Going to Paris? Cool! And even better if you learn a few useful phrases ahead of time.
They will immediately set you apart from those many hardy monolinguals that swarm through Paris every year. (Entrance to the Louvre, left)
A willingness to learn the local language transforms you into a much more welcome tourist - even if you've only been able to master such pleasantries as "bonjour" (hello), "merci" (thank you), "pardon" (excuse me), "de rien" (you're welcome), "pas de problème" (no problem), "au revoir" (goodbye). Besides, you'll enjoy the experience more.
For more complicated phrases, having a phrase book handy can by helpful. The booklet will back you up when you're asking for directions, ordering in a restaurant, buying a subway ticket, inquiring about opening times, etc.
And, if you're ambitious and motivated, you can learn the phrases by heart. Plus, if you're also learning online, you can practice them by mimicking a native speaker and/or getting pronunciation feedback.
Now, if you're an even more advanced learner, just think: Once in Paris, you'll have free immersion and unlimited chances to practice with native speakers!
But, no matter what stage of learning you're at - here are my top 5 phrases to say or use when exploring Paris. They go right to the heart of what makes Paris so hugely enjoyable.
1. Faire une petite promenade (to go for a little walk)
The best way to explore Paris is on foot. Walking through different neighborhoods lets you experience the city and its people in a very direct way. Sounds, colors, textures, smells - all converge together to draw you into the moment.
My husband and I have always enjoyed strolling through the Jardin du Luxembourg (see picture, right), a spot where Parisians also love to hang out.
People sit and chat or read their newspaper on one of the benches lining the paths. Children launch a toy sailboat on "le Grand Bassin" (the large pond). Students sit on the grass to talk, flirt, or do homework.
There are tennis courts, places to play basketball and volleyball, there's a corner for chess, and an area for boule players. There's also a large children's playground for kids 7-12, which charges a small entrance fee.
A wonderful neighborhood to explore is the district of le Marais (the Marsh). Historically the Jewish district, it has more recently become a trendy quartier with lively bars and restaurants, colorful markets, and funky small shops.
Le Marais spreads across the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, and a walking tour (on your own or with a group) will take you past posh aristocratic houses, small alleys, the incomparable Place de Vosges, trendy boutiques, great museums, and much more.
2. Louer un vélo (to rent a bike)
Exploring Paris by bicycle has a different charm and you can cover more terrain that way. Paris is generally a friendly city for cyclists, but you're still dealing with big city traffic. There are bike paths everywhere and plenty of opportunities to rent, either from bike rental shops, or (by credit card) at one of the Paris Vélib stations (see picture, right). Vélib is a large-scale public bike-sharing system.
We rented a bike twice at a Vélib station. But rather than riding in the city itself - we like to walk, and are also a little scared of the Paris traffic - we chose two destinations on the outskirts.
Our first ride was in the vast public park, Bois de Boulogne, located on the western side of Paris, on the border of the 16th arrondissement. To get there, we took the Métro to Port d'Auteuil and easily found a Vélib station nearby.
Formerly the hunting grounds for the Kings of France, the park has - with its woods, small lakes, picnic grounds, and nature paths - 15 km of bike trails on which we rode to our heart's content.
Another place we targeted was Château de Vincennes, situated on the eastern edge of Paris, in the 12th arrondissement. We went by Métro to the stop "Chateau de Vincennes."
On a bike from the Vélib station nearby, we crossed over to the Bois de Vincennes, a park that matches the Bois de Boulogne in size and beauty. With its four lakes, arboretum, botanical garden, and delightful Temple d'Amour, the park gave us another chance to experience the great Paris outdoors (picture, left).
To round off our adventure, we took a quick tour of the castle itself, a former residence of the Kings of France.
There we got our history fix of the day and learned that several well-known figures, such as the philosopher Denis Diderot and the notorious Marquis de Sade, had been incarcerated in the castle's dungeon.
3. Quelle vue magnifique! (what a Great view!)
With the limited building heights of the inner city, there are great views of the city from several choice locations.
Whether you're up on the Tour Eiffel, the Tour Montparnasse, Notre Dame Cathedral, on the steps of the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, or just on the Esplanade du Trocadéro, you're in for a visual treat.
We've enjoyed each one of these vistas. Still, we think the Esplanade du Trocadéro holds a particular charm.
It's a large platform located on the summit of the Colline de Chaillot, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, and even just the view it affords is worth a visit. (See picture, right)
But there's more. The whole area is full of fun and energy. Leading down from the Trocadéro towards the Seine are the lovely Jardins du Trocadéro.
On the greens people sit and socialize. Children play ball or splash around at the cascading fountains. There's always something fun going on. When we were there, we watched an amazing skateboard slalom.
The skyscrapers that you can see from the Arc de Triomphe are located at the other end of the monumental "Axe Historique." They form part of La Défense, an important business district. From the top of La Défense's Grande Arche (which housed the currently closed Computer Museum) we had a different, spectacular view of the city.
4. Prendre l'apéritif (to have an aperitif)
In the early evening when life slows down, it's a perfect time for a glass of wine at a sidewalk café and for doing some people watching.
If you pick a café that's off the beaten tourist track, you'll also hear French spoken around you. You can take your time for this important activity because dinner in Paris usually doesn't start till around 8 or 8:30.
Paris has no shortage of such cafés or bistros, wherever you may be staying.
However, a visit to Paris may not be complete without an apéritif or even lunch at Les Deux Magots on the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés. (See picture, left)
Popular with tourists and locals alike because it was a favorite haunt of writers and artists such as Hemingway, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Camus, Picasso, Joyce, Brecht, Verlaine, Malraux, Rimbaud, the café-restaurant Les Deux Magots is also known for its present literary activity:
Every year the café awards the Prix des Deux Magots for a new French novel, usually one that is off-beat or unconventional, and which may not be considered for the more traditional Prix Goncourt.
