Posted on by Peter Rettig

From Stralsund to Usedom – Exploring 2 German Baltic Islands

Fischland,Darss,Zingst Map - Gamesforlanguage.comLeaving Rostock, we again decided to take the slow road. We had read that three small islands linked to the mainland and each other by bridges - Fischland, Darss, and Zingst – cover a good part of the Baltic coastline between the cities of Rostock and Stralsund.

We had hoped to see some of the 60,000 or more cranes that arrive every fall on the island of Zingst, but the weather did not cooperate: It rained. The long beaches were deserted; the reed fields along the eastern inland coastline of Fischland - which at some parts is only about 600 feet wide - swayed sadly in the driving rain; Ahrenhoop, a favorite of artists since the end of the 19th century, showed no life.

Fortunately, by the time we reached Stralsund, the rain had become just a drizzle.

The second and third parts of this video: Ostsee: Lübeck, Stralsund, Rügen, Hiddensee, from the Mediathek archive of “Das Erste,” the German TV channel, show some wonderful images of Stralsund and the island of Rügen.


Stralsund became an important Hanse city Stralsund Town Hall - from Hamburg to Wismar for more about the “Hanse”) when it joined the League in 1293. Today it has about 58,000 inhabitants.

Together with that of Wismar, Stralsund's historical core is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the many imposing brick gothic buildings still give testimony to the city's former wealth.

The old market square (“Alter Markt”) is surrounded by buildings from different periods: the Gothic Town Hall (13the century), see picture above, the imposing St. Nicholas church (“Nikolaikirche”) completed in the 14th century, and the 18th century Commandantenhus.

Gorch Fock 1 and Rügen Bridge - Gamesforlanguage.comOur walk through the old city core made it clear why Stralsund had been of such strategic importance: It is surrounded by water on three sides.

At the harbor, we admired the Gorch Fock 1, the German Navy's former training ship, which is now a floating museum.

And from the harbor we could also see the new suspension bridge, which has connected Rügen, Germany's largest island, with the mainland since 2007. (see picture)


As the map shows, Rügen is a large island with many coves Island of Rügen - www.welt-atlas.deand lagoons (“Bodden”).

I always wanted to visit Rügen, as I remember my father talking about the island. He had wonderful memories of the vacations he spent there with his family in the 1920ties, at which time they lived in Berlin. I recalled him mentioning the town of Sassnitz, and so we decided to stay there for a few days.


(A linguistic tidbit: When Germany introduced a spelling revision in the early 90's, the original spelling of the town “Saßnitz” was then changed to “Sassnitz” in 1993. This was consistent with changing the “ß” to “ss” after short vowels. So, words that used to be spelled daß, naß, muß, Kuß, etc. changed their spelling to dass, nass, muss, Kuss, etc. The “ß” after long vowels in words such as Gruß, saßen, schließen, etc., were kept.)

Chalk Cliff @ Sassnitz - Gamesforlanguage.comSassnitz, a town with less than 10,000 inhabitants, lies on the northeast corner of the island at the edge of the Jasmund National Park. One of the attractions of the park is the Königsstuhl (king's chair), an over 350 ft high chalk cliff designated as a World Heritage site.

To see the famous chalk cliffs, we chose a boat trip, which took us from Sassnitz north along the coast. We not only saw the Königsstuhl and the adjacent chalk cliffs in the gleaming sunlight, but also heard much about Sassnitz' history.

When a rail link to Bergen, Rügen's main city in the center of the island, was established in 1891, the little fishing village of Sassnitz started growing and the chalk industry expanded. When the beach promenade was built in the early 1900s, tourism grew as well.

Later, during GDR times, the harbor was home to a large fishing fleet and a ferry terminal with service to Russia and Poland.

In 1984, the ferry terminal was relocated a fewMukran Ferry terminal miles south to the subdistrict of Mukran, to operate a railway ferry to the Soviet Union.

Today, the new and expanded ferry terminal in Mukran (see picture) is Germany's most easterly deep water port and has developed into a trading and transport hub for Scandinavia, Russia, the Baltics and former Soviet Union states. Because it is the only port in western Europe with track and transshipment facilities for Russian broad-gauge vehicles, it's often called “the most westerly station on the Trans-Siberian railway.”

However, the relocation of the ferry terminal and the decline of the fishing fleet after reunification, have made the large, well-protected harbor in Sassnitz look quite empty.

Sassnitz pedestrian bridge - Gamesforlanguage.comThe town is making great efforts to attract more tourism. Some of the old hotels have been renovated and a very impressive pedestrian suspension bridge connects the harbor to the upper town (see picture).

We had rented an apartment in the upper part of town in a private residence, whose garden extended to a cliff that dropped directly down to the Baltic sea.

Our landlady lived with her harbormaster husband in the downstairs apartment. We frequently chatted with her; she was very helpful, gave us advice on restaurants and walking tours, and even brought us a plate of homemade “Pflaumenkuchen mit Schlagsahne” (plum pie with whipped cream) on Sunday afternoon.

She also told us a story that still bothers her today – 25 years after the fall of the GDR:

In the mid-eighties, when travel restrictions between East and West Germany were somewhat eased for older people, she wanted to visit one of her sisters, who lived in Hamburg. In order to get the necessary exit Visa she had to go to Stralsund to be officially interviewed.

I will never forget this woman” she said. “I come from a large family with four brothers and three sisters, some of them I had not seen in years. She wanted to know why my sister Jutta, who lived near Berlin, had never asked to go to West Germany. How would I know?! This woman knew where all my sisters and brothers, even where my cousins lived and where they had traveled to. She knew more about my family than I did. It was really scary.”


We had never heard of Prora until a Swedish couple Prora aerial we met in Lübeck suggested that we visit the site. Only a short drive south from Sassnitz, we passed the huge new train/ferry terminal of Mukran and then stopped along a long beautiful white beach, which stretches all the way to the next, larger town, Binz.

Prora is one of these gigantic projects that Hitler had started in 1936, but never completed.

As envisioned by him and his planners, this seaside resort for the Nazi organization “Kraft durch Freude” (KDF, meaning Strength through Joy) was intended to accommodate 20,000 vacationers. The complex of buildings stretches for several miles along one of Rügen's most beautiful beaches and can be best appreciated from the aerial photo (right) and other maps and pictures on the Prora website. There you can also learn more details about the gigantic project that sprang out of the ground in only three years.

When the war began, construction was halted and after the war, the buildings were initially used by the Soviet army and later by the East German army.

Prora Condo sign - Gamesforlanguage.comToday, some of the buildings have already been renovated and are used as the Prora Documentation Center, a youth hostel, a coffee shop, and most recently apartments. So, nearly 80 years after construction started, and after decades of inaction and shame about its Nazi past, the “New Prora” complex is gradually being turned into luxury condominiums. (see picture)

After a few days of exploring Rügen – and there are more sights, places, beaches, towns, etc. to explore than we can cover here - we headed further southeast to another island - Usedom.


Usedom is Germany's second biggest island,Usedom - and maybe even more than Rügen, has again become “die Badewanne der Berliner” (the bathtub of Berliners) as it had been during the 1920s and 1930s. (And I, indeed, remember my father reminisce about Usedom as well.)

But I also knew of Usedom as the site of another notorious Nazi installation: Peenemünde. After Hitler came to power in 1933, this place became the world's most advanced center of rocket science research in only a few years.


Peenemünde is located at the northern, narrow tip of the island, separated from the mainland by a wide channel. This very location also explains why the research could be kept secret for so long.

Peenemünde Technical Museum - Gamesforlanguage.comOur visit to the Historical Technical Museum, (watch the video!) located in the observation bunker and former power station, (see picture left) was both interesting and depressing:

Interesting, because the exhibition explained the many stages of rocket development between 1932 and 1945, as well as in later years.

Interesting, because I did not know, for example, how instrumental Wernher von Braun had been not only in the research, but also in the development of the immense research and rocket production center.

Interesting, because I did not realize that, until the start of the war in 1939, scientists and workers from all over Europe were hired and came to Peenemünde.

Interesting, because I wonder, how the “distribution” of the Peenemünde scientists among the four allied powers after the war was still able to give the Soviet Union a head start in the space race - when the US was drafting the top brass;

Depressing, because of the damage and terror the V2 rockets caused, especially in England.

Depressing, because the German scientists,Peenemünde site  Peter Hall (including Wernher v. Braun) were successful in convincing the Nazi leadership after 1933 that more funding of rocket research would have military benefits.

Depressing, because once the war started, Peenemünde became a prison for foreign scientists and workers, and KZ inmates and other prisoners were used as forced laborers.

Depressing, because Allied bomb raids seemed to have killed prisoners and forced laborers rather than destroying the launching facilities, etc. etc.

The scale of the original Peenemünde research and production center can only be understood by looking at maps and aerial photographs. Except for the power station and observation bunker (shown on the picture above and only a small part of the facility), most other facilities were destroyed after the war.


