My (first) retirement is now already a few years behind me. I was very lucky when we were able to sell the consulting firm I had co-founded. I was still in my fifties.
However, while I was looking forward to a less stressful life, I was also aware that retirement can have its own challenges.
I had read the usual books about retirement, how to stay busy, get or continue with a hobby, etc. Yes, I also had the typical list of house projects I never had time to complete earlier.
But during the months leading to the day when I didn't have to go to work anymore, my wife Ulrike and I made plans for an extended stay in Italy.
Preparing for Italy
Both Ulrike and I already spoke several languages: German, English, French, and she also Dutch.
These were languages we had either learned as children or young adults living/working in the respective countries. Italian was to be the first language we were going to learn as mature adults.
A few months before our travels – my wife was working as a development editor at Pimsleur International at that time - we began using Pimsleur's self-teaching Italian language courses and completed all three levels of the program, 90 lessons in all.
This was an accomplishment. We felt quite smug about being able to understand basic Italian, but we also knew that the real test would come upon our arrival in Rome.
First Impressions and Lessons
We were picked up at Fiumicino Airport by our landlord's driver. When we tried out our Italian on him it became clear immediately that his English was much better than our Italian.
Our first apartment was in a narrow street above a grocery/bakery in Trastevere (see picture of Romand and Guiseppe), and located just opposite a wonderful little restaurant, Le Mani in Pasta. (This restaurant is now listed on Tripadvisor as #27 of 327 restaurants in Trastevere.)
We became regulars there, and as the owners and waiters spoke very little English, it was great place to practice our Italian.
Seeing “Le Mani” everyday when we left our building, it was easy to remember that “la mano” (the hand) is one of the exceptions in Italian, as most nouns ending in an “o” are masculine.
Other feminine nouns ending with “o” are: àuto (car), mòto (motorcycle), dìnamo (dynamo), ràdio (radio), mètro (subway), libido (libido), etc.
We also quickly realized, however, that we were far from being fluent in Italian. Yes, we had completed maybe 45-50 hours of learning with the Pimsleur audio courses.
While we got compliments for our pronunciation, we still had to rely a lot on pointing and gesturing for buying groceries in our grocery/bakery or local market (see picture).
For several weeks, our vocabulary clearly continued to be insufficient. And to our dismay, the Italian on TV was an incomprehensible garble of words for us.
We were lucky to find a tutor who discovered quickly via a first test that our Italian spelling was atrocious. With Pimsleur's Italian audio course we had not learned how to read and write and our spelling was automatically based on the French we knew.
The daily 2-hour lessons with required homework kept us busy learning for half the day. The other half we spent exploring Rome and its surroundings. We tried out our Italian wherever we could.
After a few weeks, the Italian TV garble dissolved into individual words that we began to distinguish where they started and ended. While we still did not know a huge number of words, we started to guess what words meant from the context. That accelerated our learning further.
Over the next months, as our tutor worked with us and monitored our progress, our confidence grew. We started to understand and enjoy Italian TV and movies, and increasingly conversed with shopkeepers and people we encountered during the day.
Language Learning during Retirement
There have been many research findings about the benefits of mental exercises for older adults. And learning a foreign language is near the top of that list - ahead of playing Lumosity games or solving crossword puzzles.
Learning a new foreign language as an adult takes effort and discipline. But our brain is certainly able to acquire new vocabulary and new grammar patterns through practice.
“When younger people are sitting in bars discussion politics, love, and pop music with passion, we are getting ready for bed. Since my wife and I've been married more than fifty years, neither of us can go out and find a lover! In short: The quickest avenues to fluency are now closed to us.”
Acquiring fluency in a foreign language is certainly harder when you don't speak it all the time with your partner. That's true even if you stay in the country where the language is spoken.
If you can take advantage early on of one of retirement's key benefits: Planning your day and doing activities that YOU like – you'll never be bored.
Then, if language learning is on that list, you'll open a new world to explore: articles to read, conversations to have, movies or TV shows to watch, planning a trip to a place where your new language is spoken.
Beyond Retirement – “Un-Retiring”
For me personally, learning Italian (and later continuing with Spanish and Dutch, see my post about P.M Tools.) also led to our starting up Gamesforlanguage.
Using my interest in languages and my project management skills, plus Ulrike's background in teaching and course development has given us a wonderful way of combining our passion with a purpose:
Helping others practice languages we have learned as well, and sharing our experiences about language learning, culture and travel on our Blog.
And when we get a Thank-you note such as this one from a 80+ year old woman, who had completed both our German courses, we also know that it's never too late to learn and practice a new language:
"Thank you for such an interesting way to practice and learn German. I have really enjoyed doing this each day and am hoping to go to Austria in the Fall for a week at a spa. I liked the way you varied the learning process, also that you had a score at the end of each lesson, which, if not good enough, you could redo. Thank you again, M."
So who knows – once you start learning another language during your retirement – you may also discover reasons to “un-retire” again.
Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. 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 or below.
Learning a new language is always an exciting project for me. I love trying out different language learning sites.
Lately, I've enjoyed learning Brazilian Portuguese with LingoHut, one of our Partner sites – and like Gamesforlanguage – a completely free language learning site. (Click on the Homepage image, left, and hear Kendal explain LingoHut's mission.)
LingoHut currently offers you twelve (12) different languages. And, if your native language is other than English, you can set the language with which you learn. You have many choices.
The vocabulary of each language is presented by Category and Topic, in the form of Vocabulary Cards, Flashcards, and Games. The words are said and written. There are no pictures.
LINGOHUT'S LANGUAGE LEARNING SET-UP
For Brazilian Portuguese, there are 109 Lessons that contain between 8 and 22 words or phrases each.
The Categories of the Lessons include: Start, Numbers, Directions, Colors, People, Time, Weather and Seasons, Antonyms, Body, Travel, Hotel, Around Town, Sightseeing, Shopping, Restaurant, Food, Beach, Vacation, Health, Office, Employment, Computer.
In each Lesson, you have Vocabulary Cards with Portuguese audio, the written Portuguese word or phrase, and a translation set to your native language.
The Lesson's vocabulary also shows up as a list just under the cards. This list can be downloaded and printed out. For a quick review, you can click on a word on the list to hear the audio again.
The Vocabulary Cards are followed by a Flashcard Game, with which you can practice what you learned and test yourself.
Other games in each Lesson for practice are the Matching Game (where you determine whether words or phrases and a translation match); the Tic Tac Toe Game (where you have to get 3 correct answers in a row); the Concentration Game (a traditional "memory game"); the Listening Game (where you hear, but not see, a Portuguese word or phrase, and then choose the English equivalent).
LISTEN AND SAY OUT LOUD
The Vocabulary Cards are great. You hear each word or phrase three times and are encouraged repeat it out loud. The cards continue to the next automatically. But you can also go back or forward one by one.
A key to learning a new language is listening and saying the words out loud. Because the cards advance automatically, you can close your eyes and just listen and speak, which is a powerful way of focusing on sound.
Another way of practicing could be to let the Vocabulary Cards play, treating this as a dictation, i.e. you write out the words you hear on a sheet of paper. (You can then check back for any corrections.)
THE DRIP FEED
Kendal calls the LingoHut mode of learning "the drip feed." What makes it work is exactly that: You acquire the sound, meaning, and spelling of your target language, gradually, in small steps.
The speaker pronounces each of the words and phrases slowly and clearly. This is perfect for someone who is in the early stages of learning a new language. You can try each word as many times as you want.
Remembering new vocabulary is an issue for everyone. The remedy is frequent exposure to the words you're learning and regular repetition.
A good way to get words and phrases into your longterm memory is to go back and redo earlier Lessons. If you find some words particularly difficult to remember, write them out in a small notebook or on paper flashcards, and review these separately.
LEARN GRAMMAR INTUITIVELY
With LingoHut you learn useful words and phrases that allow you to communicate with native speakers. You do not get grammar explanations.
However, the human brain is wired to recognize and internalize language patterns. With frequent exposure to typical patterns of sound and/or spelling, you pick these up without much thinking about the grammar rules behind them.
By frequently hearing and saying different phrases and sentences in a new language, you become familiar with the wording of commands, statements, and questions, the gender of nouns, adjective-noun agreement, the personal forms of verbs, etc.
Once some of the patterns of your target language are lodged in your mind, you can easily check up on a grammar rule that would explain a structure that baffles you. The internet is a fantastic resource for that. A useful site for basic grammar, for example, is on Learn Portuguese Now. But you can google others, or if you prefer, you can always get an introductory grammar book.
