Posted on by Peter Editor

South-Tyrol – A Multicultural Success Story?

South Tyrol: Geisler Mountain RangeIn our travels we have always been interested in learning about the ways languages have influenced the history of a region or country. And while separatist movements are typically caused by economic inequities, power struggles, religion, etc. they can be further fueled by language differences – even if the language differences don't seem to be significant to a foreigner.

It's well understood that language unites the members of a family, tribe, community, state, nation etc. You can feel it yourself when you encounter someone in a foreign country who speaks your language: there is an immediate connection with that person, and the language is the link.

So it is no wonder that conquerors and kings, dictators, and victors in wars have tried to impose their language on the acquired regions. But generally, a NEW foreign language cannot be forced on populations without causing anger, resistance, and often bloodshed. There are many examples in history where such attempts were not successful.

Brief Background

South Tyrol had been awarded to Italy after World War 1. By 1923, Italian became the mandatory language at all levels of local, provincial, and local government, and by 1928, the only language of instruction in schools. Mussolini accelerated the Italianization by settling many Italians in a region which, in 1919, was 90% German speaking. When the region remained with Italy after World War 2 - with many of the pre-World War laws remaining - the German majority was not happy.

I visited South Tyrol in 1965 as part a graduating class trip, and my class mates and I experienced first hand the friction between the German and Italian speaking population (which, at that time, still involved violence and bombings).

South Tyrol – Key Ingredients for success

With the many separatist movements in the world today, the recent article in the New York Times, Italy’s Historic Multicultural Compromise, gives reason for hope. The article notes that the German-speaking population in South Tyrol is still the majority, albeit with 61.5% vs. 23.1% Italian, based on the 2011 census. (About 4% speak “Ladin,” a language quite close to the Swiss “Romansch,” and 11.4% speak a variety of other languages.)

It also appears that among the key ingredients that allowed South Tyrol to overcome its separatist past are both a willingness to compromise, embrace bi-lingualism and cultural diversity, as well as Rome's concessions on “home rule,” (i.e. strong local governance and retaining 90% of the tax revenues). It's quite likely that it takes ALL of these “ingredients” to achieve success and continued efforts to maintain it. Let's hope that the lessons learned in South Tyrol can be shared with and applied in many other parts of the world.


In view of Russia “encouraging” Crimea's vote to separate from Ukraine just recently, possible plebiscites looming in Catalonia and Scotland, attempts by the Veneto region to separate from Italy - South Tyrol's recent history is a good reminder what it takes to overcome separatist movements.

On the other hand, Norway's peaceful separation from Sweden in 1905 was quite extraordinary both for its deliberate process and adherence to the law. It makes great reading for history buffs and has also some interesting language implications which we described in our 2013 post Language Politics... 

Posted on by Peter Editor

Foreign Language Maintenance & Improvements

A recent post by Learning a language? It's all about the connections! reminded me how important it is to maintain and improve my foreign languages.

Native vs. "Old” Learned Languages

My native language is German, but I've been living in the US for many years. Without reading German newspapers almost daily, I would not stay current with the changes in the German language. And, while I rarely have to look up any words and I'm not afraid of forgetting my German (I still speak it at home every day), I know that keeping up my French is more of a challenge. I learned French as a young man when I lived in (French speaking) Switzerland. I now read it quite regularly online, have conversations, and e-mail with French speaking friends and family members. But with French, I am more aware of the need to constantly maintain it. If I don't have an opportunity to speak it in a while, I find that it takes me some time to recall vocabulary and to get comfortable again with my pronunciation and sentence structures.

New Language Improvements

Having started to learn Italian and Spanish only a few years ago, I am still working on improving both my proficiency and fluency. I can read both languages quite well now and my fluency is improving. However, I am very aware of the fact that my vocabulary has to increase. I regularly play our own Italian 1 and Spanish 1 games and have recently started to use to help me grow my vocabulary, especially in Spanish. As I like to read Spanish online newspapers, using this new Chrome Extension works great for me. (I am still waiting for the iPad app so I can also read in bed, but understand there is an Android app already.) I not only get the translation of words I don't know, but can also practice & recall those words later – a key factor for moving vocabulary from short-term to long-term memory.

