Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

20 German False Friends To Watch Out For

female friends - GamesforLanguage.comWhen learning Germanic and Romance languages, English speakers are fortunate to find many “friends” or true cognates. These make memorization certainly a much easier task.

On the other hand, there are also “false friends,” or words or expressions that look (and maybe sound) alike, but mean something else.

When the meanings are quite different, they can put you on a wrong track entirely. However, this very fact - once you realize your mistake - will also help you recall them better later on.

The “false friends” that sound alike in German as in English (even if spelled somewhat differently) pose a particular problem during conversations. You don't have much time to figure out their meaning from the context. When you read a text, on the other hand, you can look up the meaning at your leisure..

If you're traveling to Germany or meeting up with German-speaking friends or business partners, a quick look through the list beforehand may prevent some misunderstandings.

There are quite a number of inexpensive “false friends” books on Amazon, just in case you'd like to discover more.

Here are twenty common German words and their English counterparts:

Identical Spelling – Different meaning

You'll notice that some words are pronounced exactly, or nearly, the same in English and in German - gift, mist, handy, spot, chef, rock - while others are spelled the same, but are pronounced differently - taste, rat, bad, etc.

das Gift (poison) - gift (das Geschenk)poison bottle image -

Die Polizei fand Gift im Wandschrank.

(The police found poison in the wall cupboard.)


der Mist (dung, junk) - mist (der Nebel)

Räum doch gefälligst deinen Mist auf.

(If you don't mind, clean up your junk.)


das Handy (cell phone) - handy (praktisch)cell phone - iPhone  -

Hast du mein Handy gesehen?

(Have you seen my cell phone?)


der Spot (TV ad, spotlight) - spot (der Fleck, der Ort)

Hast du den neuen Spot von Apple gesehen?

(Did you see the new Apple TV ad?)

Octoberfest girl spreading her skirt -


der Chef (boss) - chef (der Küchenchef)

Heute war unser Chef gar nicht im Büro.

(Today our boss wasn't in the office.)


der Rock (skirt) - rock (der Fels)

Meine Tochter hat sich einen neuen Rock gekauft.

(My daughter bought a new skirt for herself.)


die Taste (key [piano/computer]) - taste (der Geschmack)

Du musst diese Taste drücken.

(You have to hit this key.)


der Rat (advice, council) - rat (die Ratte)giving advice -

Ich brauche deinen Rat.

(I need your advice.)


die Wand (wall) - wand (der Zauberstab)

Stell doch den Stuhl gegen die Wand.)

(Go ahead and put the chair against the wall.)bathroom interior -


das Bad (bath) - bad (schlecht)

ein Zimmer mit Bad

(a room with bath)


der Stock (stick, floor level) - stock (der Vorrat)

Ich wohne im vierten Stock.

(I live on the fourth level.)bottle of white wine


herb (dry, tart) - herb (das Kraut)

Das ist ein richtig herber Wein!

(That's a really dry wine!)

Modified Spelling – Changed Meaning

Even with different spelling, but similar sound, some German words can put you on the wrong track.

The first one (“eventuell”) has definitely tripped up plenty of English and German speakers alike and caused confusion and misunderstandings.

And if you are trying to practice your best German by asking: “Das Menü, bitte,” you may just wonder why the waiter suddenly brings you the daily special and not the menu!

eventuell (maybe) - eventually (endlich)

Ja gut, das werden wir eventuell machen.

(Fine, maybe we'll do that.)lunch special -


das Menü (daily special) - menu (die Speisekarte, das Menü [computer])

Zweimal das Menü, bitte.

(Two daily specials, please.)


aktuell (current, topical) - actual (wirklich)

aktuelle Nachrichten

(current news)tall attractive woman -


groß (big, tall) – gross (ekelhaft, grob)

Die Frau dort drüben ist sehr groß!

(The woman over there is very tall)


brav (well-behaved) - brave (tapfer)

Die Kinder waren heute sehr brav.

(The children were very well-behaved today.)


das Lokal (pub, bistro) - local (einheimisch)German barmaid serving beer -

Warst du schon mal in dem Lokal dort drüben?

(Have you been to that pub over there?)


das Gymnasium (high school) - gym (die Turnhalle)

Mein Sohn geht ins Gymnasium.

(My son attends high school.)

 retirement - Rente sign -

die Rente (pension) - rent (die Miete)

Mein Vater geht in Rente.

(My dad's retiring.)


When you're taking part in a conversation, language seems to race by at high speed. German, especially, poses a challenge because of its word order. You're often waiting for the verb at the end of a sentence to make sense of what was just said. (With German double-digit numbers, you also have to wait, and listen for the second digit before you know what the number is.)

In a stream of words, familiar-sounding ones always provide momentary relief. However, when a word has a vastly different meaning from what you think, then what follows may not make much sense at all.

English and German have plenty more false friends (also called “false cognates”) than the ones listed above. With time you'll get to know many of them.

A good strategy is to always pay attention to the context. You may identify a word as a false friend, if it just doesn't seem to fit the context at all. And don't hesitate to ask for the meaning of a word, when it doesn't make sense to you!

True Cognates

German and English also share a large number of “true cognates” - words that are similar in form and meaning and have the same root.

When you google “English German cognates,” you'll find lists with hundreds of items. Even when there's been a sound shift, cognates are easy to recognize, such as: “das “Brot” (bread), “der Kuss” (kiss), “das Netz” (net), “das Papier” (paper), “der Stuhl” (stool), “das Haus” (house), most of the numbers, and many more.

And paying attention to both true and false cognates can provide you with an easy tool for memorizing German vocabulary.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Beyond “Learning a Language Like a Child”

Children playing - gamesforlanguage.comA recent YouTube video by Tom Scott “Why Can't Adults Learn Language Like Children?” had me also look at that question again.

Tom gives a engaging quick overview of the various language learning theories that are popular today.

He uses the example of how difficult it is for English-speaking adults to distinguish between a “p” and a “ph” sound. Hindi language speakers apparently learn this distinction as children.

Tom concludes that “categorical perception” may be one explanation for the difficulties that adults have in learning a second language.

Categorical perception (CP) was actually a new concept for me and I wanted to understand it a little better.

Here is what I have learned so far about CP.

Categorical Perception

R.Goldstone and A. Hendrickson, in a 2009 paper, define “categorical perception" as “the phenomenon by which the categories possessed by an observer influences the observers perception.”

The highly technical paper notes that “cross-cultural evidence suggests that the learning of a particular language influences the pattern of discriminability between speech sounds.” In other words:

Once you have learned your native language(s) (yes, many children learn more than one), then the sound categories you have acquired as a child make it difficult for you to hear (and learn) the sound differences of other languages as an adult.

In the YouTube video linked above, Tom Scott cites the example of the “p/ph” sound difference that English speakers can barely hear.

Similarly, speakers of Chinese and Japanese have difficulty hearing and pronouncing the difference between the “l” and “r” sounds.

Practically all foreign languages have certain sounds that do not exist in one's native language. Some we may be able to recognize and Abstract musical instrument - Gamesforlanguage.comreproduce easily. Others we may never learn completely.

Color categories are another famous example. Which shades will look alike to you, or which you will perceive and name as different colors, depends on the language you speak and in which culture you have grown up.

The concept of CP suggests that as adults we have already categorized the world around us. And CP may therefore provide ONE explanation, why adults have more difficulty in learning a second language than children.

Listening and Speaking

The examples cited above relate to listening. Once we have acquired the sounds of our native language (and “categorized” them) as children, we seem to start tuning out the sounds of other languages.

Let's not forget though that it takes children more or less the first 2 years of their life with constant listening and practicing to remember and internalize these sounds.

It takes them additional time before they can speak in full sentences.

