Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Language Lessons in Gstaad (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Bilingual in Fribourg, Switzerland

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

Upper town and lower town

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

An impression: More bilingual German than French speakers

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

Language still a divisive issue...

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


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


Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Language Lessons in Gstaad (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Practice vocabulary with

A great way to practice vocabulary with flashcards is It's a free site for users who can choose from a large number of free flashcard classes in different languages.

You can also add your own vocabulary that you want to practice. Other study modes besides Flashcards are Speller, Learn, and Test, plus the games Scatter and Space Race.

You can find the gamesforlanguage flashcards for the first lesson of each of our languages (in basic and expanded format) just by entering gamesforlanguage in the search window.

Beyond the basic free site, there is an upgrade, for-pay option which allows for image uploading, voice recording, ad-free studying, unlimited classes, etc. Occasionally the site has experienced some technical problems; these are usually announced on their Twitter account.

By the way: Quizlet can also be used for studying other topics that lend themselves to flash card type learning.

Disclosure: has no business relationship with other than having established and paid for a “Teacher” account. We do, however, derive earnings from 3rd party ads, e.g. Google Adsense, on our site, that may feature and other companies reviewed by us. See our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use for further details.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Duolingo Review #1 (7 lessons)

The friendly Owl reminds you to practice! If you've been reluctant to learn a new language, this is your chance to make a fun and easy start. Duolingo is a 100% free digital language learning site, gamified, with apps for iPad, iPhone, Android.


Currently the following languages are offered: Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian – for English speakers; and English - for Spanish, Russian, Turkish, Hungarian, Polish, and Dutch speakers. In October 2013, the Duolingo Language Incubator was launched to crowd-source the creation of courses in "all combination of languages."

  • Each lesson has a bar that tracks 20 bite-sized tasks. You advance by completing these mini-tasks.
  • When you make a mistake, you lose a heart. If you lose all 3, you have to redo the lesson.
  • You track your progress with skill points and badges. Drumrolls and fanfares crown your achievements.
  • A "Leaderboard" shows the progress of friends you are following and who follow you.

This review focuses on the first 7 lessons (out of 71) of Brazilian Portuguese.


  • Each lesson introduces around 7 new words and builds on what you've learned before.
  • You learn and practice new words in the context of a sentence and as part of a general topic (basic phrases, food, animals, etc.) In some cases, new words are linked to pictures. To check the meaning and basic grammar of a new word, you hover over it.
  • Whenever appropriate, you are given multiple meanings in a "pull-down." For example, "salada" means "salad," but also "jumble, mishmash."
  • The kind of tasks you do vary within a lesson (Translate into English, Translate into Portuguese, Type what you hear, Match word to image, Mark all correct translations, etc.).
  • Click on the audio button to hear a word or sentence again, with an option of "normal speed" or "slow."
  • Check to see if your answer is correct and to get feedback. If you've made a mistake you're given the correction, plus what type of mistake you made.
  • Plenty of writing is involved in the lessons, which is great for remembering words, and with Portuguese, for learning the spelling of words with accented letters.


  • It goes without saying that regular practice is a must, and Duolingo's Owl will send you daily reminders with the tag: "Keep the Owl happy! Language learning requires practice every day!"
  • Even though the sound (computer voice) is not always clear, say each word, phrase, or sentence ALOUD.
  • Take advantage of the "slow" button to hear words that are not clear. Do this especially for sentences that include short words, such as the articles "o, a, um," the pronouns, "ela, ele," the verb "é," etc. Make yourself a note about the sound of the vowels. For example, "ela come salada" sounds like "ele comi salade."
  • From time to time you may have a question. Each mini-task displays a button "Report a problem." There also is a button "Discuss sentence" which takes you to a the specific forum for that item. You can learn from the discussions and add your own question. Often these discussions are quite amusing.
  • Write our any difficult words by hand into a small notebook. The act of writing the words by hand helps you to remember them. And, you can carry the notebook with you and glance at your vocabulary when you have some spare time.

Since it was launched, Duolingo has had a great impact on getting more adults interested in learning languages with games and gamified sites. Because it's an online program, Duolingo is continually making improvements to the overall program as well as to the individual lessons. I especially like the fact that the vocabulary is used in sentences that provide a specific context – which is important for truly understanding how a language works.

Disclosure: and I have no business relationship with Duolingo other than having created an account and learning and practicing Portuguese and Italian with its online courses. We do, however, derive earnings from 3rd party ads, e.g. Google Adsense, on our site, that may feature Duolingo and other companies reviewed by us. See our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use for further details.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

5 Reasons Online Language Games Make Great Quizzes

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

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

Every Game is a Quiz

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

Games Engage the Whole Brain

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

Games Help to Maintain Focus

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

With Games You Can Practice All Four Skills Interactively

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

Games Can Teach You How to Learn

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

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

Posted on by Peter Rettig

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

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

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

A few of his observations:

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Posted on by Peter Rettig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Si tu n'existais pas – Learning French with a song...

