Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

“Immersion-Style” Foreign Language Learning?

immersion - Gamesforlanguage.comOn our Gamesforlanguage home page, as well as on our social media pages, we say that we provide "immersion-style" language learning. What do we mean with "immersion-style" language learning? To answer this question, let's first back up a little.


Whether you can learn a language through "full immersion" is a much-debated topic.

On the one hand, many agree that full immersion - living in the country or in a community where the language is spoken - is the best way to become fluent in a foreign language.

On the other hand, much has been written about the numerous immigrant children who have difficulty keeping up in their new school and about adults who've lived for years in a foreign country but haven't really mastered its language.

I experienced full immersion in a foreign language twice as a child, once at age 9 (Dutch) and once more at age 11 (English), neither language I had learned during my early school years in Austria.

In both the Netherlands and Canada, I attended school and got special help from teachers to learn how to spell, read, write short compositions, and give brief oral reports. It was all pretty intense because I learned all other subjects (maths, geography, history, social studies, etc.) through a language that I was also just learning. And, of course, I continuously improved my language skills by being with friends.

My husband experienced full immersion in a foreign language twice as an adult, once at age 23 (French) and once again at age 28 (English). In both French Switzerland and the U.S., he literally acquired language fluency "on the job."

In both cases, his learning was based on language skills (reading, writing, speaking) that he had learned in school in Germany. Discussions with friends and the tasks of daily life provided him with ample opportunities for further practice.

It seems clear that you need more than just living in the foreign country to become fluent in the language that's spoken there. You need the kind of learning environment that's right for you and often extra, personalized instruction.

Above all, while you are "immersed" in a foreign language, you need to understand what is being said and what's going on around you, otherwise it all goes over your head. Especially for an adult, it's useful to be able to relate a foreign language to one's native language: understand what's similar, what's different - until your new language becomes a natural and intuitive tool for communication.

Under the right circumstances, full immersion will work. But not everyone has the time nor the opportunity to go live in another country just to learn a language. We therefore have to employ other strategies and methods, and create, as Brian Powers calls them Simulated Language Immersion Environments


You can set up your own simulated language immersion by setting aside times during the day when you hear or use only the language you're learning. Among our favorites are these five examples:

-Watching a foreign movie with (or even without) subtitles in that language.

-Reading a book in the foreign language without looking up words.

-Conversing with someone only in the foreign language.

-Listening to an audio that's completely in the foreign language.

-Talking to yourself only in the foreign language.

Such bouts of short-time immersion, if done frequently, can yield good results. In my experience, you can get the most out of them if you already have a good basic knowledge of the language.

Still, even if you are a real beginner, there are skills to be gained during these short-term language immersions. You'll become familiar with sounds and rhythm of the language just by listening attentively; by looking for visual context clues in a film or video, you'll learn about non-verbal communication; by reading simple texts you'll start internalizing the look and spelling patterns of a language; and by memorizing basic conversational phrases and repeating them to yourself, you'll practice basic sentence structure and the mechanics of sounding out words. 


Aside from full immersion and short-term immersion, there are, of course, other ways to learn a language. Rather than limiting yourself to one only, it's often best to use several different methods and resources. In the long run, these have a way of complementing and boosting each other.

GamesforLanguage's (G4L's) “immersion-style” learning is simply one such approach. I'll outline what we consider immersion-style features of our courses by contrasting them to a couple of other popular programs and approaches.