5. Faire une croisière (To take a boat cruise)
A river cruise on the Seine is not to be missed. The routes of the various boat companies are similar and most offer day and evening cruises.
What makes a Paris cruise so special is that the Seine flows through the heart of the city. The river touches on 10 of the 20 arrondissements and is lined by many great buildings and monuments.
We enjoyed a day cruise on a sunny day, as the boat slowly made its grand loop and we listened to amusing historic facts and anecdotes. (See picture right with a view of the Notre Dame)
At the far end of the "rive gauche" (left bank) you'll pass by the four sleek towers of La Bibliothèque François Mitterand (an expansion of the National Library). You'll probably wonder about the politics that allowed the towers (as well as the Tour Montparnasse) to exceed the inner city's building height limits by quite a bit.
During an evening (dinner) cruise with good friends, we were vowed by the beauty of the City of Light. In my mind's eye, I still see the illuminated Eiffel Tower, as it sparkled through its gold covering.
When you're exploring Paris yourself, there surely will be other French phrases that you'll love. So don't wait, start brushing up your French and make your Paris experience a memorable one.
When traveling to a country whose language you don't speak, it's always good to have a few basic words and expressions on hand.
In many travel guides you'll find the foreign translations for greetings, please, thank you, where is the bathroom, etc.
Learning a few of these makes interactions friendly. They can also help you out in a pinch.
Knowing the basic numbers in the foreign language can be especially helpful.
We found this out a few years ago when we traveled to China and Japan. We had little opportunity to use many of the Chinese and Japanese words and phrases we had learned.
However, knowing the numbers proved very useful for bargaining and buying at the markets. (We found this out the first time in Italy - as we describe in this post about Italian Numbers.)
Numbers also came in handy when shopping in small stores or paying the bill in restaurants.
Most numbers you'll see are in digital form. You'll rarely need to spell them.
But you do need to understand them when they're spoken. And to learn them, it helps to see them written out.
German Numbers 1-19
For most English speakers, German numbers from 1 to 12 are not that difficult to learn and remember.
Many of the English and German numbers are related and have a similar sound, even though their spelling may be different, such as “zwei” (two), “drei” (three), “vier” (four), and continuing through “elf” (eleven) and “zwölf” (twelve).
German numbers from 13 to 19 use the same model as in English.
They combine (and in some cases also shorten) the lower numbers with the suffix “zehn” (teen). So you have “dreizehn” (thirteen), “vierzehn” (fourteen), through “siebzehn” (seventeen), “achtzehn” (eighteen), “neunzehn” (nineteen). The German number “twenty” is “zwanzig.”
The numbers between 20 and 90 that end in a zero follow the same pattern as in English, namely by adding the suffix “-zig” (in English “-ty”) to a form of the numbers 2 to 9.
Notable exceptions are 20 ("zwanzig"), which uses only the first two letters of "zwei" and 30 (“drei-ßig”) which uses the suffix “-ßig” (spoken “-ssig”). 60 (sechzig) drops the "s" of "sechs" and 70 ("siebzig") cuts the "en" of "sieben".
Note also a regional variation with these numbers: In northern Germany and standard German, the ending of these numbers has a “ch” sound: as in “zwanzich.”
More to the south, including in Bavaria and Austria, you'll hear the ending “zik,” as in “zwanzik."
German Numbers 21-99
The numbers beyond 21 that don't end in a zero - although regular and straightforward - can be confusing to English speakers as they deviate from the English model.
The German for “twenty-one” is “einundzwanzig” (literally, oneandtwenty) and this turned-around structure in German continues consistently as you count in the thirties, forties, fifties, etc.
It takes some getting used to that “fünfundvierzig” means “forty-five” and that “vierundfünfzig” is “fifty-four.”
Not to forget that we think of numbers mostly as digits.
So, when you hear “fünfundvierzig” you have to think 45, and when you hear “vierundfünfzig” you need to think 54.
Mastering numbers well enough so that you can easily pay at a market, understand an address, or take down a telephone number can indeed be a challenge.
In German, telephone numbers are normally given as a series of two-digit numbers (and if need be, with a three-digit number at the end).
This can be especially annoying when a German tells you a telephone number that you want to write down.
For the number 32 57 42 86 91, you'll hear zweiunddreißig-siebenundfünfzig-zweiundvierzig-sechsundachtzig-einundneunzig.
To avoid confusion you are better off asking for each digit separately. This translates as: “Kannst du - (or formal) Können Sie - bitte die Ziffern einzeln sagen?”
German Numbers from 100-10,000
The numbers from 101 to 1999 are closer to the English model, except that in English the numbers are not written as one word.
For example, 101 is “(ein)hundertundeins” (one hundred one), or 333 is “dreihundertunddreiunddreißig” (three hundred thirty-three), with the inversion noted above.
German Historical Dates
Historical dates, of course, are rarely written out. But there are conventions on how to say them.
In German as in English, you use “hundreds” (not thousands) to say a specific year between 1101 and 1999.
So, 1386 is “dreizehnhundertsechsundachtzig” (all written as one word), and except for the inversion of the last part, similar to the English “thirteen hundred eighty-six."
However, for 1066 (when the Normans invaded England), you use the word “tausend” (thousand) as in “tausendsechsundsechzig.”
You do the same for the current century.
2015 is “zweitausendfünfzehn.”
You you may also hear, similar to English, “zehnsechsundsechzig” or “zwanzigfünfzehn.”
In this Quick German Game on the left, you can practice some of the German numbers between 21 and 100 and beyond.
Millions, Billions, Trillions, etc.
A point of frequent confusion for English speakers may be the high numbers that are often quoted in news reports about global finances.
We noticed, for example, some errors in the recent reporting on the negotiations between Greece and the European Union regarding Greece's financial obligations.
