to confirm that verbal cues – e.g. replaying during sleep a list of foreign words that had been learned earlier – can reactivate the memory of those words.

In other words, hearing vocabulary during our sleep could greatly enhance the “consolidation stage” of our memory and thereby the language learning process.


The authors note that “the findings reviewed above demonstrate the crucial role of sleep in language and specifically word learning.

It has been shown that sleep promotes divers aspects of language learning, from word learning to the abstraction of grammar rules (Batterink et al., 2014; Henderson et al., 2012) and possibly constitutes an ideal state in order to facilitate and accelerate distinct learning processes.

In this vein, evidence that foreign vocabulary are capable of inducing such reactivation processes and thereby enhance subsequent memory performance critically broadens the scope of cued memory reactivations during sleep.

Open Questions

Schreiner/Rasch also acknowledge a number of open questions. Among them:

  • What would be the consequences when the word cues were heard during REM sleep (vs. NREM sleep)?
  • Do closely related languages (e.g. Dutch/German) make cueing during sleep more effective?
  • Does cueing affect sleep quality?

We would also ask:

  • What is the optimum timing sequence?  
  • What is the optimum audio volume level?
  • What about phrases and sentences vs. individual words?

There is clearly still more research needed to determine how best we can take advantage of these findings in language learning practice at home.

One Practical Take-Away

After reading the study and understanding more about the importance of sleep for the “consolidation stage” of our memory, I have set myself a new goal: Play one of our Spanish lessons or Quick Games before turning off the lights.

Finding a way to “cue” the right words at the right time at night, will certainly be a little more difficult.

But it may also be the next frontier that language learning companies will want to cross...

Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of He is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.


Schreiner, T., & Rasch, B. The beneficial role of memory reactivation for language learning during sleep: A review. Brain &Language (2016),

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

4 Fun Spanish Language Games Before You Travel

Plaza Major, Madrid - Gamesforlanguage.comAre you planning to travel to Spain or to one of the other Spanish-speaking countries? (Picture left: Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain)

You'll also know from our previous blogposts that learning, at the very least, basic numbers, some essential vocabulary, and common phrases has been very useful to us in travels to countries whose languages we don't speak.

We won't promise that you'll speak Spanish fluently after reading this post and playing the four games. We're convinced, however, that you'll remember some of the words and phrases and will be able to use and pronounce them.

Some Simple Tips

Always say the words and phrases aloud,speaking aloud or if you're on a bus or standing in line, mouth them to yourself, silently. Then when the coast is clear, say them OUT LOUD from memory.

A good way to learn phrases and expressions is to practice them as "chunks," not as a series of individual words.

Some phrases are idiomatic and have a meaning that's quite different from the meaning of the words in it. Learn them as a whole.

Lots of repetition is essential. We rarely learn something just by hearing and saying it once. 

Our mouth has to learn what muscles to use to make the right sounds. The particular combination of sounds that makes up a phrase has to get lodged in our brain. And, our brain has to connect sound to meaning.
No matter what your approach is to learning Spanish, speaking words and phrases out loud and writing them out by hand will help you remember them.

1. Numbers

When you travel to a foreign country, knowing the numbers Word Invaders - Gamesforlanguage.comis a good skill to have. But you need to be able to understand them as well as to say them.

Numbers come in handy for exchanging phone numbers, giving your address, arranging a time to meet someone, buying at a market, paying the bill in a restaurant, buying tickets, making reservations, etc.

In general, knowing the numbers 1-100 will suffice. Spanish numbers are not difficult, all you need is say them enough so they become automatic.

Here's a game to practice the Spanish Numbers in a fun way. ("Word Invaders" screen, above left)

2. Question Words

Spanish Question words Game - Gamesforlanguage.comYou can do a lot with question words to give and get information, either on the personal level or when asking for directions, about opening and closing times, train or bus schedules, etc.

In English, common interrogatives - with the exception of "how" - tend start with "wh-" (when, where, why, who, what, which)

With the exception of "¿dónde?" (where), common Spanish interrogatives have a "k-" sound, which is spelled either as a "q," or a "c-." That's something you have to learn extra.

Also, as question words, these all have an accent: ¿qué?, ¿por qué?, ¿quién?, ¿cuándo?, ¿cuánto?, ¿cuál?, ¿cómo?, ¿dónde?

Here is another Game to practice the most common Spanish question words. ("Snap Cloud" screen, above right)

3. Common Adverbs

Spanish adverbs Game - Gamesforlanguage.comBasic adverbs in Spanish are easy to learn, but they're also easy to confuse. So, it's worth practicing them and hearing them in context.

With adverbs you can add important and precise information to what you're saying, for example, when, why, how, or where something is happening.

To learn or refresh your knowledge of adverbs, play Spanish: 10 Handy Adverbs and/or Spanish: 8 More Adverbs. (See "Word Hero" screen, left)

Note that some of the adverbs in this game can also function as adjectives. But in the sentences that give you the context, we are just using them as adverbs.

4. Everyday Phrases

Learn and practice 8 conversational phrasesSpanish phrase game - with this fun and quick game.

You'll be using these phrases often when talking in Spanish - with someone at a party, in a café, at a store, online, on Skype, etc. ("Deal no Deal" screen, right)

Make this your start to remembering phrases and expressions: This way you don't even have to think about grammar.

If you're having fun with our approach and these games, you'll find additional Quick Games for French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Inglés on our site.

Or why not try our FREE Spanish 1 course: David en España. With its 36 fifteen-minute lessons you'll learn over 600 new words. But, even more importantly, you'll practice the phrases and sentences of a travel story – useful, real life language that you'll be able to put to use when visiting Spain, Mexico, or one of the many other Spanish-speaking countries or regions .

And just maybe you'll also get enchanted by Spanish songs such as “La Paloma”. If “La Paloma's” history interests you, or if you want to learn it's original (Spanish) lyrics, click on La Paloma Lyrics- Learning Spanish With a Song.

You Want to Learn Spanish Fast?

Not everyone will agree with Benny Lewis', the Irish Polyglot's statement: Why Spanish is easy!

But, if you are serious about learning Spanish - and even before you buy or subscribe to any expensive courses, you may want to learn more about Benny's approach.

We can also recommend our other partner site, Lingualia. It is FREE (unless you want to learn faster with the premium version).

We are practicing with Lingualia ourselves and you can read my recent post:"Lingualia" - Learning Spanish (or English) - A Review.

You may not have the time or motivation to learn a language to fluency before traveling.

However, knowing some key vocabulary and phrases will go a long way to making your trip more enjoyable. It will also be quite helpful in many circumstances, and who knows, perhaps get you out of tricky situations.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Disclosure: The links above are to a partner's program with revenue sharing, if you decide to buy or subscribe.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Reaching Language Fluency – My Experience with Spanish (so far)

friends talking - Gamesforlanguage.comFluency in the language we're learning is important for many of us, especially if we're talking with new friends. But, what is fluency?