  • G4L puts you right into the middle of spoken language. For example, you could be using an expression with a subjunctive or conditional in one of the first course lessons. This is different from textbook learning, or Duolingo, where you start with simplified language.
  • With G4L you hear only the language you're learning, and no English (except for a brief introduction giving the context). This is different from Pimsleur (an audio program) where around 50% of what you hear are cues in English to prompt the learner's translation.
  • G4L strengthens listening and speaking with various games and exercises: With “Say It” you repeat what you hear and then only see the written foreign word or phrase for a brief moment; in other games, you have to identify the foreign word after only hearing it. Finally, by recording and playing back the story dialog, learners can improve their pronunciation and also begin to memorize expressions and sentences.
  • G4L's short written exercises have you writing only in the foreign language. This is again different from Duolingo, where between 10-20% of what you write is in English.
  • G4L does not use pictures but works with text only. Yes, sometimes pictures do help one to remember a word. But once you get beyond objects and some simple actions, the technique of using pictures is limited.
  • That's what happens in Rosetta Stone's programs. Once you get beyond basic objects and actions, it's not always easy to figure out what a picture is supposed to mean.
  • Besides, as you learn learn new words and expressions, it makes a lot of sense to create your own mental image or scenario. And, there are various mnemonic techniques that provide powerful ways for improving vocabulary memorization.(Try The Universe of Memory for a free course and very helpful information on memory and learning!)
  • In each of the G4L lessons, the learner plays several games that break a segment of the travel story down into its component words and phrases. Then follow a couple of games that have the learner reassemble the story again, with a final exercise to "record and replay" the full segment.
  • Finally, G4L uses games and a story as teaching tools. Games make learning more fun and help to put you into a state of flow as you memorize new words and figure out grammatical patterns. The story provides the kind of context that lets you imagine a scenario that you're involved in, and gives you the precise meaning of the words you're learning.
  • Just learning lists of individual words, as in Memrise, Mindsnacks, and others, is not sufficient for learning a new language, although vocabulary learning is important and clearly necessary for communicating.

Neither online or typical classroom courses can ever create complete immersion environments. For such an experience, you have to live in the country or be a full-time participant of immersion language courses that also use the target language for teaching.

However, we've made a step in that direction by adding immersion-style features with the goal to maximize the learner's exposure to and involvement in the target language.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

La Paloma - Carmen - Cuba: Spanish language connections

DoveThe recent thaw in the relations between Cuba and the U.S. brought to mind that La Paloma, a song that over the years has been adapted and sung in so many languages, actually originated in Cuba.

In an earlier post, La Paloma Lyrics - Learning Spanish with a Song, we focused mainly on how you can learn some typical Spanish expressions by saying or singing the song's lyrics. In addition, we gave a brief summary of the song's history: Composed around 1860 by the Basque composer Sebastián Iradier after his visit to Havana.

La Paloma - A Song for the Ages

When you google "La Paloma song," you'll find a Wikipedia entry which tells you not only details about the song's motif (the dove), dating back to 492 BC;  some of its history (a favorite of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico); early translations into French and German in the 1860's, with new lyrics in different languages, interpretations by famous artists; as well as the many movies in which a version of the song occurs.

La Paloma is arguably the most frequently played song and melody in the world. I've read that in Zanzibar it's being played at the end of weddings, in Romania at the end of funerals. In Germany it's a sailor's song, made famous by Hans Albers in his movie "Grosse Freiheit #7" in 1944.

The La Paloma - Carmen connectionCarmen Opera Singer

When digging a little further, I discovered that there's a connection between Iradier's "La Paloma" and the "Habanera" aria in Bizet's Carmen: "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle," which is said to be very close, melodically, to "El Arreglito," another song composed by Sebastián Iradier. Both are "habaneras," the name used outside of Cuba for the Cuban "contradanza," a type of dance music that became popular in the 19th century. Bizet originally thought El Arreglito was a folk song, only to discover that it had been written by Iradier who had died ten years earlier. Bizet then added a note to the vocal score of "Carmen" to acknowledge the source.

Cuban Music History and Future

Cuba MapAnother Wiki entry further explains: "The Cuban 'contradanza' (also called contradanza criolla, danza, danza criolla, or habanera) was a popular dance music genre of the 19th century. ... Its origins dated back to the European 'contredanse,' which was an internationally popular form of music and dance of the late 18th century. It was brought to Santiago de Cuba by French colonists fleeing the Haitian Revolution in the 1790's ... During the first half of the 19th century, the 'contradanza' dominated the Cuban musical scene to such an extent that nearly all Cuban composers of the time, whether composing for the concert hall or the dance hall, tried their hands at the contradanza."

It's interesting that the language circle was completed when Iradier brought back the habaneras from his visit to Cuba and when Bizet used "El Arreglito" for his French opera "Carmen." Buena Vista Social Club

Many of the well-known dance styles such as rumba, salsa, mambo, chachacha, reportedly began in Cuba. In the coming years the rediscovery of Cuban artists, which began in the 90s with the popular "Buena Vista Social Club" album and Wim Wender's 1999 movie about the band, will very likely continue. And, if you're interested in the island's music and are maybe even considering a visit, the website will give you some worthwhile information and insights.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

GamesforLanguage's Most-Read Posts in 2014

2014This is our 200th blog post. Every January, we'll publish our 10 most popular blogs of the previous year.

