Childhood memories can be strong, and if a foreign language is connected to one of those memories, they can become the seed for a choice or an experience later in life. I still remember the riddle which my grandmother used to entertain us children and our friends:
"Was ist ein piccolo viech mit quattro haxn?"
The words "piccolo" (small) and "quattro" (four) are Italian words. But "viech" (animal) and "haxn" (legs) are Austrian dialect. We children always found this funny.
This riddle became more relevant when my parents took me and my two older siblings on a trip to Venice, Italy. I was five or six. We went by car from Carinthia (southern Austria) along the Slovenian border and the Italian coast north of Venice. It's a distance of 265 kilometers, which now would take about three hours. At that time it took us closer to five.
For our drive to Venice, we left very early, at about four in the morning. I remember arriving in Venice as the morning was in full swing. The outdoor market was bustling, with vegetables and fruits heaped up at the stands. St. Mark's Square with its pigeons and small vendors was fascinating. And then there was the language. I loved the sound of Italian. It's melody was as exotic to me as the smells and sights of the city.
This early trip to Italy was an experience that lingered in my memory. When I was seventeen, my older sister and I drove to Italy, this time starting out from Vienna. We both agreed that our first stop should be Venice - to recapture the magic we had experienced twelve years earlier. Then we slowly made our way to Rome. We stayed at camping places, sleeping in the car (an old beetle!). Armed with a phrase book, we did everything in Italian: asking for directions, ordering in a restaurant, buying fruit at the market, flirting with the guys. At the end of our three weeks, we had pretty well mastered Italian as the language for daily (tourist) living.
Life and work happens, but I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to recapture Italian. It took some years before I could make my dream a reality: to learn Italian from the ground up, and to do this in Italy. My husband was newly retired and I was able to continue my editorial work over the Internet. To prepare for out five months in Rome, we had gone through a series of Italian audio lessons. Once settled into our rental apartment in Trastevere, we found a tutor for daily Italian lessons. She taught us to write in Italian, discussed newspaper articles with us, explained grammar points, and helped us hone our conversational skills.
Needless to say, our stay in Rome was great, and all the more so because we were able to engage with locals in their language. And so, a child's funny puzzle and a childhood trip to Venice had provided the incentive for later language adventures.
Learning a new foreign language as an adult is not difficult per se: Remember – you learned your first language as a child. But - when we marvel at how easily a child learns a language, we often forget a crucial factor: As an adult, you cannot spend as much time learning a new language as children do in their early years.
And yes, adults do differ in their aptitude for learning a new language, as much as they differ in their ability for learning to play piano, sing, dance, play tennis, drive a car, etc. But the fact that you've acquired your first language should give you confidence that you can also learn a second language. The only question is: Can you mount and sustain the effort needed for success?
Benefits of the Internet
The internet makes is easier than ever to learn a new language. In the past we were limited to books, records, tapes, CDs, classes, personal tutoring, and such, when we had little contact with native speakers. Now we can use mobile apps and connect to interactive online language programs, online tutoring, language forums, and global community chat sites. We can read foreign newspapers online with the help of online dictionaries and programs, and we can watch foreign video clips, TV programs, or movies.
The Challenge Beginners Face
However, before you, as a beginner, can benefit from the many additional opportunities of the internet, you have to acquire some basic knowledge of the new language. And, assuming that you don't live in a country where the language is spoken, you have to create sufficient exposure to the language, so that it begins to “stick.” If you watch children learn their first language, you realize how important exposure and repetition is: As soon as a children start talking, grasping the world with language seems to be their main occupation. Here are three (3) basic tips for adult beginners who want to manage their learning proactively:
1.Determine Your Available Time and Schedule
If you are motivated to learn a new language - realizing that it takes time and effort - think about when and how much time you can allocate to learn. Once a week will not be enough. Ideally, you should learn daily: 10 minutes for 6 days will be better than 1 hour, once a week. Maybe you can schedule some time in the morning, or at lunch break or perhaps in the evening. And especially, if you take a traditional classroom course, or engage a one-on-one tutor, you have to allow time for homework and reviews. Put it on your schedule and try to stick to it as much as you can.
