Posted on by Peter Rettig

The Flamingo Path to Language Learning

The recent death of Nelson Mandela reminded me how during my earlier career as a management consultant I had studied “The Mont Fleur Scenarios” as one of the very interesting case histories of scenario planning. The question that was asked in the early nineties, after Mandela had been released from prison, was: What will South Africa be like in the year 2002? You can read about this planning effort in the link above.

But how does it apply to learning a new language?

Learning a language certainly doesn't involve a planning effort that includes many constituencies. It involves mainly YOU. And you are the one to decide which learning path you want to take. You could take the “Icarus” path, start fast and try to learn rapidly, just to crash and give up, too often the fate of many adult language learners. But there is another scenario:

The Flight of the Flamingos

In the Mont Fleur Scenario, "The Flight of the Flamingos" tried to evoke their slow, gradual take-off. Your language learning scenario should be similar. A "Flamingo" path takes your time constraints and other commitments into account, but still allows you to review and practice regularly, ideally daily. Practicing 15 -20 minutes daily will be more effective than spending 1-2 hours once a week. Daily practice will move the new words and phrases from your short-term to your long-term memory. And over time and with a good language practice plan, you will progress.

You get the point. There's no need to dwell on other possible scenarios (as in the Mont Fleur case). Remembering “The Flight of the Flamingos” will let you hold the image and remind you that with a realistic and sustainable practice path you indeed can learn a new language!

Posted on by Peter & Ulrike Rettig

DECEMBER 2013 NEWSLETTER: A Crazy NEW Idea?

You had registered on our site some time ago. You may have purchased/subscribed. Or you just tried one of our languages, but for whatever reason decided not to subscribe and continue.

And if you didn't subscribe, you may have felt that our course was:

  1. too easy or too challenging for you, or you just didn't like it, or
  2. you don't have any interest and/or time to learn another language now, or
  3. you just thought you shouldn't pay to learn a new language as there are free online courses available.

There is not much we can do about (1) and (2) above, but if you fall into category (3), or are a current or past subscriber, we'd like to hear your opinion about our CRAZY NEW IDEA:

The Crazy new Idea of a FREE Deal:

We continue with our FREE lessons for those who register and will be happy about any subscriptions. However, those who score more than 500 points by the end of Scene 2 will be able to continue with a FREE unlimited but conditional subscription.

What does “unlimited” mean?

Unlimited means that there is no time limit to your subscription. You can replay any Games and Scenes as many times as you'd like. You can progress at your own pace until you complete your course. In fact, any current subscription would also become unlimited, as long as the condition below is maintained.

What does “conditional” mean?

We want you to play and learn. But we also know that you'll learn a new language only with regular practice. Your free (or paid) subscription will stay active as long as you play at least 4 times per week (Monday-Sunday). If you skip this schedule more than twice, you'll see the screen on your right and you'll then have to subscribe (or your current subscription will expire as scheduled) in order to continue with your course. Learning is FREE – you'll only be paying, if you are NOT practicing!

What might be the effects?

If you are a really motivated learner who likes our game/story-based approach you'll want to continue for free until you have completed the course. Even if you skip days and lose the free access, you may want to subscribe and continue. (Or, you may indeed just stop using our course.)

Why are we doing this?

  • We are a young, closely held company, and are less interested in revenues than in attracting motivated learners.
  • We hope that our “Learn & Play/Skip & Pay” model can keep learners motivated: We want you to learn for FREE and only pay, if you are NOT learning and practicing!
  • We want to test whether “avoiding to pay” is as good a motivator as paying up front.

What do you think?

Before we test our “crazy new idea” we want to ask our past/current subscribers and our registered users:

  • Would your learning behavior have been/be different?
  • Would such a “deal” interest you?
  • Would it motivate you to learn?
  • What are aspects of the “deal” we should consider (vacation, illness, other, etc.)
  • Is this too crazy or unrealistic an idea?

We'd love to hear from you. What are your thoughts?

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

7 Key Ingredients of a Foreign Language Practice Plan

If you want to get better at something, you have to practice. That goes for sports, yoga, singing, playing an instrument, etc. It also holds true for becoming fluent and proficient in a foreign language.

I belong to an online group of polyglots. The enthusiasm and talent of most of the members is high and I find this very inspiring. Many of us are fluent in several languages and are shooting for several more. It's a great goal to have, but even talented polyglots need to practice in order to learn and get better.

