Posted on by Peter Rettig

10,000 hours for Foreign Language Mastery?

Wal ClockksSeveral recent posts and articles made me wonder whether Malcolm Gladwell's findings in his book Outliers also apply to language learning. Two examples in his book may be relevant: Gladwell reported that the violinists, (links between musical and language aptitude?) who were studied by a team of psychologists in the 90s seemed to diverge in their skills mainly by the amount of time they practiced; and also his tale of Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and spoken in awe among Silicon Valley insiders in much the same way as Bill  Gates who also had thousands of programming hours (in some ways another language?) before founding Microsoft. (This “rule” for achieving mastery was first proposed by a Swedish psychologist and then popularized by Gladwell's book.)

But is language mastery really achieved by logging in around 10,000 hours of practice? And what constitutes “practice” when learning a language? “Practice makes perfect” is a slogan many of us hear a lot and have used as well to encourage others to practice. On the other hand, marketing slogans such as “Learn a language in 10 days,” or “Fluency in 30 days,” or “Fluent in 3 months” also seem to pop up everywhere.

Language Practice and the Pareto Rule

If we were to apply Malcolm's 10,000 hrs to achieving mastery in a foreign language, it would translate into one of the following practice schedules:

  • 13.7 hours a day for 2 years or
  • 9.1 hours a day for 3 years or
  • 6.8 hours a day for 4 years or
  • 5.5 hours a day for 5 years

You get the idea.

Recently I saw a YouTube Video by Tim Spricht, in which he suggested that one could apply the Pareto principle to language learning, meaning you could get 80% of the reward or accomplishment with 20% of the effort. So, if full mastery were not your ultimate goal and you could be happy with achieving +/-80% mastery - still a very high proficiency level - then you could get there with maybe spending “only” 2000 hrs, or less than 3 hours a day for 2 years.

Now, I am not quite sure that the Pareto principle can really be applied that way. Pareto originally observed that 80% of Italy's land was owned by 20% of the population; some businesses find that 80% of their sales come from 20 % of their customers; or that 20% of the workers produce 80% of the results; or that 20% of the features cause 80% of the usage etc. However, neither do those percentages always have to total exactly 100%, nor are most things in life - effort, reward, output, success - distributed evenly.

Doubts about the “10,000 hours rule”?

A study published in Psychological Science in 2014 also raises some doubts about this "rule." A meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated surfaced some interesting results. It found that such deliberate practice made the following differences:

  • in games - a 26% difference
  • in music - a 21% difference
  • in sports – a 18% difference
  • in education – only a 4% difference

Others have argued that practice is only effective in areas that have stable structures, where the rules don't change or vary little. This indeed may apply to language learning quite well. And while practice in education only is shown to make a 4% difference, we suspect that the percentage is quite a bit higher for educational games and language learning.

What is language “practice”?

There are several terms we often hear and use when we assert that we SPEAK a language. Generally the four major skills: listening/comprehension, reading, speaking, and writing can be judged by rating someone's proficiency in a language.

For many casual learners, “proficiency” may be less important that “fluency.” As we also discussed in a previous post, Fluency vs. Proficiency in Foreign Language Learning, you may be able to speak a language fluently, but not be proficient in reading or writing. (Think of pre-school children who speak a language quite fluently, but can neither read nor write!)

Therefore, after reaching some basic knowledge of the language, learners may want to decide which skills they want to practice in particular. If reading is your goal, there are many tools, programs and apps to do this; if listening/understanding is what you want to become good at, listening to audios and watching videos and movies will help; if writing is what you want to practice, you can take advantage of the many online communities; if fluency is your goal, you have to find a conversation partner and practice speaking. And clearly, all four practices support each other in different ways and most online courses and/or classroom instructions typically address all four skills as well.

However, while you can learn listening/understanding, reading, and writing on your own, with audios, books and pen, we believe that SPEAKING requires a conversation partner. Few, if any online language programs (Duolingo and GamesforLanguage included) will give you sufficient speaking practice to really become fluent. Skype, FaceTime, and web-based tutors and communities allow you to find such conversation partners on the web, if a "live" conversation partner is hard to come by.

You should also remember that once you start using your foreign language in conversations with your friends and conversation partners, listening to the radio, reading, and writing, it will feel less and less like “practice, but the hours of being exposed to and using the foreign language still do count!

How long does it take?

This is probably one of the most frequently-asked question by English-speaking language learners, and a general answer is impossible. For example, Language Testing International (LTI) distinguishes four (4) language groups.

Many European languages, such as Spanish, Italian, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, etc. are in Group I; German, Farsi, Greek, etc. are in Group II; Czech, Hebrew, Russian, etc. are in Group III; and Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, etc. are in Group IV; this latter group includes the languages that take the longest for English speakers to learn. The table shows three aptitude levels and three training levels for all four Groups.

For example, for languages in Group I, LTI estimates that it takes a person with “Average Aptitude 240 hours of training "under the supervision of an instructor and with 1-4 students per class" to reach “Intermediate Mid” proficiency and 720 hours to get to “Advanced High.” Click on How long Does it Take to Become Proficient to see the specifics of LTI's projections for other aptitudes and language groups.

So for all the self-teaching language learners who are using books, CDs, or online courses or those who take private instructions or classes, the conclusion is quite clear: Learning to become fluent and/or proficient in a foreign language is a long-term project and cannot be accomplished in 10 days or 30 days.

