Learning from mistakes is a well-known teaching tool. And succeeding (winning!) in games is powerful motivation for us to try again and again until we have mastered them. Both aspects of learning play an important role in our Games For Language courses and Quick Games.
Gender of “the tower” in Spanish
This morning I was replaying one of our Spanish 1 Scenes. In the Writing Game, I was asked to write “the tower” in Spanish. Now, I have seen and said the correct translation quite a few times before and I knew the word “torre.” However, I did not recall a rule for nouns ending with “e.” And because in my native language (German), “the tower” is masculine (“der Turm”), I was uncertain for a moment and started out with “e” for “el,” to be reminded immediately by the error warning that I was wrong. While I was annoyed that I got it wrong, I am quite confident that I will know it the next time.
Why? Because now I'll likely remember not only that in Spanish “tower” is feminine (“la torre”), but also that I should have recalled that it's the same word in Italian (“la torre”) and feminine as well in French (“la tour”).
Basic Spanish Gender Rules
Quite early on in Spanish, we learn a few basic rules: Words ending with “o” are often masculine, those ending in “a”, often feminine, etc. This Spanish language chart, which I discovered on the web some time ago, quite nicely summarizes the important Spanish gender rules.
There are other, very concise Spanish grammar charts that we have sent to our users.If you'd like to receive the whole set of 6 Spanish Grammar charts, just contact us.
We also welcome any information in regard to its author and origin for proper attribution.
In the case of “the tower,” my association will be that the Spanish (or Italian and French) word has a different gender from the German one.
I realize that English speakers will have other associations for memorizing genders in foreign languages that don't follow the basic rules. It may be the type or shape of the first letter ( “t” for the “l” in “la”), the sound of the word, etc. , or whatever “mnemonic” works to connect to the correct gender of a word.
Just for fun, I entered “la torre” in the online Mnemonic Generator and one of the suggestions was “Lame Thor”, just in case this helps you remember the gender and Spanish word for "tower''...
I don't like to lose games. When I make a mistake and see at the end of a game, e.g. in “Writing Clowns” or “Word Invaders” that I only got 26 of 30 possible points, I'll repeat the game again until I get 30.
This is the same motivation which drives Duolingo learners to repeat a lesson: If you make more than 3 mistakes, you lose your hearts, e.g. you are “out” and have to repeat the lesson before you can go on.
Postscript: Since we wrote this post, Duolingo has changed it's format: Now users can continue to make mistakes, until they have 20 correct answers. Only in the "Test-Out" mode will they lose hearts and, after three losing three hearts, they have to start again.
Yes, we sometimes make mistakes, just by clicking on the wrong item accidentally or not taking enough time to read all options.
But replaying a lesson or a Scene has benefits beyond just “winning”: With words or phrases you already know, you can focus on pronouncing (ideally aloud) before clicking through; and those you missed, you now will be able to correct and remember better next time.
In our “Word Hero” game, you have to pick the correct English translation for foreign words that cascade down. You need to concentrate and for me, once I make a mistake, it's hard to recover. While this game requires you to focus and decide quickly, it also allows you to say the correct foreign word as it comes down, giving you the satisfaction not only of getting the word/phrase right, but also of letting you check immediately whether your pronunciation is close to that of the native speaker.
In the “Word Invaders” or Shootout” games, you have to pick the correct foreign words for the translation of an English sentence. By clicking on the wrong word, gender, or conjugation, you lose points. And, if you want to win 100% of those games, you'll have to correct all the mistakes you made in the first go-around.
The ultimate prize: Speaking the Language
Making mistakes and learning from them, as well as devising strategies to avoid traps, gain strength, and acquire assets, etc. are all part of the the ubiquitous video game universe that keep millions of people engaged today.
While language learning has come a long way from boring drills and verb conjugations, we still need to progress further to create a “Language Minecraft” type of game that has speaking the language as the ultimate prize!
I recently read again that the “Grammar Translation Method” was first used in teaching Greek and Latin before being also applied to modern languages. It worked a bit like this:
Listen and then repeat after me Let's look at this sentence and find the grammar rule Do the exercise on page 43 of your Grammar/Text Book Memorize the vocabulary list Translate the first paragraph on page 45 Where do you see the grammar rule X applied in this paragraph
Maybe that's why many (including myself) have such bad memories of their language learning days in school...