After the interesting but also sobering visit to Peenemünde, we drove south towards the “Dreikaiserbäder” (Three baths of the emperor), the towns of Bansin, Heringsdorf, and Ahlbeck. They were favorites of German emperors until 1918. 

Biking in Heringsdorf - Gamesforlanguage.comAs we were looking for a hotel along the beachfront, we realized that these three towns are actually connected by an over 7-mile-long beach promenade. The beach and “Dünenstraße” (dune road) actually extends beyond the border with Poland, into the former Swinemünde, now Swinoujscie. (After World War 2, the southeast tip of Usedom, including Swinemünde, was awarded to Poland.)

We found a hotel in Heringsdorf, located directly at the promenade and enjoyed the pleasures of beach life for a couple of days. We took long walks along the wide beach. (To do this, we had to acquire a “Kurpass” for 3 euros each). We rented bikes and biked up and down the promenade. We also enjoyed some live evening concerts right at our hotel's beer garden.

At one of these concerts, we shared a table Heringsdorf Strand - Gamesforlanguage.comwith a young couple. (It's very typical in German beer gardens and restaurants to share tables.) We learned that they lived in Lübeck, a city we had just visited. We asked them what attracted them and their two young twin daughters to the Usedom beaches, rather than to the “Timmendorfer Strand,” the well-know beach in Travemünde near their home.

The Timmendorfer Strand is overrun by folks from Hamburg!” they answered. “And the beaches are cleaner and safer here, so our girls can play without us worrying.” (see picture of Heringsdorf Beach)

Their answer provided us with another insight and understanding why the Baltic sea beaches, with their low tides and beautiful white sand, are more attractive to beachgoers than the mudflats of the German North Sea with their 12-16 foot tides.

With our stay in Heringsdorf, we've come to the end of our trip along the German Baltic coast. The next destination, Berlin, will be the topic of our next travel post.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

How to Overcome Your Foreign Language Anxiety

anxious woman - Gamesforlanguage.comDo you ever get a little anxious when speaking a foreign language? Foreign language anxiety knows no age and can bubble up in anyone. It doesn't matter whether you're speaking formally in the classroom or office, on the telephone with someone you don't know, or informally "on the street." 

So, why do some of us get anxious when speaking to someone in a foreign language?

Well, we sometimes imagine all kinds of mishaps. The thoughts are all in our head but the fears feel very real. We worry about:

  • making a fool of ourselves
  • saying an utterly wrong thing
  • being badly misunderstood
  • making mistakes
  • being embarrassed

On top of that, our anxiety itself may have all kinds of effects on us:

  • we blank out in the middle of what we're saying
  • we forget words and phrases that we thought we knew well
  • we start to stutter or get visibly flustered
  • we start to feel nauseous or otherwise physically uncomfortable

Worst case scenario: As a result, we avoid situations in which we could use our foreign language. Ultimately, we find it hard to continue learning the language.

But it doesn't have to go that way!

A second or third language is a huge personal and professional asset. If you want to make that new language your own, it's totally worth dealing with your anxieties.

Below are 3 situations in which the fear of speaking in a foreign language often pops up, even in people who are outgoing and used to being assertive.

SPEAKING UP OR PRESENTING IN anxious student in front of blackboard - Gamesforlanguage.comCLASS, or in another formal context

Holding your own in a foreign language when you're being evaluated by a teacher, a superior, or even peers can be particularly anxiety-provoking. Before and during your speech, all kinds of additional emotions may come up, including jitters about standing in front of a group.

  • You may feel anxious about:
  • looking foolish
  • not being prepared
  • suddenly losing concentration
  • feeling self-conscious and shy
  • feeling unable to explain your ideas
  • getting stuck and/or losing your thread
  • going completely blank

Dealing with anxiety about speaking in front of a group starts the moment that you know you'll be doing it. But curious as it may seem, you have quite a bit of control over such an event.

Because you're anxious, it's easy to avoid thinking about the presentation. Thinking about it also means worrying about it. However, the key is to start early and not to procrastinate.

A Few Tips For Acing That Speech

  • Put your speech or presentation together as soon as you can, and don't try to make it perfect.
  • Practice your speech out loud, in front of a mirror, and if you can, before a partner or friend. Practice again and again until you have your speech pretty well memorized; then write down a few key words, and practice your speech again, this time talking more freely.
  • Look up and write down a few phrases that you'll need when you should lose your thread during your presentation, phrases such as: "what I meant to say ...", "okay, that's not right", "let's go back", etc.
  • Practice your speech, this time "blanking out" a couple of times. Use your phrases to get back on track. Don't forget to chuckle at yourself as you do this.
  • During your presentation, focus on the here and now. Find a kind-looking face in the middle or back of the room and from time to time use that person as a focus.

woman speaking on phone - Gamesforlanguage.comSPEAKING WITH SOMEONE ON THE TELEPHONE, or Skype, camera off

If you cannot see the other person, you don't get important visual clues from the other person. So, you have to focus exclusively on the person's voice.

This makes a telephone call in a foreign language with someone you don't know or don't know well, particularly difficult and anxiety-provoking.

In such a situation, you may be be concerned about:

  • misunderstanding what the other person is saying
  • not being able to formulate what you want to say
  • sounding scared rather than confident
  • saying something stupid
  • starting to stutter
  • having the other person hang up in exasperation

As with a presentation, preparing yourself is crucial. Even if your language learning goal has been only to "speak" in the foreign language, it's worth mastering some writing skills.

The good thing about speaking with someone on the telephone, is that you can have your "cheat sheet" right in front of you to help you along. If you're polite, relaxed, and smile as you talk, you'll be just fine.

A Few Tips For Dealing With Telephone Anxiety

  • Write out a couple of typical phrases for greeting someone on the telephone, and for starting and concluding a conversation.
  • List the items of information that you want to ask or to communicate.
  • Write down how to ask questions politely and how to confirm, "yes, that's it."
  • Learn typical phrases to help you get through the conversation, such as "Sorry I didn't understand," or "Could you repeat that, please?" or, "Did I get that right?"
  • Practice your phrases out loud, several times.
  • On the telephone, always repeat the information the other person gave you, just to make sure you fully understood.

SPEAKING WITH SOMEONE IN PERSON, woman speaking - Gamesforlangiage.comalso on Facetime, or Skype, camera on

Let's say you're lucky enough to know native speakers you can chat with in person. Or, also nice, you're in the country or in a region where your new language is spoken. All I can say is, go for it!

While having a real conversation may seem a little scary, you have the huge advantage of getting immediate feedback beyond the other person's responses and tone of voice.

You also get lots of visual clues: gestures, body language, and his or her facial expressions - especially the eyes. 

When talking with native speakers you know or meet, you would typically talk about yourself, your interests, things that you do, and ask about the other person.

If, however, you are visiting or living in a country where the language is spoken,
you'd have additional opportunities for applying your new language with daily tasks:

  • buying something at an outdoor market
  • asking for directions
  • ordering in a restaurant
  • asking for the check
  • purchasing a train ticket
  • looking for a specific item in a store
  • resolving an ATM issue in a bank (see our experience in Seville)
  • starting up a conversation while waiting in a line
  • making small talk at a social gathering

These kinds of language interactions are not quite as limited in scope as the others. Still, they are a great way to confront your foreign language anxiety in relative safety.

As a starter, you could preface any of these encounters by saying that you are just learning the language and that you're eager to put it into practice.

A Few Tips for Conversations

  • Prepare by writing down some of the words and phrases that you'll need, skyping - Gamesforlanguage.combe it for the task you'll undertake or the kind of conversation you're expecting.
  • Memorize and practice these aloud.
  • Write down questions you want ask, and phrases to help the conversion along, such as: "I didn't understand," "Can you repeat that," "What does X mean?", etc.
  • Take a piece of paper with you with a list of words. It can't hurt.
  • When you're in a conversation, pay attention to the filler words or sounds, "uhm", "hmm", "eh," etc. Use them, but cautiously at first. Used correctly, they can help you sound more like a native.
  • Be aware of the cultural context in which you find yourself. Become alert to what is appropriate, what is not. This is often learned through conversation, by asking questions, and yes, also by making mistakes.

When speaking a foreign language, the cultural context is highly important. In her timely talk - based on her book, The Anxious Language Learner: A Saudi Woman's Story - which Taghreed Al-Saraj gave at the 3rd Polyglot Conference in New York (October 10-11, 2015), she stressed how important a role culture plays in communication and behavior.

It also means that the person learning a language is adopting "a new identity ... (and) is learning a new way of doing things. ... What's normal in one culture differs from what's normal in another culture."

Should you indeed say something silly or make a cultural faux pas - you'll probably know this from the other person's immediate, verbal and/or non-verbal responses. When it happens, it's best to learn how to laugh at yourself, say you're truly sorry, and chalk it up to language-learning experience.

Just remember, a little specific preparation can make it easier to speak up in the foreign language you're learning. It's been proven that practice reduces anxiety. Then, when you are involved in a conversation, know in your mind that it's okay to make mistakes and to feel somewhat uncomfortable. With time and practice, you'll gradually learn to deal with your fears.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

From Wismar to Rostock – Travels along the Baltic Coast

windturbines - Gamesforlanguage.comLeaving Wismar (see our previous post: From Hamburg to Wismar for more about this city), we kept close to the  Baltic coast line and continued to be surprised by the number of windmills, which were everywhere. 