German and English agree on 1,000,000 - “eine Million” (one million).
But, for the English “one billion,” Germans say “eine Milliarde,” and for the English “one trillion,” Germans say “eine Billion.” You can see the problem.
In the northern regions of Germany, as well as on national media (radio, television) you'll recognize most numbers as they are spoken.
Even so, you may sometimes hear 2 (“zwei”) also pronounced as “zwo” or “zwee,” or with other slight variations.
However in certain parts of Germany, such as Cologne, Bavaria, the Black Forest region, as well as in Austria and in Switzerland, regional dialects may make certain numbers unrecognizable for the foreigner.
So knowing and practicing the German numbers should be high on your list when you are planning a trip to a German speaking country.
Practicing the German numbers also gives you an opportunity to work on your pronunciation. As in any language, getting the mouth mechanics right is also important in German.
“Zwei” does not require you to produce a “w” as in “water,” but just a soft “v” sound; avoid using any form of the English “r” in “drei” or “vier,” or the guttural “l” in “elf” or “zwölf”; the latter, together with “fünf,” lets you also practice the common German Umlauts, “ö” and “ü.”
During the day, whether you are commuting to work, noting how many email messages are in your inbox, reading the newspaper, doing exercises, etc., you'll always see or count numbers. Pronounce them silently, or out loud if you can, in German. And you'll be surprised how fast you'll know them!
You want to Learn German Fast?
Not everyone will agree with Benny Lewis', the Irish Polyglot's statement "Why German is easy!". But, if you are serious about learning German - and even before you buy or subscribe to any expensive courses (except GamesforLanguage.com, which is FREE!) you may want to read Benny's e-book!
Disclosure: Some link's above are to a partner's program with revenue sharing, if you decide to buy or subscribe.
We, at Gamesforlanguage, are always looking for ways that help learners take the next leap towards fluency. The key for learning to speak a language fluently is simple: You have to engage in live conversations, and do this frequently using various topics of conversation.
Recently, we discovered a new start-up site called Speaklikethem.com that looks very promising. We had a chance to talk extensively with Speaklikethem's Olivier Royer and Alberto Bortott, who together explained some of the special features that they are building into this site.
Intermediate Learners or Above
At Speaklikethem the goal is for learners to have real and productive conversations, so learners can't still be beginners.
Users of the program should have already reached a fairly solid basis in a language they are practicing. Beginners simply cannot hold their part in a conversation that goes beyond a simple exchange of questions and statements about themselves.
In your Profile, you're asked to list your language skills: native, bilingual, intermediate, or advanced, and while self-classifications of intermediate and advanced leave much room for interpretation, they are a clear signal that the site is for those who want to practice already existing listening/speaking skills.
An Interest-based e-Platform
In order to make interesting conversations possible, users can upload videos in the target language from the Internet, which will serve as topics and discussion points with their language partners. Or they can use any of the existing videos.
With time, the program will accumulate an extensive supply that will cover topics such as business, culture, fun, planet, sciences, society, sport, style, techno, and trends - all in many languages.
This is the basic new idea that is likely to create not only conversation topics, but also “engagement” by the language partners – (one key component of language learning that we had discussed in our post 2 Language Learning Essentials: Motivation and Engagement)
Preparing for a Conversation
Clearly, videos can become a great way to suggest topics for a conversation. But in addition, at Speaklikethem users can upload links to articles, pictures, as well as vocabulary lists, grammar points, etc. that could provide a little extra linguistic backbone.
We found that especially during a first encounter with a language exchange partner, it's important to have topics of conversations as well as some questions ready to ask.
Finding an Exchange Partner
Because the focus of this site is to set up interest-based conversations with readily available resources, finding a suitable partner should be fast and easy. For example, if I'm interested in elections in Spain, or am looking to work in Germany, I can propose those topics to my language communities - using one of the videos - and anyone interested can pick up the invitation.
When we were looking to meet language exchange partners in Seville, Spain, we were able to filter both for the specific city and face-to-face conversations on certain sites, an option we would strongly recommend also to Speaklikethem.
Speaklikethem is currently in a Beta start-up mode and subscriptions are free.
Coincidentally, we also learned that Speaklikethem has applied to MassChallenge's startup Accelerator Program in London for 2015, a program that started in Boston and has expanded internationally. Gamesforlanguage was a Finalist in MassChallenge's 2011 Accelerator Program in Boston, MA.
MassChallenge is a yearly 4-month competitive program that connects high-impact start-ups with resources they need to launch and succeed. The program provides mentorship, office space, education, network & community and runs from late spring to early fall.
If we consider learning a foreign language to be a “project” that needs various resources, has a schedule or timeline, and an accomplishment or goal at the end – then some of the key elements of a project are indeed present.
In the previous post I included my simple time line (above) and here is my update on the tasks and activities shown in January:
Spanish – Duolingo
I started Duolingo – Spanish in December 2014 and have continued with it for 148 days, (see screenshot). I've completed all regular lessons and am currently on Level 13 with 5643 points. I'm continuing now with 1 lesson a day. I completed 3 Duolingo tests and progressed from 2.03/5.0 to 5/5 while in Seville.
Spanish – Gamesforlanguage.com
I did not quite complete our Spanish 1 course by the time we left for Europe in February, but reached Level 5. I listened to our Podcasts, which by that time I pretty much knew by heart (we developed them, after all). Many of the phrases and expressions actually proved very useful in Seville. (We are currently working on tests for each of the Spanish 1 course levels to be available within the next few weeks as “Quick Games.”)
Spanish – Find Tutor, Stay in Seville, Practice Speaking
As we described in other posts, we had found three language exchange partners with whom we met repeatedly in Seville. As we described in How a Tutor Boosted our Language Fluency, we did find a tutor while we were there and found our conversations with him to be very productive. As we did not have to switch with him to English (or German), as with our language exchange partners, our time with our tutor proved to be very effective for improving both our listening and speaking skills.