Our First Language
We certainly don't learn to speak our first language from a grammar book. We learn our first language and its grammar – the rules by which the language works – mostly just by listening to and imitating other speakers. Research suggests that our brains are wired to do this. (Multiple Brain Regions Wired For Language, Study Finds). We seem to grasp the grammar idiosyncrasies of our first language without much effort early on and then learn the rules in school later. However, grammar rules themselves are not set in stone. Many of them even change over time and people often argue about them.
Our Second (or Third) Language
Learning a second or third language typically starts in school - for most of us and excepting children who grow up bilingual - after we have acquired the basics of our first language. And here the teaching methods (such as the “Grammar Translation Method”) may have a lot to do with how children or teenagers, and for that matter, even adults learn a foreign language.
Knowing certain grammar rules is obviously an essential part of mastering a language. But consciously learning grammar rules is a different type of activity from engaging in a language. Grammar rules are memorized and applied. Engaging in a language means actively using it, starting with listening/understanding, then reading, speaking, and writing it.
The question is how one can teach grammar with language games. For now, we go as far as adding brief grammar “tips” in a translation game. But mostly we set up the language games in such a way that the player makes grammar connections intuitively. In fact, a recent articleWhen It Hurts (and Helps) to Try: The Role of Effort in Language Learningreinforced our idea that games make language learning more effective: Learning can occur "playfully" rather than "with effort."
When you get curious enough about a grammar point, it is interesting to check up on it. Sometimes that's the only way that you can figure out the meaning of something. But while you're talking or listening to someone talking to you, it's not usually possible to say “Hey, let me look that up.” Language games intend to put you right into the flow of understanding and using a language. That's not a bad skill to practice.
In an earlier blog post Heidelberg & Mark Twain, I speculated why Mark Twain had liked the name “Heidelberg,” the city where he stayed with his family for several months in 1878. (This topic had offered itself, as our German 1 traveler during his visit to Heidelberg learns the English translation of the city's name and its relevance to Mark Twain.)
Twain's love-hate relationship with The Awful German Language, published as an Appendix to his “A Tramp Abroad,” makes for amusing reading for anyone grappling with the German language – and is especially hilarious to a native German speaker as he looks at German though Twain's eyes!
A few of his observations:
Declinations may be the crabgrass on the lawn of many who are learning German. Twain uses “rain” as an example and has some funny explanations for when “der Regen” (nominative) changes to “den Regen” (accusative), “dem Regen” (dative), or “des Regens” (genitive).
If you add adjectives, it gets even worse and Twain is at his satirical best when he notes:
“When a German gets his hands on an adjective, he declines it, and keeps on declining it until the common sense is all declined out of it. It is as bad as Latin. He says, for instance:
Nominative -- Mein guter Freund, my good friend.
Genitives -- Meines guten Freundes, of my good friend.
Dative -- Meinem guten Freund, to my good friend.
Accusative -- Meinen guten Freund, my good friend.
N. -- Meine guten Freunde, my good friends.
G. -- Meiner guten Freunde, of my good friends.
D. -- Meinen guten Freunden, to my good friends.
A. -- Meine guten Freunde, my good friends
Now let the candidate for the asylum try to memorize those variations, and see how soon he will be elected.”
Twain also notes, correctly, that “the same sound, SIE, means YOU, and it means SHE, and it means HER, and it means IT, and it means THEY, and it means THEM.” The only way to discover the right meaning is to understand the context in which they are used.
There are a lot more funny and perceptive passages about the German way to create word-monsters, assign genders, separate verbs, etc. (Note also that there are some spelling and grammar changes that have occurred since 1876 e.g. to let, lease, hire is now spelled “vermieten” - not “vermiethen.”)
If you are learning German, his essay - as well as his 4th of July speech at the Banquet of the Anglo-American Club of Students - might amuse you. And perhaps it also encourages you to keep practicing. Even though German has its tricky moments, it definitely can be learned!
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With ourGerman 1 and 2 coursesyou'll learn practice German forFREE- with stories of a young man traveling through Germany and - its sequel - solving a "Blüten"-mystery in Berlin. "The Story" and easy games will let you forget that you are actually learning German!