2014 has been a wonderful year at GamesForLanguage, not just because we've grown our number of followers on Facebook and Twitter, but - as of December 2014 - our blog has gotten over 36,000 views.

Thanks for your interest and support! That's what fuels us - as well as the thousands of monthly visitors that come to our free language learning site.

We started GamesForLanguage 4 years ago as an experiment combining (fun) games and (serious) language learning for adults - and enlisted native speakers of French, Italian, and Spanish to our team. Yes, language games are very popular with kids, but we've been delighted by the positive and constructive feedback that teens and adults have given us about our approach. We always want to hear from you, and we'll get back to you quickly.

We look forward to another great year. It'll include creating new courses and lots of new Quick Games. Last but not least, we're both going for a spurt to fluency in Spanish and for a fresh start with a new language - Swedish for Ulrike and Dutch for Peter. It's a good way to stay sharp and humble, language learning wise.

Here are our 10 most popular blog posts of 2014:

  1. La Paloma Lyrics – Learning Spanish With a Song 
  2. 5 Key Steps for Re-Learning a Language 
  3. Fluency vs. Proficiency in Foreign Language Learning 
  4. Three (3) Ways to Better Engage in a German Conversation 
  5. 3 Steps for Training Your Ear When Learning a Language 
  6. Learning French - Cézanne and Banking 
  7. 12 Social Media Terms When Learning Spanish
  8. Si tu n'existais pas – Learning French with a song 
  9. The “Context Approach” for Language Learning 
  10. Not enough time? Really? Language Learning and Setting Priorities 

While several of the posts date back to previous years, it's surprising that #10 "Not enough time? Really? Language Learning and Setting Priorities" made it on the list, as it was only published on December 17, 2014. Apparently this post hit a nerve.

The La Paloma post has been a frontrunner since it was published in June 2013. Learning a language via well-known songs is clearly compelling. There are several other websites using this idea.

We recently published a post on French Social Media terms and are interested to see how it does this year. Social Media sites continue to be great places to practice and improve a language and being familiar with social media language is a good tool.

We welcome your comments and suggestions for new blog post topics! Wishing you an excellent and fun new language learning year!

Posted on by Peter Rettig

How P.M. Tools can Help Your Language Learning (and my Spanish & Dutch)

Time ManagementLanguages Around the Globe's (ATG) 10th most popular Post in 2014 - 10 reasons your language Project is Failing and What You Can Do about It – lists “Lack of Motivation” as reason #1 and Poor Time Management as reason #2. This is consistent with the unattributed survey graph we discussed in our previous post, Not enough time? Really? Language Learning and setting Priorities, although the graph had the order reversed: 24% of the respondents had voted for “Not enough time” and 16% for “Keeping up motivation” as their main difficulty when learning a new language. (We had also speculated that the “not enough time” response may hide other reasons, so the discrepancy matters little.)

Lack of Motivation or Waning Motivation?

Maybe “lack” of motivation is not the right term. Most adult language learners are quite motivated when they start learning a new foreign language. The strongest reasons are typically related to immigration, a new lover or family member, travel to or work in a foreign country, job or study requirements, and similar clear needs to be able to communicate in the foreign language. There are other reasons, such as getting in touch with your family/language roots, religious interests, challenging yourself, or even just a passion for language learning. There is, however, an obvious correlation: The stronger the NEED, the stronger the motivation.

Even if motivation was strong at the start, it can easily weaken as the magnitude of the language project becomes clear. This is especially true for those learners that get caught by slick marketing slogans and ads. And, motivation may also wane for those who have not learned to manage the essentials of what is really a long-term project. They will discover that learning a foreign language as an adult is not difficult per se, but that they will have to commit time to learn and practice. My father often quoted a (German) saying: “Vor den Erfolg haben die Götter den Schweiß gesetzt” which translates as “The gods have set  sweat (hard work) as a condition for success.

Well, learning a foreign language does not involve sweat, but it does require sustained effort. And those who indeed approach language learning as a long-term project could benefit from applying some of the Project Management tools they may already be using in their professional life.

What is a “Project”?

While not all elements typically found in Project Management handbooks are present in a foreign language learning project, important ones are: Projects follow a plan and organized approach; they have a beginning and an end and thus need a time schedule; they need resources; they have an end result or achieve a goal. What is, however, quite different from the typical “project,” which often involves many people, is that YOU alone are all of these in one: the Project itself, its main participant, the Project Manager, both a resource and a resource consumer, the judge of success, etc. Which P.M. Tools should you then apply?