Spanish – Watch Movies, Videos, Read, Write Speak
Back in the US, I continued to exchange emails in Spanish with the Unicaja bank in Seville, which had withdrawn funds from my account without delivering them to me in a failed ATM withdrawal incident. As we reported in our post, the money was finally returned just about 30 days later. Unicaja continues to insist that the delay was caused by Maestro (Master Charge in Europe) to whom they had returned the funds.
We have also started to watch Spanish TV and movies again; currently we are watching “Comisario Rex” (actually an Italian series, dubbed Spanish) as well as a soap “Hasta el Fin del Mundo.” While our listening skills have increased substantially since our stay in Seville and we can guess much from the context, we still can't fully understand all of the rapidly spoken conversations. We find that adding subtitles in Spanish helps a lot.
We continue to read Spanish newspapers and articles online, often using lingua.ly, which also boosts our vocabulary, especially when we practice any new words with lingua.ly's vocabulary lists.
Spanish – Find local language exchange partner/tutor
We are currently looking for a language exchange partner and/or tutor in our area. Becoming really fluent in a foreign language requires practice, and having regularly scheduled speaking sessions is quite important for not losing the progress we have made. Mylanguageexchange.com and conversationsexchange.com were the two sites that helped us find our partners in Seville.
While we have not yet achieved the same fluency as in French, we are quite happy with our progress. While our topics of conversation are still limited, we have substantially increased our active vocabulary, have acquired a number of banking terms while in Seville (see our April 2015 post), can talk about Spanish elections, and quite a few other, personal or abstract topics.
Update: on April 28, 2015 I took several of the free tests which are listed in this LingQ post. These tests do not evaluate fluency, but rather vocabulary and grammar proficiency. As I commented on the post: "I was disappointed with the Transparent Language test as it pegged me as a “Beginner”, while the Language Level Test gave me a B1, the Sprach Caffe a 50/72 , and LingQ an Advanced 3 with knowing 35,500 words. (I’ll do the Bridge test, when I’ll have more time!)"
I am currently looking for a test with which I can evaluate my fluency in a more formal way
Dutch – Duolingo
During January and the first part of February, I indeed completed 1-2 Dutch lessons each day, but stopped during our stay in Seville. In April I again took up Dutch, but found that the 6-7 week hiatus has thrown me back quite a bit. I have now reached Level 9, with 1844 points (see screenshot above), but find that I have to go back to much earlier lessons again. I currently mostly “strengthen my skills” with 2-3 lessons per day, and will continue to do so until I feel that I have reached my previous level.
In spite of its closeness to German (my native language), I find writing Dutch especially challenging. While some words are pronounced quite similarly to German, they are often spelled differently.
Dutch: Select/Sign Up
I am considering signing-up up for Babbel's Dutch course by May 1 as shown on the time line. We had also subscribed to Babbels' Spanish course and we'll report on our experience with it in a future blog post.
Adding another online course to Duolingo seems necessary to both expand the vocabulary and get more listening and speaking practice.
I also hope that once I can formulate some sentences I will be able to practice with my wife Ulrike, who is fluent in Dutch (which she had learned while attending school in the Netherlands for two years).
Motivation and Engagement
Our motivation for improving our Spanish was both related to our planned stay in Seville, and generally to learning another language when traveling to Spanish speaking countries. Cuba and various South American countries are on our list.
By reading Spanish online as well as Spanish books (currently: the Spanish translation of "Hunger Games": "Los Juegos del Hambre", and "La Sombra del Viento" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon) and watching Spanish language movies, we're confident that we'll keep our interest in Spanish alive.
So far, I have kept quite closely to the January 2015 time line. In September I'll know whether I have achieved my goal of understanding a good part of the conversations while participating in our Dutch Family Reunion in Utrecht. With the Dutch being so fluent in German and English, I have little hope, however, that I'll be able to practice much speaking ...
During our recent stay in Seville, Spain (see picture left), we were again reminded how challenging local dialects are to foreign language learners. That is especially the case when they try to improve their new language in an immersion environment, as in the country where their new language is spoken.
When you visit only for a few days and your interaction with locals is quite limited – as happened during our first stay to Seville in 2012 – you don't seem to notice the dialect very much.
This time, however, it was different.
The four European languages we are very familiar with, German, Spanish, French, and Italian, all have different dialects spoken in various regions. All language schools and online programs, including GamesforLanguage.com, teach a "standard language" that you may hear on radio and television, but which may be spoken in only a few regions of the country.
Chances are you'll find yourself in a region where your language learning efforts over the last few months don't seem to be quite enough. It's no different in Spain, but also presents an opportunity to learn more about the local dialect.
There are other differences to standard "Castilian" Spanish and even to other regions of the Andalusian dialect.
SESEO & CECEO
Generally speaking, typical Andalusian pronunciation features as the "leveling s, z, and c sounds" (the latter before an [i] or an [e]). This means that in parts of Andalusia [s], [z] and [c] have an [s] sound (called a "seseo" dialect.) In other parts of Andalusia [s], [z] and [c] have a [θ] sound (called a "ceceo" dialect.) Seville, in fact, is a small language island.
Surrounded by regions that speak "ceceo," the city itself is mostly a "seseo" haven. On the street, with the many tourist coming from other regions of Spain, you of course heard a mixture. In any case, neither "seseo" nor "ceceo" is really part of standard Castilian. Castilian and Andalusian have been perceived as distinct dialects since the the 15th century.
