Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

"Games" for Language Learning Fun?

Monopoly Game - GamesforLanguageLet's be honest: Most adults don't classify learning a foreign language as one of their favorite fun activities! It's not because it's really difficult. But it requires persistence and endurance. You don't learn to understand, speak, read and write a new language in a few days or even a few months. A “foreign language” isn’t something you cram for a week and then it’s yours. Learning a language is a journey of discovery. Putting the journey into a games format can definitely lighten the experience.

Stories for Learning German

I remember how we enticed our American-born sons to learn German. We didn’t just give them the German translation of our daily vocabulary. Stories were key. We read stories to them. We unabashedly made up tales as we talked. We built on the stories that they invented. All of this in German, with explanations when they were needed. Our sons ended up mastering the German language pretty well. As the boys were growing up, video and later computer games were becoming enticing activities. How often did I wish that some of these games had a fun and worthwhile component for learning German! 

Games Can Make Learning Addictive 

That's how the idea for Games for Language was born. Google it, and, in addition to GamesforLanguage, you'll find many entries for language learning games, an ever increasing number for the educational market. And even if programs like Duolingo are not listed here, most online language programs are now using games or gamified features, all for obvious reasons: Learning becomes more effective if the playing becomes addictive: the learner keeps learning because s/he wants to improve the score, beat the game clock, earn a badge, doesn't want to lose a streak, etc.

Games can provide short intense challenges with quick closure. Done right, they can put you into a kind of quick “flow learning” that bypasses slugging things out mentally. An online language learning site is a great resource. You can go there to play games when you feel like it - maybe even on an iPhone while you're waiting or just sitting around. You want to get into the game setting easily and pick up the game where you left off earlier. 

Quick Games to Practice on the Go

We also developed some Quick Language Games for German, French, Italian, and Spanish Shoot Out(as well as several Inglés Quizzes para hablantes de español). With words, phrases, and sentences from our courses, theses Quick Games can be played for FREE as well, without even logging in. They are perfect, when you are traveling as they work from most mobile devices, tablets, and laptops with WiFi. You can practice numbers, months and seasons, family names or learn how to check into a hotel. The games  only take a few minutes to play, but keep the language you are learning in front of you for the day.


Posted on by Gino De Blasio

Translation Faux Pas

Translating words from one language to another can be a very tricky thing and translation errors are common across the world. Even if you are proficient in a foreign language, specialized or technical language will often require professional translations.

Berliner PfannkuchenIn some cases, it is obvious what those making errors were trying to say (even if JFK had told the German people he was a plump and juicy jelly doughnut as a persistent myth suggests, it would have been very obvious as to what he really meant) whilst others simply boggle the mind (such as a sign above a restaurant in Thailand declaring that their “food is guaranteed not to cause pregnancy”).

The fact that saying you are a Berliner (or a Frankfurter or Hamburger for that matter) may mean very different things depending on the context, highlights just how troublesome a minefield translation can be. Whilst such lingual faux pas are amusing in certain contexts, many of the culprits no doubt wish they had visited translation experts such as thebigword rather than relying on free online tools.

Fortunately for all of us, some of the more extreme translation gaffes are simply hilarious and, rather than landing people in serious trouble, have simply given us something to brighten our days.

Translate Server Error

It is probably not uncommon for individuals to find the words ‘Translate Server Error’ staring back at them when online Translate Server error imagetranslations go wrong, although few would think that this is the direct translation of the words they fed in. Yet this is exactly what one Chinese restaurant owner assumed, creating a huge sign to hang above his restaurant entrance declaring that ‘Translate Server Error’ was the name of his business. If translating the name into English was a plan to attract more interest, we would say the restaurant very much succeeded.

What’s that smell?

One of the most common areas for a translation to fail is on a menu, some of them are simple spelling mistakes or written out of context, but few are quite so off-putting as the one which declared that a restaurant’s rice smelled of wee. We are not quite sure what they meant to say, but we are hoping that ‘Hele soup smell of urine’ wasn’t the exact translation they were going for. If it was, they get top marks for honesty at least.