Speaking and Listening - Gamesforlanguage.comSpeaking requires children to both listen and imitate the sounds they hear. Once we have learned to produce the sounds of our native language as children, we find it harder as adults to reproduce the sounds of other languages.

The ability to discern different sounds and reproduce them automatically diminishes with children between the age of 8 to 10 years. Apparently, by the time they are teenagers that automatic ability all but disappears.

But with deliberate practice adults can still make progress. Attention to “mouth mechanics”  can be very helpful, as we point out in a recent post. When we understand and practice how to produce a “foreign” sound, we can often get pretty close to native pronunciation. With time, we also begin to hear the differences.

Second-Language Acquisition

When looking into the various theories of second-language acquisition, I found that they fall into either a linguistic or a psychological camp. Just check out this Amazon page and you'll see many well-known names in those fields.

While these books make interesting reading for the language aficionado, they probably help you little in learning a second language faster.

There does not seem to be any general agreement on the best method by which adults can learn a second language.

And, because of the changes our brain goes through languages sign - Gamesforlanguage.comas we grow up - think CP - there is NO method that lets adults learn exactly like a child, whether it's languages, mathematics, science or anything else for that matter.

What is helpful, however, are descriptions by people who themselves have successfully learned foreign languages, as adults. Opera singer and polyglot Gabriel Wyner's “Fluent Forever”, for example, combines useful learning tips with explanations of how our memory works. It's an engaging and worthwhile read for serious learners.

Interestingly enough, Wyner does not seem convinced that the children's language “learning machine” disappears in adults.

He traces a child's learning advantage over an adult to his or her longer exposure to language in their early years. Adults can typically commit only limited hours when learning a second language.

Benny Lewis, "the Irish Polyglot", in Fluent in 3 Months describes his own strategies and experiences in learning a dozen languages or so after he turned 21. His tips and techniques to become fluent make interesting reading and are a great resource and motivator for many committed learners.

Common to both books is this: Using various strategies, methods and techniques can accelerate your learning quite a lot. Key is using them often and consistently, always remembering the Nike tag line: JUST DO IT!

The Good News for Adults

good news - Gamesforlanguage.comEven if we, as adults, cannot commit the same amount of time to language learning as children, we have other advantages: We can already read and write our native language, we can devise learning strategies, use various learning resources, see grammar patterns etc.

And if we accept findings that CP will make listening and producing new sounds more difficult, we also know that we can learn to overcome such shortcomings.

A personal experience can illustrate how important it is to listen a lot to a foreign language. When I started to learn Italian a few years ago, (even after having completed all 90 lessons of the three (3) Italian Pimsleur courses), I only seemed to hear gibberish when listening to fast-talking Italian radio or TV programs. But after a couple of weeks of daily listening, I started to discern distinct sound clusters and words. After a while, I began to understand some of the words, then entire sentences.

The same happened recently again with Spanish.

No question, Spanish and Italian sounds are easier for English speakers than those of Asian languages, but the point holds: We can learn to distinguish foreign sounds with practice and effort.


So yes: Learning a second language for adults requires time and effort. However, with the right tools and strategies, adults can make good progress and achieve a high level of understanding, and - with enough conversation practice - even fluency.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

5 Quick French Pronunciation Steps: Mouth Mechanics 101

French girl mouth - gamesforlanguage.comSome time ago we wrote a post about "Mouth Mechanics" and how simple lip and tongue adjustments can help both German and English speakers.  

French pronunciation - for example of "bienvenue" - can be hard for English speakers because the language contains sound combinations that are quite different from English.

Yes, there are the nasal sounds (such as in "bien") that were especially embarrassing when you had to practice them in front of your classmates.

And the French “r” and “u” and various “e” sounds can often be a challenge.

But it's not that English speakers can't produce these sounds once they are aware of some basic "mouth mechanics."

Here are five French pronunciation steps that will help.

You can practice them with the games below.

1. The FRENCH "r"

French "r" is everywhere and very different from the American "r." Getting the French "r" right (or even just closer to "right") will give your pronunciation a big boost.

Just try pronouncing “France” the French and the English way and you should hear letter "r" - Gamesforlanguage.comthe difference.

Tip: The sound of the French "r" resembles the "ch" in Loch Ness.

The American "r" is pronounced in the middle of your mouth and you need your tongue to produce it.

The French "r" is pronounced in your throat. It's the same place where you produce a hard "g" (as in "go.")

You do not use your tongue. Just do a slight scratching sound in your throat.

Common words/phrases with "r":

très bien (very well) - "merci" (thanks)

"je parle" (I speak) - "pas de problème" (no problem)

"américain(e)" (American) - "parents" (parents).

Note: Verb infinitives with an "-er" ending are an exception.

For the "-er" ending say the English "day" or "say," but don't extend the "y" sound.

Examples are:

"manger" (to eat) - "acheter" (to buy)

"payer" (to pay) - "chercher" (to look for)

"déjeuner" (to have lunch) - "tutoyer" (to say "tu"/use the informal form of address).

But:  Verb infinitives ending in "-ir", "-re" and also "-r" (without an "e" before) DO have the French "r" sound.

Examples are:

"avoir" (to have) - "voir" (to see),

"écrire" (to write) - "faire" (to do),

"dire" (to say) -  "servir" (to serve)

Practice the French "r" with this French Quick Game


letter u - gamesforlanguage.comFrench "u" is a sound that does not exist in English.

But you'll hear and need to say it a lot since it comes up in a number of frequently used conversational words.

Tip: The sound of French "u" lies between the English "oo" (too) and "ee" (tee).

So, to find the mouth position for "u", first say "too," then pull your lips apart slightly to start saying "tee."

Half way there, you have the French "u" sound.

Common words/phrases with "u":

If you have French friends, you'll be using "tu" with each other. There's even a French word for that: "tutoyer." But there are lots of other little daily words that you'll need to say too:

the ubiquitous "du" (some, masculine singular) as in "je veux du café" (I want [some] coffee)

"une" (one/a, feminine) - "jus" (juice) - "plus" (more)

"la rue" (the street) - "sur" (on) -  "salut" (hi) 

Note: There is an exception.

If French "u" is followed by an "n" or an "m," it is nasalized and has a different sound, unless "n" or "m" are followed by another vowel as in "un/une," as further explained below.

You can practice the "u" sound with the French Quick Game "Vowels and Accents".


When vowels are followed by an "n" or an "m," the vowel has a nasal sound, and the letters "m" or "n" are not themselves pronounced.

Tip: To pronounce nasal vowels, let air pass through the nose, as well as the mouth.

One way to practice the difference, is with the minimal pair "un/une." 

In the first word - "un" - the vowel "u" is nasal, and you do not pronounce the "n."

In the second word - "une" - the vowel "u" is not nasal and you DO pronounce the "n."

Common words/phrases with "nasal vowels":

A lot of short words (as well as longer ones, of course) have a nasal vowel. Here are a few common ones:

"un" (a/one, masculine) - "on" (the impersonal pronoun: "one/we")

"très bien" (very well) - "en" (in)

"train" (train) - "vin" (wine)

"tante" (aunt) - "enchanté" (delighted/ pleased to meet you).

But: If another vowel comes right after "m" or "n," then the vowel before is not nasal.

Look at these examples of a vowel before and after m/n:

"une" (a/one, feminine) - "la banane" (the banana)

"samedi" (Saturday) - ("il se promène" (he walks)

You can practice the nasal sounds with the French Quick Game "Vowels and Accents". 


Linguistics call this sound a "schwa." In French it's inverted letter e _ Gamesforlanguage.comknown as "e-muet" or "e-caduc."

Tip: In English the same sound exists in unstressed "a" or "e." The phonetic symbol for the latter is an inverted "e":

a book (uh book), the man (thuh man), etc.

