Many language courses - be they books, CDs, online programs, or apps - are structured around learning particular vocabulary topics: “survival words & phrases,” such as greetings, numbers, directions, shopping, time, days, months, etc., or "categories," such as colors, food items, parts of the body, animals, objects found in the home, etc.
Clearly, these words and phrases are important to learn and know. However, if they are just introduced as a list and without context, they are difficult to retain. That's why GamesforLanguage.com has chosen a “Story-Approach”: Each new word is introduced as part of an ongoing story – a young man traveling to the country of the foreign language that is to be learned: Germany, France, Italy, and Spain.
Will this young man use all the vocabulary contained in the various topics mentioned above? Probably not. But the 700 words that make up the many phrases and sentences in each GamesforLanguage course will not only be more useful, but also easier to remember and apply. And that is what's important to most learners: acquiring vocabulary that they can use in daily life.
And for learners who already have some background in one of the four languages, GamesforLanguage provides a fun and effective way to “brush up” on their foreign language. They can skip the “Memory Games” and immediately focus on “Snap Clouds,” “Shooting Gallery,” or “Word Hero” to test their vocabulary; practice translation and sentence building with “Word Invaders” or “Shoot Out”; and train their pronunciation with “Record It.” Interacting repeatedly with the elements of “The Story” - hearing, saying, writing, and recording words, phrases, and sentences in context - is an effective way to memorize, retain and learn to apply the language you're learning.
This YouTube clip for French shows how all the new words of "The Story" are playfully being learned in various easy games. And learning with a story that continues from Scene to Scene keeps up one's interest more than the often unrelated dialogues so many language programs are using!
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!
No matter what stage you are in when learning a language, think of "building" your skills, step by step. Words and phrases that you learn in context provide you with "building blocks." Most people learn a new language to communicate with others. To really understand a conversation and take part in it, you need more than just words or a series of phrases. You need to understand how words and phrases connect to create meaning. Nothing does this better than learning language in what the linguist Stephen Krashen calls "comprehensible context."
The Context Helps You Remember
There's another reason for learning language in context. You remember words and phrases much better if you can associate them with a real situation. Yes, there are ways to create associations to boost your memory. But to do this for every word seems impractical if you want to speak in full sentences. On the other hand, if you can create a situation in your mind and connect certain phrases with it, you'll have the language ready when you need it. For example, when shopping in a Spanish speaking country, the following phrases would be very handy: "Estoy buscando ...." (I'm looking for ...); "¿Tiene usted un/una ...?" (Do you have ...?); ¿Cuánto cuesta eso?" (How much does this cost?) , Or a practical example from our French course where the origin of the “bouillabaisse” is explained: “Pour réussir cette soupe, quand l’eau bout, tu baisses le feu!” (To succeed [with] that soup, if the water boils, you lower the fire [heat]) Now, you may need to learn the verbs, nouns, etc. individually, but will will certainly remember them better when you recall the context of this sentence. Listening to and singing foreign songs is another excellent way to increase your vocabulary, especially if a song's refrain stays with you.
Build Your Language With All Four Skills
To really absorb a word or phrase, you need to read and write each one of them, in addition to hearing and repeating the sounds. Small children obviously learn just with spoken language, but don't forget, they'll spend years learning to read and write their first language. The same would be true for fluency in a second or third language. For adults, reading and writing are highly effective tools for learning and practicing a foreign language. According to a lifehack blog: "In fact, it seems that writing anything down makes us remember it better." Learning just with audio, leaves you clueless as how to spell many of the words. Should you travel to the country, you may experience quite a few funny or unwelcome surprises.
Grammar Holds Language Together
Learning words and phrases in context also provides another benefit: You'll absorb plenty of grammar without needing to memorize rules. The key is to pay attention. Your brain is wired to figure out and interpret the "grammar" of a sentence. As a matter of fact, different areas of the brain seem to respond to various types of sentences. A study suggests that "...humans rely on several regions of the brain, each designed to accomplish different primitive tasks, in order to make sense of a sentence... Depending on the type of grammar used, the brain will activate a certain set of regions to process it."