2.Test Materials/Systems/Programs That Fit Your Learning Style
Unless you already know how you best learn, finding the right program may take some research and experimentation. If classroom courses or personal tutors work best for you, you can also get advice for additional materials. If you are an auditory learner, audio CDs (e.g. Pimsleur) may work for you. If you are a visual learner, traditional language books may be an option. However, we believe nothing beats the interactive online language programs and mobile apps that you can find on the internet. This article in PC Magazine: The Best Language Learning Software provides a good list, and the language learning universe has even expanded since the article was published last year.
But don't believe the “Fluent in 10 days” marketing promises or buy the $350 program that you see advertised - at least not yet. Even most fee-based CD or online language programs have trial subscriptions or short courses or let you start with free, such as LingQ.com. There are many completely free programs as well, especially for the well-known European languages, e.g Duolingo.com or our gamesforlanguage.com.
Moreover, you may find that using more than one system or approach is a great way to go: By alternating between various programs, you can strengthen different skills or just avoid the boredom that often creeps in with one single program.
3.Commit the Time
Whatever methods you chose, it is important that you commit the time to learning and practicing. Practice is key – whether learning to play the piano or learning to speak another language. You have to practice! Only with practice can you move vocabulary, that you just learned, from your short-term to your long-term memory, or learn to pronounce the new foreign sounds. That's why many of the online language programs send out periodic or daily reminders. Duolingo is especially good at that. By getting reminded of your practice “streak,” you may be motivated not to break it! And if you're able to sustain your effort, you'll be amazed at how much you'll have learned by the end of your beginner course. You may be able to read short online newspaper articles or understand chunks in the foreign movie you are watching...
Once you have mastered some basics of the new language, you can even find more opportunities on the internet to hone specific language skills – which is our topic of Part 2: Tips for Non-Beginners.
An excellent About.com article by Hyde Flippo, Denglisch: When Languages Collide, made me think about how all our languages are constantly evolving. As we look into our European past, we obviously have to note first the tremendous influence that Latin had, not only on forming the Romance languages but by impacting the Germanic languages as well.
Norman French + Middle English = Modern English
Modern English, in fact, was greatly affected by William the Conqueror's victory in 1066 and the Normans' rule for several hundred years. Geoff Boxell's article All is the same - All is changed: The Effect of 1066 on the English Language gives an interesting account of how Old English, Middle English, and Norman Frenchmerged into the English we know today. Many language changes were initiated by edicts and policies of the ruling class, others evolved over hundreds of years. (See also our 2012 blog post The “French Connection” of 1066.)
Deutsch + English = Denglisch
What is different from the above example is not only our short time horizon, but also the fact that incorporating English words into the German language does not presently occur under English-speaking occupation or governance. Rather, Germans use English words because they see them as practical and/or “cool.” Hyde Flippo describes five different definitions of Denglisch, which capture well how and where they occur. He then describes in some detail the various aspects of how English influences the German language; he also notes that “there are several small language organizations in Germany that see themselves as guardians of the German language and try to wage war against English — with little success to date.” The article should be of interest to German expats and German language learners alike: Both will find English expressions they can use while still being understood when speaking German.
History will tell whether the numerous changes described in the about.com article will be permanent and taken over into the “Duden,” the authoritative German language dictionary. And, if the comments on various language forums are any indication, German is not the only language which experiences English “intrusions”: All Romance languages are affected (although the French may be more resistant than others), as are the Nordic, and other European languages.
One can bemoan, as some do, the changes to one's native language. However, as long as such changes are not forced, but occur “naturally” by common consent or use, they seem to me to be part of the evolution of a language. Let's also not forget that what's "cool" today, may not be so tomorrow, but what's practical may indeed endure.
Calling a waiter or waitress to your table can often be done by gestures such as raising your hand or – if you want to pay – by scribbling with one finger into the other hand. And such gestures are quite international and work in most foreign countries as well.
It is useful, however, to also know how to call a waiter or waitress in the local language. We therefore teach these expressions in our four language courses (French, German, Italian, and Spanish).