Our own experience has been that learning a foreign language as an adult is not a straight path, but leads you through various plateaus of listening/understanding, reading, speaking, and writing abilities – depending on various circumstances of practice and exposure to the language. If you can add an extended stay in the country where the language is spoken (with efforts to limit the use of your native language) your progress will certainly accelerate.

Posted on by Peter Editor

Speaking German? Yes – but a $660,000 Fine for Driving Without a License?

Marco Reus tweet Marco Reus, a 25-year-old German soccer player, discovered that speaking German was not enough, as his luck ran out during a routine police stop. He could not produce a driver's license. What must have astonished the officer the most was not that Reus could not not produce a valid license: But that he never had one!

Daily Rate Multiples

This story might not have made the German newspapers, (e.g. Frankfurter Allgemeine and Der Spiegel) if not for the really surprising fine: $660,000.

I discovered something I did not know and what probably had not existed when I lived in Germany: Fines for offenses such as Reus committed, are calculated on a “daily rate”, based on his net monthly income and how often the offenses occurred. Although Reus reportedly had been driving for 7 years without a permit, the DA only listed 6 driving events between 2011 and 2014 as offenses. And Reus apparently even found a somewhat lenient judge who “only” applied a multiple of 90 “daily rates”. His monthly net income of $220,000, divided by thirty days then resulted in the total fine amount.

Driving offenses

Driving without a valid driving license is a criminal offense in Germany and can result in a fine or imprisonment for up to one year. The car of the person can also be confiscated. According to the above cited article, there were 111,000 cases of driving without a valid license in German in 2013.

Germany has a point system for driving infractions and Reus had been caught several times in radar traps. However, in Germany, these traps are often silent and you are not stopped, so he just paid the fines per mail. And because he never accumulated more than 4 points, the system never tried to enter them on his non-existing driving license record. You can also own a car, without having a driving license.

The good News

In spite of the horrendous fine, Reus can look at the positive side: He did not lose his Aston Martin and will be able to drive it again after he passes his driving test. Furthermore, by limiting the daily rate multiple to 90, his fine will not be entered as a criminal record.

And, maybe he will now also be able to continue to drive legally for his sponsor, General Motor/Opel as seen on this May 2014 tweet above.

So, travelers remember: Learning German and speaking it in Germany is great. But make also sure you have a valid drivers license with you, when you are driving there!

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Not enough time? Really? Language Learning and Setting Priorities

Finverbus Google+ excuses graphLast month I a saw on the Google+ page of Finverbus an unattributed graph titled Main difficulty experienced when learning a new language. I don't know whose research produced the graph, nor the sample size or the demographics of those questioned, but I did not find the results surprising. Of the 8 reasons listed, I thought I could certainly identify with the first two of them: #1: “Not Enough Time” and #2 “To keep up Motivation.” I've just started to learn Dutch. We are planning a trip to the Netherlands later next year and I will keep a log of how I am doing regarding these two challenges.


To keep up Motivation” is listed as excuse #2 with 16% in the above referenced chart. Ads on TV or radio of happy people communicating in foreign countries or promoting how easy it is to learn a new language may even induce you to give language learning a try. But it's well known in the language teaching community that a real need to communicate is the strongest and probably the most effective motivator.

How does my desire to learn Dutch rank on such a need scale? Probably not very high. Do I have to know Dutch for visiting the Netherlands? Not really. The relatives and friends we are visiting all speak English, German, or French, all languages I speak fluently. So there is no real “need” for me to communicate in Dutch.

So why am I learning Dutch? Really for three main reasons: (1) as a test of how much I can learn with Duolingo, the program I am currently using, which I'll follow up with another online program later on. ( does not yet have a Dutch program.) (2) whether I can use my wife's fluency in Dutch to augment my Dutch skills by the time we travel, and (3) to record how my motivation holds up and what conclusions I can draw.

My goal is to establish a learning routine of initially 15 minutes a day – to get into the habit – then increase it to an average of one hour a day.

Not Enough Time

Not enough time” is listed as excuse #1 by 24% of respondents. As an answer to a survey question this appears quite plausible: Learning a foreign language as an adult takes time – in fact more time than most learners (and most marketers) want to admit.

It is always good to remember how long it takes a child to learn his or her first language. It takes them a few years to learn to speak with some sophistication and several more years to fully master reading and writing. And spending an hour a day, 7 hours per week, 30 hours per month, or 365 hours during a year may be more time an adult is able or willing to commit.

But who hasn't heard the saying: “If you want to get something done, find a busy person.” Are busy persons just better at organizing and scheduling their time? Is “not enough time” maybe a convenient excuse, when the real reason, and not listed on the chart, could be: “Not able to manage my time effectively” or “Not able to set priorities”?

And that's also why I don't quite believe the results of the survey regarding the "not enough time" excuse. It is a very convenient excuse, which may serve as an umbrella for all kinds of other reasons.

Setting Priorities

I'm as guilty as anyone of having used the excuse of “not enough time” often and in various circumstances. However, when I am honest with myself, this excuse typically hides other reasons. They may include preferring other activities that are, at the moment, more urgent or important, or maybe more fun or entertaining. In fact, throughout the day, we usually reset our priorities of what is urgent and important to accomplish. 

To the extent that you have a job, a family, friends, and commitments, a good part of your day is already planned for. But most of us also have some “discretionary” time, or idle time, maybe during commuting, waiting, early in the morning, or later in the evening.