For checking words and idioms, I often use the free Word Reference site, a popular online dictionary. Here is the Portuguese Link.)
PORTUGUESE and other ROMANCE LANGUAGES
If you know one of the other Romance languages, you'll notice that many Portuguese words are quite similar. That, of course, helps you to learn.
However, pronunciation is a different matter. For example, I've reached an upper intermediate level in Spanish. When I see Portuguese words, I can often figure out their meaning from Spanish. But when I hear Portuguese spoken, I have no clue (as yet). The sound of Portuguese is very different from Spanish.
That's why the listening and speaking practice that LingoHut offers is so important.
LINGOHUT'S GLOBAL INITIATIVE
LingoHut's co-founder Kendal Knetemann left Nicaragua at age 13 as a refugee, fleeing the civil war in her country and coming to the United States without her parents.
Her experience as a young refugee and the need to quickly learn a new language inspired Kendal together with her husband Philipp, a software developer, to create a free language learning site with free access to all learners.
As a native Dutch speaker now living in America, Philipp Knetemann has firsthand experience with learning a foreign language. That experience has guided him to build a platform that is user-friendly for language learners.
LingoHut was created in 2012 and since then Kendal and Philipp have been adding numerous lessons in 12 languages. What makes the site particularly useful on a global scale, is that a learner has a wide choice for setting his or her language of instruction. (See the list below)
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook,Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact or below.
Disclosure: GamesforLanguage and LingoHut have a non-financial Partner relationship, exchanging language learning ideas and tips. Learning with LingoHut and GamesforLanguage is free.
Austria always holds new things for us to discover. After a week in Überlingen, Germany, where we explored sights along Lake Constance, we picked up a rental car in Friedrichshafen and headed to Austria.
And we were happy to still have our Webspot Pocket WiFi with us, which we had first used while canal cruising in the Netherlands and during our train trip from Utrecht to Lake Constance. This way we could easily google information about the towns and sights we passed by. (Returning the pocket WIFI was also easy: Later in Vienna, we just dropped it off at a Post office in its metal case and prepaid envelope!)
Our car's navigation system led us easily around Munich and, it being a Saturday, we didn't encounter any of the notorious Munich traffic jams.
Soon we found ourselves on Austrian territory. (There are open borders between Germany and Austria, so we had no wait at the border. This is one advantage of the “Schengen Agreement” for tourists and travelers.)
At noon we stopped in a little town. The warm and sunny September weather allowed us to enjoy our lunch in a typical Austrian beer garden.
We watched as the restaurant became busy and the tables all got occupied.
We picked up pieces of Austrian conversation here and there, and as is customary in Austria, we were not surprised when another couple joined us at our table.
We enjoyed a delicious meal. As we were leaving, we chuckled when we noticed the sign over the entrance to the garden restaurant:“Grüass Eich God” (see above left) and on the other side of the sign, when leaving: “Pfüad Eich God” (see right).
The first one is a local form of “Grüß Gott” meaning “May God greet (or bless) you. ”The second translates as something like “Be well with God,” meaning “Goodby.”
Both Austrian/Bavarian versions would be pretty well incomprehensible to a German learner. (Now you also know what “Pfüad di” means?)
A little more than an hour later, we arrived in Wels where one of Ulrike's Austrian cousins lives with his family. His son now manages the family business, the Hotel and the Gasthof Maxlhaid, located on the outskirts of Wels.
Wels, the seventh-largest city in Austria with 60,000 inhabitants, lies at the Traun River, about 20 miles from Linz.
It was my first visit to Wels and I was eager to learn more about its history.
Important during the Roman age, prosperous during the Middle Ages, devastated during the 30 Years' War, Wels became an important manufacturing center during the industrial revolution.
In World War II, Wels saw heavy destruction, and only a few historic buildings have remained. However over the years, new industries have settled there and the city has also gained prominence with its trade fairs and congresses.
The Saturday we arrived happened to be the Lange Nacht der Museen (Long Night of the Museums). For a small fee, people could visit any of the area's participating museums, many of which stayed open until midnight.
We took advantage of that opportunity and visited several museums in town, including the City Museum.
Stadtmuseum Burg Wels
The City Museum is located in a castle, which for centuries belonged to the Habsburg family. (see the castle gardens left) The castle was rebuilt between 1504 and 1514 by emperor Maximilian I in late-Gothic style.
Many artifacts from that time are exhibited, together with documents, models, and audio-visual presentations of the city's and area's history.
One exhibit shows the many different bread forms bakers have used over time. Another one shows the various tools and machines the agricultural industry had developed in Austria.
In another display, we were fascinated by several maps that show the German enclaves in what used to be called the “German-Austrian empire” before 1918.
Our understanding of the Upper Austrian dialect was also tested (we passed!), when we watched museum staff perform several humorous sketches about Wels personalities.
Pferdeeisenbahnmuseum in der Maxlhaid
At the end of the night, Ulrike's cousin gave us a private tour of his own horse railway museum, which is located in a large barn behind the hotel. The museum, a longterm hobby, is his love and passion.
The history of the horse railway is quite interesting. The Italian Franz Zola, (father of the French writer Émile Zola, 1840-1902) was an engineer/surveyor during the construction of the first continental horse railway between Budweis (now Czech Republic) and Linz (Austria).
That was the northern route of the horse railway, which opened in 1832.
Franz Zola received a license from Emperor Franz in 1828 to continue the southern route from Linz to Gmunden. However, when his financing fell through, Zola left for the Foreign Legion and settled later in France.
Subsequently, the southern route of the railway was completed by others in 1836. The 123 miles of track from Gmunden to Budweis could then meet their real purpose: transporting goods, especially salt from Gmunden to Bohemia.
The station Maxlhaid, at the location of the current hotel, was one of several stations where horse changes occurred and a tavern already existed there in 1835.
By 1855, however, steam engines replaced the horses and the horse railway became history. (See the map above and the German Wikipedia entry for further details of the Budweis-Gmunden horse railway).
The next day, we visited Linz, the capital of Upper Austria. It is Austria's third-largest city with a population of over 200,000.
Linz is only 19 miles from the Czech border. Founded by the Romans and called “Lentia,” Linz was the most important city in the Habsburg Empire, but lost its status to Vienna and Prague after the death of Emperor Frederick III in 1493.
Today Linz remains one of Austria's main economic centers. Its harbor on the Danube (one of four in Austria) attracts logistic and trading enterprises as well as manufacturing plants along the river banks.
From the Pöstlingberg, a 1700-foot hill on the left bank of the Danube, we had a wonderful view of the city.
We were intrigued by “Höhenrausch 2016,” an exhibition now in its ninth year, with always changing art. This year angels were the main topic.
The “Höhenrausch” tour takes you through large rooms of the Ursuline Church, the top of a parking garage and terraces with various sculptures. It was all both fun and instructive. We learned about the history of angels in different religions, and in literature and art.
We were amused by various interactive exhibits (click on the picture above or this YouTube clip to see a piano with wings).
The views across the roofs of Linz from one of the wooden towers were spectacular.
Our short stay did not allow us to visit any of the many museums along the banks of the Danube, for example, the Schlossmuseum, the Lentos Art Museum, the Ars Electronica Center, but we got a glimpse of them during our walk through the city and along the Danube.
Seeing the Danube wind its way through Linz prompted me to look a little further into this great European river.
Indeed, with a length of about 1785 miles, the Danube is the second longest European river after the Volga.
And, as no other river in the world, it touches 10 different countries on its way: From its source in the Black Forest in Germany, it flows through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Croatia, Bulgaria, Moldavia, and Ukraine, where it empties into the Black Sea.
With the completion of the Main-Danube Canal (Main-Donau Kanal) in 1992, linking the Rhine with the Danube, a waterway connection between the North Sea and the Black Sea was established.
Thereby even more European states were linked through their own connected waterways. (On the map above, the Rhine and Main are shown in green, The Main-Danube Canal in red, and the navigable stretch of the Danube in blue.)
We would be amiss if we didn't mention the poster child of German compound words:
Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitän (Captain of the Danube Steamship Company)
(However, it even pales against this one which contains 79 letters and, reportedly, holds the 1996 Guinness Book of World Records. Click HEREfor the translation and history:)
A few days later found us walking through the streets of Vienna, a city we both know well. But you can always find something new to do in Vienna!
This time we happened to walk by the Austrian National Library and were attracted by the exhibition about the life of Emperor Franz Joseph I. It was held in remembrance of the 100th anniversary of his death in 1916.