We're planning to do a more detailed review of later, when we have gained more experience with it. But for now, I'll just enjoy maintaining and improving "old" and "new" languages!

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Key Steps to Foreign Language Fluency

How to achieve fluency in a foreign language is a perennial hot topic in the language groups and forums that I visit. It's also a marketing hook - "fluent in 10 days" - as you've probably seen. But what does "fluency" really mean? How do you get there? And, how long does it really take?

To most people, being "fluent" means that you can speak a language easily and freely. In other words, you're not speaking in fits and starts and, for sure, you're not constantly groping for words.

Everyone gets to fluency a little differently. But for most, these steps are key: 1) Begin speaking the language as soon as you know how to say a few words. 2) Focus more on communicating and less on grammar. 3) Improve your pronunciation as you go along.


If your goal is "conversational fluency" in a foreign language, you'll want to start practicing your new skill right from day one. Whatever words and expressions you're learning, start using them whenever you can. Until you find a conversation partner, you may be limited to repeating aloud or talking to yourself. In addition, use a language program that lets you repeat and record words and phrases. You need to train your ear as well as master the right mouth mechanics. Whatever you do, it's crucial that you move your mouth to form the words and say them out ALOUD.


From other language learners, I often hear: "Talk, don't care about correctness. ... If it's close enough it's good enough." Being a language teacher, I'm surprised that I don't balk at this. But that's what the real world looks like: If you're not speaking your native language, you're bound to make mistakes. Look at me. I'm pretty fluent in Dutch. When I'm in the Netherlands, people are surprised at how well I speak Dutch. Yet, when I post on a site for learning Dutch, I frequently get corrected on details. For example, I'm told that you say: "ik zat in school" (I sat in school) instead of "ik was in school" (I was in school) - to mean that I went to school in the Netherlands, which I actually did for a couple of years. I like these corrections, and I'm learning a lot. But the bottom line is that I have absolutely no problem communicating in Dutch, even though I do make mistakes.


A perfect pronunciation is not a requirement for fluency. There, I've said it. And, I know plenty of people who are fluent in a language and who still have a foreign accent. A German friend of mine has lived in French Switzerland for quite a few years. She has family there and runs a successful business. French is the language of her daily life and she navigates through French easily - with a delightful German accent. It's clear that her foreign accent in no way impedes her fluency in French and that it doesn't affect her business nor her friendships in a negative way.

So, accent is not something you need to worry about - unless people can't understand what you're saying. What we do know, though, is that you can work on your accent to make it sound closer to that of a native speaker. Sounds are produced by the way you move your mouth. With practice - by repeating and recording your own voice - you can learn to say sounds that are not part of your native language. If you're really serious, you can take accent reduction training online, or with a professional in your own neighborhood. (My German husband did this and can now pronounce the American "w," a difficult sound to learn for German speakers.) But most of us find that our pronunciation can get better by practicing on our own.


The part I haven't mentioned yet is that you'll want to have lots of vocabulary. In order to talk about various subjects, you need enough words to cover them. The most powerful way to acquire vocabulary is to read. I enjoy novels because they give me information about levels of language (also called "registers") and about the culture of a country where the language is spoken. My husband, on the other hand, prefers to keep his languages current by reading online foreign newspapers every day.

How long does it take you to get to fluency? It's up to you and the time and effort you are willing to put into your language learning. Benny Lewis, a popular blogger on language learning, likes to aim for 3 months. Is that a challenge you want to take?

I think there's something to the three-months time frame. When my family moved to the Netherlands and I got plunked into school there, it took me close to three months until I felt comfortable enough to give a talk in front of the class. Similarly, when I moved to Canada, it was after about three months that people stopped asking me where I was from. But clearly, immersion is different from learning on your own. But if you can stay motivated, fluency is bound to be within reach.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Quick Games and Trivia Quizzes with GamesforLanguage

I recently looked at a New York Times Trivia Quiz and was amazed at how esoteric some of the questions were. And as the GamesforLanguage Trivia Quizzes, which we started with our Quick Games, are beginning to attract some followers, I wondered about the origin of "Trivia" and "trivial," both words that connate a lack of importance.