The German Way
When we started developing our German course, I thought of using the form of address I had heard when growing up in Germany: "Herr Ober" (actually an abbreviation for “Oberkellner” or headwaiter). However, our native speaker reminded me that you don't use this term any longer - except maybe in very upscale restaurants. I was aware that you don't call a waitress to your table with "Fräulein" anymore either. So we settled on "Entschuldigung!" (Excuse me.), which seems to be used in most of the German speaking countries for calling a waiter or waitress. Then, if you want to pay, you would say, “Bitte zahlen!” or more politely: “Ich möchte bitte zahlen! (I would like to pay, please.) In more upscale restaurants where you do have an “Ober,” you might say “Die Rechnung, bitte!” (The check, please.)
During a recent visit to Paris, we occasionally heard people asking for the waiter by calling “Garçon.” More often, though, we heard “Monsieur” or “Madame” when someone called a waiter or waitress to the table. We're told that nowadays you'll hear the term “garçon” more likely from older customers, who may also add it to the usual call for the check: “L'addition, s'il vous plaît.” You can practice this expression with ourFrench Quick Game.
The Italian Way
In Italy, it is still quite common to call for the waiter simply with “Cameriere!” but we have also heard “Per favore!” (Please), as a way of getting the attention of the server. And, to call the waiter because you want to pay, you would say: “Il conto, per favore” (The check, please). A waitress would be called “cameriera,” but in Italy you'll find more male than female waiters.
In Spain, we heard “¡Camarero!” quite often, but as in Italy, people also just use “¡Por favor!” (please) to call the waiter to their table. When you're ready to pay, both of the following do very nicely: “Me gustaría pagar, por favor” (I'd like to pay”) or “La cuenta, por favor” (The check, please). A waitress would be called “camarera,” and, as in Italy, male waiters seem to be in the majority in Spain.
Stephanie's Rosenbloom's insightful article in the New York Times recently - What a Great Trip! And I'm Not Even There Yet – made us recall the times we were preparing for a trip and feeling happy in anticipation. We always thought travel “happiness” was mostly related to bringing a plan to fruition, but Stephanie's explanations focus on the powerful role that antipication plays in travel.
Books, Films, Friends, and Language Basics
As “the most effective methods for increasing (travel) happiness,” Stephanie lists - reading and re-reading books about the country and people, watching movies, talking with friends, making an iTunes list, browsing fashion and design blogs. And, she also mentions learning the local language.
We do all of these, and especially enjoy focusing on the language of the country. This is clearly easier for us for with the European languages – we already know a few of them – but we also learned some language basics prior to traveling to Japan and China. Admittedly, our listening and speaking skills were quite rudimentary. But mastering numbers, basic greetings, and phrases for ordering food proved helpful for daily interaction and during shopping outings.
Language and the Art of Anticipation
According to Stephanie, happy anticipation is not something that just happens to you. You build it by actively doing things. Language is deeply rooted in the culture of a place, its food and customs, its daily life. The names of local dishes, drinks, or bakery treats in the foreign language can quickly spark your imagination. Learning a language little by little, day by day, perfectly suits the art of anticipation - be it with a course, a tutor, or a book. Add songs in the foreign language, short online news articles, YouTube videos, etc. and you'll continue to build your language skills and local knowledge about the country. [We played "Dimmi quando..." by Tony Renis (picture above) often before our stay in Rome, Italy; see also our blog post.]
Being Social with Your New Language
Stephanie reminds us that social interaction is "a fundamental way to feel happier." In fact, you can start engaging with others in your new language long before you board your plane. A brief internet search will turn up various Facebook groups where you can interact with natives by chatting, asking questions, writing brief comments. There are also Google hangouts, group chats, and language exchange sites where you can easily find people to practice with.
Speaking with Locals
If you arrive in a new city speaking the language, you can immediately engage with locals. A good place to start is the neighborhood market, or the small bakery up the street. (Left: Alfonso & Enrico in our neighborhood shop in Trastevere.) While you're waiting to be served, it's easy to talk with fellow customers. A simple question or comment may easily lead to a brief conversation about their city or your home town. Or, try out your language by ordering in a restaurant, buying souvenirs, buying tickets to a jazz concert, or a movie. Navigating the local language on your own is so much more fun than being locked into an English tour. It'll bring out your adventurous spirit.