Franz Joseph's long life (1830-1910) made him the “ewige Kaiser” (eternal emperor) to many Austrians. He reportedly was the most painted and photographed person of the 19th century.
The exhibition described his life from young child to teenager, young man, media star, and statesman, with portraits, letters, news reports. It was was set up in the Library's grand “Prunksaal” (State Hall).
The Austrian National Library is not only the largest library in Austria with 7.4 million books, but the “Prunksaal” of the old imperial library takes your breath away.
It forms part of the Hofburg Palace and everywhere you look, there are sculptures, frescos, marble statues, and paintings.
So next time you go to Austria, consider going a little of the beaten track. And don't forget, when you come to Vienna, take a look at the Austrian National Library.
Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. 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 or below.
If you're learning Russian, Pimsleur's Unlimited app is a versatile option to consider.
A couple of months ago, I wrote about the then newly-released app for Pimsleur German. Since I'm bilingual in German and English, I couldn't talk about learning German. In that earlier post I described the app and its features. I also talked about the Pimsleur method in general.
This review of Pimsleur Unlimited Russian is a little different. Russian is a new language for me and my first Slavic language. The languages I speak all belong to the Germanic or Romance language families.
The core structure of the course consists of 30, thirty-minute audio lessons, presented as Day 1, Day 2, etc., through Day 30. Each day shows a beautiful picture and gives you some brief cultural information (when you tap on the lightbulb image).
The Audio Lessons are classic Pimsleur: Each unit introduces up to 10 new words, has you practice the pronunciation through backwards build-up, lets you recall what you learned with a built-in spaced repetition system, and sets you up to anticipate new combinations.
Individual lessons start with a 2-minute conversation, which uses new combinations of familiar words. This is followed by a 7-minute review of vocabulary, the introduction and practice of 10 new vocabulary items, plus a final practice exercise.
Using the audio with the app is great. In each audio lesson, you can easily navigate back and forth by sliding the button, which also shows you where you are on the minute-and-second time bar. Plus, there's a 10sec Skip Back and a 10sec Skip Ahead button. That way you can hear and repeat a word or phrase as many times as you want. When you interrupt a lesson, the app automatically puts you back to where you left off.
AM I MAKING PROGRESS LEARNING RUSSIAN?
Language learning is not a linear process. Even with a course that builds vocabulary as slowly and systematically as Pimsleur, someone like me is going to find ups and downs.
I was sailing along beautifully through Lesson 4, when in Lessons 5 & 6, I hit sentences with what I found to be difficult word order. They were sentences with "You would like ...", "Wouldn't you like ...?" and "Where would you like ...?" I've practiced these a lot and I'm still not able to give fast, automatic responses.
In each of those sentences, two particular little words are at a different place. When I need to give the answer, my mind gets stuck on placing those two little words. I know with time even that will become automatic. But it's taking time.
To help me learn difficult words and phrases, I've written up flashcards using 3"x5" index cards. Writing these out by hand helps me to memorize them. They also give me the chance to practice the words in a different way. I've started adding the Cyrillic spelling for the words, which is a good method for practicing the Cyrillic alphabet.
In the next couple of weeks of learning Russian, I'll start looking at some basic Russian grammar. I'll then better understand the word order of some sentences, and why some of the endings change.
There's a tab for Reading Lessons on the audios. There are nine Reading Lessons which can be accessed from Day 2 to Day 10. (No Reading Lessons after Day 10.)
Together, the Reading Lessons take you through 320 Russian words or phrases. The first 200 help you to learn the Cyrillic alphabet, letter by letter, in the context of words and short phrases. The last 120 items are for practice.
The words in the Reading Lesson are not translated and many of them are never taught in the Audio Lessons. However, you hear the correct pronunciation of every word, phrase, and sentence you see and tap on, and thereby learn the correlation between Cyrillic letters and their sound.
DO THE READING LESSONS WORK?
I did all the Reading Lessons in two days (about an hour each day). By the time I reached the practice lessons, I was pretty good at sounding out most of the words. My pronunciation wasn't perfect, but it was close.
I was amazed how quickly I could figure out the sound of individual words I had never seen before. It's also been fun to see a familiar word here and there and go "Aha - that's how it's written!"
That doesn't mean that I can now read texts in Cyrillic. Reading for meaning is a whole different world. It's the next step and something I'll need to practice a lot.
FLASH CARDS, QUICK MATCH & SPEAK EASY
Each lesson has three specific review exercises, Flash Cards, Quick Match, and Speak Easy. You can do any of the review exercises whenever you want.
For the Flash Cards, you hear the audio and see a written version of the new words and phrases of the lesson. At the bottom of the card, you have the option to check "Show Transliteration" (which shows you the words in romanized spelling). Otherwise, you'll see the words written in Cyrillic. (You can even go back and forth between Transliteration and Cyrillic script on each card.)
In the Quick Match exercises you get an English sentence, audio and written. You then choose the correct match for the Russian, either in Transliteration or in Cyrillic. (If you wish, you can toggle between the two.) Once you tap on an answer (even if it tells you it's incorrect), you'll hear the audio.
In the Speak Easy exercises you practice and engage in the conversations of each lesson, by listening, reading, and finally taking the role of one of the speakers. The conversation lines are in Cyrillic, and you can add the Transliteration.
Together, these exercises help you memorize the words and practice your pronunciation. Once you've done the Reading Lessons and know the Cyrillic alphabet, the Flash Cards, Quick Match, and Speak Easy exercises are a great way to start practice reading for meaning.
I like all of these exercises. They give a quick review, they're fun to do, and are a way to stay engaged.
LEARNING ON THE GO
Playing your language program while you're doing something else: driving, running, cooking, washing dishes, etc. is definitely convenient.
I sometimes listen to Italian or Spanish while cooking, now that I'm on an upper intermediate (B2) level in those languages.
But when I start out with a new language, I have found that I do my best learning when I'm alone, when I've put time aside, and can really focus on the learning itself.
I can listen without distraction, repeat words aloud as many times as I want, stop and write myself notes, create my paper flashcards, etc. This is where I'm now with learning Russian.
Then, once the words and sounds are in my brain, playing them again while my mind is half on something else will be okay too.
I also know that I'm still a long way from being able to understand Russian conversations. So for now, I have to listen and learn with focus wherever I can find some quiet time with my app.
CAN YOU DO 30 LESSONS IN 30 DAYS?
Maybe I could, if I were relearning a language I had taken in school or college. But for Russian, I've not been able to do a new lesson every day. I've had some interruptions (holidays, travel, flu). More importantly though, I've found the need to go back to earlier lessons and review sentences that I find hard.
The key to learning Russian, or any other language for that matter, is doing something every day. It could be redoing a lesson, or part of one. Or it could be going back and playing some of the Flash Card, Quick Match, or Speak Easy exercises.
I have now finished just over half of the course. I feel I'm well-launched into learning Russian. My pronunciation is pretty good, I know the Cyrillic letters, I'm starting to recognize some words, and I can automatically recall some of the basic words and phrases.
Most of all, I continue to feel motivated. The more I'm learning, the more I'm getting excited about learning more.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
Pimsleur language courses are not inexpensive. You can currently purchase each of the 3 levels of the Pimsleur Russian Unlimited Software online for $135 (as CD or Download), or all three levels for $315. One MP3 audio lesson can be downloaded for free. You may find lower prices on Amazon for new or used CDs.
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook,Twitterand Instagram, and leave any comments with contact or below.
Disclosure: Ulrike Rettig was the Development Editor/Author of Pimsleur's German Levels 1, 2 and 3, written during the time she worked for Pimsleur Language Programs (owned since 1997 by Simon & Schuster Audio). She left Pimsleur in 2010. GamesforLanguage has no business relationship with Simon & Schuster Audio, other than receiving the German and Russian Unlimited apps for free.
Like German and French, Italian has full official status on the federal level in Switzerland: all laws and official documents have to be written in these three languages.
Romansh has "partial" official status, i.e. it is used on the federal level when needed for communication with Romansh speakers.
However, each Swiss canton and, generally, even each community can choose which language to use for its own official communication.
Italian is the only official language of the Canton of Ticino and one of the three official languages of the Canton of Graubünden.
Romansh is recognized as an official language only in the Canton of Graubünden, (the largest Swiss canton, but with less than 200,000 inhabitants, also the canton with the lowest population density).
According to an article about Swiss languages published in July 2016 by swissinfo.ch, German (both High German and Swiss German) is spoken by about 63% of the population, French by about 23%, Italian by about 8%. Romansh is spoken by less than 1% of the total population.