Common words/phrases with the weak, unstressed "e":

It's a matter of knowing when to use the unstressed "e."

It helps to frequently listen to French, and to repeat not just individual words, but full sentences after a French speaker.

The unstressed "e" or schwa sound gives a French sentence its particular rhythm.

Easiest to remember is that an (unaccented) "e" at the end of a syllable or at the end of a word is unstressed.

It can be pronounced as a schwa or even dropped completely.

You'll find it in verb forms, nouns, feminine adjectives, etc. Here are examples:

"appeler" (to call - the first "e" is unstressed)

"il admire" (he admires) - "il passe" (he spends)

"je note" (I write down) - "la banque" (the bank),

In addition, many of the short common words contain the schwa sound. Here it is not dropped. 

"de" (of) - "ce" (this) - "que" (that)

"le" (the, masc.) - "ne" (not) - "je" (I)

Click on the link and play a Quick Game to practice words and sentences with the schwa sound.

You can practice the weak, unstressed "e" sound with the French Quick Game "Vowels and Accents".


An accent on a letter changes its pronunciation and sometimes the meaning of a word.

Often, the accent tells you which pronunciation to use.

In some cases, the accent is used to distinguish between words that are otherwise spelled identically.

The acute accent ("l'accent aigu") appears only on the letter "e" - as such: "é."

Tip: The sound of "é" (e-acute) is similar to the vowel sound of "say."

The letter "é" can appear at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a word, as in:

"une école" (a school) - "le séjour" (the stay) - "le crédit" (the credit)

"la clé" (the key) - "il a parlé" (he spoke) - "il a réservé (he reserved).

The grave accent ("l'accent grave") appears on "a", "e" or "u."

Tip: Connect the sound with an English word:

"à" - father; "è" - fair (without the English "r"); "ù" - similar to "too".

Common words with "à":

You'll most frequently see and say "à" meaning "at," "to" or "in." (The unaccented word "a" is pronounced the same way, but it means "has.")

"voilà" (here is, there is) - "là" (there, versus "la" meaning "the")

"là-bas" (over there) - "déjà" (already)

Common words with "è":

"très" (very) - "le problème" (the problem)

"père" (father) - "mère" (mother) - "frère" (brother)

"après" (after) - "près de" (near).

Common word with "ù":

As with the word "à," the accent grave on "ù" only serves to distinguish between words otherwise spelled identically. In fact there is only one word you need to remember, but the difference is important:

"où" means "where," while "ou," written without the accent, means "or."

The circumflex accent is used on top of any of the vowels (â, ê, î, ô, û).

Most commonly, it indicates that historically a letter had fallen away, most often a missing "s."

In many cases the circumflex accent minimally affects the pronunciation of a word.

Common words with the circumflex accent:

"bâtiment" (building) - "théâtre" (theater)

"prêt" (ready) - "être" (to be)

"connaître" (to know/meet) - "le dîner" (the dinner)

 "l'hôtel" (the hotel) - "tôt" (early),

 "bien sûr" (of course) - "ça coûte" (that costs).

The c-cedilla "ç" mark under the "c" - when it is followed by an "a" or an "o" - shows that the "c" is pronounced like an "s" instead of a "k."

Common Words with a "ç":

"ça" (that/this/it) - "français(e)" (French)

"glaçons" (ice cubes) - "garçon" (boy, sometimes still used to call the waiter).

Note: "ça coûte" (this costs). The word "ça" starts with an s-sound; "coûte" starts with a k-sound.

You can practice the accents with the French Quick Game "Vowels and Accents".

This blog post just touches on five points of French pronunciation. The list is by no means complete.

If you want to review all the French sounds and letters take a look at this TalkinFrench post.

By paying attention to your mouth mechanics and practicing aloud, as you can do with our games, you can improve your pronunciation substantially.

And finally, listen as much as you can to French podcasts and radio programs (like Tunein), watch films and videos, talk with native speakers.

After all: Is getting closer to sounding like a native French speaker not one of your goals?

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Duolingo and Babbel: How They Differ

Language Coursee - Gamesforlanguage.comStarting to learn a foreign language as an adult can be boring. Over the years, I've used various methods from books to CDs and have more recently added apps and online courses.

I've always found the early stages of learning a language somewhat frustrating. You mostly just plow through basic vocabulary and grammar.

However, once you've mastered the essentials of a language, continuing to learn becomes much more enjoyable. Things start to click. You begin to see patterns, get grammar points, understand idioms.

You can start reading articles and stories, listen to podcasts, watch videos and movies. In real life, you start having conversations that work.

As I described in a previous post, I am currently learning Dutch (from scratch) with Duolingo, while continuing with my (intermediate) Spanish with a Babbel course.

This presents me with an excellent opportunity to look at and compare the two programs.

There are other reviews of both programs. The Economist did one in 2013, which - due to to the improvements of both sites - is already somewhat dated.

A more recent one by Angel Armstead for Fluent earlier this year, describes well both programs' different approaches, but Fluent's Kerstin Hammes was also quite critical of Duolingo in her subsequent March 2015 post.

Duolingo's Structure

I started Dutch with Duolingo just a few months ago. Also, I had used Duolingo for several months for continuing with my Spanish.

With Duolingo, you follow a nicely laid-out lesson sequence with various categories or topics: Basics, Phrases, Food, Animals, Clothing, Plurals, Possessives, Adjectives, Indefinite & Definite Pronouns, etc.

You do one lesson after another. That means, you can unlock” the next lesson only after you've completed the previous one.

One way to move faster is to test out of all the lessons in a category or topic. That's only possible if you already know the words, of course. (Note that during a test, you can't peek at the translation.)

Duolingo's set lesson sequence has several advantages:

  • Beginners can build up their skills slowly but surely.
  • Lessons build on each other. Earlier words show up again and again to be recombined.
  • You don't have to make any choices about what to study until you've finished your skill tree.

The Duolingo Method

With the Duolingo system, you learn mostly new words by Duolingo homepage screensheotfirst correlating them to pictures. Some of the more abstract words, you'll guess from the context of a sentence. If you're not sure, you can always check the translation by tapping/clicking on the English.

New words are the practiced in various ways. For me, it's the variety of tasks which makes the learning engaging. There's plenty of hit or miss involved. But hey, making mistakes is all part of the learning process.

You translate the words you just learned back to English, together with other familiar words. You write what you hear and learn spelling as you do it. You fill in missing words in a sentence, or select the correct translation from three options.

There's also a sort of pronunciation check, which seems to respond more to the cadence and intonation of your voice than to correct pronunciation. (I once used the wrong language but still my voice was accepted.)

A recently added feature to the app asks you to tap the pairs, which are simple correlations of English and foreign words.

Early on with Duolingo you could only make 3 mistakes before you had to replay the lesson. But now, both in the app and on the PC, a mistake just sets you back a little. You can continue until you complete 20 items correctly.

At the end of the lesson, you're awarded 10 points and you can then continue to the next one. Once you've completed all the lessons of your skill tree, you can go back to any category or topic to “strengthen your skills.” Apparently, you can do this until you've reached Level 25!

My Frustrations with the Nonsense

While I like Duolingo very much, I often get annoyed when I have to learn Dutch words such as “schildpadden” (turtles), “eenden” (ducks), “konijnen” (rabbits) etc., all words that I'm unlikely to use in a conversation in the foreseeable future.

And while the lessons get a little more interesting as your vocabulary expands, the ducks and turtles reappear in different variations. The often nonsensical sentences – try: “the ducks are reading the newspapers” - may sometimes be funny and teach you some grammatical points, but I find them mostly frustrating.

No doubt, the simplicity of the Duolingo approach, with its variety of tasks, keeps you engaged and on your toes.