After your trip, you can do more than just reminisce. You'll have acquired a new language with all the benefits that go with it for your brain and personality. And, you'll have added a new skill that you can continue to use and enjoy throughout your life. Your new language will open new windows onto the world that you can't even anticipate. Or perhaps you should try to?!!
A recent article in the Economist.com Johnson:What is a foreign language worth?responded to a podcast on freakonomics.com titled: Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast.
We find the podcast fascinating: It describes experiments relating the knowledge of a foreign language to its effect on risk taking and decision making; an analysis by an MIT professor about how much knowing a foreign language can boost future earnings. (Spoiler alert: For English speaking countries, it turns out, not much.) But the non-economic benefits seem to trump the economic ones: Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, puts it most succinctly: “If people are going to get some basic career benefit out of it, or it enriches their personal life, then foreign language study is great. But if it’s a language that doesn’t really help their career, they’re not going to use it, and they’re not happy when they’re there, I really don’t see the point, it seems cruel to me."
The Economist – no surprise – expands on the economic benefit, using lifetime earnings and compound interest. The picture looks better especially, for German and French, and a cited study estimates that the lack of foreign language proficiency in Britain costs the British economy about $80 billion or 3.5% of GDP, each year. Nevertheless even the Economist concludes that "...it isn’t hard to think of school subjects that provide less return—economically, anyway—than a foreign language. What is the return on investment for history, literature or art? Of course schools are intended to do more than create little GDP-producing machines. (And there are also great non-economic benefits to learning a foreign language.)..."
If you are an adult interested in learning or improving a foreign language, you are likely to have very specific needs or reasons: You have selected your language to help your career, enrich your personal life, communicate with a foreign friend or partner, prepare for a trip to a foreign country, etc. And while some of the research and findings are interesting and fascinating – let's not forget either the benefits for executive functions and memory – your need and reasons will be very personal and unique and so should be your choice of the language learning method/vehicle/system: books, CDs, online or classroom courses, personal tutor, an immersion course in the foreign country. The choices are only limited by your pocket book, and the time and effort you are able/willing to commit. Because one thing is certain: You CAN learn to speak a second (foreign) language fluently - after all, you learned to speak your first one as well!
Getting started is often the hardest part. It's easy to find reasons to wait until tomorrow. Here are five suggestions on how you can stop procrastinating and get going.
1. Spiff up Your Inner Voice
Have you been circling around French, for example, but just kept thinking that the pronunciation or the verb forms are too hard to learn as an adult? It's time to change that inner voice and replace it with a go-do-it attitude.
See learning French as an exciting challenge
Trust your ability to proceed step-by-step
Keep in mind that "doing it" is the journey
Remember all the benefits for your brain
2. Use Easy Course Material As a Start
Different methods work for different people. But - you've got to work with something that's easy enough and which grabs you. Try things out until you like one that you'll stick with.
A ready-made course can be an effective and convenient way to get the basics.
Remember, no single course can "make you fluent."
A do-it-yourself course plan (using a variety of materials) can be fun but takes time.
Either way, commit to doing something daily.
Make your language learning a habit - the language will be yours for life.
3. Set Up a Kickstart For The Next Day
Getting started on your daily language practice can be a struggle in itself. When you've finished a lesson, try setting up an activity for starting the next one. By anticipating in some concrete way what you'll do next time, you'll make it easier to get started again. For example:
Write a short list of words you want to review.
Send yourself an article you want to read.
Download an iPod lesson you want to use.
Schedule a time to do it.
4. Start Speaking Right From The Beginning
It's scary to hear yourself talking in a foreign language, but the sooner you get used to it, the faster you'll become fluent. The key to oral practice is to say things as often as you can - aloud.
Do a lot of "Listen and Repeat" - aloud.
Speak to yourself in your new language, aloud whenever you're alone.
Record yourself; and if you can, play back what you recorded.
Find a native speaker to talk to, a friend or an exchange partner.
5. Use Social Media For Early Reading and Writing
Twitter, Facebook, Google+ all provide a feed of foreign language texts that you can tap into for short periods at various times during the day.