Schedule – There are really two parts to this: (1) How long you have, and  (2) How much time you can commit. Both are obviously closely related. If you have only, say, three months to become proficient, you'll have to commit lots of time, take an immersion course, or find a tutor, etc. (See also our post: 10,000 Hours for Foreign Language Mastery? We state there, for example, that for languages in Group I, Language Testing International (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.)

On the other hand, if you have much more than three months, you have many more choices and decisions to make. Such a schedule or timeline does not have to be complicated and is not difficult to create. For my timeline, I use an Excel-type spreadsheet; below, I show my current plan for improving my Spanish and learning Dutch. (More about my reasons for learning Dutch below.)

ResourcesHere, money, teaching materials, and human resources come into play. Again, how long you have and available resources are important. From free to pricey online courses, library materials, books, CDs, audios and DVDs, adult education/community college/university courses, to immersion courses in your country or abroad – the choices and decisions are yours. The question of “What is best for me?” or “What is the best value for me?” is difficult to answer in general, but, if you google such questions, you can find many blog posts and reviews (including ours) for opinions and recommendations.

One note of caution: There is no single “best” program or approach. Money alone does not buy you proficiency in a foreign language. Nobody can do it FOR you. You have to do the learning YOURSELF! There may be approaches and methods that fit the way you learn better than others. Do some research and try out some approaches. Most importantly, find the course(s) – in whatever medium – YOU ARE MOST LIKELY TO STICK WITH. But once you have decided on one or, even better, several teaching resources, you should show these and your practice/attendance on a simple timeline. (see below)

A schedule then serves several purposes: It documents your plan visually, you can add, modify or delete activities, it shows key milestones: reading an article; understanding a conversation, an audio, a video; participating in a conversation; writing emails, texts, a journal; proficiency tests, etc.

Accomplishment/GoalHere, language learning deviates from the typical “project completion” celebration as learning a foreign language as an adult is often a life-long project.

Take my case: I've been in the the U.S. for many years, but have never been able to completely eliminate my German accent – it's not as noticeable as Henry Kissinger's, but it's still there. I took “accent reduction” classes and have to be conscious of how to pronounce “Ws” and “Vs.” I also occasionally find words that I have not heard before. On the other hand, I read German newspapers to keep up with German as well. As with all languages, German is constantly evolving alongside new social developments.

However, by setting certain milestones and targeting your learning to achieve these milestones, you can celebrate your accomplishments and then set yourself the next one. If your goal is acing a proficiency test you need to take for college or work, it's an obvious one. But as you can see from my schedule example below, I also have a very specific goal for learning Dutch.

Why Learn Dutch?

Dutch is not a language one would learn without a very good reason. (A Google search surprised me, though: There are over 23 million people speaking Dutch, the majority living in The Netherlands (16 million) and the Flemish part of Belgium (6 million). Islands in the Caribbean (Aruba, Netherlands Antilles, St. Maarten), Suriname (South America), and elderly Dutch speakers in Canada and Indonesia make up the balance. In addition, Afrikaans, one of 11 official languages used in South Africa, is based on Dutch, and Afrikaans and Dutch speakers mutually understand each other. (This adds another 7 million.) Now, the reason I want to learn to UNDERSTAND Dutch is this:

Every couple of years, my wife and I attend a family reunion in The Netherlands. My wife understands and speaks Dutch fluently and with my German background, I sometimes can make out a little. But that's not enough to really be part of a conversation – even if I were to answer in English or German. Now you may know that the Dutch probably speak better English than most of their European neighbors and our relatives are no exception. But when joining a table where everybody speaks Dutch, I often found that making all switch to English seemed like an imposition. My goal therefore is quite simple: I just want to UNDERSTAND the conversations of our Dutch relatives. This way, when I am sitting at a table where Dutch is spoken, I can participate in the conversation and not force the whole table to switch to German or English. My longer-term goal is obviously to also speak Dutch, but I'll be happy with an interim step by September.

My Plan for Spanish and Dutch

The timeline below shows my current plan. Gamesforlanguage learning scheduleMy focus is on completing the Spanish Duolingo course, as well as our GamesforLanguage Spanish 1 course (for the second time), before we head to Sevilla in the spring. During our stay in Sevilla, we plan to hire a tutor for regular daily practice. My wife and I will make every effort to converse in Spanish and obviously take every opportunity to practice our Spanish while shopping, sightseeing, etc. We'll evaluate ourselves on our Spanish fluency at the end of our stay.