Germany seems to be serious about its plan to generate nearly all its electricity from renewable sources and virtually eliminate its use of fossil fuels by 2050.

We then came across two fantastic finds: the historic beach resort of Heiligendamm and the magnificent old city of Rostock, with its seaside town Warnemünde.

We had read in our Marco Polo Travel Guide “Ostseeküste,” that the “Badeleben” (life at the seaside) had started in the seaside resort of Heiligendamm in the 18th century, and we were intrigued.

What we always found surprising: After driving through a pristine landscape with narrow, tree-lined roads, fields of yellow rape-seed with wind turbines, as in the picture above, and no road-sign advertising, we found ourselves suddenly in a lively beach town, this time Heiligendamm.


Heiligendamm is actually part of Bad Doberan, the former summer residence of the Dukes of Schwerin. (The German prefix “Bad” is the official designation that a city or town is a health spa, because it has a natural resource - mineral rich water, hot springs, salt water, clean air, etc. - thought to have health benefits.)

In 1793 Duke Friedrich Franz I of Mecklenburg-Schwerin built some bathing facilities after taking his first bath in the Baltic Sea on the advice of his “Leibarzt” (personal physician). That year is generally seen as the birth of German beach culture, which thereby followed the English example.

Between 1793 and 1870 several German architects created the unique classicist Grand Hotel Heiligendammresort complex of Heiligendamm. Read more about its history here.

Duke Friedrich reigned from 1785 to his death in 1837, right through the Napoleonic wars. During his reign, Heiligendamm developed into an exclusive seaside resort. The European high aristocracy, including the German emperors and the Zsar family, regularly stayed there during the summer.

Interesting trivia tidbit: In 1823 the first horse-race track on the European continent was opened between Heiligendamm and Bad Doberan.

In 1862 a narrow-gauge railway (now called “Molli”) was built to connect both cities. We watched the steam-driven train pass by as we entered Heiligendamm.

The resort has been called “die weiße Stadt am Meer” (the white city by the sea) because of its white buildings. Until the 1930s Heiligendamm remained the vacation spot of choice for many prominent figures, film stars, politicians, etc. But during the communist era most of the structures fell into disrepair.

After Germany's reunification in 1990, investors bought and renovated many of the buildings. The Kempinski Grand Hotel, including the original “Kurhaus” (Spa) building, opened in 2003. (see picture above)

The 5-star Grand Hotel Heiligendamm hosted the 33rd summit of G8 leaders in 2007. (We could see how the somewhat remote location had helped to keep the reportedly over 20,000 protesters at bay!)

Heiligendamm mansions - Gamesforlanguage.comDuring our brief visit we enjoyed a walk along the wide beach promenade which runs in front of the row of white classicist-style mansions - several still undergoing renovations. (see picture left)

Clearly, the resort has not reached its prior prominence, but gated entrances and security add to the exclusive feel that the new owner of the hotel and the developer of the mansions want to foster.

Keeping close to the coast, our next stop was the seaside resort of Warnemünde, which, as we learned later, is actually a part of the city of Rostock.


Students of German may have guessed that the similarity of the names of “Travemünde” Warnemünde Beach - our previous travel post: From Hamburg to Wismar) and “Warnemünde” has a reason: Each city lies at the mouth of a river, in German “Mündung,” a word derived from “Mund” (mouth). The “Trave” river runs through Lübeck to Travemünde and the “Warnow” river runs through Rostock for 7 miles to Warnemünde.

In Warnemünde we admired a long white beach from the top of the accessible light house, right at the mouth of the river. (see picture)

The long promenade behind the beach was busy with bicyclers and and walkers, and we found Warnemünde quite a bit livelier than Travemünde had been.

The reason? Many cruise ships now stop in Warnemünde, with arranged tours by boat or train into Rostock. Villas, big hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, boutiques, etc. make this seaside town a destination for many.

Rostock mit MarienkircheRostock

With around 200,000 inhabitants, Rostock is still the largest city in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and this in spite of the over 50,000 people who moved west after Germany's reunification in 1990.

During the prime time of the Hanseatic League in the 14th century, Rostock was an important member and a seaport city with major ship-building facilities. And, by incorporating Warnemünde into the city limits already in 1323, Rostock also secured its access to the Baltic Sea. (Something Lübeck failed to do with Travemünde.) An S-Bahn now also connects both parts of the city.

Because of its strategic location, Danes and Swedes fought for and occupied the city during the 30-year war. The French under Napoleon held the city for nearly a decade at the beginning of the 19th century.

In the 20th century, important aircraft factories opened up in Rostock and Warnemünde. Rostock City gate - Gamesforlanguage.comThe world's first jet plane was built at the Heinkel factory towards the end of the second World War. With the allied bombing of those factories much of Rostock was also destroyed.

During the communist area of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Rostock became again a major industrial and ship-building centre. A significant portion of the city center was faithfully rebuilt, thereby restoring much of its historic character. New buildings were constructed with vertical brick ribs and in a style that brought to mind the Hanseatic League's red brick Gothic architecture.

In 1989, Die friedliche Revolution in Rostock was an incubator of East German workers' dissatisfaction and unhappiness with the political situation, travel restrictions, etc.

We got a glimpse of that when talking to the lighthouse cashier in Warnemünde. When we told him that we lived in Boston, he told us that he “nearly” visited Boston in 1984 when he was on a fishing trawler off the Boston coast. But the “political minder” who accompanied their ship on each trip would not let them dock.

Today, Rostock is a vibrant and thriving city. Similar to Wismar, its inner city bordering the harbor has been further restored. Our minibus tour took us through narrow streets and many of the city's sights: St. Petri Church, with its over 350 ft tower a landmark for fishermen and sailors; Stone Gate, a magnificent city gate with inscription, seal and coat of arms of the city council; Abbey of the Holy Cross, the former Cistercian convent, founded by the danish Queen Mary in 1270, St Marien Church, which took 400 years to complete, with it astronomical clock; the University of Rostock, founded in 1419, and Germany's third oldest.

We also learned that the headquarters of the AIDA cruise ship line are in Rostock, in fact, occupying an imposing building right at the harbor. This may also explain why many cruise ships have switched from Travemünde/Lübeck to Warnemünde/Rostock.

We enjoyed walking along the city harbor and though the old city. We climbed up one of the remaining gate towers, lingered in several of the many outside cafes, watched a dog having fun with water fountains (see video) and did all the other things that tourists typically do.

Our next destinations would be Stralsund and the island of Rügen

Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of He is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Are You Weaving Your “Language Skill Rope”?

language skill rope - Michael ErardIn mid-October, we attended the 3rd Polyglot Conference in New York City. It was great! More than 400 language aficionados were there to mingle with. There were also a number of interesting talks on a wide range of language-related topics.

One talk I enjoyed a lot was by Michael Erard, the author of Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners and other books about language and learning. He spoke about “A New Metaphor for Language Learning.”

According to Erard, a metaphor can shape the way you think and talk about a set of skills. For example, it can be helpful to:

  • explain abstract or complex concepts
  • conceive solutions to problems
  • foster communication
  • create familiarity
  • trigger emotions

I also did not know that metaphors can actually be “designed.” It was fascinating to hear Erard talk about his five-year experience as a full-time metaphor designer at the FrameWorks Institute, a Washington think tank. Curious about that, and how the skill-rope metaphor was developed? You can find out more: Frameworks Research Report “Weaving Skill Ropes”

According to Erard, the metaphor of “weaving ropes” works well for learning language skills, specifically.

While the idea of a language learning metaphor did not resonate with me initially, I've since warmed up to it. I now find the “rope” metaphor actually quite useful. It's put my language skills into a new light. It also helps me understand how my awareness of language learning has changed since my childhood.

Language Learning from Child to Adultkids playing -

At different stages of life, we learn language differently - and also think about language learning differently.

As children, we typically learn to speak our first (or second) language “naturally,” just by imitating our parents, caregivers, and friends and getting corrected by them. Watching my own and other children, it's obvious to me that they don't think much about what and how they're learning.

When we start with reading and writing in school, it becomes clear that we have to put in some effort to learn these skills. Besides, it begins to dawn on us that there are others who can speak, read, and write better (or worse) than we do. Whether it's a chore, a pleasure, and/or a competition with others, we have to learn how to read and write in our own language. It's essential to function socially.

Once we're teenagers or young adults and have added a foreign language to the skills we want to acquire, things really change. We think about why we learn another language. We may even have some kind of learning-metaphor in mind. We also become keenly aware that learning another language means focusing on the individual skills of listening/understanding, reading, speaking, and writing. And, to get “proficient” in one or all of the four skills, we have to work at it and practice a lot.