Sweet Dreams

Not all confusing translations are outright hilarious. Some are also kind of sweet. In one Chinese town, a sign asking individuals to keep off the grass had its meaning lost in translation in a very wonderful way: “Do not disturb. Tiny grass is dreaming.” The baffling demand is most likely the result of back translating from English to Chinese to English since the Chinese translation above also makes no sense. However, who needs sense when you have something so whimsically delicious to enjoy?

Boots of Ascension

It isn’t just those in the East who have trouble translating words. Even right here in Europe where English is a much more common tongue, and our culture is not so alien, the same language issues can raise their funny little heads. In one Austrian hotel, skiers were asked “not to perambulate the corridors in the hours of repose in the boots of ascension”. Whilst it starts off well, if unnecessarily grandiose, it is unlikely that many people in a ski resort will have a special wardrobe of shoes to ascend to a prominent position. Nor is it likely that Jesus will be popping in to say hi.

Getting what you asked for

Either the following translation lost its true meaning en route, or there is a hotel manager in Athens who is very much a masochist. The sign declaring that “visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11 am daily” will not be very comforting to new guests and is either a poorly translated phrase or a master class in honesty and resignation.

Obviously though, these are worst case scenarios to translation that can lead to funny if not serious repercussions. This is where professional translation really is a requirement for businesses and individuals alike. In today’s world of instant communication, ever shrinking business borders and online reputation management, professional translations can be the difference between being seen as credible and trustworthy or, the complete opposite.

Author Bio: This article was provided by Gino De Blasio from thebigword. The Big Word is a global, technology-enabled language solution provider that delivers translation and interpreting services.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Trips Are Short: Make Language Learning a Life-Long Hobby

Paris Eiffel Tower, La Giralda in Sevilla, Rome Colloseum, Li River in CHina, Fribourg in SwitzerlandRecently, a New York Times article on language learning has stayed on the most e-mailed list for several days. It's called Inventive, Cheaper Tools for Learning a Language. This goes to show that plenty of Americans strive to overcome "monolingualism" - and are looking for tools to do so.

I posted the New York Times article on my G+ account, adding: "Language learning for adults has become easier than ever!" and shortly thereafter got a comment by a fellow language teacher. He didn't deny that fun, inexpensive tools are a boon to language learning, but simply said: "Although, being immersed in the language as it is being lived is still the best way. And it is easier due to the ease of travel!"

Prepare for Language Immersion

Can't argue with that one. Acquiring a language through immersion by being in a country where the language is spoken is the ideal setup for learning. I learned two languages that way as a child (Dutch at age nine, English at age eleven), and three more as an adult, during prolonged stays in Rome, Paris, and Barcelona.

But the experience of language immersion reaches a new level when you've done some preparation beforehand. It goes without saying that if you're planning a stay in another country, you'd enjoy arriving there with some basic knowledge of the language - before soaking up a lot more during your visit. And afterwards, you may want to continue to learn your new language, just as I have maintained my languages, by reading foreign newspapers, watching films, and sitcoms, participating in social media, and using various online language learning tools.

Short Trips, But a Life-Long Hobby

The point is that trips are short, though they provide vivid experiences that deepen our understanding, as well as allow rapid learning of a language. On the other hand, learning another language can become a wonderful life-long hobby that we start before a trip and continue long after. With the new, free or cheaper, inventive tools available online, it has become easier than ever to continue learning a language, forever.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend wrote me: "Language learning is definitely on top of my list. I especially want to learn Spanish. But life is too hectic!" My reply to him: "Ten to fifteen minutes a day can boost your Spanish significantly. Just use the time - that you would otherwise waste - by jumping on Duolingo (gamified lessons); or Memrise, Anki (flashcards); or Digital Dialects, Mindsnacks, Gamesforlanguage (language games); Tunein (foreign language radio stations).