Unless you think that being fluent means perfection, I would argue that these are the three essential marks of fluency:

  1. You have enough vocabulary to hold your own, to argue your point. You should not be constantly searching for words. If you can't think of a word or expression right away, you can easily talk around it, and find another way to say what's on your mind.
  2. Your pronunciation is adequate. Even if you don't sound absolutely like a native speaker, people can understand you. Otherwise, your conversation is not going to move forward.
  3. You can sustain a conversation with someone without thinking much about grammar. That means, even if your grammar isn't perfect, your mistakes won't throw your message off track.

In other words, if you're able to engage in conversations with native speakers without constantly searching for words and tripping up over grammar, you're well on your way to fluency.

Getting to the threshold of fluency is one thing. Making the leap into fluency is another. For me, the million dollar question is how an adult learner can achieve that leap.

I acquired my first three languages by growing up and living in different countries (Austria, the Netherlands, Canada/US). My fourth language, French, I learned in school and college, and I improved it during stays in France and (French) Switzerland.

Italian and Spanish I began to learn later in life. I thereby continue to experience all the challenges of an adult learner.

In this post I'll write about my experience with Spanish. I don't speak it quite fluently yet, but I'm ready to make that leap.



 There are many ways and different tools to acquire vocabulary. Putting together a personal "system" of daily exposure to new vocabulary is not that hard.

Social media sites are an easy source. For example, vocabulary - Gamesfrolanguage.comI follow several word-a-day Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. When I check into these, I can always pick up some new words and phrases in Spanish.

We're using Spanish post-its on furniture, gadgets, and other items in our house.

By reading news articles, opinion pieces, or stories in your target language, you can build a diverse vocabulary. If you write down any new words or put them into a Flashcard game such as Quizlet, you'll remember them better.'s browser extension or app lets you collect words when reading online. As with Quizlet, you can then practice them later.

Online language programs and apps are set up to have you learn and practice vocabulary. Most of these offer the advantage of providing audio - which is essential for improving your pronunciation.


Some programs let you record your voice, play it back, and compare your pronunciation with that of the native speaker. (This is one of the features the Gamesforlanguage quick games and courses provide.)

Voice recognition seems to be getting popular too. Though I must confess, the ones I've tried tend to frustrate me more than they help.

In any case, recording your voice and playing itgrammar crisis - back is an excellent way to improve your pronunciation - even if there's no native speaker for comparison.


Unless you love memorizing conjugation tables and case endings, it's best to acquire gradually and in context. The idea is to become aware of patterns. Here again, reading will help you a lot.

Once you've internalized a grammatical structure, you can build on it. That may be a good time to look it up, learn the rule, and try out a few more examples in your next conversation.


What has worked for me is to start speaking in my target language right from the start! I use every opportunity to say words and phrases out loud.

One way to get beyond individual words is to memorize dialogues. These you can say to yourself, and if possible out loud at various times during the day. You can even "perform" them as real conversations adding gestures and emotional expression.dialogue -

Speaking from day one is also Benny Lewis' advice in Fluent in 3 Months. If you have a partner or friend who's willing to engage in simple target language conversations with you, that's perfect.

On the other hand, Steve Kaufmann of LingQ suggests that you hold off on real conversations until you're ready. For him, the magic word is "input" (reading, listening, watching) until you have enough vocabulary to communicate on more than a basic level.

I do understand Steve Kaufmann's argument. However, in my experience "lots of input" alone has not been enough to make me fluent in Spanish.


This year, I'm intent on becoming fluent in Spanish, my sixth language. I started learning Spanish four years ago, casually, and since then have been trying out and using various programs. On the average, I've spent about 30 minutes a day doing various things in Spanish: listening, playing games, writing, watching films, reading headlines, etc.

Of course, I know our GamesforLanguage Spanish 1 course by heart, often playing one or more of the 36 scenes to work on modifications.

Lingualia - Gamesforlanguage.comLast year I used Duolingo's Spanish course as well as a 3-month subscription for Babbel's Spanish course.

Currently I am using Lingualia's (one of our partners) Spanish course daily. (You can read my review of Lingualia HERE.)

We are listening to Spanish radio stations and are watching Spanish movies (we find Spanish [not English] subtitles especially helpful!) 

My husband and I spent one month in Barcelona, four years ago, and one month in Seville, last year. Though we thoroughly enjoyed interacting with locals as much as we could, met with language exchange partners, engaged a tutor (see: How a Tutor Boosted Our Language Fluency), and improved our Spanish during each stay, I still don't feel that I can speak it fluently.

In order to gain more confidence in speaking, I need another learning boost - intense practice with conversation partners, who are able to give me immediate and informed feedback.


My reading and listening comprehension skills are a lot better than my speaking and writing skills.

I have a good grasp of rudimentary Spanish grammar and a passable pronunciation.

However, I do not believe that lots more "input" (reading, listening, watching) is going to boost my speaking skills, per se.

We don't have any Spanish-speaking friends at the moment and living in Spain is out of the question.

So, to become fluent in Spanish, I've started using an online tutor. To date, I've had just a few Skype lessons on italki. The jury is still out, but I feel very encouraged.


With italki I've had two different types of Spanish only Skype lessons. I'm not yet sure which model will work best for me.

Tutor #1- One tutor, let's call him Carlos, has engaged me in real conversations. We talked about topics that I would also want to discuss with others, for example: the main difference between living in Europe and in the United States; what's going on in politics; how I came to be fluent in four languages; or, what it feels like to live in other countries (something that applies to him as well). To me the conversations were interesting and personal to the extent that we exchanged opinions and talked about some experiences.

There were lots of questions back and forth. Carlos skype conversation - Gamesforlanguage.comcorrected some of my mistakes, but not too much, and helped me formulate my thoughts. At the end of the lesson, we went over a list of words and phrases, again with corrections. As he talked, he typed the list into my Skype message box.

Tutor #2 - The second tutor, let's call him Juan, immediately started me on a B1 Level textbook, which he pulled up on Skype. He then proceeded to go over the first exercises of Chapter 1.

The topic was "daily life," and dealt with everyday activities and hobbies. The exercises included typical vocabulary and related grammar points. Juan asked me to read various sentences and to answer questions, but on the whole, the lesson felt somewhat impersonal, more like a regular class.

With both tutors, I felt the lessons were challenging. I had to speak quite a bit, and to listen hard to make sure I understood. At the end of each lesson, I felt "foreign language fatigue." One hour was enough, any longer and my brain would have started to shut down.

I haven't yet chosen which tutor to continue with. Italki, in fact encourages you to try out several before making up your mind. But it's clear to me that I can get closer to fluency by using an experienced tutor.

I'll also try out another site, Hellotalk, and expect to add language-exchange sessions with native speakers as well. But I'll write about that another time. Stay tuned. 

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Disclosure: Only the links above to Fluent in 3 Months  and Lingualia are to a partner's program with revenue-sharing, should you decide to subscribe.


Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

Language Learning Before Traveling Abroad? Maybe! But When & What to Learn?

travel highlights - Gamesforlanguage.comAre you planning to travel abroad this year? Then, should learning the local language be part of your preparation? Language enthusiasts will likely answer with a clear: “Yes, obviously,” and give you a number of reasons. One of our guest writers did so recently in 5 Reasons for Learning a Language Before You Travel.