We also now know that there are reasons why, as adults, we cannot learn a foreign language the way a child does. For one, our ability to hear (and reproduce) certain sounds decreases in our teenage years. (See my earlier post Beyond 'Learning a Language Like a Child')

One popular metaphor for language learning is “long-distance running” (in contrast to a “quick sprint”). But the long-distance metaphor only speaks to the timespan required to become proficient in another language. It does not, for example, address how we acquire or develop the four skills, how the skills are related, etc.

blue ropeThe Skill Rope of Language Learning

In his post Language Learning is Weaving a Rope published on Schwa Fire, his online magazine on “language and life,” Erard explains why the metaphor of “learning skills as weaving ropes” works well for language learning:

"Ropes, as everybody knows, are made up of multiple strands, and language skills, like other skills, are made up of cognitive, social, and emotional components.

Learners have to have those strands modeled, and they also have to be given opportunities to practice weaving those strands together.

Some of the cognitive strands are given because you’re born with them (and they include working-memory capacity, brain processing speed, and general plasticity factors), while others are more plastic and can be enhanced.

The social and emotional strands involve activities like dealing with boredom, staying focused on tasks, doing fun things, dealing with errors, social anxieties, and seeking out opportunities to use a new language.

All these strands are related to each other, and the rope as a whole needs all these strands to be as strong as they can be."

Thus, we can think of each language that we speak, as a separate rope consisting of, say, three main strands, our cognitive, social, and emotional skills. We may all differ in such skills. But by weaving a strong “language rope,” we can take advantage of the reality that we can compensate for the weaker skills.

Keeping the “Skill Rope” in Mind

One may ask how learners can benefit from the skill rope metaphor or image. I believe that keeping the rope-weaving metaphor in mind has several benefits:

  1. Weaving means “doing” something active. - Yes, we have to memorize vocabulary, try out unfamiliar sounds by saying them, learn certain idioms and phrases, pay attention to grammar rules, find others to speak with, and many other tasks we have to organize and do. Only by being engaged with the new language as much as possible and in many different ways, will we progress.
  2. Weaving combines strands to increase the strength of the rope. - You may already know how you learn best. If memorizing vocabulary is your Achilles heel, find ways to compensate – try Mnemonics, use vocabulary apps or flash cards. If you're a very social person, you may weave your skill rope more successfully in a class with peers than alone at home with an online course.
  3. Weaving takes patience. – Making a strong skill rope of different strands takes time. There are ups and downs in how we learn. Sometimes we stop learning/weaving for a time, but we can always take up our learning again. Just imagine: the rope is still there and you can just pick up the strands again and continue learning/weaving.

Language Skill Ropes of Different Strengthsthree ropes -

The skill-rope metaphor makes it easy to imagine one's own proficiency in a language. Even the most accomplished polyglots at the conference – and we met quite a few in New York - will acknowledge that they don't speak every language equally well.

I have started to imagine that each of the three major strands - cognitive, social, and emotional - contain sub-strands of all or parts of the four language skills, listening, reading, speaking and writing.

My own language skills I therefore now see in this way: My German and English skill ropes are quite strong, my French one a little weaker (while I speak French fluently, my grammar and writing skills need work).

Italian and Spanish I imagine as still thinner ropes that need more weaving.

My “Dutch” probably is still the weakest rope. But I continue weaving on my Dutch by doing LearnwithOliver's Daily Dutch Exercise and speaking Dutch with my wife from time to time. 

Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of He is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Disclosure: has no business relationship with other than having received a free 3-month Premium account for Dutch. See our Privacy Policy and  Terms of Use for further details.


Posted on by Peter Rettig

Un–deux–trois: Some French Numbers Are Tricky Beyond 69...

French flight announcement - Gamesforlanguage.comFrom my school days, I remember French numbers with horror: the many nasal sounds and especially the numbers from 70 to 99.

But while traveling in French-speaking countries, I also realized how important it is to both understand and pronounce the numbers, such as when flight numbers are announced in French (see picture, above) and you, maybe, missed the English.

And, adding French numbers to your bag of basic words and expressions, such as bonjour, au revoir, s'il vous plaît, merci, etc., will make shopping in small stores or local markets both more pleasant and effective.

If we are traveling to a country whose language we don't speak, we now make it a habit to study at least its numbering system and memorize the basic numbers of 1 to 100.

We clearly benefitted from knowing the numbers when we arrived for a stay in Italy (See our previous post) and then again on trips to China and Japan. Of all the words we had learned to prepare ourselves - the numbers proved to be the most useful.

Most numbers that you see and write are in the form of digits. You rarely need to spell them.

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

French Numbers 1 to 20French number 14 -

For most English speakers, French numbers from 1 to 9 are not that difficult to learn and remember.

Most of the French 1 to 9 numbers show some similarity to English, though the pronunciation may be quite different: zéro (zero), un (one), “deux”  (two), “trois” (three), “six” (six), sept (seven), huit  (eight), and neuf (nine).

Only quatre (four) and cinq (five) are totally different.

The French number ten (10) is dix.

The numbers 11 to 16 have their own pattern. They combine a form of the prime numbers with the suffix -ze: onze (eleven), douze (twelve), treize (thirteen), quatorze (fourteen), quinze (fifteen), seize (sixteen).

The numbers 17, 18, and 19 use the combination dix-sept (as in ten-seven), dix-huit (as in ten-eight), and dix-neuf (as in ten-nine).

To practice those French numbers, just click on the game screenshot above or on Play French Numbers 1-20

Counting by Tens: 20, 30, 40, 50, 60

The French number 20 is vingt.

The numbers from 30 to 60 that end in a zero add the nasal ending -e/ ante to a form of the numbers 3 to 6: trente (30), quarante (40), cinquante (50), soixante (60).

French Numbers 21 to 69

The numbers 21, 31, 41, 51, and 61 are like English, except that the word et" (and) is inserted. According to the spelling reform 1990, they can be spelled without a hyphen vingt et un (twenty-one), trente et un (thirty-one), etc., or with a hyphen, vingt-et-un (twenty-one), trente-et-un (thirty-one), etc.

With those exceptions, all the numbers from 22 to 69 follow the English model: vingt-deux (twenty-two), all the way up to soixante-neuf (sixty-nine).

French Numbers 70 to 79 Get Tricky

Here the fun begins:

70 is 60+10: soixante-dix (as in sixty-ten);

71 is 60 and 11 (as in soixante et onze” or soixante-et-onze);

72 is 60+12 (as in soixante-douze);

73 is 60+13 (as in soixante-treize), etc.

up to 79, which is 60+19 (as in soixante-dix-neuf).

French Numbers 80 to 99: A Challenge for Some

French number 89 - Gamsforlanguage.comThe French number 80 is 4x20: quatre-vingts (four twenties). This provides the basis for the numbers 81 to 99 (except that you write quatre-vingt-xx without the -s when another number follows).

Once you've understood that the numbers from 81 to 99 all start with quatre-vingt- xx, all you need to do is add the appropriate number from un (one) to dix-neuf (nineteen). It's a fun way to give your math mind a little workout!

So, from quatre-vingt-un (81), over quatre-vingt-dix (90), to quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (99), the numbers are all consistent.

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

Click on the screenshot above or on Play French numbers 21 and beyond to practice.

Telephone Numbers

In France, telephone numbers are normally given as a series of two-digit numbers.

For the number 05 32 77 42 98, you'll hear: zéro cinq, trente-deux, soixante-dix-sept, quarante-deux, quatre-vingt-dix-huit.

To avoid confusion you may need to ask for each digit separately. Or at least, read the numbers back to the other person to make sure they are right.

French Numbers from 100 to 10,000 (10.000 in french)

For the numbers from 101 to 1999, simply add the hundreds to the numbers you already know. (Seeing these numbers written out is pretty rare. But, according to the 1990 spelling reform, the numbers are all connected with a hyphen, as we've written them here. You may also see them without a hyphen.)

Thus, 101 is “cent-un, 125 is cent-vingt-cinq, and 175 is cent-soixante-quinze.

The number 200 is deux-cents, with a silent -s for plural agreement. In writing, the -s is dropped when another number follows. So, 201, is deux-cent-un, 238 is deux-cent-trente-huit, and 296 is deux-cent-quatre-vingt-seize.

French Historical Dates

You rarely see historical dates written out, but there are conventions on how to say them.

In French, you start with mille (thousand) to say a specific year between 1101 and 1999.

So, 1323 (thirteen hundred twenty-three) would be mille-trois-cent-vingt-trois in French, and 1889 (eighteen hundred eighty-nine) would be mille-huit-cent-quatre-vingt-neuf.

You do the same for the current century. (Note that mille is invariable.)

The year 2000 is deux-mille; 2015 is “deux-mille-quinze.”

With this Quick French Game, you can practice some of the French numbers between 21 and 100 and beyond.

Millions, Billions, Trillions, etc.

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

French and English agree on 1,000,000 - “un million” (one million).

But, for the US number “billion,” (thousand million), the French say “milliard, and for the US number “trillion,” the French say “billion.” You can see the problem.