The Etymology of "Trivia"

Italian speakers will easily discover an original meaning: "tri" "via," based on the Latin neuter noun "trivium" - plural "trivia" means "a place where three ways meet." In ancient Rome it meant a junction of three roads, but also the three "Artes Liberales": grammar, logic, rhetoric, which - in medieval Latin became the lower division of the Artes Liberales.

The Wiki entry explains further how the adjective "trivial" was introduced.

  • A 15th century English translation of Ranulf Higdon mentions the arte trivialle, referring to the trivium of the Liberal Arts.[1]

  • the same work also calls a triuialle distinccion a threefold division. This is due to an application of the term by Arnobius, and was never common either in Latin or English.[2]

  • the meaning "trite, commonplace, unimportant, slight" occurs from the late 16th century, notably in the works of Shakespeare.[3]

Today, Merriam-Webster defines "Trivia" as:

  • unimportant facts or details

  • facts about people, events that are not well-known

Why are we interested in "Trivia Quizzes"?

The Webster definition may give a clue: Although the facts, which Trivia Quizzes often ask, are indeed "unimportant" per se, they may also not be well-known. And what is well-known to some, may however not be well-known to others.

A foreign language is a case in point: For all those who know what the Italian word "via" means, asking for the translation of road/street indeed appears appears trivial. But, if you don't know, or are not sure, finding the answer will satisfy your curiosity - assuming that you are interested in Italian in the first place.

Therefore, for those who are curious about the Italian language and facts, even if those appear trivial to Italian speakers, playing Italian Trivia quizzes can be both rewarding and entertaining for those who still need to learn the language!

And for those who are generally curious about "unimportant facts or details," the New York Times Trivia Quiz certainly challenges you to discover the "facts about people, events that are not well-known".

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Language Lessons in Gstaad (2)

On our hike down from Schönried to Gstaad, our friend Ursel told us about the surprising revival of Swiss German in written form through SMS/Texting and Social Media. We also practiced some Swiss German words in the local dialect of Bärndütsch. [see also our previous blog: Language Lessons in Gstaad (1)]

Once in Gstaad, we do a little window shopping and people ogling on the pedestrian way called Promenade. From there we also have a great view of the famous Palace Hotel (picture). And, walking towards the ice rink (which, in the spring, converts back to tennis courts for the Gstaad Open in June each year) we end up at Charly's Gstaad, a "Konditorei and Confiseri" for coffee and delicious pastries.

While observing the young and old skaters as they make their rounds, we learn and practice various greetings and other common phrases:

  • Grüessdi (Grüß dich - informal Hello, singular)
  • Grüessech (Grüß euch - informal Hello, plural)
  • Grüessi mitenand (Hello - all of you)
  • Exgüsee (Entschuldigung - excuse me)
  • Uf Widerluege (Auf Wiedersehen - Good-bye)
  • Adiemerssi (Danke und auf Wiedersehen - Thanks and good-bye, said by shopkeepers)

The Swiss day is nicely organized around meal times and snack breaks:

  • Zmorge (Frühstück - breakfast)
  • Znüni (Imbiss am Vormittag - midmorning snack, usually around 9 a.m.)
  • Zmittag (Mittagessen - lunch)
  • Zvieri (Imbiss am Nachmittag - mid-afternoon snack, usually around 4 p.m.)
  • Znacht (Abendessen - dinner, supper)

Kindergardners bring their mid-morning snack to school, it's called "Znünitaschl" (nine o'clock bag). They also bring along "Finken" (slippers) to wear inside.

For text, poems, and links to songs and YouTube clips in Bärndütsch, have a look on the popular Bärndütsch Facebook page.

We did not recognize any famous people this time – but we certainly learned a lot about Bärndütsch expressions and pronunications.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Bilingual in Fribourg, Switzerland

During our recent stay in Fribourg, Switzerland, we were again amazed by the mixture of languages we heard spoken in this small Swiss town of about 37,000.

Upper town and lower town

Fribourg, (in German, called “Freiburg im Uechtland” to distinguish it from its German Black Forest cousin “Freiburg im Breisgau“) is the capital of the Canton Fribourg and located on the cultural border between German and French Switzerland. (see above picture of upper and lower town) In the past, the language lines were drawn rather clearly: In the lower town, people spoke mostly a Swiss German dialect, in the upper town mostly French. And while German was the prevailing language until around 1800, French gradually became more influential. By the year 2000 nearly 64% spoke French, only 21% German as their first language (Italian was third with about 4%).