Maybe you also saw some ads, such as “Learn a Language in 10 Days.” Or perhaps Benny Lewis' “Fluent in 3 Months” convinced you to get started before your next trip.

Yes, learning a new language can be an exciting project. With your new language comes a whole new world to explore - a different way of looking at the world, even a different way of going through daily life.

However, if you are a busy adult with many demands on your time, you also have to decide how much time and effort you can really commit. So, you can probably use a more qualified answer than just “Yes, obviously.”

Types of Travel

Traveling abroad” can cover a variety of situations:Travel agency -

  • a weekend trip to a foreign resort;
  • an organized tour with others through one or more foreign countries;
  • staying in, or traveling through a foreign country for several weeks on your own or with a like-minded partner;
  • living abroad for several months (or years)

The first two situations will hardly give you a strong reason to START learning a foreign language. But, they could still give you a good push to BRUSH UP on a language you haven't used for a while.

As we suggest below, for a shorter visit you can focus on specific vocabulary that you could use in almost any social encounter.

On the other hand, the last two situations will certainly provide many opportunities for communicating in the foreign language. Thus, preparing for your trip or stay will very likely include learning and/or practicing the language of the country more extensively.

Language Complexities

easy-medium-hard - Gamesforlanguage.comFor English speakers, some languages are easier to learn than others. Language Testing International's chart for How long Does it Take to Become Proficient? categorizes many of the European languages as Group I languages.

(Group IV languages, which include Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. are thought to take at least twice as much time to learn as Group I languages.)

For that reason, you'll have to calibrate your preparation time to the complexity of the language and the time you can commit on a daily and weekly basis.

The two of us don't speak any of the Group IV languages. But before we traveled to China and Japan, we learned some specific vocabulary that proved quite useful.

Language Learning Hang-ups

Some of us remember our school experience and associate learning a foreign language with “boring,” “irrelevant,” and “embarrassing.”early class -

For example, in school, we had to memorize lists of strange-sounding words and learn sentences we would never use; we had to figure out abstract grammar rules and we had to drill paradigms (je vais, tu vas, il va, nous allons, etc.); we had to speak up “foreign” in front of our classmates; we got graded on our pronunciation and spelling; once the classes were over, everything faded.

Instead, learning a language can be a fresh and fun experience. It should stretch our mind and engage our whole person. One way to do this is to tie language learning to the enjoyment of planning and anticipating a trip.

Language “Recoveries”

Recoveries - Gamesforlanguage.comA trip may also be a wonderful opportunity to “recover” a dormant language.

It could be a language you heard as a child or studied in school, but never had the experience to hear spoken in its native environment. (see also: 2 Strategies for Relearning a Dormant Language)

Rather than “learning” per se, you could just start LISTENING to foreign radio stations, podcasts, and watch videos or movies in your target language.

You may be amazed how much you understand, how much is “still there.” And don't worry about speaking. This will come later.

Our Own Experience

Some years ago (before we started Gamesforlanguage), we decided to spend five months in Rome, Italy. While both of us, in addition to our native German, speak English and French quite fluently, we did not speak any Italian.Colosseum, Rome -

About six months before our departure, we began learning Italian with Pimsleur CDs and completed all three Italian courses (90 lessons).

It was a humbling experience - as we described in one of our 2011 posts - and one of the main reasons we started our own language learning site!

But it was the preparation before our stay that gave us also the foundation and the desire to really get into Italian once we were there. The progress we made with our tutor in Rome would not have been possible if we hadn't started to learn Italian before our trip.

Our Rome adventure also taught us a few lessons for our travels to countries with languages we don't speak, namely China and Japan (as well as Sweden and Norway.)

What Can or Should you Learn?

It's obvious: the more time you plan to spend in a foreign country on your own, the more intensive your preparation should be.

Today, you no longer have to rely just on language classes, books, or CDs. You can learn with online courses and apps (free or fee-based), improve your reading with browser translation extensions, and practice your speaking on language-exchange sites or with online tutors such as italki.

And even if you only spend a few days in the foreign country and don't have the time or interest to really learn the language, we have found that these three (3) word/phrase categories are extremely helpful and should be in your arsenal:

  1. Communication essentials such as Yes/No, Please, Thank you, You're welcome, Excuse me, Hello, Good-bye, etc.
  2. Numbers
  3. Time phrases (minutes, hours, times of day, days of the week)

numbers - Gamesforlanguage.comEvery foreign guidebook has a phrase section, which includes the above three categories, as well as others such as Emergency, Shopping, Sightseeing, Food/ Menu, etc. (On our site and in the languages we cover, you'll find many free “Quick Games” with which to practice aloud or free Podcasts to train your ear. For either of these, you don't even have to register!)

Before traveling to China and Japan, we only learned Chinese and Japanese basic phrases and numbers. Knowing the numbers 1-20 turned out to be surprisingly helpful.

Language Learning Before Traveling Abroad?

It's no secret, travel can be a terrific motivator for learning or re-learning a dormant language. Once you're realistic about your own time constraints, there's still much you can accomplish.

For short travels to any country, we recommend learning at least the vocabulary of the three categories above.

For longer stays abroad, you can be more ambitious. You should take advantage of the many opportunities that your town or access to the internet can give you.

These may range from language classes in your local school or community center, to apps, and free or subscription-based online courses or language communities.

Learning a foreign language when not living in a country where it's spoken, is a long-term project. Visits to that country can definitely boost your enthusiasm as well as level up your fluency.

You are in charge of your learning progress. Nobody can learn a language FOR you.

Disclosure: None of the links above is to a partner site with revenue-sharing.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Sure Ways to Escape the Language Learning Rut

Rut in Grass - Gamesforlanguage.comYou've been learning a new foreign language for some time now. But are you making any progress? Does it feel like you're treading water? Or even worse, do you feel like you're in a rut?

This can happen even when you've got a good, daily routine. Or, ironically, it may be your daily routine that's getting you down and taking the spark out of your language quest.

So, how to get back that feeling of excitement, and with it, a real sense of progress?

The short and simple answer is that you have to add some new things to your language learning arsenal.

Notice, that I said “add.” Don't give up your learning habit! Learning a language takes time and effort. It's a long-term journey, and on a road that has many twists and turns. Many little steps one after the other - yes, regular practice is what builds character and sustains your progress.

But a routine, even the best one, can get stale and unexciting. What kinds of new things, then, will get you out of your rut?


As a starter, take a step back and look at why you're learning your chosen language. Maybe your original reasons no longer motivate you. Perhaps negative thoughts and feelings about your goals have crept in.

One way to clear your mind about this is to grab a sharp pencil and a fresh sheet of paper. List your reasons. If they are still all valid, take a look at your initial goals.

Maybe you now realize that fluency will take longer than you thought, or that watching an original foreign movie is still beyond you.

Yes, you could recalibrate your goal(s). Or even better, you could follow the advice of Dilbert's creator, Scott Adam. In his Blog Goals vs. Systems, (based on his book) he says not to worry about any goals. For you, that would mean creating a “system” by doing some enjoyable language learning activities every day, rather than pursuing an elusive goal.