Swiss French (and Belgian French)

In Swiss French (suisse romand), a different and simpler form is used for the numbers from 70 to 99. The number 70 is septante, 80 is huitante or octante (depending on the canton), and 90 is nonante. It goes without saying, that it's a breeze to combine these round numbers with the single digits: for example, 74 is septante-quatre, 86 is huitante-six, and 98 is nonante-huit.

Belgians will also count with “septante” and “nonante,” but still use the French “quatre-vingts” and the combinations up to quatre-vingt-neuf.

Pronunciation Practice

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

You can practice the French r by clicking on this Quick Game or on the screenshot.the French "r" -

Many of the French numbers have a nasal ending with silent letters, depending on whether another vowel follows. In vingt, the g is silent and the t is spoken; in cent, the t is silent; but in trente, the t is spoken because of the silent “-e at the end.

Click on Vowels and accents, if you want to practice those.

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

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

From Hamburg to Wismar – Travels from West to East Germany

Holstentor, Lübeck - Gamesforlanguage.comAfter having explored several harbors of the “Nordsee,” and especially Hamburg (see also our post: From Utrecht to Hamburg), we headed to Lübeck, the first city at the “Ostsee” (Baltic Sea) we were going to visit.

Leaving the “Stadtstaat” (city state) of Hamburg, we were back into Schleswig-Holstein (Sleswick-Holsatia), the most northern of the now 16 German states, and which borders Denmark. (If you are interested to learn more about the state of Sleswick-Holsatia, click Here.)


After Kiel (the capital), Lübeck is the state's second largest city with a population of over 200,000.

Lübeck's 711-year-long statehood as a free city came to an end in 1937, when Adolf Hitler incorporated it into the state of Sleswick-Holsatia. (Reportedly, Hitler had a personal dislike for Lübeck, after the city's elders did not allow him to campaign there in 1932.)

I had been in Lübeck once during my teenage years, but remembered little of the city. I did recall, however, its role as the leading and most powerful member of the “Hanse,” the Hanseatic League. More about that below.

Lübeck's “old city” is surrounded by water and we drove to our hotel past one of its remaining signature gates (see pictures above, and right from top of St. Petri Tower). Although Lübeck from above - Gamesforlanguage.comseverely damaged from bombing raids during the last days of World War II, much of the city has been rebuilt in the old style. 

Lübeck was the birthplace of the brothers Heinrich and Thomas Mann. Those familiar with German film may recall “Der blaue Engel” (The blue Angel), based on Heinrich Mann's book “Professor Unrat.” The role of Lola” also launched Marlene Dietrich's career in film.

Thomas Mann, the more famous brother, is known for his novel “Die Buddenbrooks,” the generational story of a rich merchant family. Although Lübeck is never mentioned in the book, it clearly is the city where the story of the family's decline unfolds. The book is still a staple of German courses in Germany and many other countries.

Another famous son of Lübeck is Willy Brandt, Berlin's mayor from 1957 to 1966 and Germany's chancellor from 1969-1974. Brandt had emigrated to Norway and Sweden after 1933 and returned to Germany after the war.

The first part of this video "Ostsee: Lübeck, Stralsund, Rügen, Hiddensee" by the German "Das Erste Mediathek", the German TV channel shows some wonderful images of Lübeck.

Five things we did in Lübeck
1. A boat/harbor tourLübeck waterfront -
Lübeck has lost its importance as a commercial harbor, especially after Germany's reunification. A boat trip will take you in a circle around the entire old town and you'll hear many of the key sights described. During sunny and warm weather, we'd recommend the open tour boats, (which can pass though low bridges). The waterfront evokes images of times long past.

2. Hanse Museum
Visiting the newly opened Hanse Museum was a must for us.

The “Hanse” or “Hansa” (Hanseatic League) was a medieval trade association that linked many European cities during its prime, including Hamburg and Bremen, Germany's only two remaining city states.

Located at the site of a former friary, the museum presents the Hanse's history from its beginnings in the 13th century to its decline in 1669, when the last formal meeting was held. After that, the only three remaining members, Bremen, Hamburg, and Lübeck finally dissolved their pact in 1862.

Die Hanse - MapAt its prime, in the 14th century, the Hanse connected nearly 200 cities in Europe from Bergen and Nyborg in the north, to Bordeaux and Lisbon in the south, and Novgorod and Smolensk in the east. (Left: The spread of the Hanseatic League in the year 1400 by Plate 28 of Professor G. Droysens Allgemeiner Historischer Handatlas, published by R. Andrée, 188)
Check HERE for the museum's English website and HERE for its German version. (If you want to learn more about the Hanse, this Britannica entry gives a good summary)

Interestingly, many of the old Hanse cities have now joined again in a loose association called the Die Hanse. The organization, founded in 1980, with now 185 former Hanse cities in 16 countries, is reportedly the world's largest voluntary association of towns and cities.

Buddenbrook Haus, Lübeck - Gamesforlanguage.com3. Buddenbrook House

The house (see picture) in which the Mann brothers grew up has been converted to a museum, with rooms furnished as described in the novel. The biography of the two brothers is presented well with pictures and text. Both knew early on that they did not want to follow in their father's merchant footsteps. But the family fortune also allowed them to pursue their calling without financial worries.

4. Günther Grass House

Any lover of post-war German literature will want to visit this museum, which served as Grass' office and contains many of his memorabilia. Although Grass was born in Danzig (now Gdansk), he lived near Lübeck from 1995 on and kept his office in the building until his death in April 2015. In the museum, you'll find excellent presentations on Germany's 20th century history, especially war-related events, and on the controversy around Grass, who acknowledged his membership in the SS only late in life.

5. Marzipan shop
No visit to Lübeck would be complete without a visit to the Niederegger Marzipan Stammhaus (company building), which combines a shop, a café, and a museum. The history of the world-famous Lübecker Marzipan is described in an exhibition on the upper floor. In the historic Café Niederegger, you'll find an amazing selection of delicious cakes and pastries. It's hard to choose among them, believe me. (Needless to say, we enjoyed splurging in the Niederegger shop. But happily, we found out back home that you can order most of their Marzipan products on Amazon!)


Travemünde, Germany - Gamesforlanguage.comTravemünde is Lübeck's door to the Baltic Sea and is located about 25 miles downriver from Lübeck. A famous seaside resort in the 60s and 70s, it began to lose its luster to the many other German seaside towns and cities after reunification.

During earlier years, smaller cruise ships even made it up the Trave to Lübeck. Now however, only few of the bigger ships dock at Travemünde and very few go to Lübeck. Instead, they choose what appears to be one of the main competitors, Warnemünde, Rostock's Baltic Sea port.

Travemünde features the Timmendorfer Strand, which – during summer weekends – attracts many beachgoers from the Hamburg region. Remember: The mudflats (“Wattenmeer”) of the German North Sea don't make for a great beach experience, while the Baltic Sea has many wide and sandy beaches.

From Travemünde, we crossed into former East Germany (“Deutsche Demokratische Republik”/DDR) on the Travemünde-Priwall ferry.

Rather than taking the fast new Autobahn to Wismar, we went for the “slow road” to explore some of the seaside towns.

One of the first things we noticed was that the secondary roads became much narrower. The paved part would only accommodate one car. Both cars, when passing each other, had to use the unpaved shoulder.

One the other hand, there were also new roads, some not even shown on our recently purchased map or known by our Dutch rental car's GPS! (By the way, GPS in the Netherlands is called “Tom-Tom,” after one of the manufacturers. In Germany it's called “Navi.”)


Boltenhagen is a small seaside resort town, typical to several we Fischbrötchen - Gamesforlanguage.comencountered on our travels along the Baltic sea. A long jetty allows for ships to dock and a wide sand beach can accommodate many beach lovers in the characteristic caned beach chairs.

The promenade, a combination of walkway and bicycle path, stretches out along the dunes behind the beach. Hotels, apartments, restaurants, and shops make up the next rows inland.

We were there on a Wednesday and the long beach was not crowded. But we were surprised by the many older people on the boardwalk, sitting in restaurants and cafes, or enjoying inexpensive “Fischbrötchen” (fish sandwiches). (see picture)


Wismar, located about 45 miles east of Lübeck, and today with about 45,000 inhabitants, was also a very important Hanse city of old. It has also had a colorful and interesting history since those days. Together with the historical core of Stralsund, (we'll report on Stralsund in a later post), Wismar is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, both being typical representatives of the Hanseatic League cities with their Brick Gothic style architecture. (Backsteingothik)

The Wassertor is the last remaining Wassertor - Lübeck - Gamesforlanguage.comone of the five original city gates. The gate (see picture), erected around 1450 in the late-gothic style, opens towards the harbor. Movie lovers may recognize the gate through which the villain carried a coffin in Murnau's 1922 classic horror movie "Nosferatu".

Wismar's natural and well-protected harbor was certainly one key to the city's importance.

In 1632 Swedish troops occupied the city and in 1648, at the end of the 30-year war, the city of Wismar was awarded to Sweden.

In spite of several sieges and takeovers by Danish and Prussian troops over the years, Wismar remained Swedish property and was even the seat of the highest court for Swedish properties on that side of the Baltic sea.