I just wish that the program would replace the random and often nonsensical sentences that I have to read, pronounce, translate, and write, with real-life dialogs or at least with more useful sentences.

Duolingo's Gamification and Metrics

The various “gamification” features of the program do provide some incentive. For example, points are added to your total with each completed lesson, and you receive “lingots” to redeem in the “lingot store.”

I find the daily “streak reminder” to be a good motivator to keep learning. I'm adamant about not breaking my ever growing streak (which currently stands at day 184).

For Spanish, which I did earlier, I see a Fluency Score (currently 47%), based on the 5900 points, and Level 13 completed to date.

For Dutch, with 2,625 points and level 10, there is no Fluency level yet.

I think that I'm making progress. I've reached level 10 in Dutch so far and I continue to do 2-3 lessons every day.

Babbel's Structure

Babbel's courses are structured differently from Duolingo's. You see immediately that you're not required to proceed in sequence through all the lessons. At any point, you can choose with which lesson to begin or at what lesson to continue.

In the Spanish program, there are 6 Beginner's Courses (each with 18-22 lessons); 4 Intermediate Courses (with 19-20 lessons each); 6 Grammar Courses (with 12-21 lessons each); and 6 Listening and Speaking Lessons (with 8-10 lessons each).

There are also plenty of lessons in other sections such as, Reading and Writing, Countries and Traditions, Specials (where you find such topics as False friends, True Friends, Numbers, Spanish idioms). And, the Words and Sentences section covers over 30 different topics.

The Babbel Method

Babbel HomepageLesson 1 of Beginner Course 1, called “¡Mucho gusto!Part 1,” starts with four basics: Hello!, yes, thank you, Bye!

You first hear and see both the English and the Spanish Word and a picture that expresses its meaning. You then find the Spanish translation by spelling each of the words with letters that are provided.

The next step is to practice these four words again, this time as part of a simple dialogue, which includes phrases that you'll learn in the next lesson.

As I already knew some Spanish, I jumped right to the Refresher Course 1 (called, Upper Beginner's Level). The lessons have a similar structure to those in the Beginner's Course. You're taught four words or phrases in each lesson.

At this stage, a basic knowledge of the language is required. Spelling becomes harder, as you have to use the keyboard without any hint of which letters to use. Plus, exercises for word order and specific grammar points are added.

At the end of a Refresher Course lesson, you typically insert the newly-learned Spanish words into phrases that are part of a short dialog or story around a specific topic, e.g. “At the shop,” “Daily Routine,” “Vacation,” “Leisure activities” etc.

Babbel also has a voice recognition feature. But I don't use it very often because it's hard to get the pronunciation exactly the way it's required.

If you are indeed a beginner, you can choose to follow the sequence of the lessons and move from the “Beginner's Courses,” to the “Refresher Courses” and then on to the “Intermediate (in-depth) courses.”

Babbel's Other Options

After my Refresher Course, I stopped with Spanish for a few weeks, but then started up again. I redid a few previous lessons and tried out some other sections, for example “Other Verb Forms,” such as the “pretérito perfecto.”

I also tried “Countries and Traditions” where I selected “Spanish for Everyday Life.” This section has several short lessons, such as “Ir de compras” (shopping), “En el restaurante” (in the restaurant), etc.

These lessons contain a combination of exercises. You complete sentences with missing words followed by vocabulary and word order exercises all related to a specific topic.

The many lessons in “Grammar” (92), “Listening and Speaking” (46), “Countries and Traditions” (53), and the over 500 lessons in the sections “Specials” and “Word and Sentences” give learners loads of options.

Besides, you can review the vocabulary covered in the lessons at any time, either with Flashcards of by writing or speaking them. (in the case of my Refresher Course, these were mostly sentences.) 

Babbel's Gamification and Metrics

Babbel's gamification features are straightforward. There are no badges or “lingots” as with Duolingo.

You have a progress bar at the top, and your score pops up at the end of the lesson, let's say, 22 out of 29.

You have the option to review and correct the errors you made. Even if you do, the guilty sentences get added to your personal vocabulary list. You can review them then at you leisure.

In the app and on the PC you can see the current total count of the vocabulary list and the count of those still to review. (On the PC you can also see how many times you reviewed each.)

It's a good way to keep track of what you're learning.

Duolingo and Babbel: A Comparison

I like the simplicity of the Duolingo approach. However, I keep getting annoyed that new words often appear and are recombined in random, unrelated, nonsensical sentences.

In contrast, new words with Babbel are typically taught as part of a useful dialogue or short scenario. The words make sense in the context in which they are set and this helps me to remember many phrases and sentences.

Once you've become familiar with the Duolingo system, you know exactly what to expect.

You see the 7 or so new words in each Duolingo lesson box before you start.

You also know that you'll be using quite a bit of English when you translate from the foreign language. If you type or spell quickly, you can be penalized for typos in English.

For each lesson, Babbel typically introduces +/-4 new words, which you then practice. Once you've learned the words, you'll hear them as part of a dialog or brief story and write them into the provided blank spaces. You always hear the full sentence that includes the new word(s).

Most importantly, in Babbel there is no writing or spelling in English.

Both courses don't require you to use the accents (for accented letters). Duolingo allows slight misspellings of foreign words, while Babbel only accepts correct spellings.

Both Duolingo and Babbel give you the correct answer after you've made a wrong entry and both tell you where you've made the mistake.

Duolingo allows you to set goals for yourself, ranging from the “casual” learner with 10 points or 1 lesson per day, to the “insane” with 50 points or 5 lessons per day. Such daily reminders to maintain one's streak have been a good incentive for me!

There are no specific goals or targets with Babbel, but you can ask for daily reminders in Settings.

Final Thoughts

A daily Dulingo lesson or two can easily become a daily habit, especially if you care about not breaking your learning streak.

Once you get going with Babbel - and pay attention to the daily reminder - the same can happen.

My frustrations with Duolingo - its nonsensical sentences, words I could do without, and lots of English sentences to type - these I don't experience with Babbel.

In fact, I like Babbel's dialogs. I enjoy the little scenes that incorporate the new words, the many Spanish sentences you hear and read, especially when you are reviewing your mistakes again.

Its many lessons, topic categories, and options make it an excellent course for learning a language.

Still, Duolingo's simplicity, also the fact that it's completely free for unlimited time, makes it a compelling choice for many learners. They may also overlook some of its shortcomings as I do.

No question, I'm continuing with Dutch on Duolingo for now, but may still subscribe to Babbel's Dutch course. I've got a Dutch family reunion to go to in the fall.

Update: On 6/4 I subscribed for 3 months to Babbel's Dutch course. My goal now is 1 Duolingo and 1 Babbel lesson per day!

Disclosure: has no business relationship with other than for its founders having purchased a 1-year subscription to the Spanish course and a 3-month subscription to the Dutch course.  No business relationship exists either with Duolingo, except GamesforLanguage's founders are learning several languages with its free courses. We do, however, derive earnings from 3rd party ads, e.g. Google Adsense, on our site, that may feature and other companies reviewed by us. See our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use for further details. 

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Why Language Games Work for Kids and Adults!

Kids playA recent article in the New York Times (May 16, 2015) by David Kohn “Let Kids Learn Through Play pointed out that formal didactic instruction of young children should be reconsidered. He writes:

A growing group of scientists, education researchers and educators say there is little evidence that this approach improves long-term achievement; in fact, it may have the opposite effect, potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress and perhaps even souring kids’ desire to learn.

But kids love to play, in fact most, if not all their learning in the early years occurs during play.

So we wonder whether “educational” games - including those on tablets and smart phones – are not a way for kids to still learn, but let them do so through self-directed play.

These games combine playing and educational topics from geography, math, spelling, science, to native and foreign languages.


There are numerous audio, video, and other “toy based” games and apps, which childrenkids playing with smart phone play in their native language.