Actively finding new occasions for learning your target language will add excitement to your routine. They'll also boost your confidence big time.

If you like games, you could chose language games like our Quick Games. If you're more advanced, find video games in your target language. (That's how our Spanish writer described learning English in his post ESL Learning Through Gaming.)

For some of you, it's a wacky app or online program like Frantastique (French) or Gymglish (English), with daily lessons in your inbox. (Note: both sites are partners of ours.)

For others, listening to a podcast or radio station on the commute to and from work may be your ticket, or getting an app or extension like to help your read articles in your target language online.

Joining a local language exchange group or scheduling online lessons with italki, or other sites, can also give your motivation a huge boost..

In short, by creating new opportunities and new contacts with other language learners and teachers, you're sure to develop a new and more positive mindset.

Cognition vs Emotion signs - Gamesforlanguage.comDO THE OPPOSITE

Have a good look at how you're learning. Whatever it is you're doing now, try something quite different, and add that. Make sure that it's fun.

For example, if you're doing everything online, take a book and read out loud for 10 minutes every day. Just read, don't look up anything. Pretend you're a native speaker and put as much drama into your reading as you can.

Or, if you mostly learn by talking with someone, online and/or off, start a daily journal and have someone correct it for you. A good place for that is Lang-8.

Let's say your routine is to learn by going through a grammar book or a grammar-based online course and doing the exercises that follow each lesson. The opposite would be to find a tv series (a soap or detective episodes) that you can watch daily on your computer. Again, just listen, don't worry if there are things you don't understand.

You get the idea: make whatever you add to your learning routine totally different from what you're used to. The more challenging, the better. But make sure it's something you enjoy.

GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONEcomfort zone sign -

Doubtless, for many language learners, the most comfortable activity is to read an easy book, or listen to an easy podcast in their target language.

There's nothing wrong with that, and "comfortable" language-learning tasks should definitely be part of your routine.

But, to add some spark to your language learning, you should add some things that are clearly out of your comfort zone.

Try making a video in which you introduce yourself to an online group in your target language. Another idea: try holding a short talk on video, or in a local language-exchange group meeting.

For most language learners moving from “passive” activities such as reading and listening, to the active writing and speaking tasks are big steps.

Most online courses make you practice reading, listening, and writing. But having a conversation with another person gets many learners out of their comfort zone.

There's no way around that: if you want to become fluent in your target language, you have to find opportunities for conversations.

If you can't find a language group that regularly meets at a neighborhood bistro or café, if you don't have friends with whom to speak and practice, or don't attend a live class, etc. - you can still go and explore the many opportunities that the internet has opened up.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Disclosure: Only the links above to Frantastique and Gymglish are to a partner's program with revenue-sharing, should you decide to subscribe.

Posted on by Nina L. Ivanichvili

How Fluency in Foreign Languages and Cultures Enriches Your Life and Worldview

World -"A different language is a different vision of life," said Federico Fellini. As our world becomes smaller and flatter and more people get exposed to foreign languages, the wisdom of this observation begins to sink in.

As you become more fluent in a foreign language you will learn to avoid the common misconception about translators and interpreters. Many U.S. companies often assume that any individual who speaks a foreign language is automatically a translator. But just because you grew up speaking Portuguese doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be a good translator.

Translators vs Interpreters

There are two categories of foreign language experts. The interpreter’s job is to translate orally from one language to another everything that is said, preserving the tone and style of the original speech. Translators deal with written documents, taking into account various language and terminology issues and the context.

In other words, translators translate documents, and interpreters interpret speech.

There exist some language professionals who are great at both translating the written word and interpreting the spoken word. But more often than not, they are an exception, not a rule.

What Translators Do

Translator woman - Gamesforlanguage.comLanguage translation is a very specialized field. In addition to
being linguists, some translators are professionally qualified in specific technical disciplines, such as aerospace, biochemistry, hardware and software, electrical engineering, finance, law, mechanical engineering, medicine, pharmaceuticals, and telecommunications.

Some only translate patents and others concentrate only on translation of technical manuals, or only on translation of legal contracts. Most of the professional translators work only in a single language pair and in one direction (e.g., English to Chinese).

Because professional translation requires training and expertise, it has a high cost for failure. An article in the National Law Journal relates an instance where a large Italian bank was being sued as a loan guarantor. When the loan document was translated literally from Italian, it stated that the bank guaranteed the loan. However, the word "guarantee" has different meanings in Italian than it does in English, and a literal translation did not accurately convey the document's meaning. The court dismissed the case, deciding that an Italian "guarantee" was different than an English "guarantee" - and the bank was not responsible for the loan.

As you find out more about professional translators and interpreters, you will learn that it is a good sign if the translation company, whose services your company uses, provides professionally executed legal, corporate and technical translations and utilizes translators, who are certified by the American Translators Association and who translate only into their native language.

Where Interpreters Work

Interpreter with client - Gamesforlanguage.comThere are two types of foreign language interpreters: simultaneous and consecutive. Simultaneous interpreters facilitate conferences with a large number of attendees.
For small meetings, tradeshows, depositions and social events, companies need to hire consecutive interpreters.

As you begin to experience in a different culture, you will learn how easy it is to create a misunderstanding by viewing people from other cultures, as if they are similar to us.

Imagine that your company sends you to Japan for a technical meeting. The Japanese company’s representative comes to your hotel room and inquires if you have had your lunch. You tell him that you want to try some sushi. You feel great when he invites you to a restaurant, where a gracious waiter encourages you to try various kinds of sushi. A while later, you begin to feel ill at ease, when you realize that your host has just paid about $400.00 for your lunch.

Language and Culture

Incorrect assumptions about cultural similarities may cause us to misjudge people and situations. In our culture, smiles, for example, are associated with pleasant emotions and project friendliness. Some Asian cultures, on the other hand, use a smile as a mask when dealing with unpleasant situations.

As you continue to enhance your knowledge of a foreign language, your competence in the culture of the country whose language you are studying will also increase. And little by little you will be able to see and interpret any situation from two different viewpoints. And you will then understand what Federico Fellini meant when he said that a different language is a different vision of life.

Enjoy the beautiful journey as your growing fluency in another language and in another culture will continue to enrich your life and your worldview.

Bio: Nina L. Ivanichvili is CEO of All Language Alliance, Inc., a legal translation and interpreting company providing multilingual legal translations, certified translation services and deposition interpreting services in more than 100 foreign languages. You can contact her at 303-470-9555, at, and follow her legal translation blog Translation for Lawyers.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

4 Fun French Language Games for Easy Practice

Place de Vosges - Gamesforlanguage.comAre you thinking “I love Paris in the springtime...” as in  one of Frank Sinatra's wonderful songs? Maybe you are traveling to France or even to Paris soon? (Picture left: Place de Vosges in spring 2008)

Then you should also know some French phrases.

We won't promise you that you'll speak French fluently after reading this post and playing the four games. We are convinced, however, that you'll remember some of the phrases and will be able to use and pronounce them.