Practice takes time, which is a limited resource. So it's a good idea to have a plan to make your learning most effective. Some, but not all of the seven “ingredients” below are typically provided by traditional classes, online or self-teaching courses, CDs, books, etc. You can greatly enhance and accelerate your learning, if you include them in your own, personal Foreign Language Practice Plan:

Generally speaking, these three (3) basic ingredients belong to "practicing" a skill:

  • doing something regularly
  • doing something with focus
  • doing something with the goal to improve over time

And then there's the whole question of how practicing can be both fun and effective. Here are my 7 ways which I've been using for my fifth and sixth languages:

1. Practice in Small Chunks

Devote some of your time to practicing your new language in small chunks (also called "chunking"). Take individual words, phrases, idioms, set expressions, and go over them with focus and intensity. Do them multiple times and use different ways to practice: listen & repeat, see & say, listen & write, say & record, listen with eyes shut, etc.

2. Practice All 4 Language Skills

Not only will it come in handy to know all four skills - reading, listening, speaking, and writing, with time they'll begin to boost and strengthen each other. [See also our blog: How the 4 Language skills boost each other]

3. Practice at Different Levels

Vary the level of difficulty. What you learn with easy texts is different from what you learn with texts that are highly challenging. So, for example, alternate between reading a simple text and puzzling out a tough grammar structure. Or, listen to a basic audio after practicing speaking and recording yourself. Changing around is also a way to keep things interesting.

4. Engage Your Senses

The more senses you can involve when you're acquiring a language, the more effective you'll be. Listen to the audio of a story or song, watch a movie or YouTube clip, read aloud or record yourself, write things out by using the motion of writing or typing, play interactive games on touch screens, etc.

5. Always Think of the Context

Why the context? Because in communication words take on different meanings in different contexts. Even when you practice your small chunks, you should have the context in mind. For example, is it a formal or a casual situation? Is the tone serious or humorous? Does the word have another meaning that doesn't fit the context? To communicate effectively, you need to practice with more than simple word lists.

6. Practice often and regularly

We may not all have the time and opportunity for long daily practice sessions. But, if you can set aside some 10-15 minutes for language practice every day, you'll progress faster than committing the same 60-90 minutes every week. The reason may be that daily practice helps move foreign words and phrases from short-term to long-term memory.

7. Reward Yourself

Practice takes discipline and isn't always fun. You need to keep your focus, challenge yourself, as well as tolerate a certain amount of boredom. Rewarding yourself after a good practice might just help you stay motivated. For some people, a gamified program works nicely. Others may want to give themselves points that add up for a special treat. For those with a serious goal in mind, the ultimate reward could be a trip to the country where you can experience the language and culture first hand.

The seven practices described above overlap in many ways, similar to what a physical exercise plan may do to the muscles in your body. Keeping them in mind as you develop your personal Language Practice Plan will help you select your practice materials. In fact, just as you may use various exercise equipment and activity - weights, machines, running, etc., you should experiment and try out different practice materials - books, audios, online programs, CDs, or traditional courses, apps, etc. For the best results, you need to tailor your Personal Practice Plan to your own needs and goals.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Learning Grammar in Context

A recent blog “Learning Grammar with WordDive” reminded me that indeed there are many ways for adults to learn a foreign language. The author notes: “WordDive is primarily about 'diving' into language through its vocabulary” and “When studying with WordDive, you are exposed to grammar structures integrally in the course of the learning process." We agree that adults can learn grammar structures "integrally," somewhat similar to the way children learn them "through numerous repetitions and imitations."

Games and “The Story”

Our approach at GamesforLanguage is different: We teach vocabulary and grammar structures with short games and “The Story” - a sequential and connected series of dialogs and short narratives that tell of a young man traveling in European countries.

While the various games help the learner to practice all four skills (listening, reading, writing, and speaking), the dialogues and narratives introduce and repeat grammatical structures, which he or she will recognize and/or, at times, be alerted to.

For example, already in the second Scene (lesson) of our French 1 course, we bring in the subjunctive, with the sentence “Je suis contente que vous parliez...” in our dialogue (left). We then briefly explain it in our Deal no Deal game (see right).  Twenty Scenes later, the expression “je suis contente" is used again, but with the subjunctive of another verb. Will we teach all subjunctive forms of these particular verbs? No, but the learner is alerted to the context in which such forms are used and will start to recognize new subjunctive forms as they come up.

Context Learning

Learning the vocabulary, i.e. the foreign labels of objects, actions, feelings, etc. (see also: Language Learning with Pictures and/or Words) is clearly important and necessary. Romance and Germanic languages have many similarities to English, which help English speakers to remember words and phrases, even if certain grammatical constructions are different.