Add online newspapers to your social media account, and catch a quick read whenever you can.
Add educational sites. They will often post a daily word or phrase, or a humorous quip.
Join language learning groups and post comments and questions in the foreign language.
Deciding to learn new skills - such as learning to write, understand, speak, read a foreign language - is a challenging and exciting adventure. You'll not only embark on new experiences, you'll also learn a lot about yourself: your resilience, your openness to meeting new people, your inventiveness, etc. Set yourself a goal, of let's say 3 or 6 months, and then reward yourself.
Recently reading David McCullough's fascinating book "The Greater Journey – Americans in Paris", I was intrigued by this sentence (p. 202): “Except in infancy, he had never lived in Paris. As a consequence of schooling in Switzerland and Germany, he spoke French with a slight German accent...”
Who was he?
He was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (left, painting by Alexandre Cabanel [1823-1889]), the improbable president of the Second Republic, and later Emperor Napoleon III, who “...in 1830, having tried and failed in a ludicrously inept attempt to overthrow King Louis-Philippe, he had been exiled to the United States, where he stayed only briefly before settling in London. (Like Louis-Philippe, he spoke English with ease and, as Thomas Evans had discovered, preferred conversing in English when he did not care to have others nearby understand what was said.)” (p. 203)
For History Buffs
If you are interested, you can read more about Napoleon III in the Wikipedia entry. Except for history buffs, not many English speaking language learners will know much about Louis-Philippe or about Napoleon III. Clearly, both were quite adept in speaking more than one language. “The London Saturday Journal” (Volume 3 – Page 56 of January 1840, digitized by Google Notes) reports that Louis-Philippe, besides German and English, also spoke Italian: “[he] speaks these three languages fluently, without the slightest foreign accent.” Both his and his successor's foreign language skills were acquired during their school years and during exile (the latter not necessarily an experience to emulate).
Fluency with a Foreign Accent
As we have suggested in previous blogs posts, Don't worry too much about your accent, as well as Mouth Mechanics, and Fluency, a “native” accent may be desirable, but not necessary for being fluent in a foreign language. There are plenty of examples of people who became highly successful in a foreign country even though they had a noticeable foreign accent. Similarly, McCullough describes the experiences of many American scholars and artists that had come to Paris by the 1830s: James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel F.B. Morse, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sumner just to name a few. They all had to learn French, and very likely, never lost their American accent. Still, they had no trouble communicating and loved their stay in Paris.
After all – if Napoleon III could become emperor of France with a (slight) German accent in his “native” French – you certainly should not give up learning the foreign language in which you want to become fluent!
We're often asked why we believe that learning with our GamesforLanguage courses is particularly effective.
There are 5 simple reasons:
Relevant Vocabulary helps you remember– When you start out learning a new language, every word is new and you need to remember it. You remember a new word or phrase more easily when it relates to items, activities, feelings, etc. that you know or encounter on a daily basis. Lots of language courses ask you to memorize lists of words, many of which you may rarely use. Our travel story uses real-life vocabulary that you are likely to encounter, beginning for example, in an airplane as our young traveler flies to Europe.
Interactive Games engage multiple senses and speak to the whole brain - Video games are non-linear, they use color, sound, and movement. You can hear, see, say, and type words and phrases in various combinations of the four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking). Games have you identify foreign sounds, find the correct foreign or native word, translate English phrases and sentences, spell words and phrases. In addition, you can record your voice and play it back, as often as you want. All of this makes learning more effective.
The Story Context helps you recall phrases and sentences – Rather than trying to translate each word from English into the foreign language, you'll learn phrases and sentences in the context of a story. You'll not only remember them, but you'll be able to use them without even thinking. Here's an example: Somebody asks you what you would like to drink, let's say in French. Rather than trying to find the translation for “I would like a ...” - you'll remember the phrase “j'aimerais un/une...” which you practiced, and you can apply it without even thinking about the first person subjunctive form of “to like.” Also, you can download the conversations as MP3 audio files, as well as a PDF file of each lesson's vocabulary.