A good way to learn phrases and expressions is to practice them as "chunks," not as a series of individual words.

As we know, some phrases are idiomatic and have a meaning that's quite different from the meaning of the words in it.

Always say phrases aloud, or if you're on a bus or in a line, mouth them to yourself, silently. Then when the coast is clear, say them OUT LOUD from memory.

Lots of repetition is essential. We rarely learn something just by hearing and saying it once.

Our mouth has to learn what muscles to use to make the right sounds. The particular combination of sounds that makes up a phrase has to get lodged in our brain. And, our brain has to connect sound to meaning.

1. Everyday phrasesSacre Coeur -

No matter what your approach is to learning French, knowing a few conversational phrases is always useful.

Here's a game (or, just click on the picture!) to playfully learn and practice 8 conversational phrases that you're guaranteed to use often when talking in French - online, on Skype, or directly with someone at a party, at a store, on a ski-lift, in a café, etc.

2. The Verb "être" (to be)Reading woman in Paris -

The verb "être" is useful in many contexts. Whether you're talking about yourself, asking for information or directions, sharing stories, etc., some form of "to be" is bound to come up.

With this game you'll do a quick review of "être" as a full verb in the present, future, and conditional tenses.

(In a future game, you'll learn and review "être" as an "auxiliary" or, "helping" verb. As such, "être" is used to make compound tenses for certain verbs.)

3. NumbersFrench numbers above 21 -

Mastering the numbers in a language can be quite empowering, especially when you travel to a foreign country. But you need to be able to understand them as well as say them.

Numbers come in handy for buying at a market, paying the bill in a restaurant, buying tickets, making reservations, arranging a time to meet someone, exchanging phone numbers, giving your address, etc.

In general, knowing the numbers 1-100 will suffice. Still, French numbers from 70 to 99 are tricky and need extra attention. 

Here's a game to practice French numbers 21 and beyond in a fun way (with a link to numbers 1-20)

4. French soundsGolden "r" -

When speaking English, you move your lips or tongue a certain way, for example to say "the, "he," or "rob." These are hard to pronounce for French speaker because the words contain sounds that French does not have: "th" "h" or our "r."

Similarly, French has sounds that are hard for English speakers. To produce them, you need to move your lips or tongue differently. In other words, you need to use different "mouth mechanics."

One difficulty may be that you can't really hear sounds that are not in the English language, because, like most people, you've gradually lost that ability in the course of growing into an adult.

However, with practice and application, you can recapture your ability to hearFrench vowels - and say non-English sounds, such as the French "u," French nasal vowels, and the French "r." And even if your French pronunciation won't get to perfection, it will get much better in time.

So play our games to practice the French "r" or  "vowels and accents." You'll be amazed how a little practice will let you get the hang of it and become more comfortable in speaking.

Also, check our previous post "5 Quick French Pronunciation Steps: Mouth Mechanics 101.

And if you're having fun with our approach and these games, you'll find additional Quick Games for French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Inglés on our site.

Or why not try our FREE French course: “Daniel en France”. With its 36 fifteen-minute lessons you'll learn over 600 new words. But, even more importantly, you'll practice the phrases and sentences of a travel story – useful, real life language that you'll be able to put to use when visiting Paris or traveling around France.

And just maybe you'll also get enchanted by French songs such as Edith Piaf's  “No, je ne regrette rien” or Joe Dassin's “Si tu n'existais pas...”. Both songs are topics of earlier posts for “learning French with a song”...

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of She has been a life-long language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

"Lingualia" - Learning Spanish (or English) - A Review

LingualiaLast month we reviewed “Frantastique,” our first partner site for learning French. Searching for an online language program for learning Spanish that would fit well with ours, we came across Lingualia.

Right from the start we liked some features that are similar to our Gamesforlanguage courses: the context of a dialog with each lesson, coupled with fun and effective ways for practicing words and phrases used in the dialog.

This review is based on Lingualia's Spanish course with English as the teaching/translation language.

(The program also works for teaching English. As with the Spanish course, you have a choice of a number of different teaching/translation languages).

I am learning with the Free version. As part of our partnership agreement, Lingualia provided us also with a free 6-month premium membership, which my husband Peter is using.

I've chosen to use my computer or laptop. (On my iPhone, or iPad, the audio for the dialogues is available only with Premium.)

Similar to Frantastique, an initial test places a learner into a Level ranging from A1 to B2 (according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages).

You can also choose your own starting level, if you want. I decided to start at the beginning of A1 to see how the course is built up. After his test, Peter was to start at level A2.

THE SETUP: The Dashboard

Clicking on Lingualia or Home gets you to the Dashboard with the choices of Home, Lingu,” Lessons, Challenge, and Activities on the top bar.

The DashboardLingualia dashboard -

The dashboard sample (right) shows my current status, i.e. I've completed 35% of Spanish A1, and 41 of 82 “Concepts” - these are words, abbreviations, grammar points, phonetics, etc.

Clicking on “Statistics,” I can see that I am behind in my vocabulary learning and my reading (both of which are accelerated with “Lingu” - see below). 

The “Social” tab lets you compete and connect with other learners – a feature we have not yet taken full advantage of. There you can invite your friends from various other social sites (Twitter, Google+, Facebook, Yahoo) or you can simply send them an email. You can also connect with others on Lingualia by following them.  

LinguLingualia: Lingua -

LINGU is your individualized “made-to-measure” teacher that adapts the course to your rate of progress and your level. In the free version, you are limited to learning and practicing 8-10 concepts a day with Lingu. (In the Premium version, you are not restricted.) Lingu prepares you for each of the lessons.

As you do your lessons, Lingu tracks how often you've recalled a certain word or concept. Then, in your practice session with Lingu, you'll review it in different ways until you've mastered it. 

Here are some examples from my recent practice session with Lingu. In one question type, you hear a word - such as, “microondas” - and then select an image that goes with it. If you don't know what the word is, you can get a further clue by clicking on “Theory” - which gives you a definition in Spanish.

It's fun and challenging to see if you understand the Spanish definition. Here's the one for Microondas" [mi.kro.ón.das]:Lingualia: Microondas - (s., m.) Horno que funciona por generación de ondas electromagnéticas.” If you want a translation, you click on the beginning of the Spanish sentence - which activates Google Translate. (The Premium version will, in addition, give you an example sentence with audio.)

In another type of question, you are asked to click on the written word that you hear, or even type out the word that you hear. The old technique of dictation still works well. 

In a third type of question, you see a picture with a series of letters that you have to unscramble and type in. The particular picture I just saw was that of the Taj Mahal, and beside it the letters: u o e m n m t o n. The answer is “monumento.”

A fourth type of question would be selecting the definition, in Spanish, of a word, which in this particular Lingu session is “ojo” (eye). The correct definition is “(s., m) Parte del cuerpo que está situada en la cara y que se ocupa del órgano de la vista.” In this case, if you click on the icon “Theory,” you can verify your answer. Again, by clicking on the beginning of the the sentence, you activate Google Translate.Lingualia: text -

In a fifth type of question, you're given a text of about 130 words to read in Spanish and are asked a (not always obvious) question about it. You answer by picking one of four responses. In my lesson, I am asked: “Según el texto, los egipcios piensan que los gatos...”

with the answer being: “vuelven a vivir después de la muerte.”