However, in 1803, Sweden pledged both town and lordship to Mecklenburg for 100 years and for a fee of 1,258,000 Rijsktalers. However, in 1903 Sweden renounced its claim and Wismar was finally returned into the fold of Mecklenburg for good.

Here is more about Wismar's Swedish Period and its significant buildings.

We very much enjoyed our stay in the city's old town, admiring the many well-restored brick buildings, observing boats and ships go in and out of the harbor, and people-watching at one of the many outside cafe's.

Our next travel posts will take you to Rostock, and on to the islands of Rügen and Usedom, which is close to the border with Poland.

We were intrigued by our conversation with a Swedish couple we had met in Lübeck. We told them that we planned to visit the island of Rügen. They suggested that we visit Prora, the “colossus of Rügen” and one of Hitler's gigantic, but never-finished vacation resorts. We had never heard of this. 

Here is the link to our next  stage: From Wismar to Rostock

Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of He is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Other Cats to Whip? Learning French Idioms With a Delightful Book.

Other Cats to whip - Gamesforlanguage.comWhat's so great about learning idioms in another language?

An idiom is a characteristic expression whose meaning does not relate to the literal meaning of the words in it.

So, here's what idioms can do for you:

They take you right into the foreign mindset and give you a different taste of a language and culture.

They make you sound like a native.

They help you fit in.

Knowing common idioms helps you to understand and participate in conversations.

But ...

you must also learn to pronounce an idiom correctly.

And, you have to use the idiom in the right context.

We were recently provided with a free copy of the eBook: “Other Cats to Whip - The Book of French Idioms” by its authors, Zubair Arshad and Graham Clark. For anyone striving beyond a basic knowledge of French, this book is an enjoyable resource.

Its French title D'autres chats à fouetter translates to Other fish to fry, but an embarrassing mispronunciation of the French title – can you guess? - lies at its core.

Graham Clark describes in the book's introduction how he tried to drop the French title phrase into a conversation with his boss in Marseille. Whoops ... The book's authors are therefore serious about their warning: Enjoy these idioms, but just be careful how you use them!

So, do you dare to learn these idioms?

The Set-up

The book gives you 40 common French idioms, each presented with a funny, memorable cartoon illustration.

Then, for each idiom, you see two essential vocabulary items, plus the literal and the idiomatic translation in English. And, for each idiom you get a sentence that uses it in a conversational context.

Here are four features of the book that are especially helpful for language learning:


Many idioms say something about human foibles or characteristic human behavior. Because of that, an idiom tends to evoke a vivid image. That in itself is fun, but the image décoiffer la giraffe - Ruxandra by Gamesforlanguage.comalso help you to remember the expression. Not surprisingly, many of the images in this book involve animals, 18 of the 40, to be exact. Animals are just wonderful dramatic subjects that hold a humorous mirror to ourselves.

But you'll also find idioms with food images (not a surprise either), and those that contain parts of the body or commonplace objects.

The clever and funny illustrations, created by Ruxandra, pick up the literal meaning of the images, and these truly will stay in your mind.

For example, the expression décoiffer la giraffe (literally, to mess up the giraffe's hair), means to do something difficult. Think about it, considering a giraffe's height and hairstyle, and keeping the cartoon in mind, will you ever forget this expression now?

sortir de la gueule d'une vache - Ruxandra by GamesforLanguage.comLEARNING VOCABULARY

For each of the idioms, you are given two basic items of vocabulary. So, as a minimum, you'll have 80 words, mostly nouns and verbs. You'll learn these naturally, as they show up in context, and not categorized as in a French grammar book.

You'll learn a wide  range of common verbs, such as s'occuper (to mind, take care of), tirer (to pull), craindre (be afraid of), sortir (to go out), tomber (to fall), etc. and everyday nouns such as échelle (ladder), haricot (bean), gueule (slang for mouth, face), huître (oyster), ours (bear), etc.

Above all, you'll learn that the literal translation of an idiom may be potentially funny, but not especially helpful for the meaning. Sometimes guessing the meaning can really lead you astray.

Consider the expression sortir de la gueule d'une vache (literally, to come out of the mouth of a cow), which, for example when referring to a shirt, means to be creased or wrinkled.” Would you have guessed that one if it came up in a conversation?


In the collection of expressions and the sentences in which they are used, you'll see a variety ofse faire prendre pour un pigeon - Ruxandra by grammatical structures. Again, you'll learn these as they come up and not as part of a grammar paradigm.

The grammar in the English translation is often quite different from the grammar in the French original. Because of that, you'll tend to internalize the whole of the French idiom - grammar and all - as a chunk of vocabulary.

Just look at these sentences l'apartment est trop cher - Ruxandra by GamesforLanguage.comwhich use idioms in context: L'appartement est trop cher, tu te fais prendre pour un pigeon. (The apartment is too expensive, you're being taken for a ride.) Or: Tu ne peux pas aller au travail comme ça mon chéri, ta chemise est sortie de la gueule d'une vache ! (You can't go to work like that darling, your shirt is all creased!)

Thus by acquiring the structures of a series of idioms, you're also learning essential conversational grammar.

ne pas avoir la lumière à tous les étages - Ruxandra by Gamesforlanguage.comLEARNING LANGUAGE IN CONTEXT

When using an idiom, you have to be absolutely sure that you understand what it means and that you're using it in the correct context. Some expressions are more informal or slangy than others, so be careful of that, too.

Different languages use different images for corresponding idioms. The image at the center of an idiom in one language may have different connotations in another language.

In other languages, for example, the informal French expression ne pas avoir la lumière à tous les étages (literally, not to have lights on every floor; meaning: to be stupid) translates into rather different images.

In English, you say to have a screw loose.

In Spanish, you might say faltar un tornillo” (to be short of a screw).

In Italian, it's mancare una rotella (to be missing a small wheel).

In German, you would say nicht alle Tassen im Schrank haben (not to have all cups in the cupboard). Would you have guessed that one right off the bat?

“Other Cats to Whip - The Book of French Idioms will surely make you laugh and learn some French. I think it's a perfect gift for anyone learning or teaching French!

Purchase Options

The paperback book is shipped from the UK. The most economical option (including shipping) for the US audience is to buy through the author's website. The paperback book is also available on and The eBook version is available on the author's website as well as on and

Disclosure: has no business relationship with the book's authors other than having received a free eBook. See our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use for further details.

Posted on by Paul Mains

7 Reasons why Language Learners Love Games

Languages signpost - Gamesforlanguage.comThough the rewards of mastering multiple tongues are immeasurable, nobody says that learning a foreign language is easy. From memorizing new vocabulary to making sense of unfamiliar grammatical structures, the language-learning process is fraught with challenges.

And the difficulties that language learners face go beyond the language itself. From lack of time to lack of money to lack of motivation, the realities of everyday life often prove to be a more significant roadblock on the path to fluency than the complexities of vocabulary and grammar.

Luckily for the modern language learner, there’s a simple and effective way to overcome these common obstacles that life throws at us: playing games. No, language games can’t simplify the grammar of a foreign language: they can’t take away the subjunctive in Spanish, or reduce the number of cases in Russian from six to two. But they can and do provide a host of other benefits for learners – even those of us who are busy, shy, or unmotivated.

Here’s how language games address common problems that learners face.

1. Games are fun.

The problem: It’s undeniably chic to be able to switch your language at the drop of a hat, Boy and girl having fun but the process of getting there isn’t always so glamorous. Indeed, there are some aspects of foreign-language grammar that will prove dense or even outright boring.

How language games help: There comes a point in time when we simply can’t look at lists of irregular verbs anymore without falling asleep. But when we turn these lists into a game, we’re suddenly awake, involved, and perhaps even enjoying ourselves. Free games like this Spanish verbs race maintain our interest and attention when we’re reviewing topics that can often induce boredom. (Image via NIH / Wikipedia)

2. Games are low-pressure.

The problem: Nobody likes making mistakes, and this goes double for language learners. There are few experiences as uniquely frustrating as making grammatical errors when trying your hardest to communicate well in a foreign language. When interacting with native speakers, this can be a highly anxiety-inducing experience. Our fear of making mistakes can prove debilitating when it discourages us from conversing – and thus improving – in our language of study.

How language games help: Games constitute a perfect casual setting where we can make mistakes freely and without judgment. In conversations with native speakers, a forgotten article or misused verb tense can be embarrassing, but when we’re playing a game like Kloo, we can more easily just laugh it off – after all, it’s only a game!

Gamer at work - Gamesforlanguage.com3. Games aren’t work.

The problem: You’ve just finished a long day at work or school (or both!), and the last thing you want to do is MORE work. Although every language learner dreams of being able to devote their entire day to learning new words and phrases, the realities of school and work get in the way of this. We already have jobs, classes, and responsibilities, and learning a new language can seem like yet another item on our endless to-do list.

How language games help: If you’ve already spent all day in class, you’re not going to want to study even more at home. But what about playing a game? That doesn’t sound so bad! Language games help us view language learning not as work, but as something fun and relaxing. This way, we can look forward to the time we spend learning a language, even after a long day in the office.