After our return in the spring, I'll increase my Dutch learning efforts, complete the Dutch Duolingo course, and subscribe to one or more online courses, most likely, Babbel and LingQ. My goal is to understand Dutch conversations during our stay in the Netherlands. I do not know yet what I will do after getting back home. I'll probably start reading some Dutch books, maybe watch some Dutch YouTube clips, and, yes, start talking more in Dutch with my wife. 

As for Spanish, assuming our fluency has further improved, we'll look for conversation partners among our friends and on online language exchanges, continue reading Spanish books and newspapers online, and watch Spanish movies and videos - because we know: "If you don't use it, you'll lose it!"


Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

15 French Social Media Terms When Learning French

Social Media Just starting to learn French? So, how soon could you begin reading real French texts online? The question of how soon one can master the basics of a language gets hotly debated in many of the polyglot forums and language learning sites.

Duolingo gives a pretty precise answer. When you've reached around the middle of its French course, you'll get a message saying something like this: "You are now able to read and translate 53% of French articles on the Internet." And you'll see the call to action: "Start translating." That means with around 800 French words which can be learned in 4 months or so, you can start reading, understanding, and even translating online articles. (I noticed that for me with GamesforLanguage Spanish, it was 750 words and also took me 4 months.)

I hasten to add that it is crucial to learn a language in context. Learning lists of individual words does not prepare you to communicate beyond one-word or two-word sentences, or with English sentences that are clothed in French words. To truly communicate in French, you have to get an intuitive feel of how the language works, understand when to use formal or informal expressions, and be aware that the meaning of words can change in various contexts.

The early milestones of mastery are important but they are just a beginning. Once you've gotten the basics in reading, writing, listening, and speaking, you then own the tools to build your skills.

If you regularly read online articles in French and participate in French online conversations, your level of mastery will increase dramatically.

Here are 15 basic social media terms to get you started:

partager - to share

suivre - to follow; suivez-nous - follow us

j'aime - I like (Facebook)

commenter - to comment

continuer la lecture - continue reading

envoyer - to send

rechercher sur - search on

fermer - to close

s'inscrire - to register, subscribe; vous désinscrire - to unsubscribe

mis à jour - updated, disclosed (on)

poster quelque chose - to post something

répondre - to reply

se connecter - to connect (oneself)

créer un nouveau compte - to create a new account

réseau social - social network; réseautage social - social networking

Learning a language has never been easier than now. The internet provides a wealth of resources and information for anyone with a little time and dedication. But it's more than information to be consumed. On the internet, you can participate, write comments, exchange information with those who have similar interests, you can learn and help others to learn.

If you want to get started with news or some fun, colorful articles in their Lifestyle sections, here are the links to The Huffington Post France and The Huffington Post Québec:

Go to Facebook and find pages in French. You can look for pages around interests that you have, follow trends, learn new words and phrases, and discuss language issues.

If you're particularly interested in French language questions, here's a great Forum in which to participate:

Forum mondial de la langue française

We're always happy to see you on our GamesforLanguage Facebook page. We follow some of the polyglot personalities on their language adventures, post blogs and articles on language learning in general, and tricks and hacks on learning the four languages that we teach: French, Spanish, Italian, and German. And, we always welcome comments in French. Bonne année et j'espère à bientôt!

Posted on by Peter Editor

Molten Lead, Red Underwear, Grapes, and other End-of-Year Traditions in Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Spain, and Mexico

FireworksNew Year's resolutions (and Fireworks!) seem to be universal in many countries and many of us use the beginning of a new year - whenever that may be - as a moment to both look backwards and forwards.

And, as the biggest New Year's Eve party in the U.S. is arguably held at Times Square in New York City, other countries also know how to party in their capitals or major cities. Around the London Eye (the giant Ferris Wheel), huge fireworks light up the sky and the New Year's Day Parade with dancers, acrobats, and musicians is the place to be.

The Arab world does not celebrate the New Year, Dubaithe notable exception being Dubai, where this year another spectacle will likely eclipse last year's event at which nearly 500,000 firework rockets lit the sky during just 6 minutes. This year the entire façade of the Burj Kalifa, at 2480 feet the highest building in the world(right), is to be covered with LED screens, which will be part of the fireworks, laser, and video show.

