Posted on by Peter Editor

Foreign Language Maintenance & Improvements

A recent post by Learning a language? It's all about the connections! reminded me how important it is to maintain and improve my foreign languages.

Native vs. "Old” Learned Languages

My native language is German, but I've been living in the US for many years. Without reading German newspapers almost daily, I would not stay current with the changes in the German language. And, while I rarely have to look up any words and I'm not afraid of forgetting my German (I still speak it at home every day), I know that keeping up my French is more of a challenge. I learned French as a young man when I lived in (French speaking) Switzerland. I now read it quite regularly online, have conversations, and e-mail with French speaking friends and family members. But with French, I am more aware of the need to constantly maintain it. If I don't have an opportunity to speak it in a while, I find that it takes me some time to recall vocabulary and to get comfortable again with my pronunciation and sentence structures.

New Language Improvements

Having started to learn Italian and Spanish only a few years ago, I am still working on improving both my proficiency and fluency. I can read both languages quite well now and my fluency is improving. However, I am very aware of the fact that my vocabulary has to increase. I regularly play our own Italian 1 and Spanish 1 games and have recently started to use to help me grow my vocabulary, especially in Spanish. As I like to read Spanish online newspapers, using this new Chrome Extension works great for me. (I am still waiting for the iPad app so I can also read in bed, but understand there is an Android app already.) I not only get the translation of words I don't know, but can also practice & recall those words later – a key factor for moving vocabulary from short-term to long-term memory.

We're planning to do a more detailed review of later, when we have gained more experience with it. But for now, I'll just enjoy maintaining and improving "old" and "new" languages!

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Key Steps to Foreign Language Fluency

How to achieve fluency in a foreign language is a perennial hot topic in the language groups and forums that I visit. It's also a marketing hook - "fluent in 10 days" - as you've probably seen. But what does "fluency" really mean? How do you get there? And, how long does it really take?

To most people, being "fluent" means that you can speak a language easily and freely. In other words, you're not speaking in fits and starts and, for sure, you're not constantly groping for words.

Everyone gets to fluency a little differently. But for most, these steps are key: 1) Begin speaking the language as soon as you know how to say a few words. 2) Focus more on communicating and less on grammar. 3) Improve your pronunciation as you go along.


If your goal is "conversational fluency" in a foreign language, you'll want to start practicing your new skill right from day one. Whatever words and expressions you're learning, start using them whenever you can. Until you find a conversation partner, you may be limited to repeating aloud or talking to yourself. In addition, use a language program that lets you repeat and record words and phrases. You need to train your ear as well as master the right mouth mechanics. Whatever you do, it's crucial that you move your mouth to form the words and say them out ALOUD.


From other language learners, I often hear: "Talk, don't care about correctness. ... If it's close enough it's good enough." Being a language teacher, I'm surprised that I don't balk at this. But that's what the real world looks like: If you're not speaking your native language, you're bound to make mistakes. Look at me. I'm pretty fluent in Dutch. When I'm in the Netherlands, people are surprised at how well I speak Dutch. Yet, when I post on a site for learning Dutch, I frequently get corrected on details. For example, I'm told that you say: "ik zat in school" (I sat in school) instead of "ik was in school" (I was in school) - to mean that I went to school in the Netherlands, which I actually did for a couple of years. I like these corrections, and I'm learning a lot. But the bottom line is that I have absolutely no problem communicating in Dutch, even though I do make mistakes.


A perfect pronunciation is not a requirement for fluency. There, I've said it. And, I know plenty of people who are fluent in a language and who still have a foreign accent. A German friend of mine has lived in French Switzerland for quite a few years. She has family there and runs a successful business. French is the language of her daily life and she navigates through French easily - with a delightful German accent. It's clear that her foreign accent in no way impedes her fluency in French and that it doesn't affect her business nor her friendships in a negative way.

So, accent is not something you need to worry about - unless people can't understand what you're saying. What we do know, though, is that you can work on your accent to make it sound closer to that of a native speaker. Sounds are produced by the way you move your mouth. With practice - by repeating and recording your own voice - you can learn to say sounds that are not part of your native language. If you're really serious, you can take accent reduction training online, or with a professional in your own neighborhood. (My German husband did this and can now pronounce the American "w," a difficult sound to learn for German speakers.) But most of us find that our pronunciation can get better by practicing on our own.


The part I haven't mentioned yet is that you'll want to have lots of vocabulary. In order to talk about various subjects, you need enough words to cover them. The most powerful way to acquire vocabulary is to read. I enjoy novels because they give me information about levels of language (also called "registers") and about the culture of a country where the language is spoken. My husband, on the other hand, prefers to keep his languages current by reading online foreign newspapers every day.

How long does it take you to get to fluency? It's up to you and the time and effort you are willing to put into your language learning. Benny Lewis, a popular blogger on language learning, likes to aim for 3 months. Is that a challenge you want to take?

I think there's something to the three-months time frame. When my family moved to the Netherlands and I got plunked into school there, it took me close to three months until I felt comfortable enough to give a talk in front of the class. Similarly, when I moved to Canada, it was after about three months that people stopped asking me where I was from. But clearly, immersion is different from learning on your own. But if you can stay motivated, fluency is bound to be within reach.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Quick Games and Trivia Quizzes with GamesforLanguage

I recently looked at a New York Times Trivia Quiz and was amazed at how esoteric some of the questions were. And as the GamesforLanguage Trivia Quizzes, which we started with our Quick Games, are beginning to attract some followers, I wondered about the origin of "Trivia" and "trivial," both words that connate a lack of importance.