And it is here, in setting daily priorities, where motivation plays a major role: If your motivation is strong, you'll plan your day and re-arrange your priorities to make time to learn. (Our post 8 Zen Habits for 2013 Language Learning looks at how we can do this.)

But motivation can also fade over time. Learning Dutch seemed such a great idea, just a few weeks ago. But I'll watch out for MY excuses when I don't put in the daily 15 minutes (or the 1 hour later on). So far, I am still on a 20-day streak with Duolingo.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

A French arte.TV Movie and Memories of Haiti and Hotel Oloffson

Arte TV pageAs readers of previous blog posts e.g., 7 iPad apps we Like for Watching German and French Movies know, we like the site. I recently watched the 2011 documentary Hotel Haiti, which will still play a few more days on the arte channel. This 2011 German TV movie (which includes footage taken during 2003 and never shown before) tells the story of the Hotel Oloffson, a Hotel in Port-au-Prince and, with it, also Haiti's history over the last 110 years. While the movie narration can be played in French or German (change setting top left), there are also quite a number of English dialogs. The movie brought back memories of my stay in Haiti and also reminded me that with the fifth anniversary of the earthquake approaching, much still needs to be done.

Before the Earthquake

I stayed in the Oloffson in 1974 when visiting the island for a second time. Hotel Oloffson Garden(picture of Hotel garden by Daniel Morel)  We could easily communicate in French with our Haitian friends but did not make much progress with Haitian Creole, the other official national language of Haiti.

During the seventies, after “Baby Doc” had “inherited” the dictatorship from his father “Papa Doc,” Haiti experienced a short period of economic recovery with over 150 US firms operating on the island. At that time and together with some American and Haitian friends, I had briefly considered starting a construction business there. It was during a work session with our Haitian friends in a small office building in Port-au-Prince that we experienced a brief tremor: While we foreigners thought that a big passing truck caused the building to shake, the Haitians new better and ran out to the street.

The Oloffson, by then, already had a stormy history behind it: Built at the end of the 19th century as the residence for the Sam family (which provided two Haitian presidents), it then served as an army hospital during the US occupation between 1915 and 1935. It became a hotel in 1935 when Gustav Oloffson, a Swedish sea captain, leased it from the Sam family and, as the movie narrates, the hotel then passed on through several hands. Many rooms are named for famous guests, including Graham Greene, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Buffet, Lillian Hellman, et al.. This Hotel Oloffson Wikipedia entry and the Bloomberg Businessweek article Graham Green Would still adore This Hotel  give further details.

After the Earthquake

When the devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti on January 12, 2010, the Oloffson guests were quite lucky. The wood structure withstood the tremors much better than most other concrete and masonry buildings. This Economist article, Haiti's hallowed hotel (March 2011) gives another summary.

Clintom & PrevaHillary and Bill Clinton also visited the Oloffson. Interestingly, their special relationship to Haiti is traced back to their honeymoon in Haiti in 1975 in this Washington Post article of January 16, 2010. The arte.TV movie also recalls some wild stories that are circulating in the streets of Port-au-Prince about Hillary's and Bill's “debt” to Haiti. The Clinton Foundation reports that it has raised already over $34 million for Haiti (but Clinton's policies while President and his current efforts also have critics in the black community.)

We'll soon be nearing the 5th anniversary of the January earthquake and much still remains to be done. The natural disaster has spurred many international help efforts, including one that a former colleague of mine is involved in: Creating Sustainable Healthcare for Haiti. The non-profit organization has several projects on the drawing board, the most imminent one is opening a healthcare clinic at the Fondation Montesinos in Titanyen, an orphanage of 80 Children. (Donations are welcome and can be made directly on the site.)

The Future

According to reports from our friends who have been there, progress can be observed but is very slow.Haiti -earthquake victim camp

Nearly five years after more than 100,000 people lost their lives and over 2 million became homeless, so much remains to be done. Water, sanitation, and electricity distribution remain challenges. While many have moved back into some kind of home, more than 100,000 still live in temporary structures and tents. (picture left by AFP/Getty Images: Boys at a camp in Petionville, Haiti)

As I watched the arte TV movie about the Hotel Oloffson and Haiti, I was also reminded how easily we forget events and disaster when they don't appear regularly in the news. And especially during this Holiday season and with the fifth anniversary of the earthquake approaching, it's a good time to think about what we can do to help.

Posted on by Guest Author T.H.P.

French in Dijon: Fluency Realities with no "Lover Option" (Part 2)

Cathedral of Dijon, FranceIn Becoming Fluent in French in 1 Month in Dijon, France? (Part 1), I reported how we had set out to explore Dijon and how impressed we were by the helpful friendliness of the locals when we asked for advice or help.

More Dijon Exploring 

On the periphery of the historic pedestrian areas, we stumbled upon a fascinating archaeological museum housed in a building with fundaments dating from the time Dijon was a Gallic and then a Roman settlement. (Cathedral of Dijon, left) Next door is the large cathedral of St. Etienne where masses are well-attended. Be sure to check out the crypt where the saint himself was entombed at the beginning of the Christian era and, while you’re there, try the acoustics by chanting some early medieval plainsong. Only then do you realize that you’re actually standing in the early Romanesque church, now below ground. Underneath it are the fundaments of earlier temple structures.