China celebrates its New Year according to its moon calendar, in 2015 on February 19, when the year of the sheep begins with the traditional Chinese fireworks and the country comes to a standstill for nearly a week. However, January 1 is also a holiday in China and in the larger cities the young celebrate the day by eating out and going to parties.

In countries where the four languages of our gamified Courses and Quick Games are spoken, the end-of-year traditions vary quite a bit, even by region in each country. The summary below can only list a fraction of the events and traditions and we invite our readers to comment and add others they know about.

German Speaking Countries

German is the country's only official language in Austria, Germany, and Lichtenstein. It is the "majority" language, and shares official status with the other languages, in Switzerland and Luxembourg.


New Year's Eve in German speaking countries is also called "Silvester," as December 31 is St. Silvester (or Sylvester) Day. This fourth-century Catholic pope and saint became associated with New Year's Eve, after the reform of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 when the last day of the year became December 31. (Apart from the German-speaking countries, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Israel all use a variant of Silvester's name as the preferred name for New Year's Eve.)

RummelpotlaufenIn Germany's northern state Schleswig-Holstein, quite a few old traditions survive: "Rummelpottlaufen," quite similar to Halloween in the U.S., sees costumed children with a self-made music instrument (a can, covered with pig skin or thin leather, pierced by a willow-stick, which when turned and rubbed makes hollow and scary sounds), going from door to door on New Year's Eve, singing old tunes and being rewarded with candies and sweets.

Berlin is the site of Germany's biggest New Year's Eve party, which takes place around the Brandenburg Gate; "Berliner" (jam-filled doughnuts) are a particular favorite in Berlin, as in many other German-speaking countries during Silvester.

In the southern parts of Germany, originating from Austria and Switzerland, a cheese Fondue or Raclette is often also a typical New Year's dinner. At midnight a "Feuerzangenbowle," a punch made with red wine, orange peels, cinnamon, cloves, and poured over a burning sugar cone supplements or even replaces the German "Sekt" (sparkling wine).


In Austria, Vienna clearly holds the top spot for New Year's Eve celebrations. Bleigießen:LeadpouringBefore midnight, small marzipan or chocolate "fortune gifts" (figures of chimney sweeps, little fortune piggies, four-leaf clover, etc.) are exchanged; as in many other German-speaking regions, "Bleigießen" (lead pouring) - the melting of small pieces of lead, dropped into cold water - results in a popular, fun game: the various forms of the the hardened lead pieces let the participants speculate what a person may experience in the coming year. This YouTube video of an ARTE.TV video (see also our post on how to connect to  ARTE.TV) explains to a French audience (in German) how "Bleigießen" is done.

Impressive fireworks are part of the Vienna tradition as is a glass of champagne, and after the midnight countdown, the Danube waltz plays on all radio and tv stations.

I'm not familiar with any particular Silvester traditions in Switzerland, Lichtenstein, or Luxembourg that differ from those in the other German-speaking countries and regions.

French Speaking Countries

French is the second-most widespread language worldwide after English, as only these two languages are spoken on all five continents. French is an official language in 29 countries, most of which form la francophonie (in French), the community of French-speaking countries. It is spoken as a first language in France, southern Belgium, western SwitzerlandMonaco, the provinces of QuebecNew Brunswick and some parts of Ontario in Canada, parts of the U.S. states of LouisianaMaineNew Hampshire and Vermont, among educated classes in North AfricaHaiti, French Polynesia and by various communities elsewhere. [Wikipedia]

While particular end-of-year traditions may exist in most of these countries, we'll just focus here on France.


In France, huge municipal firework displays are not the customary way to usher in the New Year these days. French people tend to take things more quietly and celebrate with friends at home or in a restaurant. These New Year's Eve celebrations - le réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre - traditionally are a feast that includes plenty of champagne and foie gras or oysters, symbols of prosperity and good fortune. [You say "la" Saint-Sylvestre because it's short for "la fête de Saint-Sylvestre."] At midnight, everyone kisses under the mistletoe and offers their good wishes for the new year.

In Paris, the city ofEifel tower lighted at night lights, New Year's Eve becomes a visual feast: from many vantage points in the city you can see the iconic, illuminated Eiffel Tower. And, you'll find the biggest New Year's party on the Avenue de Champs Elysées, where hundreds of thousands of people gather to celebrate and wish each other "Bonne année" (Good year). This year, Paris is adding a first-time spectacle before the final countdown: a 15-minute video show projected on the Arc de Triomphe, highlighting the Parisian "art of living." At the stroke of midnight, the skies will fill with illuminations.