For example, in our story our traveler is asked :

Do you also need something?” and he answers: I need a travel guide.”

In Spanish one would say:

¿Necesitas también algo?” and  Necesito una guía de viajes.”

and in Italian:

Hai bisogno di qualcosa anche tu?” and Ho bisogno di una guida turistica.”

Rather than drilling the conjugations for “necesitar” and “avere bisogno,” the learner picks up the second and then the first person singular as part of the question and answer. And he or she remembers the meaning of “you need” and “I need,” because it is connected to the “travel guide” of the story, with “guía”/ guida” (guide), “viajes” (voyage), and “turistica” (tourist) being closely related to their English meanings.

Based on our own experience of learning several foreign languages as adults, we know that we can best retain and apply words and phrases, when they relate to objects, actions, feelings, etc. that we encounter in our own life. (That's why we chose a travel story.)

And while our approach is somewhat different from WordDive's, we agree that the discovery of grammatical structures during the learning process is rewarding and more effective than drilling conjugations, tenses, etc.

For some learners, more detailed explanations are necessary, for others explanations are just confirmations of their own discoveries. The extensive offering of free or inexpensive apps and online courses allows learners to choose and combine different approaches that fit their needs and learning styles.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Fluency vs. Proficiency in Foreign Language Learning

Some time ago we wrote a blog post Fluent in Ten Days? The idea for it was related to the more outrageous marketing claims and promises that we found on the internet as we started GamesforLanguage.com. Most people understand that you can't become “fluent” in a foreign language in 10 days, even if you studied 24 hours a day.

In a later blog post Fluency – in Foreign Language Learning and Speaking we argue that native-like “fluency” in a foreign language clearly can be achieved by adults, even though they may have retained a distinct foreign accent.

Here's another look at the terms in question:

Fluency vs. Proficiency

The term “language fluency” is actually a speech language pathology term and refers to fluid as opposed to halting and slow speech. However, to most foreign language learners “fluency” denotes a high level of proficiency in speaking, and in comprehending spoken language.

But there's a catch. “She speaks like a native” would indeed be high praise for a young bilingual child – although he or she may not even know how to read and write, and therefore not really be “proficient” in the language. Or, on the other hand, a person may be quite proficient in reading a foreign text, but unable to engage in a conversation.

Thus, achieving “fluency” in a language is mostly understood as being able to communicate with ease in conversations. On the other hand, when you evaluate someone's “proficiency” in a language, you usually want to determine the level of proficiency in each of the four language skills.

The Four Language Skills

The four essential skills when learning a foreign language are commonly described as follows:

  • Listening/Comprehension: the ability to understand the meaning of foreign speech
  • Speaking: the ability to produce foreign speech and be understood
  • Reading: the ability to read and understand foreign texts
  • Writing: the ability to write foreign texts

Foreign language organizations in most countries have developed proficiency tests for each and all of these. This wiki link details it for the US. Indeed, proficiency testing has become quite an industry.

More options today

Anybody who wants to improve his or her foreign language fluency as well as proficiency in the four language skills, can choose among an extensive offering of foreign language apps, online courses, books, CDs, audio, traditional, or immersion courses, personal tutoring etc. (A brand new website, Sites For Teaching, ranks educational websites by popularity.)

As we describe in another blog post, the four language skills boost each other. Still, each learner may also sometimes have to decide on which of the skills to focus most: either because of a special current need, or because of a particular interest or aptitude.

But for an adult to become both fluent and proficient in a new foreign language, it will certainly take more than 10 days, more like between 100 and 1,000 days...

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Quick French No. 2: "Du café? Oui, j'en veux bien."

The French pronoun "en" may be little but it's not to be ignored! It's a very common and useful word, and worth the effort to get to know better.

In a recent Facebook post, we listed the following uses:

  • Meaning "from there" / "from it":
    Tu as été à Londres?  Oui, j'en arrive. - You've been to London?  Yes, I just came from there.
  • Meaning "about it" / "of it":
    Il parle beaucoup de son voyage.  Il en parle beaucoup. - He speaks a lot about his trip. He speaks a lot about it.
  • Meaning "some" / "any":
    Je viens de faire du café.  Tu en veux? - I just made coffee. Do you want some?
  • With expressions of quantity:
    Est-ce que tu as vu beaucoup de films de Truffaut?  Oui, j'en ai vu beaucoup. - Have you seen a lot of Truffaut's films? Yes, I've seen a lot of them.

For a more thorough look at the pronoun "en" go to: How to use that awesome French pronoun EN by Stanley Aléong

Our Quick French No 1 introduces you briefly to "y." Check that one out, too and you'll know two of the most ubiquitous words of the French language!