The Third Swiss Language: Where Italian is Spoken
Swiss Italian is the Italian spoken in the Canton of Ticino and in the southern part of the Canton Graubünden. (see map of Ticino, right and map of Graubünden below)
The territory of present-day Ticino was annexed from Italian cities in the 15th century. With the creation of the Swiss Confederation in 1803, the lands were named Ticino, after the largest river in the area. To read up on the history of Ticino: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ticino
The official name of Ticino is Repubblica e Cantone Ticino (Republic and Canton of Ticino). Because of historical ties, the people of Ticino have a strong cultural affinity to their Italian neighbors.
Ticino is the only canton where Italian is the sole official language. Over 87% of the people speak Italian as their native language, around 666,000 according to Ethnologue. (About 10% speak German, and about 5% speak French.)
In the Canton of Graubünden about 15% of the population speaks Italian (just under 30,000).
Please note: The numbers and percentages I'm quoting show some variation in the French, German, English, and Italian articles I consulted about Swiss languages.
Swiss Italian - Svizzero Italiano
Over the centuries, the Swiss Italian language has been influenced by the local Ticinese dialects and the other national languages, French and German. There are Helveticisms (words typical for Switzerland), differences in idiomatic usage and syntax, and loan words (not known in Standard Italian).
Here are a few loan words that come from French or German:
To book, reserve (a room or table) Italian: prenotare. Swiss Italian: riservare. French: réserver.
Change, money back Italian: resto. Swiss Italian: ritorno. French: retour.
In addition to Swiss Italien, a part of the population of Ticino speaks Ticinese, which is a group of dialect varieties of the Lombard language. For many Italian speakers, Ticinese is difficult to understand.
Ticinese has now been named an endangered language. (According to Ethnologue, there are 303,000 speakers of Ticinese in Switzerland.)
The Fourth Swiss Language: Where Romansh/Rumantsch is Spoken
The Romansh language is spoken primarily in the southeast of Switzerland, in the Canton of Graubünden, where it has official status alongside German and Italian. (Besides the two spellings above, there are a number of other ways to spell the language.)
Romansh is a descendant of Vulgar (or spoken) Latin. In 2012, it counted just over 36 thousand people who called it their main language. At 0.9% of Swiss citizens makes it the least spoken of the four official Swiss languages.
The spoken Romansh language is generally divided into 5 dialect groups, which together form a continuum. Still, there are recognizable differences even from village to village. The most widely spoken dialect is Sursilvan, which is used by more than half of the speakers of Romansh. In addition to the 5 major dialects, there are a number of other recognized dialects.
Although they are closely related, the Romansh dialects are not always mutually comprehensible. For that reason, when speakers of different varieties talk with each other, they tend to use Swiss German rather than their own dialect. Apparently for Romansh speakers, identity is tied largely to the local dialect region.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, grammar and spelling guidelines were developed for the regional written dialects. Now, each of the 5 Romansh dialect varieties has its own standardized written language. Romansh is taught in some of the local schools.
In 2000 a bilingual high-school diploma was introduced in Graubünden. Since then, if they wished, students have been able to follow studies and graduate in Romansh/German or in Italian/German.
Pan-Regional Rumansch Grischun
There were attempts to create a unified written Romansh language in 1867, and again in 1958, but these did not gather much support during the early days. A main criticism was that such a created language would be artificial and destroy the Romansh cultural heritage.
Nevertheless, attempts to introduce the standardized Rumansch Grischun in local schools have continued. Finally, in 2015, a hesitant compromise was reached: This unified version of the language is not to be introduced before grade 7. As expected, both supporters and opponents are unhappy.
How do the Swiss Manage?
In researching this topic, it became clear to me that accommodating these four languages and various dialects remains a challenge for Swiss communities and their government.
Resentments between language groups continue to exist. And still Switzerland, a small country of only 8.5 million inhabitants, is somehow managing.
One key may be the autonomy that the individual cantons and communities have in choosing their official language(s), and how and where the languages are taught, etc.
Maybe direct and frequent voting gives the citizens a sense of control? Maybe becoming bilingual by the time they get to school let children become more tolerant towards other languages?
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitterand Instagram, and leave any comments right below!
In our previous post, we focused on the bilingualism of many Fribourgers. The German spoken in Fribourg is clearly of the Swiss German variety, with a few French expressions mixed in at times.
And while Swiss German is the generic label for the dialect, there are plenty of regional differences that a foreigner would only detect after a while.
When you're traveling in countries where you speak the language, you may notice that both formal and informal greetings often vary from region to region.
For example, when we were traveling in Northern Germany a couple years ago (see our post: From Utrecht to Hamburg: Dialects and Travel Tips in Northern German), we first couldn't make out the informal greeting we heard everywhere: “Moin.” We first thought it was an abbreviation of “Morgen,” as in “Guten Morgen” (Good morning), but it was clearly used all day.
Digging a little further, we found that while “morgen” may be one etymological explanation for “Moin,” another one could be the Dutch, Frisian, and Low German word “moi,” meaning “beautiful” or “good.”
This week we are exploring a few Swiss German expressions we encountered while skiing in the "Berner Oberland". (Above picture of "Saaner's Loch)
“Grüezi” and a Swiss German Ear-Worm
To get a little taste of the Swiss German language, listen to this YouTube Video of a popular song by a Swiss group, The Minstrels, from the late 60s.
It was the #1 song in Switzerland in 1969 for 10 weeks, made it to #3 in Germany, and sold over 1.5 million copies in 27 countries.
Even if you know some German, you'll have a hard time understanding the simple refrain. But listening to it a few times, you'll start distinguishing verbs, their grammatical modifications. You'll also pick up a few Swiss German idiosyncrasies.
Ja, grüezi wohl Frau Stirnimaa Ja, grüß sie wohl, Frau Stirnimaa (Hello there, Ms Stirnimaa)
Sagget sie, wie labbet sie, wie sind sie de so dra? Sagen Sie, wie leben Sie, wie sind Sie denn so dran? (Tell me, how's life, how's it going?)
Grüezi wohl Frau Stirnimaa Sagget sie, wie labbet sie, wie gaht's denn ihre Ma? Sagen Sie, wie leben Sie, wie geht es ihrem Mann? (Tell me, how's life, how's your husband doing?)
Quick note: There is no standard written form of Swiss German. Letters and letter combinations are mostly attempts to express the way words sound.
And while you'll notice how the verb forms and endings are different from Standard German and hear how the “n” and “m” endings are dropped, we won't try to explain much more.
Just listen to the Swiss German language melody.
Swiss German in the Berner Oberland
This week the public schools in the canton of Bern have vacation, and besides a little French, we hear mostly Swiss German in the villages and on the mountain between Zweisimmen and Gstaad.
Even for us German speakers, some of the Swiss German we come across is a little hard to understand.
Briefly: In general, the dialects spoken in Switzerland (collectively called Swiss German) belong to the Alemannic variety of German.
Greetings: “Grüezi” vs. “Grüess eech”
Grüezi is arguably the most well-known Swiss German greeting. It's an abbreviation of “Gott grüez i” or literally in German: Gott grüß euch. (May God greet you.)
A variation of “Grüezi” is “Grüezi mitenand,” with “mitenand” (“miteinander” - together) making it clear that the greeting is for more than one person.
This greeting is used mainly in the Zurich area and in the east of Switzerland.
In the western part, around Bern and Basel, it's more common to hear “Grüss eech,” which also means literally: Gott grüß euch.
Indeed, here in the Berner Oberland, we've been hearing “Grüss eech” or “Grüess eech mitenand,” all over the place: when entering a restaurant, going into a shop, when sharing a gondola or chair lift with others. People even greet you as you're walking in the village.
In a restaurant: the verb “sein” - “sii” and “gsi” (or “gsy”)
Today, we ate on the terrace of a mountain restaurant. After greeting us “Grüess eech mitenand,” our waitress asked: “Was derfs sii?” - Was darf es sein? (Lit: What may it be? Meaning: What can I get you?)
When we finished our meal and she started to clear the table, she asked: “S isch guat gsi?” - Ist es gut gewesen? (Lit: Was it good? Meaning: How was the meal?)
Swiss German uses a shorter and older form of the verb “sein.” Instead of “sein,” it's “sii” and instead of “gewesen,” it's “gsi.”
Meal time: “Ä Guätä!”
It was a beautiful, sunny day and the terrace was crowded. So, as is typical for many European countries, we shared our table with other restaurant guests.
