Posted on by Peter Rettig

What is a foreign language worth?

A recent article in the Johnson:What is a foreign language worth? responded to a podcast on titled: Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast. 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 " 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.)..."

The Take-away

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!  

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Language Learning: Five Ways For a Great Start

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. 

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Foreign Accent Worries? A French Emperor with a German accent?

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 “ 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 this Wikipedia entryExcept 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, 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!  

Posted on by Peter Rettig

5 Reasons for Language Learning With a Travel Story and Games

We're often asked why we believe that learning with our GamesforLanguage courses is particularly effective.

There are 5 simple reasons:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  1. The Story Context helps you recall phrases and sentencesRather 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. 

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Accelerate Language Learning With

Lingua.Ly Home PageI've found a great tool to help me take my Spanish to the next level - the Chrome extension (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 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'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 dictionary) and an audio gives you the pronunciation of the word.

I've been using 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 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'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'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, 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.

  • 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 practice always ends with me smiling, as I look at the last "congratulations" screen with its funny moving images...

Disclosure: and I have no business relationship with other than learning and practicing with its free Chrome extension. 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 Peter Rettig

South-Tyrol – A Multicultural Success Story?

South Tyrol: Geisler Mountain RangeIn our travels we have always been interested in learning about the ways languages have influenced the history of a region or country. And while separatist movements are typically caused by economic inequities, power struggles, religion, etc. they can be further fueled by language differences – even if the language differences don't seem to be significant to a foreigner.

It's well understood that language unites the members of a family, tribe, community, state, nation etc. You can feel it yourself when you encounter someone in a foreign country who speaks your language: there is an immediate connection with that person, and the language is the link.

So it is no wonder that conquerors and kings, dictators, and victors in wars have tried to impose their language on the acquired regions. But generally, a NEW foreign language cannot be forced on populations without causing anger, resistance, and often bloodshed. There are many examples in history where such attempts were not successful.

Brief Background

South Tyrol had been awarded to Italy after World War 1. By 1923, Italian became the mandatory language at all levels of local, provincial, and local government, and by 1928, the only language of instruction in schools. Mussolini accelerated the Italianization by settling many Italians in a region which, in 1919, was 90% German speaking. When the region remained with Italy after World War 2 - with many of the pre-World War laws remaining - the German majority was not happy.

I visited South Tyrol in 1965 as part a graduating class trip, and my class mates and I experienced first hand the friction between the German and Italian speaking population (which, at that time, still involved violence and bombings).

South Tyrol – Key Ingredients for success

With the many separatist movements in the world today, the recent article in the New York Times, Italy’s Historic Multicultural Compromise, gives reason for hope. The article notes that the German-speaking population in South Tyrol is still the majority, albeit with 61.5% vs. 23.1% Italian, based on the 2011 census. (About 4% speak “Ladin,” a language quite close to the Swiss “Romansch,” and 11.4% speak a variety of other languages.)

It also appears that among the key ingredients that allowed South Tyrol to overcome its separatist past are both a willingness to compromise, embrace bi-lingualism and cultural diversity, as well as Rome's concessions on “home rule,” (i.e. strong local governance and retaining 90% of the tax revenues). It's quite likely that it takes ALL of these “ingredients” to achieve success and continued efforts to maintain it. Let's hope that the lessons learned in South Tyrol can be shared with and applied in many other parts of the world.


In view of Russia “encouraging” Crimea's vote to separate from Ukraine just recently, possible plebiscites looming in Catalonia and Scotland, attempts by the Veneto region to separate from Italy - South Tyrol's recent history is a good reminder what it takes to overcome separatist movements.

On the other hand, Norway's peaceful separation from Sweden in 1905 was quite extraordinary both for its deliberate process and adherence to the law. It makes great reading for history buffs and has also some interesting language implications which we described in our 2013 post Language Politics... 

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.


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