After a week in the city you’ll find yourself venturing out to Lake Kir, walking the greenway along the lovely Canal, exploring the Botanical Gardens or going to a concert at the strikingly modern Auditorium. Don’t bother with the university because it’s just a bunch of rather ugly utilitarian structures twenty minutes from the center.

But how about the part of our trip that was supposed to be devoted to developing fluency in French?

No "Lover Option"

After two weeks we found ourselves bumping against reality. We’ve reached that age when younger people kindly refer to you as a ‘senior,’ and seniors have a hard time circulating in the hotspots after ten o’clock at night. When younger people are sitting in bars discussion politics, love and pop music with passion, we are getting ready for bed. Since we’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.

Finding Conversation Partners

When we appealed to our friends at Gamesforlanguage, they advised us to find conversation partners. Dutifully we went out into the streets and tried to corner people for more than the superficial exchanges necessary to buy a newspaper or order a meal. The barrista at a coffee shop, like the proverbial bartender, was willing to talk, but his conversational parameters were fairly limited to complaining about government red tape and restrictions on small business people (apparently terrible oppressive!).

Finally while buying a pair of reading glasses at an opticians shop, optician cartoonmy wife talked a young man into getting his brother (Alexandre) to come to our apartment occasionally for conversation (twenty euros per session). Otherwise, getting beyond utilitarian exchanges necessary to buy postage stamps, order coffee and such everyday discourse was a very daunting business. And no wonder!

First of all, we realized that nobody can simply go to a place, hang around for a couple of weeks, and find people in this busy age who have both the time and inclination to gab with somebody who is – to put it mildly – still stuck with looking up every tenth word in the dictionary. Imagine the patience AND the leisure that a conversational partner would need! I wouldn’t have it myself back home with somebody learning English. So what to do?

Expanding our Horizons

Auxerre, FranceWe decided to keep trying and most important of all, to keep savoring all that this complex, fascinating country has to offer. We began to go on short trips to surrounding places of interest: Besancon, Autun, Auxerre, Sens, Vezelay. (left, Auxerre and Yvonne River) It proved easy enough eventually to venture out farther afield. Lyon is an hour and a half away on the TGV. As the second largest city in France and one of the most beautiful larger cities, it offers a lot that Paris boasts, and more. There are, for instance, the Roman theaters! The Musee des beaux Arts is excellent, and there’s even a Starbucks for good measure.

From Dijon, Avignon is three and a half hours by TGV and worth the trip, not only to see the well-known Papal Palace but two less-known art collections housed in smaller palais and tucked away in the narrow, winding, medieval alleys. Avignon is at the gateway of Provence, too, and only a quick hop from Marseilles and the Cote d’Azur, though we preferred Languedoc and Nimes as a starter.

Au revoir Dijon

Tonight Alexandre came over for a final repas chez nous. We had engaged him to do the conversational sessions with me, and he's a delightful young man, an entrepreneur (part owner at present of a night club), with a masters in finance. This morning my wife and I cheese platewent to les Halles and bought the most remarkable cheese and aged meat from a young vendor from Savoy, then smoked salmon (can you believe it was 50 euros per kilogram?), then to two or three boulangeries where we'd found the best bread. With the South African wine that Alexandre brought, we had one of those three hour repas with pleasant conversation. Another pleasure! Our cup is overflowing!

T.H.P. is a retired Professor of German, who has taught at several US Universities. He speaks German fluently, reads French and is working on improving his French speaking skills.

Posted on by Peter Editor

Update on Watching German and French (Italian & Spanish) movies

CineIn a previous post, 7 iPad Apps we Like to Watch German and French Movies, I had described how to watch German and French movies by connecting an iPad to a TV (with the HDMI/iPad connector). Since then I have tried out a few more iPad apps and also purchased and installed Google Chromcast. Here are some more “discoveries”:

German Apps

The German channel 1: das Erste or ARD

Das Erste” (also: ) gives several choices with a selection bar at the bottom: “Tipps” (tips for viewing choices), “Live” (which sometimes you can't stream for “legal reasons'!), and “Program,” which lets you see the currently playing program. With the arrow “<” icon you can scan previous programs. Those with a “Play” arrow you can often stream and play. (However, sometimes my iPad does not stream movies which work fine on the laptop and with or

Recently, I have found that rather than the app, using Safari on the iPad and with  or works better. Just select the movies or programs that interest you.

Rundfunk Berlin Brandenburg (rbb)

rbb mediathek” is the ipad and Android app of the Berlin-Brandenburg radio station, which can also be accessed via This app actually works quite well and you can see the latest TV-news, documentaries, movies, newest clips, and live streams just by scrolling down the home page. You can even go back and find a program you may have missed with “Sendung verpasst” (broadcast missed) by selecting one in the alphabetical directory “A bis Z.” Under “F” you'll find “Film im rbb” and the rbb movies from the last seven(7) days that you can stream. Because this app work so well, it has become one of my favorites.

French AppS

The France TV Pro app I had discussed previously stopped working for me after I upgraded my iPad to iOS 8.1.1, so I deleted it. I am currently trying France 24. The ads are quite entertaining in French, but the “News Bulletin” as well as the “Business” news are in English, so not helpful for French learners. (Corrrection: top left, "Accueil", you can change the language to "Français"). France 24 is  a news channel and you can listen to news clips in French of events happening around the globe.
I also installed the Télé-Loisirs app but it plays only short previews. It requires access to a box of various French companies (freebox, TV d'Orange, SFR neufbox, Bbox and DARTY BOX) and can't be accessed in the US.