4. Games are motivating.

The problem: Even the most diligent language learner will experience a dip in their motivation at some point. Indeed, motivation ebbs and flows, and sometimes we simply just don’t have the drive to stare at the same verb conjugation tables for the hundredth time. Of course, staying motivated is a key aspect of the language-learning process, and it can be difficult to make progress when our motivation is low.

How language games help: Games are goal-based, and are designed to be motivating. Whether the purpose of the game is to solve a puzzle, beat out our competitors, or get a new high score, playing language games is fun and exciting. Even when we’re running out of steam, it’s much easier to muster up the energy to play some games than it is to forge through a new chapter of our coursebooks.

Family Playing Video Games5. Games are social.

Games are great for learners of all ages. (Image via Pixabay)

The problem: Especially if you live in an area where there aren’t many native speakers of the language you’re studying, it can be hard to find people to talk to. Indeed, language learning can be quite a solitary activity for many learners among us. But given that language is an inherently social thing – the purpose of learning a language is to communicate, after all – this lack of social interaction can be a hindrance in the language-learning process.

How language games help: Language learning is best done with friends, and a game is a perfect activity to share with others. If you can connect with native speakers, playing games with them will not only strengthen foreign language skills, but can also strengthen your friendships. And even if you don’t have any native speakers at your disposal, you can set up a friendly competition and challenge your fellow language-learners.

6. Games are quick.

The problem: You’re busy. Unfortunately, for most of us, learning a language is not our only responsibility. When we’re constantly on the move and running errands, it can be hard to squeeze in time for language practice – let alone find the time to devote to language classes every week.

How language games help: If you’ve got just five minutes to spare, it won’t do you much good to try hurriedly getting through half a page of your course book. But just a few minutes is all you need to play quick a quick game like these ones, which help you practice various aspects of French pronunciation and grammar. Games are a great way to fill those scarce moments of downtime in our hectic day-to-day lives.

Free Online Games - Gamesforlanguage.com7. Games are (quite often) free.

The problem: Between classes, course books, audio CDs, and other supplementary materials, learning a language can take a toll on our wallets. Nobody likes spending money, and for many of us, buying expensive courses and materials is simply not feasible.

How language games help: With the ever-growing prevalence of the internet, there are more and more opportunities to play language games – completely free of charge! All of the offerings from Games for Language are totally free, giving anyone with an internet connection the chance to improve their language skills and have fun while doing so.

Indeed, from being nervous to being exhausted to simply being bored, there are plenty of things in our daily lives that can prevent us from studying a foreign language and advancing our skills. But fortunately, taking advantage of language-learning games can help us combat these challenges – despite our social, monetary, and schedule restrictions. Games are a great way for us to stay regularly connected with our foreign language, and can help solidify language learning as a part of our daily routine we look forward to.

Readers: what are your favorite language-learning games? What other benefits does playing games offer us? Let us know in a comment on GamesforLanguage's contact or its Facebook Page!

Bio: The above post is from Paul Mains, an English teacher who lives in Argentina. Paul writes on behalf of Listen & Learn, a language teaching service which offers foreign-language level tests as well as other free language-learning resources on their website. Check out their Facebook page or send an email to for more information

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

From Utrecht to Hamburg: Dialects and Travel Tips in Northern Germany

Utrecht Gracht - Gmesforlanguage.comWith our Dutch family reunion near Utrecht behind, (see photo of Utrecht Gracht, left) we headed to Westphalia to visit friends we had not seen in a while. Westphalia also has some special significance for me, as my great-grandfather was born in Werden, Westphalia, 1836.

After deciding that priesthood was not his calling, he packed his bags and became a teacher at a newly created HBS or “Hogere Burgerschool” (which intended to provide a “practically oriented education for higher functions in industry and trade”) in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

I always wondered how my great-grandfather had managed to make such a quick language switch - and that at the ripe age of thirty-one! One of my Dutch cousins explained it this way: “For Germans, Dutch is really easy to learn.”

How close are Dutch and German?

Right! The Dutch have a hard time with German articles, cases, and the many word-ending variations. By comparison, Dutch seems pretty simple to Germans. At the same time, producing authentic Dutch sentences that aren't just German-pronounced-the-Dutch-way is not an automatic skill.

As he described in an earlier blog post, my German-born husband, Peter, has been learning Dutch online – on and off since the beginning of the year. His “proficiency test” came in the form of attending our Dutch family reunion in Utrecht a couple of weeks ago.

No surprise: Peter obviously could not converse fluently in Dutch, but he understood most of the Dutch conversations around him. Also, he could function just fine with basics: greetings, pleasantries, ordering “een biertje,” asking for the check, reading information labels in museums, etc.

The Lure of the North, but the “Ruhrgebiet” First

I spent my childhood in Austria. In my early twenties, I lived and worked for two years in Freiburg, Barge on Dortmund-Ems Canal - Gamesforlanguage.comand from there traveled around southern Germany. However, I never took the opportunity to explore the north.

Peter, too, knows the south of Germany much better than the north. So, after our family reunion was over, we picked up a rental car in Utrecht and headed towards the “Ruhrgebiet,” (Ruhr) where our friends lived. (The Ruhr lies in the center of North Rhine-Westphalia.)

“Das Ruhrgebiet,” named after the river “Ruhr,” had been Germany's industrial coal and steel powerhouse until the early 70s. Duisburg, Essen, Bochum, and Dortmund are the major cities of a very densely populated area of over 8.5 million people.

Somewhat notorious in Germany for the air and water pollution caused by its coal and steel industries, the Ruhr region underwent a radical transformation after the oil crisis in 1973. With coal and steel industries no longer competitive, the Ruhr area went from heavy industry to high tech and service industries. With that, air and water pollution have become a thing of the past.

However, the old industries also caused the area to be crisscrossed by a series of navigable canals (see picture of barge on Dortmund-Ems canal above) that still today link to waterways connecting the North and Baltic Seas, to the Black Sea, and even to the Mediterranean Sea. This obviously requires numerous locks and boats lifts. One of them is our first Travel Tip:

Henrichenburg Schiffshebewerk - Gamesforlanguage.comTravel Tip #1 Schiffshebewerk Henrichenburg

One amazing link in Germany's waterway system is the Schiffhebewerk/Boat lift Henrichenburg near Waltrop. The boat lift facilitates a change in elevation of 42 feet of the Dortmund-Ems-Canal. Built in 1899 and used till 1962, when it was replaced with a new boat lift, this elevator for ships is a marvel of mechanical engineering.

Five giant floats, connected through a massive steel structure were able to lift and lower a basin carrying water and ship weighing over 1,000 tons in only two and a half minutes, much faster than with a typical lock. (Click HERE, if you are interested in more information.)

While the rivers and canals are frequented for recreational boating, there is still a fair amount of barge traffic, mainly for bulk goods such sand, gravel, cement, oil, but also grain, wood, etc.

From the “Ruhrgebiet” to Münster and the North Sea

The north-west of Germany has a number of picturesque university towns. On our way north, we stoppedWattenmeer near Bremerhaven - in the city of Münster, the cultural center of the region called Münsterland. We enjoyed the old city with its medieval and baroque architecture, and lively market-place cafés.

From Nordrhein-Westfalen, we headed up to Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) and visited Wilhelmshaven, Bremerhaven, Cuxhaven, Stade, and finally, the city state of Hamburg.

The “Wattenmeer,” (see picture right) or North Sea tidal flats, are a special experience: Now a national park, reaching from the border with the Netherlands to the banks of the outer Elbe river, they are an amazing eco-system, second only to a rain forest, with nearly 4,000 plant and animal species.

And while we, like other tourists, explored these and many other attractions, we also paid special attention to the various dialects we heard.

Dutch and Low German

Although standard High German is generally spoken by the people in these regions, and used in the media, local Low German dialects still have a presence. They have left their distinct mark on local everyday language, especially on the sound and intonation of speech.

Low German, also called “Platt,” in fact shares a number of features with Dutch. Most importantly, although they are “Germanic” languages: English, Dutch, and Low German did not experience the “High German consonant shift.” What does this shift look like

Here are three examples of the high German consonant shift:

  1. -k- to -ch-: make (Eng.); maken (Dutch & Low German); machen (High German)
  2. d- to t-: day (Engl.); dag/Dag (Dutch & Low German); Tag (High German)
  3. -t- to -ss-: eat (Engl.); eten (Dutch & Low German); essen (High German)

I had an interesting experience in Hamburg. We happened to be there during their annual “Theater Night” - an evening during which you can go from theater to theater and sample 30-minute performances.

We included the Ohnsorg-Theater, which stages plays in Platt. At first, I understood nothing. But then I said to myself “pretend that it's Dutch.” Once I had tuned my brain to expecting to hear Dutch, I in fact understood quite a bit!

I suspect that my great-grandfather still spoke the local Westphalian (Low German) dialect, and that this had made it easier for him to learn Dutch.