So, plan that next trip for language immersion, but add some preparation and follow-up with online tools, a language exchange partner, a tutor, or a local class. Not only will you enjoy the pleasure of communicating in your new language throughout your life, you brain will also thank you. But that's another story. 

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Reaching the Next Fluency Plateau

PlateauFor many, speaking in a foreign language is the goal and reason for learning it. And, the best advice for learning how to speak, is: Just do it! Speak as often as you can, including reading aloud, repeating and practicing phrases, recording yourself, and obviously finding a native speaker to talk to.

Now, once you've reached a level of fluency where you can hold your own during an hour-long casual conversation in your second language, you may be surprised to find that you've hit a plateau.


That's what happened to me in French. I had been meeting a friend for a bi-monthly French-language lunch but I wasn't thrilled with my progress in speaking. So, I started reading the Harry Potter series in French. From meeting to meeting, I did notice that my vocabulary was increasing. However, after a few months, when I was getting well into the fifth Harry Potter tome, I again noticed that I had hit a learning plateau. I was improving some, but not to my satisfaction.


Then I decided to do an experiment. I put Harry Potter aside, and started writing as much as I could in French: e-mails to friends, journal bits, posting some on, and racing through, which includes translating into French, and writing down dictated sentences.

At my next French lunch chat - which was a few days ago - I clearly felt that I had again broken through a plateau. And this time, it was writing that had gotten me there. Yesterday, I came across the YouTube video of a talk by Judith Meyer, that she held at the June 2014 Polyglot Gathering in Berlin. She too experienced writing as a useful supplement for improving conversational skills.

So if you've reached a plateau in your second-language conversations, try adding some writing practice - chats, e-mails, journal pieces, etc. - in that language and you may find yourself happily moving to a higher fluency plateau.

Posted on by Peter Editor

Learning a Foreign Language Like a Child?

Brain AreasWe all marvel at the ease with which young children can learn one or even more languages. They can't read or write, but when they are immersed in a language, they learn to understand and speak it within weeks.There are some self-teaching language programs that would like you believe that their method can make you "learn a foreign language like a child." The implication is clear but wrong: no method lets an adult learn like a child does.

Key Differences

A recent Op-Ed article by William Alexander in the New York Times, The Benefits of Failing at French, summarizes some of the key differences between the ways adults and young children learn languages:

  • "...[a 2-year old brain has] 50% more synapses - the connections between neurons - than an adult brain..."
  • "...adults can't help but hear the second language through the filter of the first..."
  • "...[we] try to get everything right from the get-go and are self-conscious about our efforts."

Train your Brain while Learning

Yes, learning a foreign language requires more effort for an adult than for a (young) child. (The learning advantage that children have over adults begins to disappear between the ages of 6 to 8, according to some psycholinguists.) But think about it: for an adult it's a "twofer." Even while we grown-ups are struggling with learning a language, our "older" brain is gaining some huge benefits. There are even studies that conclude that language learning is likely to be more beneficial than popular brain exercise programs such as Luminosity.  (see also our post Baby Boomers and Foreign Languages.)

And as Mr. Alexander points out: "Not only is that [i.e. studying a language] a far more useful and enjoyable activity than an abstract brain game, but as a reward for your efforts, you can treat yourself to a trip abroad"...

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Games for Language: Learn and Play with Eduxeso

Eduxeso Home PageExplain3D - a system of educational simulations - has added a fun interactive iTunes Memory Game app for iPhone and iPad in four languages: English, French, Spanish, and German. There's also an Android app in Google Play for English. I played the iPad version of Spanish (Eduxeso-Spanish), which is a language I'm learning.

Like the other three Eduxeso games, "Eduxeso Spanish" is a card-pair game, in which you match a picture to a word. There are nine categories (Fruit, Animals, Colors, Food, Numbers, Nature, Clothes, Transport, and Tools). Each category contains 10 match-ups, so in total, you'll be learning, practicing, reviewing 90 Spanish words. The learning is just visual, there is no audio, but Peter Tomasovic, Founder of Explain 3D, said that in future versions, they would like to add audio.