Joe DassinYou may have heard this French song: Et si tu n'existais pas before and always wondered what the lyrics really meant. Here is your chance to learn them and brush up on your French negations and conditionals! For anyone who likes music, songs are a versatile and surprisingly effective tool for language learning.

Songs support your language learning in many ways. They help you to:

  • build your vocabulary and provide context for words and phrases
  • improve pronunciation
  • boost your memory
  • internalize grammar structures
  • distinguish word boundaries (see also our blog post Gibberish or language learning)

Si tu n'existais pas (If you didn't exist)

This 1976 song by the American born, French singer-songwriter Joe Dassin has become hugely popular and is one of my favorites. Dassin (1938 - 1980) was a talented polyglot and recorded songs in Spanish, Russian, German, Greek, Italian, as well as in French and English (many of which you can find on YouTube).

Below are the French lyrics, and you can find another English translation on

Si tu n'existais pas

Et si tu n'existais pas,
Dis-moi pourquoi j'existerais.
Pour traîner dans un monde sans toi,
Sans espoir et sans regrets.

Et si tu n'existais pas,
J'essaierais d'inventer l'amour,
Comme un peintre qui voit sous ses doigts
Naître les couleurs du jour.
Et qui n'en revient pas.

Et si tu n'existais pas,
Dis-moi pour qui j'existerais.
Des passantes endormies dans mes bras
Que je n'aimerais jamais.

Et si tu n'existais pas,
Je ne serais qu'un point de plus
Dans ce monde qui vient et qui va,
Je me sentirais perdu,
J'aurais besoin de toi.

Et si tu n'existais pas,
Dis-moi comment j'existerais.
Je pourrais faire semblant d'être moi,
Mais je ne serais pas vrai.

Et si tu n'existais pas,
Je crois que je l'aurais trouvé,
Le secret de la vie, le pourquoi,
Simplement pour te créer
Et pour te regarder.

French Nouns

In Dassin's song there are 14 nouns, here listed in the form they appear: un monde, sans espoir, sans regrets, l'amour, un peintre, ses doigts, les couleurs, du jour, des passantes, mes bras, un point, le secret, de la vie, le pourquoi.

Negative Structures

It's well worth internalizing the various forms of French negation, three of which appear in the song:

  • Si tu n'existais pas (ne ... pas - not)
  • Que je n'aimerais jamais. (ne ... jamais - never)
  • Je ne serais qu'un point de plus. (ne ... que - only)

The Conditional "if-then" Structure

This structure is the backbone of the song. Of the 20 different verbs, 8 are used in the conditional tense. Memorizing the lyrics and singing them is a great way to internalize one of the common "if-then" (conditional) structures:

The "if-clause" (which comes up 6 times) is in the imperfect tense:

  • si tu n'existais pas - if you didn't exist

The "(then)-clause" is in the conditional tense:

  • Dis-moi pourquoi j'existerais (*exister) - Tell me why would I exist
  • J'essaierais d'inventer l'amour (*essayer) - I would try to invent love
  • Que je n'aimerais jamais (*aimer) - That I would never love
  • Je ne serais qu'un point de plus (*être) - I would only be one more dot
  • Je me sentirais perdu (*se sentir) - I would feel lost
  • J'aurais besoin de toi (*avoir besoin) - I would need you
  • Je pourrais faire semblant d'être moi (*pouvoir) - I could pretend to be me
  • Mais je ne serais pas vrai (*être) - But I wouldn't be true
  • Je crois que je l'aurais trouvé (*trouver) - I think I would have found it

Just imagine, when you are memorizing the lyrics and singing along, you're practicing the language. How much fun is that! And why stop here? Edith Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien" (see our previous blog) is another great French song to add to your language learning repertoire. 

Posted on by Peter Editor

Can Playing and Learning be intuitive for all?

As we were developing our Gamesforlanguage program we were intent on making playing and learning intuitive: No instructions to read, just hit "play" and start learning by clicking on arrows, moving targets, words, phrases, icons, etc.

However, we found out early on that not everybody would discover the "Home" and "Menu" icons in the top right hand corner and we added a simple screen to clarify.

Generations X, Y &  others

A recent email from a user who had recommended Gamesforlanguage to her mother made us realize that our program may actually not be intuitive for everybody.

Clearly, generations X, Y and beyond, who have grown up with PCs, MACs, and now with mobile devices and touch screens, don't want to read instructions: They simply click, try, and learn.

On the other hand, many middle-aged or older adults often need simple hints or encouragements to try out icons, links, etc. Their fear of "doing something wrong" prevents them from experimenting and using the trial and error approach that our digitally native young generations have become so good at.

Game Flow vs. Instructions

We do not want to interrupt the game flow by adding more instruction screens but now have a How to play and learn link. Most recently, our welcome email to newly registered users also includes a few simple instruction reminders, which the less game- or computer-savvy learners may appreciate – and which those in-the-know may not need to read. We continue to learn from our users and welcome any feedback in regard to game flow vs. instructions trade-offs.

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