Here's a taste of Münster Platt.

You can compare it to Ina Müler's “De Wind vun Hamburg” in Hamburg Platt.

Travel Tip #2 Emigration Center and Bremerhaven Harbor cruise

Bremerhaven waterfront - GamesforLanguage.comGermany's largest emigration harbor is Bremerhaven. This city, founded 1827, and located at the mouth of the Weser River on the North Sea, was an important link in the Hanseatic Trade routes. (see picture of Bremerhaven waterfront, left).

However, it was also known as the “Brücke nach Übersee” (Bridge to Overseas). Between 1830 and 1974, over seven million emigrants shipped out of Bremerhaven to destinations overseas, with the highest number of people emigrating at end of the 19th century.

The German Emigration Center (“Deutsches Auswandererhaus”) opened in 2005 and has been building a database of information about emigrants that shipped out via the harbor.

On a personal note: It was from Bremerhaven that my family emigrated in the 50ties by ship to Canada.

To get a sense of the importance of the Bremerhaven harbor, a harbor cruise is a must. We were not only amazed by the size of the car carriers, with which thousands of cars are shipped from and to Germany, but also by the way huge container ships are loaded and unloaded.

One gets a sense what a huge economic factor such a harbor is for a city, creating thousands of jobs and business opportunities.

Travel Tip #3: The Old Elbe Tunnel and Lift

When we approached Hamburg, the GPS in our car directed us towards what seemed like a closed street. We searched around for a while (berating the voice on our GPS) until we realized that we had reached the entrance of the (poorly marked) car lift that was to take us under the Elbe River into Hamburg proper.

The car lift and tunnel was build in 1907, and frankly, did not look like it had been renovated much. Old Elbe Tunnel - Gamesforlanguage.comA couple of cars fit into each of the lifts, plus a number of pedestrians and bicycles.

The ride through the tunnel was somewhat nerve-racking. The car lane was narrow, with the car's tires just fitting between the narrow sidewalks on each side. Occasionally, the tires rubbed against the, maybe, three-feet wide side-walk strip on either side, where pedestrians were walking to and fro. We also did not know how to shut off the head lights of our rental car, which we were asked to do in order not to blind the pedestrians.

In any event, the car lift and tunnel provided a memorable way of entering Hamburg, taking us right to the “Landebrücken,” the center of the maritime traffic in Hamburg. Ferries and tourist boats come and go there continuously throughout the day and evening.

The Old Elbe Tunnel has been declared a monument and houses a museum. Thousands of cars, cyclists, and pedestrians use this way to arrive at the Landebrücken part of Hamburg every year.

Hamburg has much to see and admire. The Elbe and the two Alster lakes, the Binnenalster and the Außenalster, give Hamburg its particular flair. You also notice the many green spaces and trees. (A tour guide claimed that Hamburg has so many trees that there are 36 trees for each dog.)

The next leg of our northern Germany trip will take us to Lübeck and near the border to Poland - but more about that in a later post: From Hamburg to Wismar

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

3 Languages, a Pyramid, Napoleon, Royalty and a Family Reunion

Language Learning - Gamesforlanguage.comTravels in Europe always present a wonderful opportunity for us to refresh our historical knowledge as well as practicing a language or two. During a recent stay in the Netherlands, I also learned a few facts that I had either forgotten or, more likely, never knew.

My Dutch Experiment

Readers of a previous post may recall that I had started to learn Dutch around the beginning of 2015. Starting with one daily Duolingo lesson in January 2015, then increasing it to 1-2 lessons per day in May, I added the 3-month Dutch Babbel course in early June, while continuing with 1-2 daily Duolingo lessons. I had completed the Babbel Dutch course by the end of August.

In early September, our family reunion in Utrecht gave me an opportunity to listen to a lot of Dutch; I also knew (from my speaking practice with my wife) that I was not yet ready to participate in a fast-moving Dutch conversation.

However, I was quite pleased that I was not only able to follow most Dutch conversations, but also to read and understand the Dutch-only explanations in the various museums we visited.

Dutch is probably one of the easiest languages to learn for a German speaker. Nevertheless, it's good to remember that the 100 hours I invested in Duolingo and Babbel will not produce fluency. For that I'll clearly need more speaking practice.

The Pyramid of Austerlitz

When a Dutch cousin wanted to take us to the “Pyramide van Austerlitz,” near Utrecht,Austerlitz pyramid I was somewhat baffled: A “pyramid” and “Austerlitz” in the Netherlands? Wasn't Austerlitz located in the Czech Republic, where Napoleon had won a crucial battle?

Yes, certainly, I remembered correctly, but there was also a surprising explanation:

In 1804, a General Marmont of the French army commanded about 18,000 men. They were stationed in an encampment on the heath between Woudenberg and Zeist (two small villages near Utrecht).

Six years earlier, Marmont had accompanied Napoleon on a military campaign to Egypt and was quite impressed by the pyramids.

As he needed something to do for his soldiers, he ordered them to build a pyramid of sand and turf from the heath, with the hope that the pyramid would carry his name for all eternity.

Unfortunately, two years later, Napoleon's brother, King Louis Bonaparte, renamed it “Pyramide van Austerliz” in honor of Napoleon's victory over the Austrian and Russian armies in 1805.

The transient nature of the pyramid soon became apparent, as it started to succumb to erosion and the pyramid's straight lines turned to a conical hill. In 2007 it was restored, with its stone obelisk now firmly in place.

Napoleon _ Gamesforlanguage.comThe French Era and Napoleon's Continuing Legacy

As with many other countries in Europe, Napoleon's influence can still be felt in the Netherlands today.

I did not know, for example, that Napoleon was responsible for the Netherlands to become a unified state and a kingdom. Here is a summary from the Austerlitz Pyramid brochure by Landschap Erfgoed Utrecht (which also provided much of the information above):

In 1806 he installed his brother Louis Bonaparte as king of Holland and turned our country into a kingdom. Louis committed himself to defending the interests of our forefathers, even if it went against the interests of France. This displeased Napoleon immensely, and he took measures that made it impossible for Louis to reign any longer. In 1810, Louis abdicated, and our country became part of France.

National service was implemented and French legislation was introduced. Napoleon's campaign to Russia, however, meant the beginning of the end of the Napoleonic era. The French army was defeated at Leipzig, and Napoleon was banished to Elba. In 1814, William I became king.

Even though the French Era lasted less than 20 years, it greatly influenced the Dutch society. Our country had become a unified state and a kingdom, and there is no doubt that the positive experience with Louis Bonaparte played a part in it. It was also a first step to becoming a parliamentary democracy.

Laws that were made in 1814 were based on the French legislation introduced in the Netherlands during the French Era.

As a result, the Netherlands became a modern constitutional state, and everyone became equal in the eyes of the law: a radical change from the situation before 1795.”

Clearly in the 19th century, and well into the 20th century, a king was still seen as a unifying force and therefore a necessity. (During our visit to Norway, a few years ago, we had learned that Norway, when it separated from Sweden in 1905, decided by plebiscite that it still needed a king, and it selected a Danish price. See our post : Language Politics...)

Visiting Paleis Soestdijk and Learning about Dutch RoyaltyPaleis Soestdijk -

During our family reunion, we all visited Paleis Soestdijk, which is also located near Utrecht in the municipalities of Soest and Baarn. Built originally as a hunting lodge between 1674 and 1678, the palace was significantly expanded with two wings by 1821, after the Netherlands had become a kingdom.

Used by Princess Juliana (Queen of the Netherlands from 1948-1980) and Prince Bernhard as their official residence until both their deaths in 2004, it is an interesting example of a palace with neoclassical furnishings as well as modern features, used until 10 years ago by a citizen-monarch.

In discussing the king/queen situation, we found great support for the constitutional monarchy both with young and old family members. The new king, Willem-Alexander and his Argentina-born wife Maxima seem to be well liked. They are seen as staying above the political fray on one hand while representing the Netherlands very well abroad on business and cultural matters.

Speaking English, German, (a little) Dutch, and Spanish

At my wife's Dutch family reunion, with family members attending from the US, Canada, Mexico, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands, the three main languages were clearly Dutch, English, and German. Switching between different languages during a conversation, when others join, is quite common. It also gives everybody a good language workout.

I am always amazed how well the Dutch speak English, which many indeed prefer to German, with its three genders (Dutch only has two), its cumbersome endings, and declinations. The Dutch heritage as traders and merchants, and their English school classes, starting even before high school, may explain why over 90% of Dutch people speak English as a second language. Only 70% speak German.

Also, movies are typically not dubbed in Dutch and many are shown in the original language, often English.

These family reunions in the Netherlands are always a wonderful opportunity to connect with family members we have not seen in a while and - for us language lovers - also a chance to practice our languages. I still have a way to go with Dutch, but with more Dutch speaking practice with my wife, I am now confident that next time I'll be able to hold my own...

The Travel continues...

And after our stay near  Utrecht we began a three-week trip through northern Germany, an area we did not know very well. The first stage we called From Utrecht to Hamburg

Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of He is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

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