These short reading texts provide you with vocabulary that is richer and in the context of more complicated sentences. You learn to absorb a description, an explanation, a brief argument, etc. and see how language is used to connect ideas. 

LessonsLingualia: Lessons -

In Level A1, there are 50 Lessons (10 Units, with 5 Lessons each). Each lesson has a Dialogue in Spanish, 13-15 items of new Vocabulary, a Grammar section, a short Phonetics section, and finally a Checkpoint, which tests you on what you learned in the lesson. 

In the screenshot on your right, you see my summary for Lesson 26. It shows the vocabulary practiced, as well as the 100 Percent score I received when doing the Checkpoint Test. It should be noted that the Dialogue typically contains more vocabulary than practiced in the vocabulary section.

Dialogue: Lesson 26 has a one-minute Dialogue (audio and written): “Esta semana he trabajado mucho.” The Dialogues in general are spoken in fast conversational speed.

You can listen to each Dialogue's sentence also individually and play it as many times as you want. This is a great way to improve your listening-comprehension skill. (Note that the audio the dialogues is not available for the Free version is you're using an app.)

I find that I often need several playbacks before I get the meaning, but it also allows me to pay attention to the language melody. (On the computer or laptop you can now get a Google Translation in the language you choose with a mouse left click.) 

Vocabulary: The individual items of vocabulary are introduced with their definition in Spanish. For example, “derecho” (right/law) is defined as: “(s., m.) Ciencia que estudia las leyes y su aplicacíon.”

Then, when I click on the beginning of the Spanish definiton, I get an English translation (via Google Translate) - “(S., M.) Science that studies the laws and their application.” (Google Translate, of course, is not perfect, but definitely helps for finding the meaning of the Spanish sentence.)

Grammar: Préterito perfecto: regulares (Regular present perfect) You get a simple version of the rule and the conjugation of regular “-ar” verbs. The rule is given in Spanish, and by clicking on the beginning of the sentence, you get the English meaning.

Phonetics: a tongue twister and description of the ñ sound in Spanish. (To play the audio, though, you need a Premium account.)

Checkpoint: You get 15 questions that put to the test what you have learned in the lesson you just completed.


You can find people to follow and challenge them to a language duel. Peter and I challenged each other a few times and it was fun who could get the better score.

You'll notice quickly that each question has a time limit, so you don't have time to look up the correct answer, if you are really competitive!


Here you can practice your writing and have it corrected by other users. (I must confess that I have not taken advantage of this opportunity yet!)


You have a number of options: Create a profile (with biography, etc.); Interface language (Español, English, Deutsch); Privacy Settings; Notifications you want to receive (Newsletter, Weekly progress, Lingu challenge alerts, Follow, Accepted invitations, Activities); Subscription information


Lingualia is free with registration, and you can sign up here for Spanish or English and try it for free. If it works for you and you want to become a Premium user (see below) look for special offers.

After registration (and until March 31st) you can activate Coupon code GAME25 for a 25% discount by visiting (The regular monthly subscription rates range from $9.95/month to $24.95/month, depending on the subscription length.)

As a Premium (subscribed) user, you have the following advantages: Faster learning; Access to 15.000 audios to improve pronunciation and understanding; No restrictions when learning with Lingu; All downloads in a PDF file; All these are available on iPhone, iPad, and Android apps; No ads.


  • I particularly enjoy the Dialogues (which get longer as you go along). They are conversational, spoken at normal speed. And, I see the text, and can replay the audio as often as I want, line by line.
  • The all-Spanish definitions are great, they get me into an immersion mindset. If I don't understand something, I click on the beginning of the line and get a Google translation into English. (While the Google translations are not always perfect, you will always will get the gist of the meaning.)
  • The exercises are varied, including “write what you hear”; “unscramble the letters” to match a definition or an image; “read a text” and click on the right answer to a question about it; etc.
  • At the end of each lesson you'll do a 15-question Quiz that tests what you've just learned.
  • Lingu helps you to practice words and phrases (“Concepts”) often enough until you've mastered them.
  • You can keep track of what you learned, and go back any time to review.
  • The tests provide immediate feedback and the dashboard lets you review and understand your progress.
  • You come into contact with a wide range of words and phrases, which you hear and practice all in context.
  • I also find the phonetics section with the many similar sounding Spanish words like votar/botar, tubo/tuvo, seta/zeta, rayar/rallar, etc. quite useful.
  • You learn and practice Grammar in small chunks and related to the Dialogues in each lesson. This part has been very helpful and I feel I'm clearly building my grammar knowledge of Spanish.


  • To practice your pronunciations, you should repeat everything you hear and read, and imitate the native speakers as best as you can..
  • The standard lessons are short. (Lesson 26 took me 12 minutes.)
  • By trying out Lingualia for free, as long as you want, you can see if it works for you.
  • The subscription (Premium) does add various benefits, including unlimited learning with Lingu and being able to progress as quickly as you want.

I've enjoyed learning with Lingualia. When you use it regularly, discover how to get the Google translations when needed, use the “Theory” icon to help you, or practice some grammar points until you've “got it,” you'll also learn how to tailor each lesson to your individual needs and liking - and, most importantly: your Spanish keeps improving!

Postscript: In a later post I'm describing Reaching Language Fluency - My Experience with Spanish (so far).

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of She is a life-long language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Disclosure: Links above are to a partner's program with revenue-sharing, should you decide to subscribe.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Bilingualism: 5 Things Adults Should Know

Polyglot - Gamesforlanguage.comAt the Polyglot Conference in New York City last October, not surprisingly, we met quite a few people who spoke more than one language. At lunch with a group of polyglots, the conversations flowed freely from English to French, German, Italian, and Spanish – and these were just the languages we speak or understand and could therefore somewhat judge the speakers' fluency in conversations.

A recent trip to Fribourg, Switzerland not only let us enjoy Swiss food specialties, but also had us marvel again at the ease with which many of those we met, seemed to move effortlessly between Swiss German, High German, and French.

In 2010, François Grosjean, Professor Emeritus of the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, published a book "Bilingual: Life and Realitywith Harvard University Press. His website (both in French and English) has many interesting posts and links to related publications.

I especially found this article fascinating: Myths about Bilingualism, which appeared in Psychology Today in 2010, and Grosjean's Myth summary on his website, from which the first 5 points below are taken.

Of the many notions of bilingualism, these my six favorite ones:

1. Bilingualism is not rare.Rare -

According to estimates Grosjean cites, more than half of the world's population speaks more than one language or dialect. While this may seem surprising, one should note that there are no official estimates due to the great variability and quality of data in many countries.

Also, such bilingual estimates include “dialects,” which increases the count of bilinguals substantially. Of course the distinction between a dialect and a language is not always clear either.

On the one hand, an American with a strong Texas drawl or a distinct Bostonian accent, even if he or she can also speak with a midwestern TV voice, is certainly not bilingual.