Posted on by Peter Editor

"Non, je ne regrette rien" - Learning French With a Song...

Our June 2013 entry about the Spanish song "La Paloma" has been one of our most read blogs for several months now. Here is the part of our November 2012 blog again, which had suggested Edith Piaf's famous "Non, je ne regrette rien" as a wonderful song to learn and practice French with.

Listening to foreign songs is an excellent way to memorize key phrases and expressions – and having fun doing it. Sometimes, you may even start humming and repeating the refrains without exactly knowing the meaning. In an earlier blog - 6 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language - we had suggested listening to songs as tip #4, as listening to music and songs can also fuel your enthusiasm for learning a new language. Lifehacker also has a post about music and foreign language learning.

Edith PiafNon, je ne regrette rien...

Many may remember Edith Piaf's famous song: “Non, je ne regrette rien.” You can hear her on this YouTube clip. English translations of the song, (even if they are not always correct) are easy to find, e.g. here.

It's no mystery why many people make listening to foreign songs part of their language learning practice:

  • The repetition of the refrain, especially with an “ear-worm” melody, anchors key words in your memory.
  • Key constructions become obvious and you can remember them readily. For example, the phrase “je ne regrette rien” makes it easy to see how negations are constructed in French: ne...rien or ne...pas, or to pick up on the ni...ni (neither-nor) construction.
  • From song lyrics such as “je n'ai plus besoin d'eux” (I don't need them anymore), you can derive related key phrases such as “j'ai besoin” or “je n'ai pas besoin.”
  • And, you may learn some new vocabulary that your typical language course may lack, e.g. “balayé” (swept, “broomed” away), “chagrins” (sorrows), “je me fous” (I don't care).
  • Moreover, songs exaggerate and stress the sounds of some words and thus make them easier to understand and imitate.

While Edith Piaf's "Non je regrette rien" may be particularly memorable and instructional, there are many other French songs and lyrics you can find on the Internet. 

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

How the 4 Language Skills Boost Each Other

When you're learning a new language, how much do the four skills – reading, listening, writing, and speaking - boost each other? For example, how much does reading help your listening or speaking? Or, when you practice listening, does that help your reading or writing? The answers are yes, and quite a bit. But there are limits. No doubt, reading will increase your vocabulary and your understanding of how the language works. Still, reading alone does not make you a fluent conversationalist. By the same token, listening alone will not make you a brilliant Facebook chat partner in your new language.

READING

Many adults today start learning a new language by reading, and listening to corresponding audios. Apps and online language courses are ideal for that, with hard-copy textbooks, classes, and tutorials providing support and/or alternatives.

Once you've mastered the basics - essential words and phrases and the fundamentals of grammar - reading will certainly accelerate your progress. Reading is a fast and pleasant way to increase your vocabulary and internalize the structure of the language. Most of all, reading sharpens your ability to guess the meaning of unknown words. When reading new texts, you'll encounter unfamiliar words, and often it's the context that helps you guess what they mean. This ability will get better the more you read.

To keep you reading, it's crucial that you read books and articles that genuinely interest you. And whenever you can: Read aloud. The Internet has become a huge resource for foreign language materials. Besides online courses, you can find an endless supply of newspaper articles, social media posts, books for downloading, etc. 

Reading is clearly essential for learning a language. However, reading alone is not sufficient if your goal is also to speak and write fluently, and to listen to fast speech and understand what you're hearing.

LISTENING

Understanding foreign sounds and words seems initially more difficult than reading: by correlating the sounds of the words to their spelling one tries, at the same time, to understand what they mean. If you're part of a conversation, you can ask for something to be repeated. Aside from that, as with a rapid-fire conversation in a TV episode, you can't double-check and analyze what you hear. 

For the beginner, spoken language always seems fast. But with a little patience, you can build up your listening skills right from the beginning. Start with listening to individual words and phrases, then songs and short podcasts, and eventually, TV episodes and/or radio. As you're training your ear to distinguish the end of one word and the beginning of the next, you'll notice the fast stream of words gradually slowing down.

You'll need good listening comprehension when you're in a conversation with others. Practicing to just listen is an excellent way to sharpen this skill. And once you have progressed beyond the basics, reading will increase your listening vocabulary, and speaking will help you apply it.

WRITING

Writing freely in a foreign language may be harder for some than speaking. If you want to exchange Facebook chats or emails with foreign friends, or even post comments in the language you're learning, you have to be able to spell and put sentences together that others can understand. A good first step for writing is to copy suitable words and phrases, and to start using these when you write. Then continue doing this with full sentences, or even longer texts.