Arte+7 Mediathek  ( still works best for me for French language movies. (For example, if you chose the movie, currently playing: "Plus que 6 jours which will be available for 3 more days, you'll hear High German (as well as Swiss German) and see French subtitles, a multilingual experience for French/German  learners...)

Do readers have any other suggestions for French apps?

Italian and Spanish Sites

I haven't found any worthwhile individual apps that let you stream Italian and French movies.


The many Rai apps you can find in the iTunes Store let you download some old shows as podcasts. But I have found that the Rai website, while confusing, is a better bet.  Rai Replay will allow you to replay broadcasts of the last seven days for the listed channels. It takes some searching to find a movie or episode that you can play in the US, even if you focus only on the blue coded broadcasts, (I programmi già disponibili in modalità Replay sono contrassegnati dal colore azzurro) as quite a few can't be played in the US or your country.  


Finding Latin American channels in the US is typically not a problem. Many or most of the Cable companies have them as part of their basic package. If you are looking for TV stations in Spain you can chose among five: RTVE, antena3, quattro, telecinco, and Canal+  (which is a subscriber service). Those that I tried for a movie video all require the Flash Player (which will exclude the use of an iPad), 

I also recently came across Bethany's post: Fun way to Reinforce Learning, in which she lists the following sites, and which she recommends especially for dubbed movies in the two languages:

for Spanish: 

for Italian:  

I'll try these sites in the coming weeks and report on them later.

Google Chromcast

I succumbed to the urge to buy another gadget: Google Chromcast. After setting up the Chromcast via an iPad app, I was disappointed that I could only “cast” those programs to the TV, for which the iPad app was Chromcast enabled. For example with SnagFilms you can cast all kind of movies, but I haven't found a foreign one yet worth watching. (and you'd have to live with the annoying ad breaks while watching!)

However, using your laptop with your Chrome Browser and after installing the “Google Cast” extension, you can cast any movie or program you can find and play on your lap top. I did so yesterday with several German rbb (see above) and French arte.TV movies. (Unfortunately, you'll also encounter quite a few movies on Arte where you'll get a message like: “Cette vidéo n'est pas disponible dans votre pays” or “Dieses Video ist in ihrem Land nicht verfügbar” (This video is not available in your country), obviously depending on the country from which you are trying to access the site.)

I understand that from an Android device, after installing the Chromecast app, you should be able to do the same and I will report on this later.

Posted on by Guest Author T.H.P.

Becoming Fluent in French in 1 Month in Dijon, France? (Part 1)

Dijon - FranceIf you’re looking for a beautiful, small city in France with regional flavor and a depth of culture that can keep you excited for a couple of weeks…if you’re a person who prefers a more leisurely vacation experience…if you've been learning French for a while (we used the free Duolingo and Gamesforlanguge courses) - THEN my wife and I have discovered the town for you!

Choosing a French City

Dijon (see picture above) is on the mainline of the TGV, France’s answer to the problem of fast, comfortable, worry-free travel, and can be reached easily from Paris. We chose it after a bit of casual research and previous visits to France that never amounted to more than two or three days in Paris for the Louvre.

This time around, we wanted to get to know France better. A few months after starting our online French courses, we focused on Burgundy and chose Dijon as our base of operations for launching our experiment in becoming basic, functional French speakers. (While Part 1 describes our experience of "discovering" Dijon, Part 2 focuses on the realities of becoming fluent during a one-month stay.) There we expected to avoid the hectic pace of Paris (and the expense!) while enjoying life in a thoroughly and uniquely French place.

We haven’t been disappointed.

Exploring Dijon

Our first two weeks in the city were full of constant discoveries launched from Ducal Palace, Dijon - Franceour base, a comfortable second-floor apartment in the very quiet Rue Proudhon. We had only a short stroll to the magnificent Ducal Palace (see picture right) to be in the heart of historic Dijon, with streets (for pedestrians only) lined with a potpourri of styles, beautiful 18th century palaces, fine 17th century townhouses, and half-timbered medieval buildings.

The broad streets and plazas teem with people of all ages. We were most impressed at the beginning by the affection between parents and children and by the helpful friendliness of the natives when we asked advice or help. Giving us a simple answer often wasn’t enough and people would walk with us to make certain we reached our goal. It made us wonder why our friends back home had so often complained that the French are rude or unfriendly!

Les Halles, Dijon, France

What part of France had they visited? Certainly not Burgundy!

If you like to eat, you’ll love les Halles (see picture left), a huge, l9th century steel and glass structure that covers a vast market full of vendors touting everything from cheese to horse meat. On market days (Tuesday and Friday, though there are some vendors open for business on Thursday as well) the pedestrian areas within a couple of blocks of les Halles are crowded with booths of vendors selling everything from books to clothing, and the crowds pulse with excitement.

More discoveries

The pedestrian sections of the old town are the focal center and heart of the place, both beautiful and full of elegant shops, good cafes, and plenty of opportunity for people-watching. The broad avenues emanate out from the gorgeous Ducal Palace and the 12th century church, Notre Dame, with its unique, Burgundian version of Gothic and the relief carving of the owl that small crowds of tourist always seem to be rubbing (for good luck).