We ordered “Röschti” (Rösti), which are fried potatoes prepared in a typical way in Switzerland. A meal of Röschti comes in all kinds of combinations: with a fried egg, with ham, with vegetables, etc.
Note also: The letter combination “st” (appearing anywhere in a word) is pronounced “sch.” The German word “ist” becomes “isch” (the -t is dropped)
We were served first, and when our meal arrived, our table neighbors wished us “Ä Guätä!” This is literally, “(Have) a good one!” and best translates to “Enjoy your meal!” The equivalent in Standard German would be: Guten Appetit! literally: Good appetite!
When we finished and were ready to leave, while our table neighbors received their meals, we wished them “Ä Guätä!”
Other useful words and phrases we heard
We often heard teenagers saying “Sali” or “Sali mitenand.” - Hallo, alle. - Hi everybody. “Sali” is less formal than the greeting “Grüezi.” It comes from the French “salut” (hi/hey).
The French “Merci” (thank you) has been appropriated by Swiss German as well, and you hear it alone or also as “Merci vilmals” - Vielen Dank (Thanks a lot).
The German “Auf Wiedersehen” (Goodbye) has the Swiss German equivalent of “Uf widaluege,” and means the same, “luege” - sehen (to look).
Probably a leftover from the old telephone technology of bells, if you want to say “I'll call you,” you'd say “Ich lüt dir a.” This literally means: Ich leute dich an, or Ich leute bei dir an (I'll ring you.)
If you're just learning German and are trying to understand Swiss German, don't despair. Even native Germans have a tough time understanding rapidly spoken Swiss German, even more so speaking it.
But as with any language or dialect you want to learn, there are many ways to do it.
Here are three iPhone apps that will help you: Gruezi Switzerland (free), Schweizerdeutsch Lernen ($0.99), and uTalk Classic Learn Swiss German ($9.99).
We have not tried any of these yet, so let us know what you think below.
Bio: Ulrike & Peter Rettig are co-founders of Gamesforlanguage.com. They are lifelong language learners, growing up in several European countries before moving to Canada and the United States. You can follow them onFacebook,Twitter, andInstagram.
Visiting the town in Switzerland where I spent several years working in my first job, reminded me of my French language learning days. Fribourg or in German Freiburg (im Üchtland) is a bilingual city, and not to be confused with “Freiburg im Breisgau,” which lies in the Black Forest.
Pure immersion aficionados may well scoff at this: But working and learning French in a town where my native language German was well understood, had many advantages for me.
For one, I could always revert to German when my French instructions to the draftsmen in the structural engineering firm where I worked, were met with a doubtful stare.
Also, when the rapid French in a shop or restaurant was still beyond my listening skills, I could typically get a German, or Swiss-German translation, thereby generating “comprehensible input.”
CANTON FRIBOURG'S ROAD TO OFFICAL BILINGUALISM
The canton of Fribourg is one of three Swiss cantons that are officially bilingual. The other two are the cantons of Bern and of Wallis/Valais.
Fribourg entered the Swiss Confederation in 1481. Throughout the centuries both French and German were spoken in the region. For the canton of Fribourg the road to official bilingualism was a complicated one, with plenty of detours.
Since the early days, there have been various shifts. At first, German was the language used by the government (1483-1798). Then between 1798 and 1856, French and German alternated.
From 1857 on, both languages have had official status in Fribourg, but until 1990 only French was legally binding. Since 1991 both languages can be used for a binding contract.
Only the two north/northeast districts of the canton (of a total of seven), are predominantly German- speaking. It's more likely that residents of those districts learn and speak French, than residents of French-speaking districts learn German. (A possible reason? Many French speakers may be reluctant to learn Swiss-German.)
At this time, around 63% of the about 300,000 people in the canton of Fribourg speak French, 21% speak German, and close to 4 % speak Italian (which is not an official language in the canton).
A few years ago, the “Day of Bilingualism” (Journée du bilinguisme/Tag der Zweisprachigkeit) was set for September 26 and coincides with the European Day of Languages to foster language learning and bilingualism.
In the public schools of the canton of Fribourg, students learn a second language from grade three on. In communities where German is spoken, students are encouraged to learn French as the second language, and vice versa.
Nevertheless, in spite of such efforts and policies to foster bilingualism, language differences remain a point of discussion and sometimes also of controversy.
THE CITY OF FRIBOURG
The city of Fribourg is right on the language border between French and German. About 40,000 inhabitants live within the city proper. This number increases to 60,000, if adjacent suburbs are included and to nearly 100,000 for the larger metropolitan area.
A few years ago, the completion of a new suspension bridge and the closing of the arched Zähringer Bridge diverted traffic from the neighborhood near the Cathedral and created another Fribourg landmark. (see picture)
Official city statistics mirror the language distribution of the canton as a whole. Still, it seems that there is a greater concentration of bilinguals living in the city, which may be in part because of the university.
The University of Fribourg (created in 1889) is Switzerland's only bilingual university. Both French and German are used as languages for teaching and for the administration.
In 2009, the Institute of Multilingualism was founded, which conducts research of how multilingualism affects education, the workplace, and migration.
Because the two languages intersect throughout the city, you'll find interesting signage in French, German, and also in Swiss-German dialect (which has no standard written form).
During a visit a couple of years ago, Ulrike had a tiny cameo role in a YouTube clip "We are Happy from Fribourg" by a Fribourg film maker. He used the Pharrell Williams' song "Happy" from the movie "Despicable Me 2", similar to what other Swiss cities have done. Maybe you can spot her at ~2.36 minutes into the clip, which also shows many images of Fribourg.
In fact, she was walking through the Farmer's Market where you can always find many delightful language tidbits. This time as well.
On Saturday morning, Fribourg has a farmer's market that stretches from the City Hall Plaza down the Grand Rue. Vendors from the region as far as (French-speaking) Lausanne come to sell their wares. When I'm around, I spend an hour or so poking around and I always find some language learning opportunities.
Interestingly, the vegetable and fruit stands seem mostly set up by farmers that speak Swiss German.
For the first time in all the years, I saw a stand that sells snails. The “Schneckenpark” translates into French as “Élevages d'Escargots.” The above picture on the front of the stand explains both expressions: the raised, slanted boards of the snails' park.
Another stand advertises in typical German compound-word fashion: “HOLZBACKOFENBROT AUS BIO GETREIDE” and with the wordier French: “PAIN FAIT AU FOURNEAU DE BOIS & CEREALES BIO.” Both translate to something like “bread made with organic flour in wood-burning oven.”
Not all stands advertise bilingually. Some have signs that are only in French or only in German. When it's Swiss German, even I sometimes need the help of a local person.
Take this sign of a Swiss-German butcher: The word “Metzger” (butcher) abbreviated to “Metzg” presents no problem. But hey, how about “gglùschtig's ù säüber gmacht's”? To decode that, I had to dig deep into my Swiss-German language memory.
The word “gglùschtig's” means “tasty, a pleasure to eat” - not to be confused with the German word “lustig” (funny). I'm not sure about the double “g” and the grave accent on the “u.” Probably, it's a way to represent Swiss-German pronunciation.
The word “säüber” is as tricky as “gglùschtig's.” One could easily confuse it with the German word “sauber” (clean). But the letter combination “äü” suggests the sound of a word closer to the German “selber” (self).
The word “gmacht's” is easy and just means “made.” The suffix “-'s” (for “Gemachtes”) adds the idea of a “made” product.
So “gglùschtig's ù säüber gmacht's” would best be translated as: “tasty and homemade (or self-made) products.”
LANGUAGE LEARNING WITH FRENCH & GERMAN SIGNS
With its medieval town center and old ramparts, the city of Fribourg is a great place to walk around and explore. When you pay attention to street signs or signs on shops and restaurants, you'll see some interesting words and language combinations.
French sign in a restaurant window: Les croûtes au fromage
These are bread slices dipped in white wine, topped with cheese, (often also with cornichons and tomatoes) and grilled in the oven. The advertised prices and types of preparation indicate a substantial meal.
la croûte – the rind
le fromage – the cheese
Street signs combining French and German.
One of the quarters of Fribourg is called “Schoenberg,” a German word meaning “beautiful mountain.” (Note that in the French spelling, the German umlaut is replaced by an “oe.”)
One of the roads leading up to the quarter is called “Chemin du Schoenberg” (chemin – the French word for way, path.)