With these, they enhance word recognition, pronunciation, spelling, and writing, etc. And they don't have to be on a laptop or tablet either. There are blocks with numbers or letters; there are playing cards and board games; and there are more and more battery operated toys that combine colors, movements, music, and language sounds into interactive learning centers for young children.

Kids play native or even foreign language games - not because it helps them to better communicate with their parents, siblings, and peers - but because they provide interactive fun.

Kids' language games teach basic vocabulary, often with funny pictures, cute sound effects, and rewards for getting it right.

They feature droll or adorable characters, catchy music, bright colors, and require the young player to swipe, click, or move a word or image in order to progress.

BRAIN GAMES” for Adults?

Games and play are not just for kids, though. Adults also learn well with games. Just think of Scrabble, Scrabblea game that challenges adult and children.

A well-established segment is the field of Brain Training and there are plenty of brain games/apps available. 

A few years ago Nintendo DS developed a series of Brain Age Games but they did not seem to catch on.

But since then, Lumosity has surged to becoming the dominant online brain game presence.

There's also research being done in the area of cognitive improvement, especially related to the effect of video games on the brains of older adults. (See our blog post on language learning and memory)


In 2007 Nintendo DS started a series of language games (My Spanish Coach, My Japanese Coach, My French Coach, etc.) and again these did not appear to be very successful.

Around the same time, Craig Gibson launched Digital Dialects, a website with simple, animated games for learning vocabulary in 30+ languages (at that time). Also then, Word Dive, a vocabulary/spelling game appeared on the scene. 

Mindsnacks with its language learning app for learning and practicing vocabulary appeared in 2010 and added gamification (rewards, badges, etc.) and humor to its games.

When in 2012, Duolingo, a gamified crowd-sourced text-translation platform (Wikipedia) took the Internet by storm, it became clear that language learning games for adults are here to stay. 

Sites that use games just for vocabulary acquisition come in various guises and continue to be popular. Word Bucket (2013) lets you save words in your bucket and the learn and play them in a word-playing game.

We recently discovered and like an interactive iPhone app called Drops (2015), a colorful timed repetition game, you can also play on an iPad.

An interesting and different site for learning vocabulary is Influent (2011), which is a 3D Language Learning Video Game that you need to download. Once inside the game, you click/tap on objects to hear and see what they are, learn to say them and create a gamified list to further learn them.

And, many online language programs, such as Transparent Language and Babble, and language learning communities such as Busuu, Mango Languages, and Rosetta Stone's Live Mocha are now adding various language games to their lessons.


As language games for adults become more numerous and go mainstream, they join the learning revolution, which Markus Witte (Founder and CEO of the language learning site Babbel) talks about in this Wire Magazine post: The Learning Revolution: It’s Not About Education. In his words: A new trend is initiated by a whole new breed of learning technology start-ups that set out to make learning easier for everybody. Why not jump on this trend and play a few language games?!

In contrast to children, adults typically do have a specific plan or need for the language they are learning (be it for work, travel, friendship, personal satisfaction, etc.).

Adult with iPadMoreover, adults not only have to develop the discipline and learning habits to keep going in the midst of their many other commitments and time constraints, but they also have to find ways to stay motivated.

Games can therefore be an effective addition to any language learning program, especially because they are interactive and fun. Being engaged while learning can be a powerful boost to a learner's motivation. 

Because of their interactive nature, games are very versatile. They can easily combine humor and serious learning. (Think of the Duolingo Owl, or the Rhinos of the Mindsnacks games.)

Plus, games are nonlinear and dynamic, features which help in the acquisition of language as a complex tool for communication.

When learners make a mistake or need to figure out a grammar point, they can easily replay a segment and get immediate feedback. Games can also interweave a story line - which provides context - with vocabulary and grammar practice, while keeping the learner interactively engaged (a main feature of Gamesforlanguage).

Moreover, by involving multiple senses - visual, auditory, and touch - games stimulate association and sharpen memory.

Last but not least, games are relaxing because they are fun and engaging. And who would not want to learn in such a way?

A Word of caution

As wonderful as gamified online courses and apps are for learning and staying engaged, they are also unlikely to get you to become fully fluent in a foreign language:

For that, you have to start speaking and have conversations in the foreign language.

Maybe in the not-too-distant future you can have such conversations with your PC, tablet or smart phone.

But until then, your best bet is to find real-life conversation partners. If these are hard to locate for the language you are learning, start speaking online with language exchange partners. Your speaking skills will greatly benefit!

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

My Top 5 French Phrases When Exploring Paris

Paris-Louvre - GamesforLanguageGoing to Paris? Cool! And even better if you learn a few useful phrases ahead of time.

They will immediately set you apart from those many hardy monolinguals that swarm through Paris every year. (Entrance to the Louvre, left)

A willingness to learn the local language transforms you into a much more welcome tourist - even if you've only been able to master such pleasantries as "bonjour" (hello), "merci" (thank you), "pardon" (excuse me), "de rien" (you're welcome), "pas de problème" (no problem), "au revoir" (goodbye). Besides, you'll enjoy the experience more.

For more complicated phrases, having a phrase book handy can by helpful. The booklet will back you up when you're asking for directions, ordering in a restaurant, buying a subway ticket, inquiring about opening times, etc.

And, if you're ambitious and motivated, you can learn the phrases by heart. Plus, if you're also learning online, you can practice them by mimicking a native speaker and/or getting pronunciation feedback.

Now, if you're an even more advanced learner, just think: Once in Paris, you'll have free immersion and unlimited chances to practice with native speakers!

But, no matter what stage of learning you're at - here are my top 5 phrases to say or use when exploring Paris. They go right to the heart of what makes Paris so hugely enjoyable.

1. Faire une petite promenade (to go for a little walk)

The best way to explore Paris is on foot. Walking through different neighborhoods lets you experienceJardin de Luxembourg - Paris - GamesforLanguage the city and its people in a very direct way. Sounds, colors, textures, smells - all converge together to draw you into the moment.

My husband and I have always enjoyed strolling through the Jardin du Luxembourg (see picture, right), a spot where Parisians also love to hang out.

People sit and chat or read their newspaper on one of the benches lining the paths. Children launch a toy sailboat on "le Grand Bassin" (the large pond). Students sit on the grass to talk, flirt, or do homework.

There are tennis courts, places to play basketball and volleyball, there's a corner for chess, and an area for boule players. There's also a large children's playground for kids 7-12, which charges a small entrance fee. 

A wonderful neighborhood to explore is the district of le Marais (the Marsh). Historically the Jewish district, it has more recently become a trendy quartier with lively bars and restaurants, colorful markets, and funky small shops.

Le Marais spreads across the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, and a walking tour (on your own or with a group) will take you past posh aristocratic houses, small alleys, the incomparable Place de Vosges,  trendy boutiques, great museums, and much more.

2. Louer un vélo (to rent a bike)

Exploring Paris by bicycle has a different charm and you can cover more terrain that way. Paris is generally a friendly city for cyclists, but you're still dealing with big city traffic.
There are bike paths everywhere and plenty of opportunities to rent, either from bike rental shops, or (by credit card) at one of the Paris Vélib stations (see picture, right). Vélib is a large-scale public bike-sharing system. 

We rented a bike twice at a Vélib station. But rather than riding in the city itself - we like to walk, and are also a little scared of the Paris traffic - we chose two destinations on the outskirts.

Our first ride was in the vast public park, Bois de Boulogne, located on the western side of Paris, on the border of the 16th arrondissement. To get there, we took the Métro to Port d'Auteuil and easily found a Vélib station nearby.

Formerly the hunting grounds for the Kings of France, the park has - with its woods, small lakes, picnic grounds, and nature paths - 15 km of bike trails on which we rode to our heart's content.