An impression: More bilingual German than French speakers

In restaurants, cafes, and shops, etc. you hear a mixture of French, Swiss German, “Schriftdeutsch” (see also our previous blog: Language Lessons in Gstaad), and other languages. Swiss German children start to learn “Schriftdeutsch” in first grade, and French a couple of years later. That's about the same time that French children learn “Schriftdeutsch” as a second language. (We also understand that in many schools English is taught already in fourth grade.) From discussions with acquaintances, friends, and relatives in Fribourg, we've gained the impression that there are more German speakers who are fluent in French, than French speakers who are also fluent in German. Whether this is due to the fact that French speakers are now the majority in Fribourg, or whether learning French as a third language (after “Schriftdeutsch) is “easier” for Swiss German speakers, or whether Swiss Germans feel a more personal or economic need to be bilingual than their French speaking compatriots, we just don't know. A visit of the local market provided a (not representative) sample, as most of the Swiss German speaking farmers did easily switch to French, while the French speaking bakers and butchers had more difficulty in speaking German (see picture above). 

Language still a divisive issue...

While the casual observer may be pleasantly surprised by the the city's apparent bilingualism, language in Fribourg - as in other Swiss cities and towns that are located on a language and cultural fault line - is often still a divisive issue. Not much has changed since covered this issue in in 2004, citing both Biel (where French speakers are the minority of the population, with 28 %) and Fribourg as examples. Family connections, social status, school locations, etc. all influence parents' decisions which language path their children should pursue. It certainly seems that in a small country like Switzerland (about 8 million inhabitants) being bilingual, or at least fluent, in two of the major languages, German and French, should have great professional and personal benefits.


Just as we were leaving Fribourg, the local Newspaper, La Liberté, reported that local film makers had adapted Pharrell Williams' song "Happy" of the movie "Despicable Me 2" to Fribourg, similar to what other Swiss cities had done. You can read the full article (in French!) with the link above and watch the YouTube video which shows many images of Fribourg


Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Language Lessons in Gstaad (1)

Brilliant mountain weather in the Berner Oberland - a perfect day for a 50 minute hike down from Schönried to Gstaad. We are joined by our Swiss German friend, Ursel, who lives in the region. The "Wanderweg" (hiking path) takes us over snow-covered fields, past chalets of many famous folks, and alongside farm houses. At a small stand we serve ourselves hot cider. You can also purchase local cheese and sausage - "Bio" (organic), of course, and all on the honor system.

We chat about this and that, in "Schriftdütsch" (Standard German) and Ursel translates a few expressions I ask her about:

Weggli (Brötchen - roll, bun)     Chacheli (Tasse – cup)

Chueche (Kuchen - cake)           Härdöpfel (Kartoffel – potato);

Rüebli (Karotte - carrot)              Anke (Butter - butter)

It has always struck me as curious that Swiss Germans would ask me: "Redä Si Schriftdütsch?" (Do you speak(!) written(!) German?) to find out whether I can also understand "Dialäkt" (dialect).

Ursel points out that Swiss German does not have an official written form. Newspapers and books are done in Standard German, as well as all formal and most informal writing. However, dialect dictionaries are popping up on the Internet, and SMS/Texting and Social Media are popularizing various forms or written dialect, as this Newly Swissed blog explains.

"Bärndütsch" is the Swiss German dialect spoken in the capital city of Bern and the surrounding Canton Bern. Ursel says that, typically, Bärndütsch loves to shorten verbs:

ga (gehen - to go)                ha (haben - to have)

la (lassen - to let)                  gä (geben - to give)

nä (nehmen - to take)          sy ( sind/sein - (are/to be)

Some of these words overlap with those of other Swiss German dialects, and some are distinct for the region of Bern. But, in any case, each region has a distinct accent. Most Swiss Germans can usually pinpoint what region an accent is from.

To get a sense of the sound of Bärndütsch, here's a short YouTube video ad for alcohol-free Feldschlösschen beer. How much can you understand or guess?