There are surprises galore in town that challenge and stimulate the patient tourist. Take the Musee de beaux Arts whose collections are divided into epochs (Middle Ages, Renaissance, etc) that are each displayed in a wing of the ducal palace built at that particular time. Wander across the magnificent half-moon plaza in front of the ducal palace and take the second left down what looks to be an alley – and discover the delightful Magnin Museum, an eclectic jumble of art crowded on the walls on rooms of period furniture left as they were in the family palais by the last two members of the Magnin family.

A National Campaign?

There are so many pleasant encounters with Dijonais in town and I must report this one. The battery in my watch ran out and we went to the jewelers to get a replacement. A young lady asked what our nationality was  (my accent?) and I said American. She said, "Oh, we love Americans!" This happens to us ALL THE TIME. It is so odd, because over the last forty years during our stays in and travels through Europe, the last thing I've encountered is people liking me BECAUSE I'm American - rather in spite of it, if at all. This has been our experience again and again in Germany; in England pleasant condescension if anything. Back many years ago in Paris: rudeness. I'm beginning to wonder, if the French have had a national campaign to teach them to become more friendly and hospitable? If they have, it has certainly worked and it seems to be genuine, so warm, even kind. It goes far beyond just being polite or even reasonably considerate. But it is certainly a delight to be on the receiving end. 

In my next installment, One Month in Dijon: Fluency Realities and no "Lover" Option (Part 2), I'll report about the realities of becoming fluent in French during our one-month stay.

T.H.P. is a retired Professor of German, who has taught at several US universities. He speaks German fluently, reads French and is working on improving his French speaking skills.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Language Learning by making mistakes and “winning” games... GolfshotLearning from mistakes is a well-known teaching tool. And succeeding (winning!) in games is powerful motivation for us to try again and again until we have mastered them. Both aspects of learning play an important role in our Games For Language courses and Quick Games.

Gender of “the tower” in Spanish

This morning I was replaying one of our Spanish 1 Scenes. In the Writing Game, I was asked to write “the tower” in Spanish. Now, I have seen and said the correct translation quite a few times before and I knew the word “torre.” However, I did not recall a rule for nouns ending with “e.” And because in my native language (German), “the tower” is masculine (“der Turm”), I was uncertain for a moment and started out with “e” for “el,” to be reminded immediately by the error warning that I was wrong. While I was annoyed that I got it wrong, I am quite confident that I will know it the next time.

Why? Because now I'll likely remember not only that in Spanish “tower” is feminine (“la torre”), but also that I should have recalled that it's the same word in Italian (“la torre”) and feminine as well in French (“la tour”).

Quite early on in Spanish, we learn a few basic rules: Words ending with “o” are often masculine, those ending in “a”, often feminine, etc. This Spanish language chart which I discovered on the web some time ago, quite nicely summarizes the important Spanish gender rules. (I welcome any information in regard to its author and origin for proper attribution or requests for other grammar charts via contact.)

In the case of “the tower,” my association will be that the Spanish (or Italian and French) word has a different gender from the German one. I realize that English speakers will have other associations for memorizing genders in foreign languages that don't follow the basic rules. It may be the type or shape of the first letter ( “t” for the “l” in “la”), the sound of the word, etc. , or whatever “mnemonic” works to connect to the correct gender of a word. (Just for fun, I entered “la torre” in the Mnemonic Generator and one of the suggestions was “Lame Thor”, just in case this helps you remember the gender and Spanish word for "tower''...)

Winning” Games

I don't like to lose games. When I make a mistake and see at the end of a game, e.g. in “Writing Clowns” or “Word Invaders” that I only got 26 of 30 possible points, I'll repeat the game again until I get 30. This is the same motivation which drives Duolingo learners to repeat a lesson: If you make more than 3 mistakes, you lose your hearts, e.g. you are “out” and have to repeat the lesson before you can go on.

Yes, we sometimes make mistakes, just by clicking on the wrong item accidentally or not taking enough time to read all options. But replaying a lesson or a Scene has benefits beyond just “winning”: With words or phrases you already know, you can focus on pronouncing (ideally aloud) before clicking through; and those you missed, you now will be able to correct and remember better next time.

In our “Word Hero” game, you have to pick the correct English translation for foreign words that cascade down. You need to concentrate and for me, once I make a mistake, it's hard to recover. While this game requires you to focus and decide quickly, it also allows you to say the correct foreign word as it comes down, giving you the satisfaction not only of getting the word/phrase right, but also of letting you check immediately whether your pronunciation is close to that of the native speaker.

In the “Word Invaders” or Shootout” games, you have to pick the correct foreign words for the translation of an English sentence. By clicking on the wrong word, gender, or conjugation, you lose points. And, if you want to win 100% of those games, you'll have to correct all the mistakes you made in the first go-around.

Making mistakes and learning from them, as well as devising strategies to avoid traps, gain strength, and acquire assets, etc. are all part of the the ubiquitous video game universe that keep millions of people engaged today. While language learning has come a long way from boring drills and verb conjugations, we still need to progress further to create a “Language Minecraft” type of game that has speaking the language as the ultimate prize!

Posted on by Peter Rettig

7 iPad Apps we Like for Watching German and French Movies

ipadOnce you have mastered more than the basics of any language, listening to radio or watching movies is a great way to expand your vocabulary, and - maybe as important – keeping you interested in learning. (Not to overlook: READING is for many learners the earlier, easier step for building vocabulary. It will be the topic of another post.)