Games and Memory drills are fun – There is no way around memorizing vocabulary. For vocabulary acquisition, an inverted cone is a good analogy: You start with only a few words, but as you listen, read, write, and speak more and more of the travel story, the number of words you know will increase dramatically. Various memory and recall games make what could be a onerous exercise into a fun practice, with scores that let you know when you are perfect.
You want to find out “the rest of the story” – Our travel story has a young man traveling to several cities where he meets with relatives and friends. Rather than using unconnected and often unrelated dialogues and topics to introduce new vocabulary, each scene of our travel story builds on the previous one. The 16 new words of Scene 1 will grow to over 100 new words by Scene 6 and to over 700 by Scene 36. As a user completes one Scene she or he wonders what the next one will bring, and the story sequel adds more motivation to continue to the next Scene.
Starting on a new language can be hard work, even for motivated learners. But with regular, ideally daily practice, learners will progress rapidly. We believe that combining games with a story – we are working on a mystery story for the next level – we are making language learning fun, interesting, and effective.
I've found a great tool to help me take my Spanish to the next level - the Chrome extension Lingua.ly. (There is also an Android app which I have not used, with the iOS app in development, see below.)
When learning a language, the first step is to master basic vocabulary and to discover how the language works. For many learners, a step-by-step "closed" learning system works well, one that has you practice all four skills. (For Spanish, I did this with our own online game-based Spanish 1 course.)
But what then? Language learning is like an inverted cone. Ideally, you start with a few words and build on these slowly. But once you have a base of a few hundred words and expressions, your vocabulary can easily expand dramatically - if you read a lot.
Enter the Lingua.ly Chrome extension. With this chrome add-on, you can turn any web-based text (news article, blog, email, etc.) into a vocabulary-learning adventure. Find a text on the web (or take Lingua.ly's suggestion available for five major languages, English Spanish French Arabic Hebrew). When you come across an unfamiliar word, just double click it. (You can actually choose how to tag the word you want to look up; I use the double click.) A window will pop up with suggested translations (supported by the Babylon.com dictionary) and an audio gives you the pronunciation of the word.
I've been using Lingua.ly for Spanish now for a week. In the last few of days I've chosen to read blogs and articles about the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márques. Getting an immediate translation and the pronunciation of unfamiliar words has made my reading efficient and enjoyable. And, as a bonus, each of the new words goes into a flashcard list for later practice.
Practicing Your Words
The "word practice" function has several cool features. To help you remember a word, you can click to add a Bing image that suits you. You can also add your own "word pack" of up to 30 words, or choose one out of a series that the program suggests. You'll practice words in "smart intervals" of spaced repetition: words that are hard for you show up again sooner than easy ones.
Languages For Learning
Lingua.ly claims that the Chrome extension add-on works with 20-plus languages. Besides Spanish, I have tried out and (minimally) tested 10 of them, all for translation into English. They are: German, Italian, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, and Mandarin Chinese. In these languages, the occasional word doesn't have a translation, and some of the audios are missing. Still, I was amazed that, in general, all the various types of script work just fine.
In addition, I used a Spanish news article to test Lingua.ly's translation into the other languages I know or am learning: German, Dutch, French, Italian, and Portuguese. As far as I could tell, each of these work fine too.
I focused mainly on Spanish and tried out just a limited number of language combinations. You may find that Lingua.ly's chrome extension can be used for other languages with English, or with various other language combinations as well.
I recently spoke with Meredith Cicerchia, Director of Communications & E-Learning at Lingua.ly, and learned a few more interesting facts about the program:
As you do your reading, the program tracks what you click on and what you've been exposed to.
As you progress, a rating system starts to guess your level and the kind of vocabulary you're interested in.
The program algorithm then pulls articles from the open web that correspond to the level of your working vocabulary and to your interests.
The more you use the program, the better the article selection becomes.
Lingua.ly is also working on translations for phrases and word combinations.
The iOS app for iPhone/iPad is expected to be released in June 2014.
Over the coming months, you'll see further refinements and improvements to a program that is already very useful to intermediate and advanced language learners that like to read online. My own lingua.ly practice always ends with me smiling, as I look at the last "congratulations" screen with its funny moving images...