Just by paying attention, you'll easily notice how the language you're learning is different from English. For example, things to look out for: Does your foreign language normally drop pronouns?; Are articles used and do they have gender?; How is the word order different?; How do you make a question?; How do you make a negative sentence? Once you've noticed details like that, you'll see them again and again as you continue to read and practice. And, when you do look up some rules, they'll start to make a lot more sense.
Intensive and Extensive Learning
It's not a bad idea to alternate short texts that you work with intensively, with reading longer texts "extensively," where you only occasionally look up a word. For a short text you can practice each word individually, listen to it, pronounce it, write it, and pay close attention to the grammar. With a longer text, you would read freely and guess from the context what some of the unknown words mean. Of course, you also have the option of watching short and long videos, or once you are up to it watch foreign movies... The more clues the text or the video gives you, the better you'll be able to guess what it's about and the more you'll understand.
Use as many tools as you can for building your language with words, phrases, and sentences that fit together. It's a great feeling to start taking part in foreign language conversations with friends and new acquaintances!
I've been learning Spanish for about eight months now. After a few lessons with Rosetta Stone (see my blog #3) and the initial 6-week boost with our Spanish 1 course, progress now is slow but steady. Learning a new language means building new skills, gradually. During the weeks before election, one or the other candidate spoke or had ads in Spanish, e.g. President Obama in this You Tube clip. I could understand most of these, no problem! I feel that I'm ready to add Social Media to my tools for improving my Spanish further.
30 Minutes a Day
Life is busy, but most days I do manage to squeeze in about 30 minutes of Spanish - 10 minutes here, 5 minutes there. My learning "schedule" is scattered throughout the day. Generally, it consists of:
- Reading a few pages of my Spanish ebook (at the moment, Zafón’s La sombre del viento) );
- Playing a couple of Vocabulary Games with sound;
- Reading Spanish newspaper articles online;
- Watching a Spanish soap for 10-15 minutes in the evening
- Doing a couple of grammar exercises from an old fashioned book with my husband over coffee. We chuckle over some of the weird and useless sentences that come up - such as: ¿Cómo come Juan? (How does Juan eat?) and ¿Dónde beben los animales? (Where do the animals drink?)
Social Media for Learning Spanish
It's easy to add Spanish to your Twitter(left) or Facebook feeds. And, you can read the posts when you have a spare moment or whenever you feel like it. Choices are endless, but they'll all grow your grasp of Spanish and the culture of Spain and Latin American countries. You'll begin to better understand how opinions are formulated, how regional humor is expressed, how discussions are carried on, etc.
12 Social Media Terms in Spanish
So, if you are ready to participate in Spanish on Social Media, here's a start with some basic social media terms:
Compartir - Share
Conectar - Connect
Comentarios - Comments
Enviar - Send
Escribir - Write
Recuérdame - Remember me
Seguir - Follow
Twittear - Tweet
Usuario registrado - Registered user
Lo más visto en ... - The most seen on ...
Lo más debatido ahora - Most talked about now
Lo que hacen tus amigos - What your friends are doing
Once you have mastered some of the basics of a new language, using your Social Media News Feeds is also a great way to foster your motivation. News Feeds let you connect to the topics that interest you and expand your vocabulary in just those areas. Research has shown that learning new words and phrases in context will help you retain and use them more easily.
Vocabulary acquisition is an essential part of language learning. Individual words and phrases are the building blocks of communication, without them, you won't have much to say. How many words you need for basic, effective communication is up for debate. It depends on the language and the kinds of topics you want to talk about. Opinions differ quite a bit. At one end of the spectrum, for example in German, 2000 words can get you started pretty well and provide a good base to build on. Near the other end stand 10,000 words as the native vocabulary mastered by a five year old who is ready to start school. The bottom line is that you gotta build your vocabulary!
First, keep a dictionary handy. It's the most basic tool for any language learner. You'll use it for quickly looking up a new word, for double-checking the meaning or the spelling, or for looking up verb conjugations. You'll also want to see common expressions that use a particular word. For example, Ultralingua offers these features, and, in addition, you can download iPhone or iPad apps. Having a dictionary on your mobile is really convenient when you're traveling. Such apps contain much more information than the mini-dictionaries I used to travel with.