Increasingly, we are finding the use of iPad apps to be quite convenient. (All the apps mentioned below are also available on the Play Store for Android devices, and, I assume, with very similar or even identical features.) Yes, you can connect to many sites on your PC and watch your movies there or connect your laptop to your television, especially if you have newer models with HDMI ports. We've only recently started to use our iPad/HDMI connector and hooked up our iPad to our large flat screen TV. The experience of watching a movie on a large screen with a much better sound is certainly worth it. But whether you're watching a clip or movie on the iPad or on a bigger screen, here are our current app choices:

German iPad Apps

tagesschau logotagesschau – (also:, a free app, the German “tagesschau” is a 15-minute news magazine, which airs daily at 8 PM German time. It also has a 10:15 PM edition called “tagesthemen” as well as a “nachtmagazin,” which airs just past midnight. Note that the shows' titles these days are NOT capitalized, as they should be according to German spelling rules. Maybe this is a nod to being trendy and “cool.” I remember the “Tagesschau” (which could be translated as “Daily View”) from the early days of German television, when the ARD was the only public channel. (”ARD” stands forArbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland” - definitely a mouthful. Anybody interested in the legal structure of this “public-law” institution can consult this wiki entry:

As I am wrting this, I can see on the “tagesschau” that the “Rosetta-Mission” landing of a mini-laboratory on a comet has been successful; “Live stream,” “Aktuelle Videos,” and “Tagesschau in 100 Sekunden,” and “Das Wetter” complete the Homepage. For those interested in German Fußball (soccer), a disappointment: Some legal issues apparently doe not allow the “tagesschau” to show any clips of German soccer. Nevertheless, by clicking on the many links, you can find a variety of clips and videos on many national and international topics.

ZDF logoZDF(also: ) a free app of the 2nd German channel (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen), which is a German “public-law” institution as well. There is also a news magazine “Heute” which airs in Germany at 7 PM German time. The extensive Menu on the left side takes some time to get used to. For example, under “Rubriken,” and “Film,” you can find “Der Fernsehfilm der Woche” (TV movie of the week), “Ganze Filme im ZDF” (Entire films in ZDF); or under “Krimis” (crime movies), you'll find many popular German series, such as “Kommissarin Heller,” “Der Krimminalist,” etc. If you want to listen to Bavarian dialect, “Die Rosenheim Cops” is a fun show to watch.

Deutsche Welle LogoDW(also: ) Deutsche Welle, a free app, is another great resource. You can actually modify several settings on the menu icon, top right: Refresh the content; choose among 6 languages: Arabic, English, German, Persian, Russian, and Spanish; and select the channel to be displayed on the main screen: Germany, Europe, Arabia, America, Latinoamérica. In addition to a number of video clips, there are also many articles to read about the topics of the day. And, if you have trouble reading an article in German, you can get the English version just by switching the language.

TV-Spielfilm logoTV–Spielfilm (also ) a free app, lets you choose on the Menu button, top left: “Highlights des Tages” (highlights of the day), “TV-Program,” “Tagestipps,” and “Social Ranking.” We found “Mediathek” to be the most useful, with “Spielfilme, Serien, Reportagen, Unterhaltung, and Kinder” (videos for kids). While the “Play arrow” in the middle of the video lets us play many of these, there are some that either give you the message “Der Vorgang konnte nicht abgeschlossen werden” (the event couldn't be completed), or after seeing “Möchten Sie die Seite in Safari öffnen? (Would you like to open the page in Safari?) and pressing “Ja,” we get the message in Safari: “Inhalte technisch nicht verfügbar” (content not available technically) - all of which have caused us some frustration.

French iPad Apps

ARTE - (also: ) is a free app and actually a Franco-German TV network that promotes programming in the areas of culture and the arts and a perfect transition to the French apps.

Clicking on the top left menu, you'll open a number of program choices as well as a “setting” wheel at the bottom that lets choose you the language (German or French) plus a number of other settings, including reminders for certain live shows, email alerts, synchronizing with iCloud, etc. 

Back to the Homepage, you see the “Accueil” (welcome) and you can scroll down to see the ARTE +7 choices: “Les plus vues,” “Les plus recentes,” and those soon to be deleted “Dernière chance.” Selecting "Programmes" you'll see the program of the day. Those marked in red +7 can then be either watched, either in a short clip or later, with a note (e.g."Plus que 6 jours") indicating how long it will be available. 

Back to the Menu, you'll see a number of other options, all of which will certainly lead you to topics and videos that interest you.

France TV logoFrance TV Pro is a free iPad app that lets you watch live TV on many of the French TV channels. It also uses advertisements but has the unusual feature that lets you earn ad viewing points. After accumulating enough points, you can watch programs ad-free for some time. With each viewing you accumulate 500 points and when you reach 20,000 points (40 views!) you, supposedly, can upgrade to the "Pro" version and now watch for free. (We are not there yet, so I don't know whether this works!)

The Homepage opens up many options: You can watch soaps, news, sports, etc. right there, or click on the Menu button, top left, which gives you many more choices, which include TV VOD, KIDs, Music, Movies, as well as Live Channels, Youtube and more VOD choices. Clicking on "Movies" you'll find 11 more categories, including, "Top", "New", "Comedy", "Drama", etc. One caution: You may not be able to watch all movies listed due to some access restrictions in the country you are watching. For example, clicking on "Freelancers" resulted in:  "This video is not available in your country". Also, you'll see some English movies dubbed in French.