In Castilian Spanish, [s] is pronounced as [s]; and [c] and [z] are pronounced [θ]. The latter is sometimes called the "Castilian lisp," which is often attributed, incorrectly, to the lisp of a Spanish king. This and other language myths are wonderfully debunked in a recent blog post: 10 Myths And Misconceptions About World Languages, the "Castilian lisp" in Myth #4: "The Spanish Kings's Lisp."
We noticed that [d] was weakened or dropped entirely when between two vowels. For example in the bus, we heard "próxima para" (instead of "próxima parada," next stop); and, our Sevillian acquaintances would say "a menu'o" (instead of "a menudo,") often. Flamenco terms are famous examples: cantaor (from cantador, Castilian: cantante "singer"); tocaor (from tocador, Castilian: músico); and bailaor (from bailador, Castilian: bailarín). When spelled, the [d] is also dropped, we learned. [See Wikipedia "Andalusian Spanish"]
FORMAL OR INFORMAL
Spain in general, including Andalusia, is known for it's greater informality compared to Latin American countries. When we met our tutor for the first time, he immediately addressed us with "tú," though we were clearly older than he. Since pronouns are dropped unless you need them for clarity or emphasis, he happily used the pronoun-less "tú" form with us, but dropped the "s-endings" (tiene, habla, quiere, encuentra, etc.). When I asked him whether Sevillians could tell the difference between "tiene" (informal with the dropped "s") and "tiene" (formal), he said, actually no, and smiling, said that he had never thought about it. So, in Sevilla, you may not always catch right away whether someone is addressing you formally or informally.
In most cases, you don't chose to stay or live in a region because of a particular language dialect: Work, family, friends, cultural, or other interests, etc. generally impact your decision. So chances are that you will find yourself in a city or town with a local dialect.
When you are starting to notice what distinguishes the local dialect from the standard language, you are on your way to reaching another language level.
And the sooner you can discover some to the typical idiosyncrasies of the local language, the faster you'll be able to understand and eventually speak it.
Af the end of our month there, we could pretty well understand our tutor and our language exchange partners, but we spoke the Sevillian dialect only in small chunks, such as with "gracia" and "do cerveza."
Thus, in Seville, we still remained at the first stage, but feel quite confident that after a few more weeks we would have graduated to stage two.
At the end of our one-month-for-fluency stay in Seville (March 2015), we experienced the two initial days of Sevilla's amazing family festival, the Semana Santa (Holy Week). The entire city seemed to participate. Whole families, from babies to grandparents, and many groups of young and old came out into the street, especially in the late afternoon and evenings. This year drew especially large crowds, as spring was in full bloom and the weather was sunny and warm.
We already noticed in early March that viewing stands were being erected behind the Ayuntamiento (City Hall), on the route of all the processions. From days before, Sevilla was transformed: Repairs to buildings and roads were completed; balconies were draped with festive cloths; mobile restrooms were erected and hooked up to the city sewer system (no “porta potties"!); barriers and chairs were placed at major viewing routes; the inner “casco antiguo” (old town) was closed to traffic in the afternoons, taxis were banned, bus routes were changed, and a large part of the old town became a pedestrian zone.
Daily program booklets came with the local newspaper El Diario de Sevilla and showed the routes and times of the various processions, and the site Sevillasemanasanta.com gives you more details on brotherhoods, processions times and routes.
During Semana Santa, there were seven to ten daily processions, organized by the different "cofradías" or "hermandades" (religious brotherhoods), social organizations that play a crucial role in putting on the processions.
Sevilla alone has 60 different "cofradías," some of which are associated with trades, as can be seen in their name, for example, "La Cena" (dinner), "La Hiniesta" (broom), "La Borriquita" (little donkey), others have a spiritual names such as "La Paz" (peace), "El Amor" (love), "La Amargura" (bitterness).
Still others carry the names of various saints. Some of the "cofradías" trace their origin back to the 16th century; they often have several thousand members, who participate in the processions. You can find out more about each of the brotherhood in the above link.
These solemn processions with their large floats bearing Jesus and Mary statues, decorated with candles and flowers, accompanied by spirited music and hundreds of "Nazarenos" (penitents) wearing pointy hoods and cloaks in various color combinations - all made for an elaborate, unforgettable spectacle.
Especially the “Nazarenos” dressed in all white may create some unpleasant (KKK) associations for older, especially African Americans. For Sevillians, however, the hooded figures that could be seen walking through the old town to their procession starts, were just part of the Semana Santa celebrations, which began officially on Palm Sunday.
Each of the processions moved along a specific route and took many hours to complete it. Several of them started at 3 PM and ended at 2:00 or 3:00 AM in the morning.
We could see that many of the "Nazarenos" following the processions were teenagers or even younger, and these were accompanied by parents or other family members who provided them with water or a sandwich from time to time.
In Seville you can't see the men who carry the ornate and quite heavy floats: They are underneath each float and and only come out occasionally for a well-deserved drink when the procession comes to a halt.
The atmosphere in the city during those days was electric, excited, but the crowds were surprisingly calm and measured. Several times, as we walked from one procession to another, we were caught in a stream of people who were doing the same.
In spite of our initial anxiety at being in such a densely-packed and moving crowd, we witnessed no out-of-control behavior, no unpleasant incidents, no shouting. There were lots of small and older children present and we thought that surely some of them would get lost in the crowd.
Later we heard of only one case of a child that had gotten lost, but was found again after a few hours. People were surprisingly patient, courteous, laid back. And, even though there was a lot of waiting time, no one seemed to get upset about this. People socialized, chatted, kids played hide and go seek. It was truly a colorful, inclusive folk festival that added powerful memories to those of our stay.
My husband and I spent the month of March in Seville, Spain (left: La Giralda under blue sky, seen from el Alcázar), mostly in sunny, warm weather, while our home town, Boston, USA, kept getting bombarded with relentless snowfalls. We were lucky to be away at that time, but the main reason for our trip was to improve our Spanish through the best kind of "immersion" that we could set up. It's not easy for adult foreigners to meet and engage with locals, so we had a plan: We set up "live" language exchanges in advance and were determined to find a local teacher for conversation lessons.