Parque de Vincennes - ParisAnother place we targeted was Château de Vincennes, situated on the eastern edge of Paris, in the 12th arrondissement. We went by Métro to the stop "Chateau de Vincennes."

On a bike from the Vélib station nearby, we crossed over to the Bois de Vincennes, a park that matches the Bois de Boulogne in size and beauty. With its four lakes, arboretum, botanical garden, and delightful Temple d'Amour, the park gave us another chance to experience the great Paris outdoors (picture, left).

To round off our adventure, we took a quick tour of the castle itself, a former residence of the Kings of France.

There we got our history fix of the day and learned that several well-known figures, such as the philosopher Denis Diderot and the notorious Marquis de Sade, had been incarcerated in the castle's dungeon.

3. Quelle vue magnifique! (what a Great view!)

With the limited building heights of the inner city, there are great views of the cityParis_Trocadéro & Eiffel Tower - GamesforLanguage from several choice locations.

Whether you're up on the Tour Eiffel, the Tour Montparnasse, Notre Dame Cathedral, on the steps of the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, or just on the Esplanade du Trocadéro, you're in for a visual treat.

We've enjoyed each one of these vistas. Still, we think the Esplanade du Trocadéro holds a particular charm.

It's a large platform located on the summit of the Colline de Chaillot, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, and even just the view it affords is worth a visit. (See picture, right)

But there's more. The whole area is full of fun and energy. Leading down from the Trocadéro towards the Seine are the lovely Jardins du Trocadéro.

On the greens people sit and socialize. Children play ball or splash around at the cascading fountains. There's always something fun going on. When we were there, we watched an amazing skateboard slalom.

The skyscrapers that you can see from the Arc de Triomphe are located at the other end of the monumental "Axe Historique." They form part of La Défense, an important business district. From the top of La Défense's Grande Arche (which housed the currently closed Computer Museum) we had a different, spectacular view of the city.

4. Prendre l'apéritif (to have an aperitif)

In the early evening when life slows down, it's a perfect time for a glass of wine at a sidewalk café and for doing some people watching.

If you pick a café that's off the beaten tourist track, you'll also hear French spoken around you. You can take your time for this important activity because dinner in Paris usually doesn't start till around 8 or 8:30.

Paris has no shortage of such cafés or bistros, wherever you may be staying.

Les Deux Magots - ParisHowever, a visit to Paris may not be complete without an apéritif or even lunch at Les Deux Magots on the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés. (See picture, left)

Popular with tourists and locals alike because it was a favorite haunt of writers and artists such as Hemingway, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Camus, Picasso, Joyce, Brecht, Verlaine, Malraux, Rimbaud, the café-restaurant Les Deux Magots is also known for its present literary activity:

Every year the café awards the Prix des Deux Magots for a new French novel, usually one that is off-beat or unconventional, and which may not be considered for the more traditional Prix Goncourt.

5. Faire une croisière (To take a boat cruise)

A river cruise on the Seine is not to be missed. The routes of the various boat companies Seine_Parisare similar and most offer day and evening cruises.

What makes a Paris cruise so special is that the Seine flows through the heart of the city. The river touches on 10 of the 20 arrondissements and is lined by many great buildings and monuments.

We enjoyed a day cruise on a sunny day, as the boat slowly made its grand loop and we listened to amusing historic facts and anecdotes. (See picture right with a view of the Notre Dame)

At the far end of the "rive gauche" (left bank) you'll pass by the four sleek towers of La Bibliothèque François Mitterand (an expansion of the National Library). You'll probably wonder about the politics that allowed the towers (as well as the Tour Montparnasse) to exceed the inner city's building height limits by quite a bit.

During an evening (dinner) cruise with good friends, we were vowed by the beauty of the City of Light. In my mind's eye, I still see the illuminated Eiffel Tower, as it sparkled through its gold covering.

When you're exploring Paris yourself, there surely will be other French phrases that you'll love. So don't wait, start brushing up your French and make your Paris experience a memorable one. 



Posted on by Peter & Ulrike Rettig

1-2-3-German Numbers Are Easy - Just Know the Basics

German number - GamesforLanguageWhen traveling to a country whose language you don't speak, it's always good to have a few basic words and expressions on hand.

In many travel guides you'll find the foreign translations for greetings, please, thank you, where is the bathroom, etc.

Learning a few of these makes interactions friendly. They can also help you out in a pinch.

Knowing the basic numbers in the foreign language can be especially helpful.

We found this out a few years ago when we traveled to China and Japan. We had little opportunity to use many of the Chinese and Japanese words and phrases we had learned.

However, knowing the numbers proved very useful for bargaining and buying at the markets.

Numbers also came in handy when shopping in small stores or paying the bill in restaurants.

Most numbers you'll see are in digital form. You'll rarely need to spell them.

But you do need to understand them when they're spoken. And to learn them, it helps to see them written out.

German Numbers 1-19

For most English speakers, German numbers from 1 to 12 are not that difficult to learn and remember.

Many of the English and German numbers are related and have a similar sound, even though their spelling may be different, such as zwei (two), drei (three), vier (four), and continuing through “elf” (eleven) and “zwölf” (twelve).

German numbers from 13 to 19 use the same model as in English.

They combine German Number 1-20 - GamesforLanguage(and in some cases also shorten) the lower numbers with the suffix zehn (teen). So you have “dreizehn” (thirteen), “vierzehn” (fourteen), through siebzehn (seventeen), achtzehn (eighteen), neunzehn (nineteen). The German number twenty is zwanzig.

In this Quick German Numbers Game to the right, you can practice these easy German numbers from 1-20:

Counting by Tens: 20, 30, 40, etc.

The numbers between 20 and 90 that end in a zero follow the same pattern as in English, namely by adding the suffix -zig (in English -ty) to a form of the numbers 2 to 9.

Notable exceptions are 20 ("zwanzig"), which uses only the first two letters of "zwei" and 30 (drei-ßig”) which uses the suffix “-ßig (spoken -ssig). 60 (sechzig) drops the "s" of "sechs" and 70 ("siebzig") cuts the "en" of "sieben". 

Note also a regional variation with these numbers: In northern Germany and standard German, the ending of these numbers has a ch sound: as in zwanzich.

More to the south, including in Bavaria and Austria, you'll hear the ending zik, as in zwanzik."

German Numbers 21-99

The numbers beyond 21 that don't end in a zero - although regular and straightforward - can be confusing to English speakers as they deviate from the English model.

The German for twenty-one is “einundzwanzig” (literally, oneandtwenty) and this turned-around structure in German continues consistently as you count in the thirties, forties, fifties, etc.

It takes some getting used to that fünfundvierzig means forty-five and that vierundfünfzig is fifty-four.

Not to forget that we think of numbers mostly as digits.

So, when you hear fünfundvierzig you have to think 45, and when you hear vierundfünfzig you need to think 54.

Mastering numbers well enough so that you can easily pay at a market, understand an address, or take down a telephone number can indeed be a challenge.

Telephone Numbers

In German, telephone numbers are normally given as a series of two-digit numbers (and if need be, with a three-digit number at the end).

This can be especially annoying when a German tells you a telephone number that you want to write down.

For the number 32 57 42 86 91, you'll hear zweiunddreißig-siebenundfünfzig-zweiundvierzig-sechsundachtzig-einundneunzig.

To avoid confusion you are better off asking for each digit separately. This translates as: “Kannst du - (or formal) Können Sie - bitte die Ziffern einzeln sagen?

German Numbers from 100-10,000

The numbers from 101 to 1999 are closer to the English model, except that in English the numbers are not written as one word.

For example, 101 is “(ein)hundertundeins (one hundred one), or 333 is “dreihundertunddreiunddreißig” (three hundred thirty-three), with the inversion noted above.