Not everybody loves this French specialty: Beef Tongue
German/French sign in a restaurant window: Rindszunge/Langue de Boeuf
la langue, die Zunge - the tongue
le boeuf, das Rind - the beef
les capres/die Kapern - the capers
German speakers may notice a spelling error on the German sign: It should say "Rindszunge IN Kapernsauce"
Strolling through the city streets you'll see many signs that make you smile.
A favorite of mine is the one above the Rue des Epouses, which I described in a previous post 11 Language Clues from German and Swiss Signs. Look for item#11, if you need a translation of the French or the German, which is on the other side of the sign.
If you ever visit Fribourg and the Cathedral, or are looking for the above sign, you'll also pass by the bookshop Librairie "Bien-être" on one side, and the modern furniture store "Forme + Confort" on the other side of la Rue des Epouses.
In "Bien-être" you'll find all kinds of books (in French) about well-being, alternative medicine, etc. And - you can say hello to my sister Ingrid.
Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. 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 or below.
The Italian Travel Memories expand on our GamesforLanguage travel-story based courses, which use the cities' real street names, places, restaurants, hotels, etc. We visited many of them ourselves and tell you a little more about each Italian city.
The travel stories, which are the basis of our GamesforLanguage courses, use real street names, places, restaurants, hotels, etc., many of which we visited ourselves.
In future blog posts, we'll provide additional details for the other cities our young travelers visit in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain.
Pisa is Marco's first stop in Italy, a university town with a long history, and known the world over for its Leaning Tower.
Visiting Pisa? Here's a short introduction to this historic Tuscan city to help start your own Italian travel memories.
We'll follow Marco's discoveries in Pisa, for those of you who have done or are doing our Italian 1 course: Marco in Italia.
In our travel-story course, you learn everyday conversational language. Here, we've listed a few basic terms in Italian that will help you in your travels.
Quick Facts about Pisa
The city of Pisa is located in Tuscany, one of Italy's 20 Regions. It lies near the mouth of the Arno River, about 50 miles west of Florence and around 5 miles from the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
(Note: Italy is further divided into 96 provinces, with the city of Pisa being the capital of the Province of Pisa.)
Pisa's origins date back at least to the time of the Etruscans, 5th century B.C. Later, it became a Roman colony and rose to the status of an important port city. During the early Middle Ages, the Republic of Pisa developed into a powerful maritime nation, involved in lively trade and power struggles around the Mediterranean.
Pisa's decline was accelerated after the 15th century when the Arno River started to silt up.
Now a quiet university town of around 90,000 inhabitants, the city of Pisa is renowned for its art and architecture.
[Please Note: PISA is also an anagram that stands for The Programme for International Student Assessment. That has nothing to do with the city. PISA is a recurrent study that measures the scholastic performance of 15-year-old pupils worldwide.]
Marco Magini is a young student who learned some Italian at home and later studied it in school. However, this will be his first visit to Italy.
During his flight to Pisa, Marco chats with the flight attendant and with the woman who sits next to him - all in Italian. It's a perfect way for him to practice his language.
His flight lands at the Pisa International Airport, also named Galileo Galilei Airport, and the main airport in Tuscany.
Marco continues to use his Italian as he goes through passport control. He explains to the officer why he is traveling to Italy and how long he'll stay.
Corso Italia and Ponte di Mezzo
Marco's aunt, uncle, and cousin Valeria live on Corso Italia, which leads through the city center, from Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II to near Ponte di Mezzo.(see picture)
If you're in Pisa at the end of June, you could watch a traditional spectacle, the Battle of the Bridge (called "Gioco del Ponte") which takes place on the Ponte di Mezzo. Two teams battle it out: the Mezzogiorno (the neighborhoods south of the Arno) against the Tramontana (the neighborhoods north of the Arno). It's Pisa's most important annual event. (Find more information HERE .)
The centrally located Ponte di Mezzo takes you over the Arno River to the other side of the city. Standing on the bridge, you get a stunning view of the river bank and the shops and buildings there.
la città - the city
la bocca - the mouth (of a river)
mezzo - central, half, halfway
il gioco - the game
il mezzogiorno - the south, midday, noon
la tramontana - the north, north wind
Travel Memories in la Piazza dei Miracoli
No Italian travel tips about Pisa without the Leaning Tower! It's just a 15 minute walk from Ponte di Mezzo to the Piazza dei Miracoli (also called Campo dei Miracoli).
The Piazza dei Miracoli includes a number of magnificent buildings: The Cathedral (begun in 1063), the Baptistry (built between 1153-1284), the Campo Santo cemetery (started in 1278), and the Leaning Tower (completed in 1350).
The buildings combine Moorish elements (arabesques) with Romanesque colonnading and spiky Gothic niches and pinnacles.
Apparently all of the buildings on the Piazza dei Miracoli lean to some extent (which you can see on the picture above). They're constructed on soft soil composed of mud, sand and clay, which started settling soon after building began.
Because of its height, the Tower was most in danger of eventual collapse. It was closed to the public from 1990 to 2001, as an international team of engineers found a way decrease the lean and to stabilize the tower.
la passeggiata - a walk, stroll
15 minuti a piedi - a 15 minute walk
l'edificio - the building
il campo - the field
il duomo - the cathedral
la torre - the tower
pendente - leaning
il campanile - the bell tower
la terra - the soil, earth
On the way back to Corso Italia, Marco and his cousin Valeria stop at Borgo Stretto, a picturesque street with shops, bistros, and cafés, on the northern side of the Arno. There, Marco buys a travel guide.
Afterwards, they go to a café for an Italian-style coffee and pastry: Marco orders "un macchiato," Valeria "un cappucino," and they both have "una crema di mascarpone con i cantuccini."
(And, if you are like us: Many travel memories come back with the food or drinks, we tried while there.)
il borgo - the borough, district (in a town), village
stretto - narrow, tightly bound
la strada - the street
i negozi - the shops
una guida turistica - a travel guide
un macchiato - an espresso with a "stain" of milk
macchiare - to stain, add a splash (of sth)
crema di mascarpone - dessert made of Italian cream cheese
cantuccini - twice-baked almond cookies, biscotti
Other Places to visit in Pisa
Piazza dei Cavalieri (Knights' Square): Historically the headquarters of the Order of Knights of St. Stephen, the square is located in Pisa's student quarter.
Banks of the Arno: A walking tour along one of the banks of the Arno River is especially beautiful in early evening.
Mural "Tuttomondo" by the artist Keith Harding: 1989, painted on the back facade of the church of St. Anthony. It shows 30 characters put together like a puzzle, each one representing an aspect of the world in peace.
Museo delle Navi Antiche (Museum of Ancient Ships): Archeological museum of ancient ships with nine well-preserved Roman ships, discovered during an excavation in 1998.
Marco's Next Stop
From Pisa, Michael takes the train to Florence. There he gets together with a friend he had met in Boston.
Have you been to Pisa and have more travel memories and suggestions? We'd love to hear from you!
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitterand Instagram, and leave any comments right here!
It's been five years since we went live with our GamesforLanguage site. It's time to step back a little and have a look at how "fun and effective" our games for language learning really are.
GamesforLanguage started out as an experiment and family project: A college language teacher and language course writer/editor, a retired engineer/consultant, a computer programmer (our son) and his graphic designer wife put an idea into action:
Listen, read and repeat story dialogues, learn and practice vocabulary with simple interactive games
We get feed-back that our games are "fun." But how effective are they for learning the 4 language skills: Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing? And how much new vocabulary does a player learn and remember? We'll take a stab at some answers below.
WHO CAN BEST LEARN WITH GAMESFORLANGUAGE?
Language learners are a varied group of people. Players that come to our site (and have told us) range from 14 to 80 years old and come from diverse backgrounds. Some already know other languages, others are learning their first foreign language. And, some are not native speakers of English, but seek to improve their knowledge of English while learning French, Italian, German, or Spanish.
We have players of our courses that come back again and again, schools that have their classes practice with us, and learners that systematically go through all our Quick Games. We also have users that try us a for a bit and then move on.
True Novices may find the entry into and progression through GamesforLanguage a bit hard.
Learners who've had some contact with the language before (in school or college, on travels, through self-study) seem to do well.
They want to pick up the language again, practice vocabulary in an engaging way, and improve their listening and speaking skills. (The general range of our users is from beginner to low intermediate; in the Common European European Framework of Reference for Languages that means: A1, A2, B1.)
For adults, learning a language is more about persistence than cramming. We generally recommend that a learner do only ONE NEW lesson (Scene) per day and redo earlier Scenes or Games that have less than a 100% score.
Each of the Story-Courses teaches over 700 new words. Learners that practice fairly regularly and like the game aspect appear to make good progress.