Because we mostly watch French movies, I have not explored many of the possibilities. (Of note is that the iPad audio volume button does not seem to work, but there is a on-screen Volume control button, on the bottom left)

20 minutes- logo20 minutes (also: I have enjoyed this app for some time now. (There is another, very similar Swiss app: 20 Minuten (also:, which is the electronic version of the free “20 Minuten” newspaper that you find everywhere in Switzerland in German, French and Italian language.) Different from the free German apps, this one uses advertisements, (which you can delete right away by clicking on the x on top).

The Homepage gives you a choice of six(6) categories: “Videos, Live, En images, Sport, Actualité, Entertainment, Météo/Horoscope, PDF/Jeux, and Guide TV.” While the other sections also make good reading – and you're sure to find something that interests you – I have used mostly the Videos. At the bottom of that section you'll find 12 subheadings with videoclips, starting with “General” and “Le Rewind” and ending with “Entertainment” and “Actus 20minutes.”

I enjoy “Le Rewind” a lot. The young man who presents and comments on sometimes funny, sometimes bizarre events is hilarious. He also speaks rapid French, so may have to practice a bit before you get all his jokes, but you'll certainly have fun with many of the video clips. Regrettably, I just learned that “le Rewind” will only run until the end of the year.

All the apps mentioned below are also available on the Play Store for Android devices, and, I assume, with very similar or even identical features.

And, please let us know YOUR favorite apps to watch French and German movies and videos.


Posted on by Peter Rettig

The Berlin Wall and Memories of a Frightened Teenager..

Berlin WallThese past days we've been reminded that the fall of the Berlin Wall (the picture shows the Wall with the infamous "Todesstreifen" ["death strip"]) occurred 25 years ago, with the official celebration on November 9, 2014. For many Germans the Berlin Wall also involves personal memories either directly or through relatives or friends.

When the Wall was built in 1961, it further divided a city which, since 1945, had been living with the division into four sectors: US, UK, French, and Soviet. The “brain” drain through the open border in Berlin caused the East German government (obviously with Russian concurrence and some say, encouragement) to opt for a wall: Too many East Germans (estimated at about 3.5 million) were voting with their feet and sought refuge and freedom in the west sectors before being flown out to West-German.

Ich bin ein Berliner”

The building of the Wall was also seen by many observers at the time as a test of the new American President, John F. Kennedy. Historians seem to be divided over whether and how much the President and the intelligence community knew about the plans for a wall, or if there was even a tacit American acquiescence for its construction.

President Kennedy visited Berlin in 1963 and his speech - with its now famous words “Ich bin ein Berliner” - was credited for giving West Berliners a very needed moral boost. I remember this speech very well as a teenager, and while we may have chuckled a bit (see also our Quick German No.1: “Ich bin ein Berliner”), we certainly understood the significance of the speech.

Memories of Frightened Teenager

West-Berliners were not allowed to visit East Berlin initially. These restrictions were later eased for holidays and other "hardship" circumstances. (And East Germans could only travel to West-Berlin and West-Germany with special authorizations and under tight control in later years). On the other hand, West Germans could usually visit East Germany and East Berlin after obtaining a visa. A trip to Berlin had become a tradition for many senior classes in West-German High Schools and so, in 1965, I found myself on a bus to East Berlin going through the  Wall at Check Point Charlie.

While I do not recall being checked as we entered East Berlin, I certainly remember being stopped on the way out. We all had to get out of the bus and present our passports to an East German border guard. He looked at my passport, then asked me to step into an adjacent room. A grim-looking officer waved the passport in front of my face and said that it was not valid. By that time (and while our teacher and my class mates looked on helplessly through a windowed door) all I could think of saying was “But this is a new passport, I just got it before the trip.” The officer looked me up and down, looked at the picture again and then, reluctantly satisfied and after what seemed like an eternity, finally said: “Then you'd better sign it.”

I still remember now that my legs were shaking when I joined my class again. What seemed like an insignificant and easily corrected oversight was a serious issue in 1965 in East-Berlin (and, with heightened security concerns, maybe it is now again everywhere). Many attempts to escape from East-Berlin were made, through tunnels, through sewers, in cars, by swimming, etc. Over 100 people were killed during such attempts, when the East German Police received shoot-to-ill orders shortly after the Wall was built. And while I, as a West-German, should have had nothing to fear, the climate of intimidation, cold-war press reports, etc. had affected me as well and frightened me.

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

After President Reagan had made another famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, it took a little more than 2 years for the Eastern Block to disintegrate. Historians and politicians may still debate whether President Reagan's or Bush's policies were more responsible for the fall of the Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the countries it controlled or whether such policies just accelerated an inevitable system failure. Hungary and Czechoslovakia had already started to allow East Germans to leave through their countries in mid1989; protests in East Germany culminated in a demonstration of over half a million people on the Alexanderplatz in Berlin on November 4, 1989. And then events further accelerated.Berlin Wall: Border Guard escaping By November 9 the new East-German government saw the handwriting on the wall (no pun intended) and amidst confusion of directives and orders to the border guards by government officials the borders opened up.(This 1961 picture actually shows Conrad Schumann, an East German soldier of the People's Army escaping, just as the Wall was being built, curtesy of Wikipedia)  

The official dismantling of the much-hated Wall only began in mid 1990. On October 3, 1990 the East German state was dissolved and joined the West German state in becoming the reunited Germany. Today, Berlin is again the capital of Germany and, with a population of about 3.5 million, its largest city. It has also regained its status as, arguably, one of the world's top cities for science, culture, media, and politics.

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