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We recently discovered a very effective app for learning German:MosaLingua. There currently are iOS and Android apps, with a MosaLinguaDesktop App for PC, Mac and Linux just out. You can also try out the "Lite" version for FREE! We like the apps a lot and are currently using them ourselves. Read Ulrike's ReviewHERE.
Disclosure: Some of the links above is to a partner's program with revenue sharing, if you decide to buy or subscribe.
A recent blog post "Learning Grammar with WordDive” reminded me that indeed there are many ways for adults to learn a foreign language. The author notes: “WordDive is primarily about 'diving' into language through its vocabulary” and “When studying with WordDive, you are exposed to grammar structures integrally in the course of the learning process.” We agree that adults can learn grammar structures “integrally,” somewhat similar to the way children learn them "through numerous repetitions and imitations.”
Games and “The Story”
Our approach at GamesforLanguage is different: We teach vocabulary and grammar structures with short games and “The Story” - a sequential and connected series of dialogs and short narratives that tell of a young man traveling in European countries.
While the various games help the learner to practice all four skills (listening, reading, writing, and speaking), the dialogues and narratives introduce and repeat grammatical structures, which he or she will recognize and/or, at times, be alerted to.
For example, already in the second Scene (lesson) of our French 1 course, we bring in the subjunctive, with the sentence “Je suis contente que vous parliez...” in our dialogue (left). We then briefly explain it in our “Deal no Deal” game (see right). Twenty Scenes later, the expression “je suis contente" is used again, but with the subjunctive of another verb. Will we teach all subjunctive forms of these particular verbs? No, but the learner is alerted to the context in which such forms are used and will start to recognize new subjunctive forms as they come up.
Learning the vocabulary, i.e. the foreignlabels of objects, actions, feelings, etc. (see also our post:Language Learning with Pictures and/or Words) is clearly important and necessary. Romance and Germanic languages have many similarities to English, which help English speakers to remember words and phrases, even if certain grammatical constructions are different.
For example, in our story our traveler is asked :
“Do you also need something?” and he answers: “I need a travel guide.”
In Spanish one would say:
“¿Necesitas también algo?” and “Necesito una guía de viajes.”
and in Italian:
“Hai bisogno di qualcosa anche tu?” and “Ho bisogno di una guida turistica.”
Rather than drilling the conjugations for “necesitar” and “avere bisogno,” the learner picks up the second and then the first person singular as part of the question and answer. And he or she remembers the meaning of “you need” and “I need,” because it is connected to the “travel guide” of the story, with “guía”/ “guida” (guide), “viajes” (voyage), and “turistica” (tourist) being closely related to their English meanings.
Based on our own experience of learning several foreign languages as adults, we know that we can best retain and apply words and phrases, when they relate to objects, actions, feelings, etc. that we encounter in our own life. (That's why we chose a travel story.)
And while our approach is somewhat different from WordDive's, we agree that the discovery of grammatical structures during the learning process is rewarding and more effective than drilling conjugations, tenses, etc.
For some learners, more detailed explanations are necessary, for others explanations are just confirmations of their own discoveries. The extensive offering of free or inexpensive apps and online courses allows learners to choose and combine different approaches that fit their needs and learning styles.
When you're learning a new language to communicate, grammar should not be your main worry. Focus rather on understanding and speaking, and discover grammar points along the way. And, importantly, grammar is best consumed gradually, in small doses, and in little steps. My current experience with learning Swedish reinforces this notion for me again and again.
Simple Grammar Explanations
Find a book or site that gives you simple explanations, ones that you can relate directly to the vocabulary you're learning. For example, as you're practicing basic phrases and sentences, you can discover - step by step: the gender of nouns; articles (definite & indefinite); pronouns (including the familiar and formal "you," and when to use these); present tense verb endings; conjunctions (and, but or); question words (who, what, where, when, etc.); and the word order of simple statements and questions.
Once you've grasped a grammar point, you'll reinforce your understanding every time you see the structure again - as you're learning new words and phrases or reviewing old ones. For example, in Swedish, I learned that the definite article is attached to the end of a noun. So now I know the difference between "torg" (square) and "torget" (the square). Whenever I see the “-et / -t" (neuter gender) or the “-en / -n” (common gender) ending, I keep this in mind for understanding the meaning of the word.