German Historical Dates

Historical dates, of course, are rarely written out. But there are conventions on how to say them.

In German as in English, you use hundreds (not thousands) to say a specific year between 1101 and 1999.

So, 1386 is dreizehnhundertsechsundachtzig (all written as one word), and except for the inversion of the last part, similar to the English thirteen hundred eighty-six."

German Numbers above 20 - GamesforLanguage

However, for 1066 (when the Normans invaded England), you use the word tausend (thousand) as in tausendsechsundsechzig.

You do the same for the current century.

2015 is zweitausendfünfzehn.

You you may also hear, similar to English, zehnsechsundsechzig or zwanzigfünfzehn.

In this Quick German Game on the left, you can practice some of the German numbers between 21 and 100 and beyond.

Millions, Billions, Trillions, etc.

A point of frequent confusion for English speakers may be the high numbers that are often quoted in news reports about global finances.  

We noticed, for example, some errors in the recent reporting on the negotiations between Greece and the European Union regarding Greece's financial obligations.

German and English agree on 1,000,000 - eine Million (one million).

But, for the English one billion, Germans say eine Milliarde, and for the English one trillion, Germans say eine Billion. You can see the problem.

German Dialects

In the northern regions of Germany, as well as on national media (radio, television) you'll recognize most numbers as they are spoken.

Even so, you may sometimes hear 2 (zwei) also pronounced as “zwo” or “zwee,” or with other slight variations.

However in certain parts of Germany, such as Cologne, Bavaria, the Black Forest region, as well as in Austria and in Switzerland, regional dialects may make certain numbers unrecognizable for the foreigner.

This YouTube clip gives you one Swiss German pronunciation for the numbers 1-12, and even these pronunciations are not uniform in all the Swiss German Cantons.

So knowing and practicing the German numbers should be high on your list when you are planning a trip to a German speaking country.

Pronunciation Practice

Practicing the German numbers also gives you an opportunity to work on your pronunciation. As in any language, getting the mouth mechanics right is also important in German.

Zwei” does not require you to produce a “w” as in “water,” but just a soft “v” sound; avoid using any form of the English “r” in “drei or “vier,” or the guttural “l” in “elf” or “zwölf”; the latter, together with “fünf,” lets you also practice the common German Umlauts, “ö” and “ü.”

During the day, whether you are commuting to work, noting how many email messages are in your inbox, reading the newspaper, doing exercises, etc., you'll always see or count numbers. Pronounce them silently, or out loud if you can, in German. And you'll be surprised how fast you'll know them!

Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

Fluency – What Most Language Learners Want

teenagers - gamesforlanguageWe, at Gamesforlanguage, are always looking for ways that help learners take the next leap towards fluency. The key for learning to speak a language fluently is simple: You have to engage in live conversations, and do this frequently using various topics of conversation.

Our own experience in Seville, Spain (see also our post: 4 Tips for Improving Your Foreign Language During a One-Month Stay), made us appreciate how important it is to prepare for conversations with language exchange partners.

Recently, we discovered a new start-up site called that looks very promising. We had a chance to talk extensively with Speaklikethem's Olivier Royer and Alberto Bortott, who together explained some of the special features that they are building into this site.

Intermediate Learners or Above

At Speaklikethem the goal is for learners to have real and productive conversations, so learners can't still be beginners.

Users of the program should have already reached a fairly solid basis in a language they are practicing. Beginners simply cannot hold their part in a conversation that goes beyond a simple exchange of questions and statements about themselves.

In your Profile, you're asked to list your language skills: native, bilingual, intermediate, or advanced, and while self-classifications of intermediate and advanced leave much room for interpretation, they are a clear signal that the site is for those who want to practice already existing listening/speaking skills.

An Interest-based e-Platform

In order to make interesting conversations possible, users can upload videos in the target language from the Internet, which will serve as topics and discussion points with their language partners. Or they can use any of the existing videos.

With time, the program will accumulate an extensive supply that will cover topics such as business, culture, fun, planet, sciences, society, sport, style, techno, and trends - all in many languages.

This is the basic new idea that is likely to create not only conversation topics, but also “engagement” by the language partners – (one key component of language learning that we had discussed in our post 2 Language Learning Essentials: Motivation and Engagement)

Preparing for a Conversation

Clearly, videos can become a great way to suggest topics for a conversation. But in addition, at Speaklikethem users can upload links to articles, pictures, as well as vocabulary lists, grammar points, etc. that could provide a little extra linguistic backbone.

We found that especially during a first encounter with a language exchange partner, it's important to have topics of conversations as well as some questions ready to ask.

Finding an Exchange Partner

Because the focus of this site is to set up interest-based conversations with readily available resources, finding a suitable partner should be fast and easy. For example, if I'm interested in elections in Spain, or am looking to work in Germany, I can propose those topics to my language communities - using one of the videos - and anyone interested can pick up the invitation.

When we were looking to meet language exchange partners in Seville, Spain, we were able to filter both for the specific city and face-to-face conversations on certain sites, an option we would strongly recommend also to Speaklikethem.

Speaklikethem is currently in a Beta start-up mode and subscriptions are free.


Coincidentally, we also learned that Speaklikethem has applied to MassChallenge's startup Accelerator Program in London for 2015, a program that started in Boston and has expanded internationally. Gamesforlanguage was a Finalist in MassChallenge's 2011 Accelerator Program in Boston, MA.

MassChallenge is a yearly 4-month competitive program that connects high-impact start-ups with resources they need to launch and succeed. The program provides mentorship, office space, education, network & community and runs from late spring to early fall. 

Disclosure: has no business relationship with Speaklikethem other than having subscribed to their free website. Both companies may exchange guest blogs at a future time. We do, however, derive earnings from 3rd party ads, e.g. Google Adsense, on our site, that may feature Speaklikethem and other companies reviewed by us. See our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use for further details.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Motivation, Engagement and Timeline – My Language Learning update

Time Line - Games for languageIn January 2015 my post, How P.M Tools can Help Your Language Learning (and my Spanish & Dutch), suggested that some simple Project Management (P.M.) tools can help your language learning.

If we consider learning a foreign language to be a “project” that needs various resources, has a schedule or timeline, and an accomplishment or goal at the end – then some of the key elements of a project are indeed present.

In the previous post I included my simple time line (above) and here is my update on the tasks and activities shown in January:

Spanish – Duolingo

I started Duolingo – Spanish in December 2014Duoling0 -screenshot and have continued with it for 148 days, (see screenshot). I've completed all regular lessons and am currently on Level 13 with 5643 points. I'm continuing now with 1 lesson a day. I completed 3 Duolingo tests and progressed from 2.03/5.0 to 5/5 while in Seville.

Spanish –

I did not quite complete our Spanish 1 course by the time we left for Europe in February, but reached Level 5. I listened to our Podcasts, which by that time I pretty much knew by heart (we developed them, after all). Many of the phrases and expressions actually proved very useful in Seville. (We are currently working on tests for each of the Spanish 1 course levels to be available within the next few weeks as “Quick Games.”)

Spanish – Find Tutor, Stay in Seville, Practice Speaking

La Giralda -Games for languageAs we described in other posts, we had found three language exchange partners with whom we met repeatedly in Seville. As we described in How a Tutor Boosted our Language Fluency, we did find a tutor while we were there and found our conversations with him to be very productive. As we did not have to switch with him to English (or German), as with our language exchange partners, our time with our tutor proved to be very effective for improving both our listening and speaking skills.

Spanish – Watch Movies, Videos, Read, Write Speak

Back in the US, I continued to exchange emails inUnicaja -Games for language Spanish with the Unicaja bank in Seville, which had withdrawn funds from my account without delivering them to me in a failed ATM withdrawal incident. As we reported in our post, the money was finally returned just about 30 days later. Unicaja continues to insist that the delay was caused by Maestro (Master Charge in Europe) to whom they had returned the funds.