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

5 Reasons Online Language Games Make Great Quizzes

A recent research paper:  Daily Online Testing in Large Classes:.. shows that taking frequent short tests - or quizzes - can significantly boost learning. This appears to be true for subjects such as math and science, which combine rote memorization with thinking skills. It certainly can also be true for language learning, which requires the mind to absorb complex material gradually, and in steps that build on each other.

Typically in a school environment, quizzes were and still are used after students have learned their material, both to test their knowledge and give them feedback. In our new, digital trial-and-error culture, quizzing and learning often happen simultaneously.

Every Game is a Quiz

In order to advance in a game, you have to provide correct answers and are told immediately when you're wrong. This kind of immediate and regular feed-back on detail - pronunciation, vocabulary, spelling, grammar points, sentence structure, etc. - is exactly what you want when you're learning a language.

Games Engage the Whole Brain

Language learning tends to be a left-brain activity, but by involving several senses, you'll be engaging both sides of the brain. One way to do this is by playing video games that involve sounds, colors, movement, and various types of interactive play. It's well-established that multi-sensory learning helps create the kind of associations that deepen your language memory.

Games Help to Maintain Focus

By tapping into the rush of pleasurable feeling you get from achieving small successes and mastering challenges, games help you focus on each step and encourage you to stay with the language - as described in this blog bost: Games and your brain: how to use gamification to stop procrastinating. Accumulating points and badges gives you a sense of progress and motivates you to go on. Also, games can add humor to your learning (as text, images, sounds, etc.) and with it provide an extra level of fun and entertainment.

With Games You Can Practice All Four Skills Interactively

Digital games are versatile and can be structured to help you practice all four skills: listening, writing, reading, speaking - either individually or in combination. There are games to listen and repeat, others to record your voice, or write in the correct answer. Others still for constructing sentences, or identifying idioms. Digital games allow for as much repetition as you want. If a game is hard, you can do it several times, if it's easy, you breeze through and continue with the next.

Games Can Teach You How to Learn

If you use games for language learning on a regular basis, you're also forming good learning habits. A language is acquired gradually and step by step, so trying to cram a lot of learning into a short time doesn't work for most. Regular quizzing with games teaches you how to pace yourself and shows you the value of frequent recall and repetition.

The sudden, huge popularity of the gamified site Duolingo has put language learning with games in the spotlight. Other sites that consist entirely of language games, such as Digitaldialects, Mindsnacks, etc., and our Gamesforlanguage, are also getting increased attention. In turn, social networks and communities for language learning - such as Busuu, Livemocha, Mangolanguages - have started adding games to their programs. Last but not least, educational communities such as have groups where educators share new games, including language games. For anyone learning a language, this is all good quizzing fun.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Lessons from Mark Twain's “The Awful German Language”

In an earlier blog Heidelberg & Mark Twain, I speculated why Mark Twain had liked the name “Heidelberg,” the city where he stayed with his family for several months in 1878. (This topic had offered itself, as our German 1 traveler during his visit to Heidelberg learns the English translation of the city's name and its relevance to Mark Twain.)

Twain's love-hate relationship with The Awful German Language, published as an Appendix to his “A Tramp Abroad,” makes for amusing reading for anyone grappling with the the German language – and is especially hilarious to a native German speaker as he looks at German though Twain's eyes!

A few of his observations:

  • Declinations may be the crabgrass on the lawn of many who are learning German. Twain uses “rain” as an example and has some funny explanations for when “der Regen” (nominative) changes to “den Regen” (accusative), “dem Regen” (dative), or “des Regens” (genitive).
  • If you add adjectives, it gets even worse and Twain is at his satirical best when he notes:

When a German gets his hands on an adjective, he declines it, and keeps on declining it until the common sense is all declined out of it. It is as bad as Latin. He says, for instance:


  • Nominative -- Mein guter Freund, my good friend.
  • Genitives -- Meines guten Freundes, of my good friend.
  • Dative -- Meinem guten Freund, to my good friend.
  • Accusative -- Meinen guten Freund, my good friend.


  • N. -- Meine guten Freunde, my good friends.
  • G. -- Meiner guten Freunde, of my good friends.
  • D. -- Meinen guten Freunden, to my good friends.
  • A. -- Meine guten Freunde, my good friends

Now let the candidate for the asylum try to memorize those variations, and see how soon he will be elected.”