With a knowledge of some essential phrases and grammar basics, you're now ready to learn a handful of prepositions, as they're used in common expressions. Some of them you may have encountered already in phrases you learned, others may be new or have a second, less obvious meaning. Each language has its own favorites. For example, in Swedish I started with: av (of, by); från (from); hos (with, at); i (in, on, before [time]); på (on, in, at); till (to [a place]); med (with); över (over, above, across, past [time]); åt (to [a person]).
Research & Discovery
As a next step, choose a simple text that interests you, about half a printed page long. Now, using a dictionary, try to read it for meaning, or even try to translate the sentences into English. Pay special attention to what holds the text together: the connecting words (and, but, also); negative words (not, never, no one); time markers (today, tomorrow, yesterday, soon, earlier, etc.); verb tenses. At this stage, you're beginning to understand how the language works.
I'm a huge fan of keeping a small spiral (3"x5") notebook in which I write down, in pencil, phrases I want to memorize. I also list essential grammar points. For example, for Swedish, I noted down the phrases: "en kvart över twå" (a quarter past two) and "en kvart i twå" (a quarter to two). This phrase pair helps me recall that, in general, "över" means "past the hour" and "i" means "before the hour."
In my experience, grammar is something you build from the ground up, slowly, step by step. As you're learning your new language, you become aware of and want to understand grammar points - all in the context of phrases and sentences that you are reading or hearing. In short, grammar is not something you learn first and then apply but rather something that you discover and learn over time.
The use of the single letter "y" and its combination with forms of the verb "aller" is confusing to many French beginners. However, it's really not that difficult. (The picture on the left shows the cover of “On y va!”, a French lesson book used by Swiss high school students in the 80s and 90s.)
Recently, we listed the following uses of “y” in a Facebook post:
"y" = here, there, about it, on it (referring to something that was mentioned)
"On y va." - Let's go (Lit: We are going [there].)
"J'y suis, j'y reste." - Here I am (and) here I'm staying.
"Marseille? Oui, je vais y aller." - Marseille? Yes, I'm going there.
"Trois jours à Paris! Penses-y!" - Three days in Paris! Think about it!
"Le pont d'Avignon? On ne peut plus y danser." - Avignon Bridge? You can't dance on it any more.
"La Tour Eiffel? Est-ce que tu y es déjà monté?" - The Eiffel Tower? Did you already go up on it?
Moreover, you can combine various forms of the verb “aller” (to go) and “y” (there) to create commands that are commonly used in daily life.
There's nothing wrong with Flashcards, I love them for practicing vocabulary and we use them in our games as well.
But learning only with traditional flashcards - or sticking only to list learning, for that matter - is bound to keep you in the rank of beginner.
To bust through the beginner ceiling, you have to learn to use phrases and sentences as part of communication. That's where context learning comes in. Here are three simple reasons for learning German in context.
German consistently uses pronouns with specific verb forms (as opposed to Italian or Spanish, for example). But because some of the German pronouns are multi-functional or are part of an idiom, you need the context to understand what's going on.
A perfect example is “sie/Sie”:
Wann kommt sie? - When is she coming? [she - subject]
Wann kommen sie? - When are they coming? [they - subject]
Und kommen Sie auch? - And are you also coming? [you(formal) - subject]
Ich kann Sie nicht sehen. - I can't see you. [you(formal) - direct object]
Ich kenne sie nicht. - I don't know her/them. [her/them - direct object]
The word "sie" can also refer to a "feminine gender" object or animal:
Die Hütte dort, siehst du sie? - The hut over there, do you see it? [it(f) - direct object]
Die Katze dort, sie wartet auf ihre Milch. - The cat over there, it's waiting for its milk. [it(f) - subject]
And the German “ihr/Ihr” could mean in English: “you” [plural familiar], “her” [indirect object], “their” [possessive pronoun], “your” [formal] or also “to her” in various German idioms.
When learning the various uses of “sie/Sie” or “ihr/Ihr,” it is useful to have specific phrases or sentences in mind.