On the other hand, a Swiss German who has to learn standardized High German in kindergarten and school, may well be called bilingual.

Michael Erard, in a 2012 post Are We Really Monolingual? discusses the difficulty of having reliable data to answer such a question, but he also concludes: “Multilinguals may outnumber monolinguals, but it is not clear by how much.”

2. You CAN become bilingual as an adult.

We marvel about bilingual children and assume that you can only become bilingual if you learn a second (or third) language as a child. Clearly not so.

There are many adults who become bilingual as they move from one country to another. Henry Kissinger was 16 when he moved to the US, I was 26. My father-in-law was 47 when he immigrated to Canada.

Famous writers from Joseph Conrad (Russian-Polish) to Vladimir Nabokov (Russian) became known for their English prose, and there are many examples of writers who became successful even when writing in a language that was not their native one.

It is also true, however, that - unless you live in the country or in an environment where your target language is spoken - it will be quite difficult to become bilingual without intensive study and many conversations.

Arnold Schwarzenegger 3. You can be bilingual and still speak with an accent.

Henry Kissinger, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arianna Huffington all have retained a strong foreign accent when speaking English - to just name a few. But remember: They are certainly bilingual, but cannot (or don't want to) hide their accent.

Research shows that our ability to hear and produce sounds of another language declines in childhood. (See also: Beyond "Learning a Language like a Child".)  By the time we reach adolescence it becomes more and more difficult, although not impossible to acquire the particular accent of a new dialect or language.

(As for me, I took several “accent-reduction” lessons some years ago, as I wanted to get rid of my German “w,” a sure giveaway of many English-speaking Germans.)

4. A bilingual may know certain vocabulary groups better in one than in the other language.

I went to school in Germany before the advent of personal computers and the internet. When having conversations in German about such topics, I have some difficulty finding the German vocabulary. For one, German uses many English terms (e.g. einloggen = to log in); and secondly, certain German terms did not exist when I went to school (e.g. Festplatte = hard disk).

Similarly, when I later started to work in healthcare facility planning in the US, I did not know the German or French terminology of this field and could not explain it well to my relatives in Germany and Switzerland.

Furthermore, bilinguals may be able to understand, read, and speak two languages equally well, but often will be better in spelling one than the other.

5. Bilinguals are not “born” translators.Translator job -

This fact is both related to #4 above – specialized domains use special vocabulary and expressions – and, as Grosjean writes “bilinguals use their languages in different situations, with different people, in different domains of life (this is called the complementarity principle).

Unless they learned their languages formally (in school for example), or have trained to be translators, they often do not have the translation equivalents in the other language.”

I know: My first work assignments in the US involved English to German translations of technical texts. I had no difficulties understanding the English terms, but finding the correct German translation without a good technical dictionary was often impossible.

6. Bilinguals need language practice and updates as well.

Language skills can increase or wither depending on how much you practice them. In this sense they are similar to many of our sport and physical activities: If you don't use them you lose them. Maybe even more so, as languages constantly adapt and change.

The German language underwent a major spelling reform in the early 90ties that I had to read up on while already living in the US.

The French-speaking world is currently in an uproar about over 2000 spelling changes, including “the end of the circumflex,” as proposed by the Académie Française. Although the changes are currently proposed as “options,” it will be interesting to see when or if they will take hold.

When the Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy) deleted two letters of the Spanish alphabet (“ch” and “ll”), together with a few accents and hyphens in 2010, there was an uproar on both the European and the Americas side of the Atlantic.

Among the four languages we cover, only Italy seems to have escaped any “official” language or spelling changes lately.

Being able to communicate in more than one language is for many a daily necessity and for others just a thrill and satisfying achievement.

It's not the purpose of this post to list the benefits of knowing more than one language, but rather to add to Francois Grosjean's “Myths of Bilingualism” a few more personal observations: Bilingualism comes in many variations and language/dialect combinations. 

Even as an adult, the choices for becoming bilingual are often made for you by external circumstances. But you can also embrace the opportunities you encounter, and most importantly: STAY bilingual by continuing to speak and practice. 

Postsscript: On March 12, 2016 The New York Times Sunday Review published this article by Katherine Kinzler: The Superior Skills of Bilinguals

Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of He is a life-long language learner, growing up in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. You can follow him and his wife Ulrike on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

11 Language Clues from German and Swiss Signs

Kurtaxe - Gamesforlanguage.comDeciphering the meaning of words and phrases from local signs and posters when visiting a foreign country is a fun and interesting way to add to your vocabulary. (See #8 for a translation of the sign on the left.)

When you're there in the country, such signs and posters are in your face. They have a context that makes them memorable.

Official signs give instructions, warnings, or prohibit your actions in some way. Ad posters push a product, often using a play on words.

With these signs, you can learn various verbs and verb forms (especially the imperative with official signs).

You can also learn common expressions and forms of wordplay, especially from ad posters.

Besides being fun to read and muse about, such visual language provides great conversation starters with locals.

By simply asking what a word or phrase means, you could end up having an interesting discussion about linguistic and cultural differences.

We had a lot of fun looking for signs and other texts on our trip through northern Germany.

Our trip took us from Münster, Westfalia, to Cuxhaven on the North Sea, Hamburg, Lübeck, Wismar, Rostock, and Warnemünde on the Baltic Sea, the island of Rügen, then to Berlin, with a final hop to Switzerland. (Our trip started with 3 Languages, a Pyramid, Napoleon, Royalty and a Family Reunion)

Below is a sampling of signs and public texts that shows the wealth of visual language you can take in on a trip through a country. (See also 4 Easy Ways to Keep Learning in a Foreign City)

Klartext reden - Gamesforlanguage.com1. wie einfach mal Klartext reden.

This is from an ad poster in Münster, Westfalen.

Translation: how to speak plainly with someone.

German: Klartext reden - offen seine Meinung sagen; nicht verschlüsselt reden (to speak in plain English; (coll.) to level with/talk turkey with somebody);

The phrase "einfach mal" is a conversational filler, meaning "just" or "simply." 

I leave to it you to figure out what "Klartext reden" means in the context of this ad for Smirnoff's Vodka...

2. Alles im Eimer?Alles im Eimer? -

This sign on a public refuse bin in Münster, Westfalen, made us smile.

Translation: Everything in the bin?

German: im Eimer sein (umg.) - entzwei sein, verdorben sein (to be ruined; (coll.) to be up the spout)

The fun part about this is the play on words. "Eimer" means "bucket."

The German reference is to "Abfalleimer" which means "trashcan" or "garbage bin."

So the text "Alles im Eimer" literally asks you if you've put "everything into the trashcan" rather than throwing it on the street.

3. "Die Alte Liebe"...Die alte Liebe -

We saw this board at "Die Alte Liebe," a famous jetty with an observation and docking platform in Cuxhaven, a town at the southern shore of the Elbe river where it enters the North Sea.

Translation of the poem on the board: At the dockyard in Kuxhaven, There is a beautiful spot, It's called "The Old Love(r)"; I left mine (my lover) there.