To be honest, our initial conversations were pretty halting. To be able to talk about your own experiences in a casual, spontaneous way, you need to know present and past verb forms. For Spanish, with its different past tenses, that's quite a task. Using just the simple past gets the basic message across but often not all of the meaning.
Already our first exchange conversation had us go back to our place and review the basic tenses of common verbs such as "hacer, estar, ser, ir, haber, poder, tener, etc." I wrote out the forms by hand on sheets of paper. We memorized them and practiced them in between sightseeing stints.
It wasn't just the grammar which made a normal conversation challenging. All of our exchange partners were from the Seville area and spoke the local city dialect. (Sevillians talk fast and drop some letters, including most occurrences of the letter 's' in the middle or end of words.) In time, though, we got used to the dropped letters.
Doing those conversations during our first two weeks was a big step forward. It felt really good to begin understanding spontaneous questions and to learn how to ask them. The great thing about meeting with others is that your head starts preparing and practicing for the conversations in advance and processes them afterwards. It's another level of learning, quite focused and effective.
Adding a Tutor
We intended to ask our language partners if they knew any tutors for our remaining two weeks, but instead came across a notice at a nearby square. It offered: Clases de Español (see photo), and had a phone number attached. I mustered my Spanish and texted our interest in 7 tutoring sessions. We got an answer quickly and set up a first meeting for the next day.
Carlos, a young licensed teacher of Spanish at a local school, spoke no other foreign languages except some Italian. That he spoke no English was a huge stroke of luck for us. It forced us to express and explain ourselves only in Spanish. He in turn, being a trained teacher, knew just when and how to correct us without interrupting the conversation too much.
A Conversation Format
You can't learn a language without speaking it, and engaging in a conversation is clearly the best way to level up your speaking skills. On the one hand you are listening to the other speaker(s) and interpreting what is being said; on the other, you are beginning to frame an answer, but at the same time have to keep in mind grammatical points such as verb endings, tenses, pronouns, agreement, etc. Besides, your answer has to have some momentum to keep the conversation going. Stopping at every second or third word is not going to cut it.
Being in a live conversation gives you the chance to ask questions. If there's something you don't understand, you can just ask for an explanation or a clarification. Questions are also a good way to keep the conversation going and to give you a certain amount of conversational control.
Topics for Conversation
Our main intent was to practice conversation, but to keep conversations moving along you need to have interesting things to discuss. Carlos asked us for topics we'd like to focus on. During our stay in Seville, general elections in Andalusia were happening and one of our sessions was a question-and-answer session about Andalusia's political history, and we explained voting processes and party structure in the U.S.
Also, at the end of our visit, the amazing festivities of "Semana Santa" (Easter week) began. (See above a picture of one of the many processions that occur every day from Palm Sunday to Easter. A future post will provide more details.) Besides discussing some of the local traditions of Easter week with us, Carlos also told us of his memories of growing up in Seville, especially his experiences as a child during the Easter week festivities. This made the lessons quite personal and interesting.
Learning to Rephrase
When you're talking about something in a foreign language, it can often happen that you're looking for a specific word, but just cannot remember it. An excellent skill to practice is to rephrase what you're trying to say and express it in different words, rather than stop short and rack your brains. Knowing that English would not help, we were forced to say things "in other words," again and again, and actually got pretty good at it. To be able to do this, of course, you need enough vocabulary. Reading the local newspaper every day was helpful for the topics we were talking about.
Clarifying Grammar in Context
Conversational practice is an ideal vehicle for learning grammar in context. I normally use a grammar text to look up questions that I have. I rarely start with a text book to learn grammar. In our conversations with Carlos, we started out by talking about things we had done, i.e. we had to use Spanish past verb tenses. Since there are several to choose from and they differ in usage from English past verb tenses, our conversations were a effective way to practice the Spanish forms.
Carlos gave us a helpful, simplified guideline for which tense to use when: The "imperfect tense" (imperfecto) sets the scene that you embellish with other events; The "simple past" (pretérito) expresses an event in the past that is finished and doesn't relate to the present; The "present perfect" (pretérito perfecto) is a past, finished event that nevertheless still impacts the present moment. Understanding which verb tense to use as we talked about past events and experiences was a great way to learn a difficult chunk of grammar.
The Local Dialect
At first, our tutor spoke a little more carefully and avoided dropping the "s" from words as he talked. But after a couple of sessions, he fell back into his dialect pronunciation. We could have asked him to use a more standard way of speaking, but found in time that we could understand him quite well. In the end, it has made our Spanish a little more versatile. Carlos explained to us that the Spanish of Andalusia is closer to Latin American Spanish than that which is spoken in other parts of Spain and that was due to large waves of emigration from Andalusia to the Spanish colonies in the Americas.
Our Fluency Boost
Did our month in Seville make us fluent Spanish speakers? Not as fluent as we'd like to be. But it gave our fluency a big boost. When we compare our initial taxi ride from the airport to Seville at the beginning of our stay, to our ride from Seville to the airport at the end of our stay, there was quite a difference. At the beginning, we asked a few short questions or made brief comments and didn't understand a lot of what the taxi driver responded. At the end, we were chatting away with the taxi driver about our stay, the elections, Semana Santa, differences of taxi ownership and taxi colors in Spanish cities (In Seville they are all white) etc. We clearly had made noticeable progress.
Now we just have to figure out how we can give our language fluency another boost...
When it comes to foreign currency, traveling has become so much easier: Instead of worrying about how much of the foreign currency you should change at home or at the foreign airport (do you still remember “traveler checks”?) - today you can pay with your credit card(s) in many places or withdraw cash at ATM machines all over the world. Yes, you have to be conscious about the various bank and exchange fees and be aware of the fee differences between the various cards.