On New Year's Day, it's the tradition to have a large family dinner and to give presents to the children as a way to celebrate the arrival of the new year.


Italy, where San Silvestro died on December 31, 335, obviously has a special relation to the Saint and uses the term "Notte di San Silvestro" (as well as "Vigilia di Capodanno") as names for New Year's Eve.

Red Underwear Christmas Present

There are some particular Italian Notte di San Silvestro traditions that you may not know about:

The most curious one must be to wear red underwear during the last day of the year. It is supposed to bring you luck, health and love. Importantly, it should have been given to you as a present, for example for Christmas, and worn for the first time on New Year's Eve. This centuries-old custom, originally just observed by women, is now also being adopted by men! Anything for luck, health and love! 

The San Silvestro dinner, eaten with family and friends, varies quite a bit from region to region, but it often includes fish and seafood. At midnight when the bells ring, a traditional lentil stew is often eaten, one spoonful per bell, served together with "zampone" (pig's trotter, stuffed with spicy ground-up pork, usually dried and cured) or "cotechino" (a rind-and-pork-meat sausage). The round lentils, representing coins, are supposed to bring wealth and good fortune.

At midnight, fireworks are also displayed across much of the country and the first day of the year, "Capodanno," is an official holiday in Italy as in most other parts of the world.

Italian is also an official language in Switzerland (Tessin & Graubünden), San Marino, and Vatican City, and a second language in Malta, Slovenia, and Croatia, but we know little about particular end-of-year traditions in these regions or countries.

­Spanish Speaking Countries

Spanish is a national language in 20 sovereign states and one dependent entity, totaling around 442 million people. For a Wikipedia list of countries where Spanish is an official language, click here.We'll focus here on Spain and Mexico.


New Year celebration in Spain starts with a family dinner, which often take place in a restaurant that also offers live music. Towards midnight many Spaniards go into the streets and to public squares to meet with friends and clink glasses to ring in the new year. New year's celebrations are lively with fireworks and all kinds of noisemakers. In the town hall, sparkling wine and grapes for good luck are distributed.

Grape holderIn Madrid, people flock to Puerta de Sol for the city's big communal street party. But no matter where they live, Spanish people share the custom of the twelve luck-bringing grapes: at each of the twelve strikes of the midnight clock at the Puerta del Sol clock, you eat one grape and make a wish. (There are even special 12-grape holders as shown in the left picture) At strike 12 all grapes must be gone or else you risk getting bad luck. The strikes of the town hall clock are 3 seconds apart, so the official countdown starts 36 seconds before the hour. Throughout the country, everyone can watch the countdown on television. [It is said that the custom of the 12 grapes goes back to 1909. In that year the grape harvest was overly plentiful that someone had the idea to use up the excess grapes in this way.]

From midnight on, it's time for toasts, hugs, and well-wishing, but not before each person has tossed a golden ring into his or her glass, for good luck.

And similar to the Italians, Spaniards also believe that wearing red underwear on the last day of the old and the first day of the new year brings the wearer luck, health and love.


In Mexico, a family dinner, either at home or at a special restaurant is at the center of new year's celebrations. Tradition has it that the meal should start with a bowl of lentils, a symbolic promise of wealth and prosperity. The preferred drink is often tequila. Shortly before midnight grapes are handed out for the traditional luck-bringing ritual. As in Spain, you should eat a grape and make a wish at each of the twelve strikes of the clock at midnight. The grape tradition seems to have migrated to most other Spanish-speaking countries as well.

Also, in Mexico there is a slight "refinement" from Spain's tradition: Mexicans have to choose what is more important to them: Wearing red underwear lets the owner be lucky in love, wearing yellow underwear makes the owner wealthy in the New Year.

Family Traditions

And as countries and regions have developed particular traditions and celebrations, so have many families: In my father's family in Berlin, Germany, the after-midnight snack was "Heringssalat," a Scandinavian/Northern Germany specialty that has many recipe variations. The herring, potato, apple, and pickle combination makes a welcome change after the sweet treats of the Christmas season and we are now continuing this tradition with our extended family here in the U.S.

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 practice.

There is also 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 than “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 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 played for a few 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 Greene 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.

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