The fours lines are from a lost poem of 1823, by the poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), who may be best known for "Die Lorelei."

4. Durchfahrt gebührenpflichtigGebührenpflichtig -

This sign marks the entrance to the old car elevator that takes you through the Old Elbe tunnel, in the Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg.

Translation: Passage is subject to charges

German: gebührenpflichtig, i.e. nicht kostenlos (subject to charges, not free of charges.) "Gebühren" are charges, "pflichtig" means "required," "necessary", derived from "Pflicht" or "duty."

During the drive into Hamburg our GPS took us to the end of a parking lot, with nowhere to go. But looking around, I saw this sign, which gave me the clue that something was up.

Indeed, it marked a ticket machine and the inconspicuous entrance to the old car elevator that took us into the city for 2 euros!

The tunnel and the four elevators to it were opened in 1911 and are still in operation.

5. Rote GrützeRote Grütze -

This is from the menu at the Restaurant "Schiffergesellschaft" in Lübeck, Schleswig-Holstein.

Translation: red grits/red fruit jelly (typical for northern Germany and Scandinavian countries)

German: Rote Grütze - eine Süßspeise aus Johannisbeeren, Himbeeren und anderen roten oder schwarzen Beeren, die mit Bindemittel aufgekocht werden.

(A dessert made from currants, raspberries and other red and black berries, which are heated with cornstarch to thicken the jelly.) 

The word "Grütze," in fact means "grits, groats, porridge," but also has the figurative meaning of "grit, gumption, common sense, brains"; or in German: "Denkvermögen, Geist, Grips, Scharfsinn, Verstand."

6. FeinuhrenmacherwerkstattFeinuhrenmacher -

We saw this sign on a business vehicle in Boltenhagen, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Translation: the workshop of a maker of high quality watches

German: Feinuhrenmacherwerkstatt - Reparatur und Restaurierung von antiken Uhren (a shop for repairing and restoring antique watches)

Germans have a knack for  creating long compound nouns.

Starting at the end, you have "Werkstatt" (workshop, repair shop).

Next, you have "Macher" - maker, which here refers to someone who does repairs.

Next, "Uhren" - watches, and then, at the beginning comes the word "fein" - which means "fine" or "high quality."

So, this 24-letter word tells you that it's the repair shop for "Feinuhren" - high quality, antique watches.

7. NosferatuNosferatu -

The information board at the Water Gate (Wassertor) in Wismar, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern reads:

Regie Friedrich-Wilhelm Murnau.
Ein Meisterwerk des Expressionismus.
Hier gedreht im Jahre 1921.

Translation: Nosferatu. Directed by Friedrich-Wilhelm Murnau. A masterpiece of Expressionism. Made here in 1921.

German expressions: Regie führen (to direct [a film]); einen Film drehen (to make a film).

Nosferatu, a German Expressionist Horror film, was in fact an unauthorized version of Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Stoker's heirs sued over the adaptation, and a court ruling ordered that all copies of the film be destroyed.

However, a few prints of Nosferatu survived, and the film came to be regarded as an influential masterpiece of cinema. [from Nosferatu, Wikipedia]

7.Iss mir Lachs - Iss mir Lachs

We saw this ad poster in Rostock, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Translation: Do eat salmon.

German: der Lachs - salmon; "Iss!" is the familiar imperative form of "essen": eat!; "mir" can be used for emphasis: do eat. ("Räucherlachs" is smoked salmon.)

"Iss mir Lachs" is a wordplay on the expression "Is(t) mir Wurst," which means "It's all the same to me," literally "It's sausage to me." Here, the final "t" on "ist" is normally dropped, so the expression sounds like "Is mir Wurst."

However, the word "iss" is the familiar imperative form of "essen," and the word "mir" plays on the sound of "mehr" (more).

So, the ad-message is in fact a clever way of saying "Eat more salmon."

8. Strandbesucher bitte KURTAXE lösenKurtaxe =

Official sign at a ticket machine at the beach in Heiligendamm, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Translation: Beach visitors please pay Spa Tax

German: "Strandbesucher" - beach visitors. The verb "lösen" has a number of meanings. You say, "eine Fahrkarte lösen" (to buy a ticket), or "Kurtaxe lösen" (to pay a spa tax).
Depending on the context, "lösen" can also have the meanings of "loosen, untie, dissolve, resolve, solve, unravel, or cancel." 

This may be a surprise for visitors to a German beach resort area: You pay an extra three or four euros a day for the upkeep of the resort, an extra charge that's added to your hotel bill. Day visitors pay a couple of euros for access to a beach, etc.

9. Heute Probeliegen in der KapitänskojeKapitänskoje -

Information board at a ship in the harbor of Sassnitz on the island of Rügen, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Translation: Today (you may) try out the the captain's bunk

German: die Probe - test, trial, rehearsal; liegen - to lie down; koje - bunk

No comment, as we wondered who would want to try the captain's bunk...

10. Gute Sitte in MitteGute Sitte in Mitte -

Germans try to live up to their reputation for orderliness by encouraging the use of public garbage bins with catchy slogans. We saw this one in the central district Mitte, Berlin.

Translation: Good behavior in (Berlin) Central

German: "die Sitte" - Benehmen, Manieren (customs, traditions, behavior)

As you can see, "Sitte" suggests more than just keeping trash off the streets.

"Mitte" - as the word implies - is the central, historical district of Berlin. Most of it used to be part of former East Berlin. Obviously, the German text is catchy because it rhymes, and the English translation does not do it justice.

And finally, a sign we always see, when we visit Fribourg, Switzerland:

11.Hüt! Freu di Hochzitter, du guete Ma,Hochzitter -

Morn het am End D'frau scho dini Hose a

This sign hangs over the Rue des Épouses/Hochzeiterstraße in Fribourg/Freiburg, Switzerland.

Translation: Today! Be happy bridegroom, you good man, tomorrow your wife will wear the pants in the end.

Anybody learning German (and for that matter, even native Germans!) will certainly find it difficult to make sense of this Swiss German text with its abbreviations (“di”=dich; “Ma”=Mann; “Morn”=morgen; “D'Frau”= Deine Frau; “scho”=schon; “dini”=deine)

Swiss German translated to High German: "Heute! Freu dich Bräutigam (Hochzeiter), du guter Mann, morgen hat am Ende die Frau schon deine Hosen an."

As Fribourg is a bilingual town, the other side of the sign is in French:

Rue des Epouses - Gamesforlanguage,com"Voici la rue des Epouses fidèles
et aussi le coin des Maris modèles"

It does not give the bridegroom the same warning as the Swiss German version. Rather, it conveys a more hopeful message to those walking under it, and translates to:

Here is the street of faithful wives
and also the corner/place of model husbands

We always enjoy deciphering signs when we travel. In languages that we are less familiar with, this is obviously more of a challenge, as the nuances, double meanings, and humor are much harder to “get.”

Reading and deciphering signs can make a stroll though a city interesting and fun; it can also give you an opportunity to ask a native and practice your speaking...

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of She is a life-long language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

1 2 3 4 5 .. 27   > >