But, even if you are, you'll still want to read about our recent experience in Seville, Spain. Here is our story:
Beware of ATM Withdrawals at Night
Ever since an ATM in Barcelona did not return my card a few years ago, I have been reluctant to withdraw money from a cash machine at night. At that time, it happened during the day and I just went into the branch office and recovered my card without much of a problem. If one's card is withheld at night, things might get more complicated, especially if you have to explain your problem in a foreign language.
In Seville, as in many cities in Spain and Italy, dinner in a (non-tourist) restaurant typically starts after 8 PM. As we were returning from a very pleasant dinner out, we walked by a Unicaja ATM and replenishing my depleted funds seemed appropriate.
Feeling good and confident, I disregarded my usual concerns and went ahead with a withdrawal. I chose the English language option at the machine to avoid any mistakes and everything seemed to go along fine. A prompt on the screen instructed me to take the cash. I waited patiently for a moment, when suddenly another screen came up: “For technical reasons it is not possible to provide you with the cash requeted [sic].”
Well, this seemed strange, but technical malfunctions happen. I did not see a phone or intercom to report the error right away and took my card when it was ejected. I also waited for and observed the next machine customer (see picture above) as he completed his transaction, apparently without a problem (and fortunately without “my” cash!)
Check your Bank or Credit Card Account
However, two days later, when I checked my bank account, I saw to my surprise, that 505 euros had indeed been withdrawn (500 euros plus a 5 euro transaction fee).
I returned to the ATM, which is located at one of Unicaja's branches in Calle Sierpes, and reported the problem to the customer service representative at the bank. She summoned others for help, but none of the branch employees' English was better than our Spanish, so we had to explain the problem in Spanish.
After checking the bank's accounts and verifying my credentials, passport and credit card, the manager agreed that it was indeed the bank's problem. (As this happened two days after the initial withdrawal, we were somehow surprised that they had not discovered this issue earlier.)
I signed and received a transfer notice of 500 euros to be put back to my account and assumed that the money would show up in my account within a few days
The Story Continues...
Why did I not just ask for the 500 euros I had been unable to withdraw from the ATM machine? In retrospect, I believe that's what I should have requested. But since I went to another bank to successfully withdraw money from its ATM right after the failed attempt, I did not want any more cash. I also believed that the deposit back to my account would be done quickly, i.e. within a day or two. (Later I found out that such a request would not have been honored anyways, as credit card/bank rules prohibit it.)
When five days later I still did not see the deposit of the 500 euros in my account, I went back to the branch to inquire. By that time, we had also brushed up on our Spanish banking language and explained our situation again. However, we were told that there was nothing they could do, as they had already initiated the transfer back to my account. I was told that I should just be patient.
Fool me Once, Shame on You...
Then I thought, now with the branch office open, let's give the machine another try. And when I tried to make another withdrawal, exactly the same happened: The ominous screen - “For technical reasons it is not possible to provide you with the cash requeted [sic]” appeared again. This time, however, we not only took photos of several of the screens, but also reported the problem right away. As the ATM customer before us apparently also had an issue and was making a complaint, it was clear that the bank was aware of the problem. Our second failed transaction was immediately canceled.
Patience Wearing thin...
A few more days have passed and now it's been more than ten days since my first unhappy withdrawal experience. I've sent several e-mails and we have made several trips to the branch office, but the funds still haven't not shown up in my bank account.
In our latest foray into the Unicaja bank's branch office, we asked for the branch director. His explanation was more differentiated and he reiterated that Unicaja ("Un banco pequeño, pero un buen banco!" - A small, but a good bank") indeed had made the transfer back to the "Maestro" intermediary (Master Card in Europe), but Maestro, apparently, had not effected the transfer back to my bank yet. And credit card/bank rules don't allow cash payments by the bank for failed ATM transactions. Patience again.
While Unicaja's branch staff were very nice and tried to be helpful, we were really surprised that none of the staff spoke any English, French or German, the languages we are still more fluent in than Spanish. However, it gave us a great opportunity to practice our Spanish and apply the banking terms we had looked up and tried to memorize.
ATM Lessons Learned
Never make a cash withdrawal at night, especially in a foreign country.
Check whether the machine has a phone or intercom with which you can report a problem right away.
Only use ATMs during during working hours that are part of a bank or branch office. (In Seville typical bank working hours are from 8:00 AM to 2:30 PM)
Obtain a written confirmation of the deposit back to your credit card and inquire with your credit card company/bank that the deposit was made.
Learn some key banking/financial terms in the foreign language.
English not Spoken Everywhere
While our experience with Unicaja was somewhat annoying, it also gave us an opportunity to brush up on our financial language and practice our Spanish.
The experience with the branch personnel and its manager also confirmed what we had experienced ourselves and heard from others here in Seville. English is not the preferred foreign language in southern Spain. As I've mentioned, no one at the bank spoke English. As a matter of fact, the bank director said proudly: "No hablo inglés, sólo hablo español." (I don't speak English, I only speak Spanish.) Also, to our surprise, our Spanish tutor, a professor at a local university, also speaks no English, and we have heard from others that French and German have come into favor in recent years as foreign languages learned and spoken in southern Spain.
Update - The end of the Story
On April 9, 2015, nearly exactly a month after the 500 Euros disappeared from my bank account, I finally received a deposit of Euro 500.00 back to my account. I am still not sure who is holding the Fee of 5 Euros, Unicaja, Maestro, or my bank, but I am sure I will find out in time. While Unicaja maintained that there was nothing they could do - they had returned the 500 Euros to Maestro - I suspect that my formal complaint to the bank that had issued the debit card and the bank's follow-up finally gave me my money back. It is still surprising to me, however, how long it took Maestro to return the funds that they had received two days after the failed transaction.