Since I'm learning Spanish (now, as an adult), I knew some of the words, but didn't know others. For the words I didn't know - especially in the categories of Animals, Transport, and Tools - it was interesting to see how I learned. Here are four observations:

  • In a match-up game, you have to remember where the cards are. But if you don't know the words, it's a hit-and-miss process. It was this process which engaged my brain in trying out and guessing the meaning. Getting it right, especially after making mistakes, definitely helps me remember.
  • Repeating the same game, right away and then maybe the next day again, is a huge boost. For me, the category Tools was the most difficult. I noticed however, that the second time around, I remembered word-picture correlation much better, and by doing the game again the next day, I started putting the new words into my long-time memory.
  • A great follow-up for new words is to write them down in a small notebook. I use a 4x6 spiral booklet that I can keep around easily. Writing something down by hand benefits your memory in a special way. The words I'm trying to remember get a new look in my notebook. When I go back and play the game again, I'll find that they are well-lodged in my memory.
  • Last but not least, the memory match-up game is really fun. Since you're not just memorizing words, but engaged in remembering where the cards are as well as identifying and guessing words in a foreign language, your brain is in high gear.

Learning a foreign language requires you to stay motivated for some time. If your current course or program starts to bore you - try Eduxeso or other game-based programs and put some fun back into your learning experience.

Disclosure: has no business relationship with Explain3D other than having purchased the Eduxeso-Spanish 99 cents iPad app. We do, however, derive earnings from 3rd party ads, e.g. Google Adsense, on our site, that may feature Explain3d, Eduxeso and other companies reviewed by us. See our PrivacyPolicy and  Terms of Use  for further details. 

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Wanting vs. Needing to learn a foreign language?

Wanting Vs NeedingMany adults still have bad memories from their foreign language learning days in school. Unless they had a family connection to the foreign language they were learning, had friends who spoke it, or just had a natural curiosity about language in general, children and teenagers often saw required language classes as a necessary evil.

However, as adults they may come to see the benefits of speaking a foreign language. They may encourage their children to do so and – motivated by TV or web-based marketing campaigns – may even want to start learning a foreign again themselves.

Wanting” to Learn

Learning a foreign language has never been easier than today. A couple of decades ago, options included traditional classes, books, records, self-teaching tapes and CDs. Now you can learn with online self-teaching courses, online personal tutors, you can skype with language partners, listen to MP3 audios, watch videos, join language community networks, etc.

But as Lingq's Steve Kaufmann, somewhat provocatively states: “Nobody can teach you a language. – You have to learn yourself.” And while this notion may be argued by some language “teachers,” most of us adult language learners also know how hard it is to stay motivated.

Radio, TV, and online marketing ads by companies such as Rosetta Stone and others make many “want” to learn a foreign language. But sustaining the efforts through the many months that it takes to become proficient or fluent in a new foreign language are much harder. And those that are enticed by marketing slogans such as “Learn a language in 10 days” or similar ads, are the first ones who are disappointed when this proves to be just wishful thinking: “Wanting to learn” usually has to be supported and sustained by strong reasons, if the learning is not to be abandoned early.

Needing” to Learn

In the language teaching community, it is no secret that an adult's strongest motivation for learning a second or third language is the “need to learn.” Such “need” is often caused by external circumstances: moving to another country, wanting to learn the language of one's significant other, fulfilling an educational or an employer's requirement, following a particular career path, etc.

Even when we marvel about how easily young children pick up a second language, we should not forget that they also do so most naturally when they need to be understood by their caregivers and/or playmates. (Games, play acting, etc. can also motivate them during more formal instruction!)

The “need” to be able to communicate in a foreign language is by far the strongest motivator for learning it. So what are you to do when you don't really “need” to learn but just “want” to?