Here are FOUR more tools for building your vocabulary:
Flashcards are a great way to create a base of words and phrases, and you can keep using them to continue building your vocabulary. Resources abound and they come in all kinds of configurations: Words + Translation; Picture + Written Word; Picture + Written Word + Sound, etc. Some of the programs incorporate spaced repetition, some allow you to add your own vocabulary. A popular flashcard program, to name one, is Anki.
Language Exercises & Games
Good language exercises and fun games can take vocabulary to the next level. Besides learning new vocabulary, you can practice verb tenses and conjugations, drill subject and object pronouns, learn to build sentences, etc. Besides our own program GamesForLanguage, Mindsnacks is definitely a fun program to try.
Reading with Translation
Once you have a grasp of basic vocabulary and grammar, reading has to be the best way to keep on building vocabulary. When you read a longer text, the same words and phrases will often come up several times. Depending on your venue, you can get a translation with a click, or by checking a printed translation. With time, you'll get better at guessing the meaning from the context. A versatile program like LingQ provides a library of texts and tools for learning. You can also read foreign language newspapers online and use Google Chrome's Language Immersion feature.
Listening: Podcasts, Audio Books, and Videos
Understanding a stream of foreign words may be the hardest skill to learn (besides becoming fluent in speaking). The trick is to listen to the same audio many times. Your goal is to hear the words and phrases distinctly, and not as a stream of gibberish. Listening to foreign language audios, you'll keep hearing words you know and start to put them into your long-term menory. But you'll also hear new words that you are able to understand because of context. Here's list of language learning podcasts.
When starting a new language, one of the hardest things to learn is to understand a native speaker. It's definitely much easier to read a foreign language than to understand a stream of it when it’s spoken quickly. When I started learning Italian, TV programs sounded like gibberish. But now, I’m pretty good at understanding Italian speakers and Italian TV and films. Just as with building any skill, it helped me to break down the learning process. You can do it in these three steps.
1. Listen repeatedly to a short audio or video
Listen to a short audio of which you understand or can guess about 50%. Listen to this same audio segment several times in the next several days.This will make your brain familiar with the "music” of the language, its melody and rhythm. Pay attention to where stress goes on words and which words are stressed in a sentence. You’ll quickly learn to distinguish individual types of sentences (statements, questions, negative responses, short emphatic answers, etc.). You'll be surprised how repetition increases your understanding of what is being said.Also, from day to day, your brain continues to processing the sounds that you are learning. After some time, you may find that you'll be able to identify individual words within the stream of sounds that is whooshing by. That's a huge step and a very exciting one.
To get the idea, here are the MP3 audios of Scene 2 from our four languages, French, Spanish, Italian, and German. Pick a language that you understand somewhat. Then listen to the corresponding scene in a language you don’t know at all. It’ll give you a taste of audio learning.
2. Watch or listen to an ongoing story
Watch a TV series in your new language. Or, if one in your language is not available, look for an un-dubbed film that you can watch in short increments. The ongoing story will provide you with related vocabulary and lots of repetition. The context of the story itself will offer plenty of clues so that you can guess the meaning of what is going on.
3. Learn by immersion with a variety of materials
Now you’re ready to tackle all kinds of different audio and video material in your new language. TV programs in the language you’re learning, films, news audios and videos, a radio station. learning, etc. Increasingly, context clues will help. A great way to get into immersion is a site like yabla.com. Also a good post to check out is Learn a Language by Listening to the Radio. Also, in an earlier blog, I list 10 essential grammar items to become familiar with. They’ll help you get a good start with immersion learning.
Language learning is not a linear process
You may want to go back to any of the previous steps from time to time. Learning to understand a new language is not a linear process, it's more like a fun zig-zag, filled with new discoveries all the time. Of course, if you can interact with native speakers, you'll want to do that right from the start. They'll make your language learning personal, add direct experience of the language, and give your valuable feedback.
Have fun! And yes, these “language exercises” for your brain have all kinds of good benefits. And as said by Rita Mae Brown: "Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going."