  • Twain also notes, correctly, that “the same sound, SIE, means YOU, and it means SHE, and it means HER, and it means IT, and it means THEY, and it means THEM.” The only way to discover the right meaning is to understand the context in which they are used.

There are a lot more funny and perceptive passages about the German way to create word-monsters, assign genders, separate verbs etc, etc. (Note also that there are some spelling and grammar changes that have occurred since 1876 e.g. to let, lease, hire is now spelled “vermieten” - not “vermiethen.”)

If you are learning German, his essay - as well as his 4th of July speech at the Banquet of the Anglo-American Club of Students - might amuse you. And hopefully it also encourages you to keep practicing. Even though German has its tricky moments, it definitely can be learned!

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Language Learning and New Year's Resolutions – and 5 More Ways to Stay Motivated

A recent article (January 12, 2014) in the Boston Globe, The Breaking point for New Year's resolution, reported some bad news and some good news.

CAUSE FOR PESSISMISM: A survey suggests that nearly half of people ultimately give up on their resolutions; and nearly half (43%) of those who quit do so by the two week mark.

CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM: 76% of people who keep their resolutions through February 1 keep going.”

We know that most adults learn a foreign language only when they need to or have a personal reason to do so. Therefore, it's not surprising that learning a new language is not one of the Globe's Top 10 Resolutions for 2014. (However, it could be part of #3: Improve Financial Conditions, #8: Improve Family Relationships, #9: Travel More, or #10: Become Better Educated.)

This blog completes our December '13 and January '14 series of ways to stay motivated when learning a new language, all three based on the blog The Ultimate Guide to Motivation – How to Achieve Any Goal, and its “20 Ways to Sustain Motivation When You Are Struggling.”

Here are the last five (5) more ways to get you at least to February 1. (Again, the headings and direct citations from the above mentioned Zenhabits blog are in italics.)

  • Get a coach or take a class – Studying just by yourself can be hard, and for some, a class environment with both peer pressure and peer support will be the way to go. For others, a coach or tutor not only provides added motivation, but also accelerates the learning progress. While learning with a tutor can run into money, you might know a friend who will provide coaching or counseling for free.
  • Never skip two days in a row - This rule takes into account our natural tendency to miss days now and then. We are not perfect. Obviously, a skipped day here and there happens to all of us. But if you avoid skipping extra days, you'll quickly notice how much faster you progress, which in turn, encourages you to go on. (That's why at GamesforLanguage, learning is FREE for those who play & learn at least three times per week.)
  • Use visualization – Visualize what it would mean for you to know the language you are learning. Think about a successful business meeting, a conversation with a foreign friend, chatting with locals in a foreign ccity – whatever the reason was that motivated you to learn a new language in the first place. Imagine that you can understand and speak it. Now here’s the next key: do it every day. For at least a few minutes each day. This is the only way to keep that motivation going over a long period of time.
  • Be aware of your urges to quit, and overcome them – With self-teaching language programs, it's mostly about finding excuses not to take out the book, not to listen to the audio, not to open the app/language program on you ipad or laptop. Zenhabits notes and recommends: We all have urges to stop, but they are mostly unconscious. ... A good exercise is to go through the day with a little piece of paper and put a tally mark for each time you get an urge.” Then have a plan for when those urges hit, and plan for it beforehand, and write down your plan, because once those urges hit, you will not feel like coming up with a plan. Your plan may include tricks for re-starting your enthusiasm, fun things to do (see below), or a visualization of the goal that matters to you.
  • Find pleasure again - No one can stick to something for long if they find it unpleasant, and are only rewarded after months of toil. Learning a new language can be a grind unless you can make it fun and interesting: Find a course you can truly enjoy, and once you have mastered some basics, find easy reading materials, stories, newspaper articles that really interest you, watch foreign movies, etc.

Maybe learning a new foreign language is one of your resolutions for 2014. If so, then you may find one or two of these “ways to stay motivated when you are struggling” helpful. And, if you find some other ways, please let us and our readers know: Keeping motivated is certainly one of the key elements for successfully learning a new foreign language as an adult.

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