Articles and Cases
In German, articles and noun cases are matched – often in mysterious ways for beginners:
“der” is not only the masculine article, as in : [der See] Der See ist .... - The lake is .... [m – subject), "der" can also can precede a feminine noun, as in:
[die Frau] Ich gebe der Frau ... - I give (to) the woman ... [f, indirect object]
[die Kirche] Das Tor der Kirche ist .... - The door of the church .... [f , possessive]
[die Stimme] Die Anzahl der Stimmen ... - The number of votes ... [f pl, possessive]
Similarly, “die” is not only the feminine article, "die" is also the plural form for all nouns that are a subject or a direct object, as in:
[das Haus] Die Häuser sind ... - The houses are ... [neuter, pl subject]
[der Baum] Die Bäume sind ... - The trees are ... [m, pl subject]
[die Straße] Die Straßen sind ... - The streets are ... [f, pl subject]
Ich sehe die Häuser, die Bäume, und die Straßen. - I see the houses, the trees, and the streets. [direct objects]
Some words change their meaning, depending on the context. For example (as shown by a post circulating on Facebook), the word “Bitte" has multiple meanings. As a simple statement “Bitte.” basically means “Please.”; but it can also mean “Go ahead.”; or “I don't mind”; or “You're welcome.”; or “Here you are.”; or “Not at all.” In addition, the question “Bitte?” is often used as “Pardon me?”
While “Danke” simply means “Thank you,” in a specific context, it can mean: “Yes, thank you.” or “No, thank you.”
And, the much-used word “gut” (good) can change its meaning in idioms such as:
“Gut, das machen wir.” - Okay, we'll do that.
“Mir geht's gut.” - I'm feeling great.
“Mir ist nicht gut.” - I'm not feeling well.
“Jetzt ist es aber gut.” - That'll do.
“Schon gut.” - That's enough.
Learning vocabulary is clearly necessary – and Flashcards are a great tool for that – but simply knowing groups of words is not enough to really understand and speak German. It's best to learn those words in the context of a topic that interests you. You will better remember the words when you recall them as part of meaningful phrases and sentences. Moreover, when you use them in new sentence combinations, applying the grammar rules will be much easier. And we certainly agree with author Andy Hunt (co-author of “Pragmatic Thinking and Learning”) whom we had quoted in My Rosetta Stone Blog - 3: “Always Consider the Context ... because it is important for understanding the world around us."
In English, you don't need to worry about noun gender. But in languages such as German, Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. you do.
The Non-logic of it All
There seems to be little logic about the gender of nouns. Take the word for "sun," for example. In German, it's "die Sonne" (feminine), in French, it's masculine: "le soleil," and in Dutch, it's "de zon," a word of common gender, which is a masculine/feminine category.
On the other hand, "house" is neuter in both German and Dutch: "das Haus" and "het huis," but feminine in French: "la maison."
So, how can you learn the articles for all these nouns? Well, you can't get around doing it. But here are three ways you can make this task a little easier and stick better.
1. Auditory Memory
A language is a series of sounds. Even if you're just reading or writing, you're often silently "sounding out" the words in your mind.
Sound is a powerful tool for memorization. Don't memorize "Haus is neuter." Repeat "das Haus" a few times, focussing on the sounds that go together, in this case, "-s with Haus."
Later, when you're trying to remember the gender of "Haus," - the feminine or masculine articles will just not sound right with this word.
2. Visual Memory
Unless you only want to hear and speak a language, you'll spend plenty of time reading and writing it. These are excellent ways to get words, phrases, and structures into your visual memory.
Don't just memorize "soleil is masculine." When you write out "le soleil" a few times and remember the “e” in both the “le” and “soleil”, the feminine article will simply not look right with "soleil."
3. General Rules and Exceptions
There are no iron-clad rules about the gender of nouns. But there are general rules you certainly should add to your tools and each language has a few that can supplement your auditory and visual memory. (Following are just a couple of examples, it's by no means an exhaustive list.)
In French, nouns ending in "-e" are feminine, barring a few notable exceptions, such as "le problème."
In Spanish and Italian, nouns ending with “o” are generally masculine, those ending with “a” mostly feminine (with "el problema" [Spanish] and "il problema" [Italian] again one of several exceptions.)
In German, words ending in "-e" are mostly feminine; words that have the diminutive ending "-chen" or "-lein" are always neuter. For example, die Küche (kitchen), die Straße (street); and "das Mädchen" (girl), "das Sträßlein" (little street).
Learn to Trust Yourself
And once you've learned the general rules, you'll be able to apply your auditory and visual memory to the exceptions as well.
With time, you'll learn to trust your auditory and visual memory more and are on your way to building that wonderful, uncanny skill that we all strive for: a real feel for the language.
Let us know about YOUR experiences with visual and auditory memory!