The point is to write a lot and to write often. When you're ready, begin keeping a simple, daily journal in your new language. It's okay to make mistakes. If you can get your writing corrected - either by an email friend or on a foreign language writing site - you'll make progress fast. 

SPEAKING

If you want to learn to converse in a foreign language, you have to practice speaking. It's as simple as that. Of course, listening with understanding is necessary too. However, conversing in a language presupposes that you can produce the foreign language in a way so that others can understand you. This involves mastering the correct "mouth mechanics." And, it's not enough to remember the vocabulary, you also have to be conscious of the underlying grammatical fabric – and what's different from writing – you have to do so in real time, without consulting dictionaries and grammar books.

Practice speaking by listening and repeating words, phrases, and short sentence. Then record your own voice, play it back, and compare yourself to the native speaker. Do this until you have acquired a series of common, useful expressions. In addition, read aloud whenever you can (see above).

But nothing beats engaging in real conversations. So once you've mastered the basics of pronunciation and intonation, find a "practice" partner to converse with over coffee, on the phone, on skype, etc. Don't become one of those people who say: "I learned French for four years, I can read Harry Potter in French, but I can't really speak; all I can say is 'Bonjour' and 'Au revoir'."

THE BOTTOM LINE

I've only touched on some of the ways in which the four language skills are both distinct and related. Each person may experience language learning somewhat differently or want to practice one skill to the preference of another. But the bottom line is that a language learner that wants to master all four skills will need to practice each of these - reading, listening, writing, and speaking - with a certain amount of special attention.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Quick Spanish No.1: "¡Que tengas ...!"

In English, when you say to someone: "Have a good day!" you're not ordering them to have a good day, you are expressing a wish: "I hope you have ...." or "May you have ..."

When you wish someone a good day, etc. in Spanish, you are saying something similar:

"¡Que tengas un buen día!" (familiar) and "¡Que tenga un buen día!" (formal) both mean "[May you] have a good day!"

 I hope that...

The verb form that is used in such wishes is the subjunctive mood. Look at the difference:

 

Tienes un buen día. - You are having a good day.

¡Que tengas un buen día! - Have a good day!

The combination "que+subjunctive" implies "may ..." or "I hope that ..."

Following are a few other common wishes in Spanish:

¡Que tengas una buena estancia! - Have a good stay!

¡Que tengas suerte! - Good luck! (May you have luck!)

¡Que tengas buen viaje! - Have a good trip!

¡Que te mejores! - Get well soon! (May you get better!)

¡Que (te) vaya bien! - Good luck (to you)! / I hope it goes well (for you)!

¡Que aproveche! - Enjoy your meal! (Spain)

Getting the feel for the context in which the subjunctive is used (rather than learning a bunch of rules) is a good way to start learning this verb form. ¡Que te vaya bien!

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Quick Italian No.1: magari and mica

Often, when I'm in the kitchen preparing lunch, I'll grab my laptop and put on an Italian soap. For me it's a good way to sharpen my Italian listening skills.

As the conversations fly back and forth, I keep hearing the words "magari" and "mica," both of which are integral features of casual Italian conversation. To understand their meaning you have to also understand the context in which they are used.

MAGARI

"Magari" can have different functions in a sentence (adverb, conjunction, interjection), and its meaning varies by context.

magari - maybe, perhaps [adverb]

Magari c'è un altro motivo. - Perhaps there's another reason.

magari - if only [conjunction]

Magari fosse vero! - If only it were true!

magari - I wish!, Yeah, right! [interjection, a little scarcastic]

Hai vinto qualcosa? - Did you win anything?

Magari! - I wish! / Yeah, right!

Magari! - you bet! [interjection, positive response]

Ti piacerebbe andare in Italia? - Would you like to go to Italy?

Magari! - You bet! / I certainly would!

MICA

"Mica" is typically used as an adverb, for particular emphasis.

mica - at all [adverb]

Mica male questo vino. - This wine isn't bad at all.

non mica - not at all [adverb]

Non sto mica bene. - I'm not well at all.

Non ci credo mica. - I don't believe that for a minute.

Expression

Non sono mica nati ieri. - I wasn't born yesterday.

*Meaning: I know a thing or two ... I didn't just fall off the turnip truck.

 

How can you start using "magari" and "mica" in your own Italian conversations? Begin by paying attention to these words when you listen to Italian. And when you speak, just slip them in casually. Will that work? You bet! Magari!

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