But what kind of learning goes on, and progress in what?
GamesforLanguage provides useful tools for building listening comprehension. This may indeed be our strongest feature. We have audio for everything, from individual words, to phrases, to the initial conversations at the beginning and end of the lessons (Scenes).
When training to listen, our brains go into gear to find sound patterns. The more you listen, the better you start noticing the patterns.
You begin to hear what clusters of sound are typical for the language you're learning. You start to notice what sounds go together to make words, where words start and end, where sentences begin and finish.
It's important to hear individual words in isolation, as well as hearing them in the stream of phrases and sentences. When people speak rapidly, the sounds of individual words get "swallowed up", sounds change or simply get lost.
A goal is to understand the meaning of the sounds you hear, which happens best when you get comprehensible input. Part of that is becoming aware of meaningful grammatical patterns. Are things happening now, or did they happen some time in the past? Is the statement a negation? A question, a request, an opinion?
There are various ways to practice listening with GamesforLanguage. Once you've gone through a Level (6 lessons), you can listen to the Podcast. You'll understand most of it as you've already practiced all the words and sentences. So now you can close your eyes and just listen. This is a powerful way to build listening skills.
Or if you also want to read what is being said, go back and play just the conversations, one after the other. You don't automatically get translations, but you can check, if necessary.
You won't become fluent just by using GamesforLanguage. Well, no online program can make you talk like a native. To become a fluent conversationalist, you have to SPEAK with live partners, often, and about a variety of topics.
But GamesforLanguage does give you the tools to get started, to help you work on your pronunciation by having you SAY and MEMORIZE phrases and sentences you can use in daily life.
You're encouraged to repeat everything OUT LOUD, every word, phrase, and sentence. By imitating the pronunciation of the speakers, you begin to attune your ear and work your mouth to make the right sounds.
The clue really is to speak out loud, to repeat, and to repeat again. Sure, there are many ways to learn vocabulary - from using flashcard apps to writing out your own flashcards. These are good ways to review new words on the go, whenever you have a few minutes.
But to practice speaking, you have to schedule some quiet time for yourself and to use that to really focus on the sounds you're making!
Our best tool for learning to speak may be our Recording feature. Each lesson has a "Record It" section that you can access at any time. You hear the conversation of the lesson sentence by sentence. At each sentence you're asked to "press 'Record' and repeat after the speaker." Then, when you press "Replay," you'll hear the speaker and yourself right after. You can do this as often as you want, before going on to the next sentence.
One of our young users learning Italian complained that she "hated to hear" her own voice. We agree, it does take getting used to hearing one's own voice, especially in another language.
It's worth overcoming your reluctance. You can improve your spoken language noticeably, just by spending 20 minutes, recording your own voice and playing it back. For example, do a sentence five, six times, and try to capture the melody of what's being said rather than saying each word distinctly, etc. To boot, close your eyes while you listen and talk. It really helps.
Since everything is in written form, GamesforLanguage gives learners a way to start connecting sound to spelling. With time, you'll start noticing patterns in how words are spelled in relation to their sound. That's just a start, though. Next, you'll need to find a way to continue to read texts that are increasingly challenging.
Learning to read in a foreign language is a wonderful achievement. It's a way to learn a ton of vocabulary. Once you know the written language, you have access to many resources in the form of books, stories, articles, comments, letters/emails etc. printed or online.
Most importantly, you can now chose, what really interests you, a key for staying engaged and motivated.
Vocabulary is often taught in groups of topics: Greetings, food, animals, body parts, professions, etc. GamesforLanguage introduces words and phrases in context by using a STORY. It's a different way of getting into a language.
While it's important to learn specific vocabulary, we've always found that we remember words, phrases, and sentences better when we hear them in the context of a conversation or a story. That's why our lessons are, in fact, Scenes of an ongoing travel story. (Our German 2 course "Blüten in Berlin?" is a mystery-story sequel to the German 1 travel-story.)
Unless you keep a notebook on the side or create your own written flashcards with phrases and sentences, you won't learn much writing with GamesforLanguage.
We do have a short writing game in each lesson, but it's mostly just spelling practice for words.
Two of our games - Word Invader and Shootout - ask the learner to build sentences word by word.
These require the player to choose the correct grammatical form for each word, such as feminine vs. masculine, the verb with the right personal ending, a present or past tense form, subject or object form, etc.
When playing, you also practice word order. Some sentences in other languages follow the English, many do not. German is a case in point, but Romance languages also have their word-order idiosyncrasies.
Programs with Spaced Repetition Systems (SRSs) have become very popular. An algorithm keeps track of what words you learn and what mistakes you make. You're are asked to recall the words at a specific time. The goal is to get the words into your long-term memory.
GamesforLanguage does not (yet) have an SRS. We do have several memorization and built-in recall games, but the spacing is not personalized.
To really memorize new words, you have to do more than just play through a game once or twice. You have to make new words your own and start using them actively.
The vocabulary of our early lessons is on Quizlet, for those who like to practice vocabulary more intensively.
Another good method for remembering new words is to write them out (either in a notebook or on small flashcards).
In "Fluent Forever," Gabriel Wyner suggests that by writing out your own flashcards, you'll have a much easier time remembering words. He also says that he reviews his flashcards, in increasing intervals, for a full year before he stops completely. Even Polyglots need to review multiple times.
We know that no program can be everything to everyone. We also use other sites to learn and practice our languages. With some sites we have established partnershiparrangements.
With other free sites like Lingohut we share blog posts and tips. Our revenue-share arrangements with selected fee-for-service sites or apps, which we mention in our Dictionary and Quick Games, give us a (small) benefit. They help keep our site otherwise add-free and provide our users with learning options that we use and like ourselves.
PAST AND FUTURE GAMES FOR LANGUAGE LEARNING
GamesforLanguage is a labor of love and totally free. For us, working on the site is a way to learn, discover, and do what we enjoy. It keeps us in touch with new insights about language learning for grown ups that we can share with others.
Right from the beginning, we've been working with a wonderful team of native-speaker collaborators.
Since our early days, we've added a language-learning Blog that now has weekly posts, as well as Podcasts of the stories, and over 200 Quick Language Games.
We've also continuously tweaked our Travel-Story Courses following input from users.
We decided early on to forgo the development of a GamesforLanguage app. Instead, we're relying on the increasing availability of free WiFi and the mobile-friendly design of our web-based program.
Still to be solved is making the recording feature work on mobile devices and replacing the Flash-Player that is currently necessary.
Much remains to be done: Our French 2 course has to be recorded, the Spanish 2 and Italian 2 courses have to be written and recorded.
Other ideas for improvement and new content are waiting in the pipeline.
And while we're always thinking about ways to enhance language learning, we also believe that Gabriel Wyner is correct when he notes in "Fluent Forever":
"No one can give you a language; you have to take it yourself. You are rewiring your brain. To succeed, you need to actively participate. Each word in your language needs to become your word, each grammar rule your grammar rule."
We hope that our GamesforLanguage site is a fun and useful resource for anyone who wants to learn and practice French, German, Italian, and Spanish for free. We always welcome feedback and suggestions for improving and expanding our site, so leave a comment right here!
Bio: Ulrike & Peter Rettig are co-founders of Gamesforlanguage.com. They are lifelong language learners, growing up in several European countries before moving to Canada and the United States. You can follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
In an earlier post, I wrote about Dutch Canal Boating. After a fun trip around Dutch rivers and canals, we said goodbye to our American friends. We then began the next stage of our European travels.
In the Dutch city of Utrecht, we boarded one of the fabulous European Intercity trains. It took us through Cologne and along the Rhine River to Basel. There we changed to a regional train.
On previous train trips we had always regretted that we could not access our website or google sights we passed by (without depleting our phone data allotments!) This time we still had our Webspot pocket WIFI we had rented for canal cruising.
We could also follow our train route on the iPad map and find information about the various castles we passed along the Rhine.
In Basel, the Rhine bends sharply to the east and for long stretches makes a natural border between Germany and Switzerland.
Initially, the train tracks follow the Rhine River Valley. At dusk we passed the well-known “Rheinfall of Schaffhausen” - the waterfalls of the Rhine at the Swiss town of Schaffhausen. (German students, don't forget to note the spelling of “Rheinfall” versus “Reinfall”! The latter means “letdown, failure, flop, disaster.” It is often used in wordplays with its sound-alike cousin.)
Überlingen at Lake Constance
Our destination that day was the city of Überlingen, located on one of the two major arms of the “Bodensee” (Lake Constance). (In Überlingen we met up with my sister, who had come from Switzerland.)