The Etymology of "Trivia"

Italian speakers will easily discover an original meaning: "tri" "via," based on the Latin neuter noun "trivium" - plural "trivia" means "a place where three ways meet." In ancient Rome it meant a junction of three roads, but also the three "Artes Liberales": grammar, logic, rhetoric, which - in medieval Latin became the lower division of the Artes Liberales.

The Wiki entry explains further how the adjective "trivial" was introduced.

  • A 15th century English translation of Ranulf Higdon mentions the arte trivialle, referring to the trivium of the Liberal Arts.[1]

  • the same work also calls a triuialle distinccion a threefold division. This is due to an application of the term by Arnobius, and was never common either in Latin or English.[2]

  • the meaning "trite, commonplace, unimportant, slight" occurs from the late 16th century, notably in the works of Shakespeare.[3]

Today, Merriam-Webster defines "Trivia" as:

  • unimportant facts or details

  • facts about people, events that are not well-known

Why are we interested in "Trivia Quizzes"?

The Webster definition may give a clue: Although the facts, which Trivia Quizzes often ask, are indeed "unimportant" per se, they may also not be well-known. And what is well-known to some, may however not be well-known to others.

A foreign language is a case in point: For all those who know what the Italian word "via" means, asking for the translation of road/street indeed appears appears trivial. But, if you don't know, or are not sure, finding the answer will satisfy your curiosity - assuming that you are interested in Italian in the first place.

Therefore, for those who are curious about the Italian language and facts, even if those appear trivial to Italian speakers, playing Italian Trivia quizzes can be both rewarding and entertaining for those who still need to learn the language!

And for those who are generally curious about "unimportant facts or details," the New York Times Trivia Quiz certainly challenges you to discover the "facts about people, events that are not well-known".

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Quick Babbel Review - Swedish

Babbel Home (see Disclosure below) is a fee-based online language learning site, with apps for all major mobile devices. At this time, Babbel offers 13 languages: Dutch, Danish, English, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish.

To prepare for a short stay in Stockholm, I signed up for a one-month subscription of Beginning Swedish. I enjoyed creating my own schedule and liked the online experience as a whole. In fact, I motored through the three beginning courses (60 lessons) within 30 days, all in plenty of time to cancel the automatic renewal.

Beginning Swedish starts out with lessons on "greetings, making introductions, talking about your nationality and where you're from, ordering in a café, asking for directions," etc. Each lesson has a flashcard exercise, where you are asked to "Study the words and their spelling." That is followed by a combination of writing, reading, listening, speaking, and basic grammar exercises.

In the past, I had done a lot of audio-only language learning and found it hard to build up my writing and reading skills later. Reading and writing Swedish right from the start was a welcome change. In fact, writing became a good memory tool for me. Whatever I spelled out, I remembered well. The dictation exercises ("Write what you hear") turned out to be particularly effective.

In general - and I'm assuming that the set up of the others is similar to Swedish - Babbel's courses are a fun and effective way to get your feet wet in a language. One lesson builds on the other, the vocabulary is useful and presented in context, and on the whole, grammar exercises are relevant and to the point. 

The question I'm facing now is what next for Swedish. I want to be able to read Stieg Larsson's novel "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" in Swedish ("Män som hatar kvinnor"). The three beginning courses are not enough for that. Any suggestions?

Disclosure: has no business relationship with other than having purchased a 1-month subscription for the Swedish courses. 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

Digital Dialects

Digital Dialects is a free to use site with beginning to low-intermediate online games for 60 languages - from Afrikaans to Zazaki. The various, colorful games use the Macromedia Flash Player. Updates to any of the sections are regularly announced and there is a "links" page for more learning materials that are mostly free, such as online newspapers, etc. The look of the site is uncluttered and appealing.

I tried out Swedish (see above), which is one of the languages I'm learning at the moment. For Swedish, there are six games (without audio), typically set up so that you can first memorize a list, then play a game to practice what you memorized. There's a matching game for "phrases and greetings," three math games for "numbers," a game to learn "colors," and one to learn the words for "fruits and vegetables."

Russian, a language that I'll start next year, has 11 games (with audio) Digital Dialects Fruits and Vegetables Gamemost of which include versions in Cyrillic script and in transliteration. The "animals" game has you click on an image after you hear the Russian word. The "fruits and vegetables" game (see right) can be played as audio, or in Cyrillic. You pick the correct items out of a bowl until the bowl is empty. The "numbers" games have Cyrillic versions that allow for "slow," "medium," or "fast" speed. I'm guessing that these games will provide me with an easy, unhurried entry into the world of Cyrillic letters and of Russian pronunciation.

Persian (listed as Farsi) - a language I'm dabbling in right now - has nine games. The writing system of Persian is based on the Arabic script. So far, the games (numbers, fruits and vegetables, animals, various vocabulary groups) are in transliteration only, and there is no audio. Still, it's a start, and the games are an enjoyable way to memorize basics.

Some of the other languages have many more games and full audio. You'll just have to check and see for whatever language(s) you're interested in.

Digital Dialects is a popular site, in part because it gives beginning learners easy and fun access to many languages. Where else can you learn 1-10 in 60 languages at one place? 

Disclosure: and I have no business relationship with Digital Dialects other than learning and practicing Swedish, Russian, and Persian with its free online games.We do, however, derive earnings from 3rd party ads, e.g. Google Adsense, on our site, that may features Digital Dialects and other companies reviewed by us.

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.

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