We have also started to watch Spanish TV and movies again; currently we are watching “Comisario Rex” (actually an Italian series, dubbed Spanish) as well as a soap “Hasta el Fin del Mundo.” While our listening skills have increased substantially since our stay in Seville and we can guess much from the context, we still can't fully understand all of the rapidly spoken conversations. We find that adding subtitles in Spanish helps a lot.

We continue to read Spanish newspapers and articles online, often using, which also boosts our vocabulary, especially when we practice any new words with's vocabulary lists.

Spanish – Find local language exchange partner/tutor

We are currently looking for a language exchange partner and/or tutor in our area. Becoming really fluent in a foreign language requires practice, and having regularly scheduled speaking sessions is quite important for not losing the progress we have made. and were the two sites that helped us find our partners in Seville.

How Fluent?

hablas españolWhile we have not yet achieved the same fluency as in French, we are quite happy with our progress. While our topics of conversation are still limited, we have substantially increased our active vocabulary, have acquired a number of banking terms while in Seville (see our April 2015 post), can talk about Spanish elections, and quite a few other, personal or abstract topics.

Update: on April 28, 2015 I took several of the free tests which are listed in this LingQ post. These tests do not evaluate fluency, but rather vocabulary and grammar proficiency. As I commented on the post: "I was disappointed with the Transparent Language test as it pegged me as a “Beginner”, while the Language Level Test gave me a B1, the Sprach Caffe a 50/72 , and LingQ an Advanced 3 with knowing 35,500 words. (I’ll do the Bridge test, when I’ll have more time!)"

I am currently looking for a test with which I can evaluate my fluency in a more formal way

Dutch – Duolingo

During January and the first part of February, I indeed completed 1-2 Dutch lessons each day, but stopped during our stay in Seville. In April I again took up Dutch, but found that the 6-7 week hiatus has thrown me back quite a bit. I have now reached Level 9, with 1844 points (see screenshot above), but find that I have to go back to much earlier lessons again. I currently mostly “strengthen my skills” with 2-3 lessons per day, and will continue to do so until I feel that I have reached my previous level.

In spite of its closeness to German (my native language), I find writing Dutch especially challenging. While some words are pronounced quite similarly to German, they are often spelled differently.

Dutch: Select/Sign Up

I am considering signing-up up for Babbel's Dutch course by May 1 as shown on the time line. We had also subscribed to Babbels' Spanish course and we'll report on our experience with it in a future blog post.

Adding another online course to Duolingo seems necessary to both expand the vocabulary and get more listening and speaking practice.

I also hope that once I can formulate some sentences I will be able to practice with my wife Ulrike, who is fluent in Dutch (which she had learned while attending school in the Netherlands for two years).

Motivation and Engagement

Our motivation for improving our Spanish was both related to our planned stay in Seville, and generally to learning another language when traveling to Spanish speaking countries. Cuba and various South American countries are on our list.

By reading Spanish online as well as Spanish books (currently: the Spanish translation of "Hunger Games": "Los Juegos del Hambre", and "La Sombra del Viento" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon) and watching Spanish language movies, we're confident that we'll keep our interest in Spanish alive.

Time Line

So far, I have kept quite closely to the January 2015 time line. In September I'll know whether I have achieved my goal of understanding a good part of the conversations while participating in our Dutch Family Reunion in Utrecht. With the Dutch being so fluent in German and English, I have little hope, however, that I'll be able to practice much speaking ...

Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

Language Learning and the Seville Dialect

Sevilla - SpainDuring our recent stay in Seville, Spain (see picture left), we were again reminded how challenging local dialects are to foreign language learners. That is especially the case when they try to improve their new language in an immersion environment, as in the country where their new language is spoken.

When you visit only for a few days and your interaction with locals is quite limited – as happened during our first stay to Seville in 2012 – you don't seem to notice the dialect very much.

This time, however, it was different.

The Challenge

The four European languages we are very familiar with, German, Spanish, French, and Italian, all have different dialects spoken in various regions. All language schools and online programs, including, teach a "standard language" that you may hear on radio and television, but which may be spoken in only a few regions of the country.

Chances are you'll find yourself in a region where your language learning efforts over the last few months don't seem to be quite enough. It's no different in Spain, but also presents an opportunity to learn more about the local dialect.


As we describe in a previous post: Learning Spanish – letter "s"First Impressions of the Local Dialect in Seville, Spain, we noticed right away that some consonants are dropped at the end and in the middle of words, so "gracia" instead of "gracias," "do cerveza" instead of "dos cervezas," "E'paña," "e'pañol," etc. But this was just the tip of the iceberg.

There are other differences to standard "Castilian" Spanish and even to other regions of the Andalusian dialect.


Generally speaking, typical Andalusian pronunciation features as the "leveling s, z, and c sounds" (the latter before an [i] or an [e]). This means that in parts of Andalusia [s], [z] and [c] have an [s] sound (called a "seseo" dialect.) In other parts of Andalusia [s], [z] and [c] have a [θ] sound (called a "ceceo" dialect.) Seville, in fact, is a small language island.

Surrounded by regions that speak "ceceo," the city itself is mostly a "seseo" haven. On the street, with the many tourist coming from other regions of Spain, you of course heard a mixture. In any case, neither "seseo" nor "ceceo" is really part of standard Castilian. Castilian and Andalusian have been perceived as distinct dialects since the the 15th century.

In Castilian Spanish, [s] is pronounced as [s]; and [c] and [z] are pronounced [θ]. The latter is sometimes called the "Castilian lisp," which is often attributed, incorrectly, to the lisp of a Spanish king. This and other language myths are wonderfully debunked in a recent blog post: 10 Myths And Misconceptions About World Languages, the "Castilian lisp" in Myth #4: "The Spanish Kings's Lisp." 


letter "d"We noticed that [d] was weakened or dropped entirely when between two vowels. For example in the bus, we heard "próxima para" (instead of "próxima parada," next stop); and, our Sevillian acquaintances would say "a menu'o" (instead of "a menudo,") often. Flamenco terms are famous examples: cantaor (from cantador, Castilian: cantante "singer"); tocaor (from tocador, Castilian: músico); and bailaor (from bailador, Castilian: bailarín). When spelled, the [d] is also dropped, we learned. [See Wikipedia "Andalusian Spanish"]


Spain in general, including Andalusia, is known for it's greater informality compared to Latin American countries. When we met our tutor for the first time, he immediately addressed us with "tú," though we were clearly older than he. Since pronouns are dropped unless you need them for clarity or emphasis, he happily used the pronoun-less "tú" form with us, but dropped the "s-endings" (tiene, habla, quiere, encuentra, etc.). When I asked him whether Sevillians could tell the difference between "tiene" (informal with the dropped "s") and "tiene" (formal), he said, actually no, and smiling, said that he had never thought about it. So, in Sevilla, you may not always catch right away whether someone is addressing you formally or informally.


In most cases, you don't chose to stay or live in a region because of a particular language dialect: Work, family, friends, cultural, or other interests, etc. generally impact your decision. So chances are that you will find yourself in a city or town with a local dialect.

When you are starting to notice what distinguishes the local dialect from the standard language, you are on your way to reaching another language level.

And the sooner you can discover some to the typical idiosyncrasies of the local language, the faster you'll be able to understand and eventually speak it.

Af the end of our month there, we could pretty well understand our tutor and our language exchange partners, but we spoke the Sevillian dialect only in small chunks, such as with "gracia" and "do cerveza."

Thus, in Seville, we still remained at the first stage, but feel quite confident that after a few more weeks we would have graduated to stage two. 

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