I had last been in Überlingen as a young boy with my parents. And while there was little that I recognized from that time, I vividly remembered climbing the bell tower of the St. Nikolaus Cathedral with my father. (see picture) As we neared the top, the huge bells suddenly started to ring, scaring me both with their powerful sounds and the vibrations they generated in the tower.
A good part of the city, including our hotel, is located on a sandstone cliff overlooking the lake. The 100 steps of the “Teufelstreppe” (Devil's Stairs) made it less than a 10 minute walk down to the lake. There, we found a “Promenade,” a wide walkway along the lake, leading to the town center with its restaurants, cafés, ship wharves, etc.
We were told that Überlingen has become one of Germany's favorite retirement destinations. That also makes it one of the oldest cities in Germany (in reference to the age of its inhabitants). The “seniors” we saw strolling down the Promenade, sitting in cafés, riding their bikes, or waiting to board a ship, all looked fit and active to us. (see picture)
While we were sitting in one of the cafés, we were surprised to see many bikers board a ship. We found out that there are several bicycle organization that organize tours along the “Bodensee-Radweg” (Lake Constance-bicycle path). It calls itself “Europa's beliebtester Radweg” (Europe's favorite bicycle path).
We often took advantage of the wonderful, warm fall weather and enjoyed people-watching while sitting in one of the many outside restaurants. There, we couldn't help but overhear conversations in various German dialects spoken at nearby tables.
Some German Dialects
Überlingen is located in Baden-Württemberg, the third-largest German state, which has close to 11 million inhabitants. Stuttgart is its capital and largest city.
Two distinct dialects are spoken in the state, with various variants: the Alemannic dialect of Swabian and Franconian. Swabian is spoken in the southern part of Baden-Württemberg, up to the border of the neighboring state, Bavaria. Franconian is spoken in the west/northwest along the Rhine including in Mannheim and Heidelberg.
[Note also: The Swiss German language is another variant of the Alemannic dialect. And, Franconian can also be heard in the northern parts of Bavaria [Germany's largest state], around Nuremberg, Bamberg, etc. The most recognizable dialect of the state of Bavaria is Austro-Bavarian, spoken in the southeast of the state and reaching beyond the border into Austria in a continuum of local and regional variants.]
We also heard the very distinct Saxon dialects from regions around Leipzig and Dresden.
And how could I forget the Hessian dialect, spoken around Frankfurt and Bad Nauheim (the city where I spent most of my school years, and subject of an earlier post: Where “Bad” does not mean “bad”...)
You can see the various German dialects on the chart.
The Bodensee, or Lake Constance is the largest lake in Germany and Austria. It is only a little smaller than Lake Geneva, the largest lake located on the border of Switzerland and France.
Lake Constance is also the huge water reservoir which feeds the Rhine, the second largest European river after the Danube.
The Rhine River begins in the Swiss canton of Graubünden in the southeastern Swiss Alps, enters Lake Constance at its eastern Swiss/Austrian border and then leaves it again near Konstanz from the Lower Lake. (Note: It's the town of Konstanz/Constance which gave the Bodensee its English name.)
I have fond memories of the Bodensee, where I started first grade in the town of Friedrichshafen. It was in there that Ferdinand von Zeppelin established the first factory to build his famous dirigibles, the Zeppelins, around 1900.
I remember going fishing on the lake with my grandfather. Later, a sailing trip on the lake with my father, as we ghosted by the Mainau (see below) at night, made me fall in love with sailing. On clear days you can see the Alps in the background, as in this photo.
This time, Ulrike and I took advantage of sunny weather and took several trips with the Bodensee's “Weiße Flotte,” the White Fleet of motor ships, with which you can explore the lake.
There are also two car ferries to take you across the lake: (1) Between Meersburg and Constance and (2) Between Friedrichshafen and Romanhorn (Switzerland). On this Bodensee-Schifffahrt site – yes, the word is spelled with three “f's” - you can download the “Fahrplan” (schedule) for the various seasons.
Our first lake trip took us to the Island of Mainau.
I visited the island first as a young teenager and remember that I was fascinated by its history. The island has changed owners many times over the centuries.
In early years, it belonged to the Order of Teutonic Knights. Then, after falling into private hands, it was purchased in 1853 by Grand Duke Frederick I of Baden to serve as a summer palace.
Later, through inheritance, the island fell to the Swedish Prince Wilhelm, who in 1932, gave it to his only son, Lennart Bernadotte. He then owned it until 1974, when he transferred it to a foundation.
Currently, Lennart's oldest daughter Sonja and her brother Björn Bernadotte are managing the property.
The island is a flowering paradise. Over 30,000 rose bushes of more than 1,200 varieties grow there, as well as 20,000 dahlias of 250 varieties, and many other kinds of flowers.
We were there at the time of a dahlia exhibition. Walking through the gardens, we saw stunning arrangements by local garden shops, which where competing for the exhibition honor roll.
The island attracts more than 1 million visitors a year and it serves as a favorite destination for weddings. You'll find more information on the island's website.
Another car trip took took us to the town of Meersburg.
Meersburg is located on the eastern shore of Lake Constance, at the midpoint between Überlingen and Friedrichshafen.
We visited the Old Castle, which towers over the town, and learned that it is still the oldest inhabited fortress in Germany. (There is also a Baroque New Castle.)
The guide, dressed in a medieval costume, took us through the part of the castle that is open to the public and now a museum. It included the Knight's Hall (see picture), the Arm's Hall, the dungeon, etc.
She told us much about the castle's history and the various legends surrounding it. The castle dates back to the 7th century and the Merovigians under King Dagobert I.
In 1268, it became the seat of the Bishop of Constance until the bishops built the New Castle at the beginning of the 18th century.
The Old Castle then came under the control of the Grand Duchy of Baden. The collector and business man Joseph von Laßberg purchased it in 1838.
For German language enthusiasts, the castle is also noteworthy as the sister of Laßberg's wife, the famous poet Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, lived there the last 8 years of her life.
In 1877, Karl Mayer von Mayerfels purchased the castle and established the Medieval Museum. His descendants still live in the building during the summer months.
As in many of the towns along the Bodensee, there is a Promenade along the lake with pleasant cafés and restaurants. The small streets and squares bustle with boutiques, shops, and street merchants.
We just happened pass through when grapes were unloaded at the local winery. That was a colorful spectacle.
Other Sights along the Bodensee
There are many other places along the Bodensee that are worth a visit.
I still remember the little town of Unteruhldingen where I visited the “Pfahlbaumuseum” (Stilt-House Museum) during my childhood. The stories the guides told at the time were fascinating. This time, we did not visit the rebuilt village, but we could see the stilt houses from the ship as we docked (see picture).
I've already mentioned Friedrichshafen. While more of an industrial city (heavily bombarded during World War II because of its airplane and bomb factories), the modern Dornier aerospace museum shows the various Dornier airplane models, engines, satellites, and products of the Airbus Group.
The historic town of Lindau is located on a small island connected by a dam to a strip of land that allows Bavaria access to Lake Constance. The Lindau harbor entrance with the light house and its Bavarian Lion statue (see picture) is a beautiful sight. I remember it well from my youth when we entered or left the harbor on one of the white ships.
Traveling just a few miles further southeast, you'll enter Austria and will have reached the end of the lake in Bregenz, the capital of the Austrian state of Vorarlberg.
If you are an opera lover and happen to be there during the months of July and August, be sure not to miss the Bregenzer Festspiele. Most memorable will certainly be a performance on a floating stage in the open-air amphitheater. (But be sure to reserve your tickets early!)
On the other side of the lake, right on the border to Switzerland, lies Konstanz (Constance), a lively university town and for over 1200 years the seat of Catholic bishops. (See photo of Constance, with a view of the "Untersee" and continuation of the Rhine)
The city has an interesting history. Konstanz was refused entrance into the Swiss Confederacy in 1460, then joined the Swabian league and became part of the German Empire in 1871.
The city avoided being bombed during World War II by a clever ruse – it left the lights on and allied bombers could not distinguish it from neighboring Swiss towns. The large and well-preserved “Altstadt” (Old town) is dominated by the “Münster” (Cathedral).
Our stay in Überlingen and our various excursions along the lake brought back many vivid memories from my childhood and later vacations at the Bodensee. We can see why this region has become a favorite place in Germany for retirees. Austria and Switzerland are only a boat ride away. The cultural offerings in the nearby towns and cities are amazing. There are many things to see and do in each of the seasons.
Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. He's 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.