Setting Goals and Staying Motivated

Even without external “needs,” we are all able to accomplish the goals that we set our mind to, i.e. goals that we “want.” In respect to learning a foreign language, this just requires that we set realistic goals and are deliberate about how to stay motivated. We explored this topic in previous posts: “7 Ways to Stay Motivated When Struggling to Learn a New Language,” and “7 More Ways...” 

But it also requires that you settle on the right learning method for yourself. This may take some time. For some, attending adult education classes may both be possible and effective; others may find the audio-only lessons work best for them; both free, as well as fee/subscription-based self-teaching courses can easily be found on the internet and often tried out before committing.

In “3 Tips...Part 1:Beginners” and “5 Top Tips...Part 2-Non-Beginners,” we suggest how you can begin and continue learning a foreign language. And when “wanting” and “needing” merge into each other, then staying motivated will be a breeze.


Posted on by Peter Rettig

Spain and Catalonia – Not Just a Language Conflict...

Spain and Catalonia FlagsDuring our stay in Barcelona and travels though Spain in 2012, we became keenly aware of the brewing conflict between Spain and Catalonia, a juxtaposition we initially did not understand.

Is Bilingualism the Answer?

Our previous post, In Barcelona Speaking “Spanish” Is Not Enough..., only touched the tip of the language iceberg. We were surprised at the time in Barcelona how many people appeared to be truly bilingual. A recent Reuters article: "Catalan language revival fuels backlash in Spain" reminded us of the language issues we had learned about during our stay. The article points to bilingualism as a potential solution, but disagreements remain. With the monarchy's fallen popularity, even the new King Felipe VI, who speaks Catalan, is not given much of a chance to heal the divisions.

More Than a Language Conflict...

Our friend in Barcelona, Jordi, recently updated us on the events since our visit: huge demonstrations; a human chain of about 2 million people from southern France to València in 2013; even bigger demonstrations planned for September 2014 and the planned referendum for independence of Catalonia on November 9. Fabian also sent us a link to an in-depth and quite balanced review of the situation, written by an English journalist, Gary Gibson: Spain's Secret Conflict, which includes interviews with many players. It is now obvious to us that, while language is an important issue, it is clearly more than that: cultural, historical, economical, emotional, political, and many other aspects are mixed into the disagreement.

We hope that Fabian's ominous statement - “Sadly the Spanish government has the bad habit of bombing Catalonia now and then. We will see! - is just reflecting historic events, and that democratic processes can avoid violence. Examples exist: in 1905, Sweden agreed to a peaceful dissolution of its union with  Norway; and German speaking South-Tyrol is now a multicultural success story after years of conflict.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Foreign Language Learning for Adults - Reading, Listening, Writing, and Speaking

Reading,Listening, Speaking imagesYoung children generally learn a language by listening, repeating, and speaking. By contrast, adults who use self-teaching language courses for learning a second (or third) language, also are asked to practice their reading skills by most programs. (There are exceptions, of course, such as Pimsleur's audio courses.)

For English speakers acquiring a Germanic or Romance language, the similarities of these languages to their mother tongue is certainly a big bonus.


Frequent reading can obviously increase your foreign vocabulary tremendously. Once an English speaker has grasped some of the basics of a new language, reading may be the easiest language skill to acquire. This is especially true if reading is done on the web. Online dictionaries - or even better - Google's Chrome Extension,, and other translation tools can quickly help you find the meaning of unknown words or expressions. Just compare this to the cumbersome way of the past, when you had to consult a hardcopy dictionary to look up words.


Listening to a foreign speaker when you're just starting to learn a language does feel overwhelming: You can't even distinguish individual words, nor can you understand any meaning. That is why most online language courses combine reading with listening. Associating a written word with its pronunciation is an important step towards remembering its meaning. Here, repetition is key. After listening to the same audio again and again, you gradually start to distinguish where words and phrases begin and where they end. That is why GamesforLanguage and other programs recommend listening to the audio of each lesson or level as often as possible.