The first steps in language learning may be the hardest: Getting a good basis in a language, so you can build on it and really enjoy learning more. With “basis” I mean four simple things: 1) mastering a number of essential phrases, expressions, and short sentences that you can use with native speakers; 2) pronouncing these in a way that native speakers can understand you; 3) learning the melody of the language (the up- and-down in sentences, questions, requests, etc.); 4) gaining an understanding of grammar that you need for communication (distinguishing past, present, and future forms, identifying pronouns, and choosing the correct form of politeness).
Learning Castilian Spanish in Barcelona
No doubt, the most desirable and effective way to immerse yourself in a new language is by staying for some time a country where the language is spoken. But not all “immersion” stories are the same. Here’s one of an American ex-pat couple, Rob and Lila, whom we recently met in Barcelona. The couple had moved to Barcelona a few years before and set up an international business that they’ve been running – in English - over the Internet. Lila already knew a few languages and learned Spanish easily by watching TV, etc., but Rob, who now speaks Spanish quite well, had to learn it from the ground up, word by word.
Dogs Can be a Great Asset...
Over a glass of wine, and great-tasting “montaditos” (small, hot sandwiches), Rob told us about his “method” for learning Spanish. “Right from the beginning, my dog was my most valuable asset,” he said with a chuckle. He then told us that he went walking with his cute little pooch every day, morning, late afternoon, and evening - looking for Spanish conversations. Other dog owners were easy to talk to, and of course, their conversations revolved around dogs. They talked about what kind of dog, the dog's character, funny little anecdotes, etc. At first, Rob said, he understood very little, but he'd go home and look up words in a dictionary or find them on the Internet. This way, he explained, he built up a stock of vocabulary, little by little.
Learning “Real” - Not “Textbook” Language...
Another part of his “method,” he said, was to talk with homeless people in parks for a euro or two. “They were happy to pass the time chatting with me,” he added, “and I learned real language, not just textbook phrases.”
The next step for Rob was to have regular conversation sessions with Maia, a local friend, who very patiently corrected his Spanish and explained the why and how of certain phrases. “She was wonderful,” he said. “I would treat her to a cortado (an espresso with a dash of milk) and she would practice small talk in Spanish with me.” For Rob, the hardest but most effective part of these sessions were the “language tasks” Maia prepared for him. She instructed him to go to the market or to various shops to buy specific items; or she asked him to go buy bus or train tickets, make a phone call, etc.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The key to language learning is practice, practice, practice. Obviously, when you are living in a country where the language is spoken, practice comes easier. But even then you may have to develop your own strategies and systems to improve your skills. This is especially true, if you are living in an ex-pat community or working with colleagues in an English-speaking environment. Whether you follow Rick Steves’ suggestions, are using one of the many online language programs, or are learning new foreign words with vocabulary apps, consistent practice will eventually let you build your language “basis.” You’ll then find out what a great adventure it is to travel and interact with locals - in their language.
Why Online Language Games based on a Travel Story can help you learn Spanish (and German, French, and Italian)
As we completed our Spanish 1 course in preparation for our upcoming stay in Spain, we were reassured that our idea of a “Story” to drive our language courses makes sense. (Click HERE to listen to the "Story" as our Spanish 1 "hero" flies from Boston to Barcelona.)
How do we know?
When we are trying to recall certain words and phrases, we begin to imagine the situation our traveller (David) finds himself in. And expressions such as: “...es la primera vez...”, “ ...es muy bueno...”, or “...no es muy bueno...”, “...me quedo tres semanas...”, “...me alegro...”, etc., etc. often come to mind as we are thinking about '”The Story”.
We also fully expect that with a vocabulary of only 700 words, we will not be “fluent”, nor likely to understand everything that is being said. But we already know that we can read a fair amount of Spanish text (which users of only audio and picture programs may not be able to); and watching yesterday a Spanish "soap opera" (La Que No Podía Amar) for the first time, we already understood quite a bit.
We'll keep a log of our language adventures...
We’re off to Spain next month! We’ll be retracing the steps and travels of our “hero” David, from Barcelona, to Granada, Sevilla, and Madrid. In preparation, we are learning Spanish with our Spanish 1 course. The similarities and differences between Spanish and Italian require constant vigilance. Distinguishing between a new language (Spanish) and a known one (Italian) certainly keeps our grey cells engaged, but also allows for comparisons and mnemonics.
As I’m playing through the various scenes and games, I notice how I can recall particular words better, when I remember them in the context of a phrase or sentence. For example, with the expression for “Would you like to... (eat something)?”, in Spanish: “¿Te gustaría ...(comer algo)?”, I don't even worry about having to use the conditional verb form. Later on in the course, I can easily adapt the phrase to “¿Me gustaría...”, a very useful expression, as for example, in “Camerero, me gustaría pagar.” (Waiter, I'd like to pay.)
I still remember picking up the expression “J'aimerais...” (I would like...)when I was learning French some years ago. Though it was a staple of my daily interactions (I was then living in the French part of Switzerland), I was totally oblivious to its “conditional” form.
Another expression that helps me remember several words is: “Tengo que comprar algo.” (I have to buy something.) While learning this expression, I recalled that the Italian “comprare” is very close to the Spanish “comprar.” However, the Italian and Spanish equivalents for “I have to” are different: “devo" vs. “tengo que,” as are the words for the English “something.” In Italian, the word for “something” is “qualcosa” and in Spanish, it’s “algo.”
This is how many of us learn our second, third (or more) languages: by constantly comparing and contrasting the new language(s) with the language(s) that we know.
Flash cards with or without pictures – as used by many online or CD-based language programs - are useful for learning the vocabulary of objects, numbers, colors, etc., however, the words for actions, feelings, opinions, etc., are best learned in the context of phrases and sentences. Learning set phrases and sentences will not only help you memorize particular words, but will also minimize any struggles for finding the correct grammatical form.
Rosetta Stone is a hot brand, everyone knows about the name.
But it seems that a lot of people who know about it, haven't tried it yet.
I worked for 20 years at Pimsleur Language Programs as an author and editor, so I know a little bit about self-teaching language programs. Before that, I was a language teacher. I'm also an avid language learner, with a pretty good fluency in 5 languages. And I am not stopping at that...
In order to find out how our GamesforLanguage.com content and game driven approach compares to Rosetta Stone's popular courses, I bought the Rosetta Stone Spanish Course (South American), Level 1, and will try to use it to learn Spanish. I'll also keep a blog charting my progress with Rosetta Stone.
Monday, May 9, 2011:
Installed the program and proceeded with: Level 1 - Unit 1 - Core Lesson 1
It took me 29 minutes.
I learned and practiced 15 content words and in most cases the basic forms of each content word.
Here's a list:
hello, good-bye; a (masculine/feminine); the (m/f singular, m/f plural); child (m/f); children (m/f); woman/women; man/men; he/she, they (m/f); he/she eats, they eat (m/f); he/she drinks, they drink (m/f); he/she runs, they run (m/f); he/she reads, they read (m/f); he/she cooks, they cook (m/f); he/she swims, they swim (m/f); he/she writes, they write (m/f)
All these words and forms were presented in 34 mini-lessons with beautiful pictures, clearly showing who was doing what.
A sentence was said - for example "the boy swims," I had to click on the correct picture. If picked the right one (usually out of 4 choices), the written sentence appeared on top of the picture. If I picked a wrong choice, an appropriate sound would warn me and I would try again.
No doubt, I learned all of these words well. But about 10 minutes into the lesson, I started making some foolish mistakes. There was something mind-numbing in the perfect symmetry of the material I was learning. I also found I was mesmerized by the many, many different beautiful pictures that kept flashing on. Yes, it was an exercise for the mind. But like doing 34 sit-ups, I didn't find the exercise very engaging.
I'm also not sure how I'll slip the following sentences into my next Spanish cocktail conversation: "The boy swims." "The girl eats." "The women read." "The men cook." Well, maybe the last two are not useless. I'm definitely all for women reading, while the men cook ...
What's next? Blog #2: A Big Time Investment
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