Writing skills in a foreign language may often even lag behind speaking. You may never write like a Thomas Mann in German, express yourself like a Flaubert in French, a Cervantes in Spanish, or an Eco in Italian. However, writing out words and phrases in a foreign language is a good way to practice them as it also helps memorization.


For many English speaking adults, speaking a foreign language fluently seems to be the hardest skill to master. You can only master foreign sounds by speaking them out loud. But at the same time, you have to deal with the inhibitions and the angst adults feel in the face of potential embarrassment. Online programs that have learners record their voice and compare it to that of a native speaker are probably just as effective as those that use voice recognition. Beginners can easily be frustrated and discouraged, so you should use what works best for you. (see also our post on Mouth Mechanics)

For most adult language learners speaking a foreign language fluently may be the ultimate goal, but fluency can only be achieved with frequent practice. Learning words and expanding your vocabulary is important and essential, but so is listening, reading, and practicing aloud. All four language skills in fact support and enhance each other, but unless you start speaking, you won't become fluent!

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

6 Top Ways to Learn and Practice Vocabulary

Vocabulary Learning WaysWords and phrases are the building blocks of a language, but you also need the know-how for putting them together. So, the best approach for learning a new language is acquiring some language basics (useful vocabulary, an understanding of how to create sentences, essential grammar, the sounds of the language).

Once you've done that, you'll want to increase your vocabulary, right? The more vocabulary you have, the better you'll be able to express yourself.

Here are 6 proven ways to learn and practice vocabulary:

1. Use Flashcard Programs

Flashcard programs are available for free or for a fee to anyone with a computer, tablet, or smartphone. The most popular program is probably But quizlet, anki, antosch-and-lin also have good features and plenty of fans. One reason good flashcard programs work well is that they are based on the principle of spaced repetition and prompt active recall. The key is to practice often and to sneak in practice time whenever you need a break, are waiting in line, or have an extra ten minutes.

2. Label items around your house

Learning the words for items that surround you in daily life is an excellent idea. By labeling these items in the language you're learning, you'll easily build up useful vocabulary and keep the foreign words in your memory. You could even add some relevant short phrases. Write your own post-it notes or use a program - for example - that provides labels you can download.

3. Keep a small notebook

Writing down words by hand is still the best way to embed them in your memory. Handwriting seems to activate deeper learning. According to Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris, in What's lost when handwriting fades: “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated. ... [And with this] learning is made easier.” This YouTube video gives you a few cool tips and tricks on how to keep a vocabulary notebook.

4. Create a Mind Map

A mind map is an ideal way to cluster and organize your vocabulary. Visuals, colors, diagram-links all reflect how the brain thinks and they reinforce how the brain makes associations. The combination of words and images you create yourself activates both sides of your brain. Such mind maps are a great way to individualize the way you learn. The following video by the creator of Mind Maps contains a host of ideas and tips.

5. Learn Songs in your new language

Music helps to activate the whole brain for learning. So it's no surprise that songs are particularly suited for immersing you in a foreign language. There are various reasons for that: songs help with pronunciation and memory, and teach you the rhythm and flow of a new language. Also, because you can easily find songs you enjoy, you're likely to go back to them again and again. As the popular polyglot Benny Lewis suggests in his blogpost "Sing to learn languages": "A good approach is to memorize the lyrics of a song and practice them repeatedly until they've become second nature." (On our own blog, we have a few suggestions for French, German, Italian and Spanish songs.)

6. Read news articles other texts online

You can easily read news articles and other texts online with a browser extension that provides you with the translation of individual words and their pronunciation. Popular examples would be Google's "Language Immersion Chrome Extension," and A similar idea is behind Steve Kaufmann's site. By reading online, and tagging plus seeing the translation of the words you don't know, you can increase your vocabulary rapidly, especially if you use the linked flashcards to practice them later.

These 6 Tips aren't in any special order. Everyone has different preferences. But if you combine some of these tools in a way that works for you  - and if you have fun using them - they're bound to give your vocabulary a huge boost.

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