Last fall, American friends of ours spent a month in Dijon. They had rented an apartment over the Internet with the dream of soaking up local life “the French way” and getting a huge boost in their fluency in the French language. They certainly had a wonderful time exploring the city and the surrounding region, and they thoroughly enjoyed the local food.
When we started planning our one-month stay in Seville, we thought a lot about how we could get the most language learning out of our visit.
Our Four Tips
We always use the local language – in our case Spanish - and refuse to use English. When we asked for information in the local tourist office, the young woman was eager to respond in English to our (still imperfect) Spanish, but then continued in Spanish when we did not follow suit. We found an apartment in the old town and have started to frequent local cafés, bodegas, and market stands to the point that the waiters and sales persons know us and don't mind chatting with us, only in Spanish.
We spend mornings (or several hours, as it fits our schedule) learning Spanish on our own. We start with online sessions on GamesforLanguage, Duolingo, and Babbel, where we need to speak up and sound out Spanish phrases and sentences. We follow this up with exercises in a grammar book and by writing out verb conjugations on a sheet (which we carry around for practice in between).
We listen to Spanish TV in the morning as we get breakfast ready, read an article or two in the local newspaper (or online, using Lingua.ly) and typically watch the Spanish evening news. Most evenings, we also watch parts of a Spanish film or program after we get back from dinner out.
We meet with language exchange partners. No doubt, this last point, meeting with native speakers for extended conversations, is giving us the most dramatic results. It goes without saying, however, that our other efforts are also essential techniques for putting our brain into “Spanish gear,” expanding our vocabulary, as well as our sharpening listening and speaking abilities. (Our experience with a local Spanish tutor will be the topic of another blog and can obviously not be separated from the “most dramatic results.”)
Setting up Language Exchanges
On the internet, we found quite a few different language exchange sites. We subscribed to three of them: conversationexchange.com, mylanguageexchange.com, and gospeaky.com.
While all three are free, we found conversationexchange.com to be the most effective for us. (Although we had bought a premium membership for mylanguageexchange.com and had been able to find several contacts in Seville, none of them has worked out so far.)
On the other hand, conversationexchange.com allowed us to screen both for Sevilla and for “face-to-face” conversations (both options that gospeaky.com does not offer).
Key to finding language exchange partners in the city where you are staying, is to start the search early. Some subscribers may have moved and not all of them check their site regularly.
We've been able to meet with three of our contacts already several times and have been very pleased with the interaction. Though below we describe our thoughts for face-to-face meetings, these may apply as well to skype or other real-time online conversations.
Preparing for our meetings
We write out scripts with basic sentences about ourselves plus questions to ask (and continue to do so for every meeting).
This has us figure out the difference between imperfect and simple past verb tenses, for example, and continues to make us look up some basic additional vocabulary about professions, family, hobbies, local politics, European news, etc.
We practice these “scripts” and our various questions first silently and then out loud.
Meeting with our Language Exchange Partners
During our short first visit to Seville three years ago, we had not really noticed it, but several friends have alerted us that Sevillians have a distinct dialect that is not always easy to understand by foreigners. We've already encountered the “dropped s” that happens not only in final position of words but also in their middle.
Though the three people we've been meeting, Sara, Carlos, and Marta, are quite different in age, background, and profession, our language-learning experience with each is rather similar.
Dividing up the Time
Following the advice of more experienced language exchangers, we said right off at each meeting that we'd like to stick with 20 minutes Spanish only, followed by 20 minutes English only (or, in the case of Carlos, 20 minutes German - which he preferred), with the rest of the time open to going back and forth.
We believe that dividing up the time equally is a better arrangement than having each person just speak the language he or she is learning. Listening comprehension is an important skill to practice, especially with native speakers, and in the case of our Sevillian exchange partners, a real challenge for us.
Fast Colloquial Spanish
Sara, Carlos, and Marta are all from Sevilla and speak rapid-fire Spanish with us, dropping their s's all over the place (sometimes even when speaking in English).
It is quite clear that it's hard to have a language exchange with someone who is a total beginner in the language s/he is learning. In order to have anything like a conversation, both parties should know the basics of communication and have an adequate vocabulary. Although it is intimidating at first, jumping into real spoken language is the best way to go.
Listening in a Conversation
When you listen to the radio, watch a film, or listen in when other people are speaking, you are of course training your listening skills. But that kind of “passive listening” is a somewhat different activity from listening while engaged in a conversation.
When someone speaks to you, you are expected to respond. In fact, as you're listening, your mind is interpreting what you're hearing and beginning to create a response to what is being said. When this is happening in a foreign language, your brain - including its grammar region - is in in full, active gear. It's the best kind of brain training.
No doubt, after our four weeks in Seville, we'll both better understand and may even have picked up bits of the local accent, though I don't think I'll continue to say “gracia” (without the “s”) once we've left this charming town.
Using face-to-face language exchanges in the city you are staying is not only a great way to meet local people, but can be key to improving your fluency in the foreign language. This way, you can certainly level up considerably in one month.
We are now in Seville, Spain, staying a stone's throw from Plaza de la Encarnación and right in the middle of Seville's extensive "casco antiguo" (historical town).
Three years ago, after staying in Barcelona for a month, (see: In Barcelona Learning "Spanish" is not Enough), we also took a trip though southern Spain, and stayed three days Seville. We immediately took a special liking to this lively and charming town. We had fun retracing the steps of David, our young Gamesforlanguage Spanish 1 traveler, whose visit to Barcelona, Granada, Sevilla and Madrid provides the basic narrative for our Spanish 1 course. This year, with the plan to again improve our Spanish, we chose Seville as our one-month home.
When staying in a new city, the first few days are always a time to get one's bearings. In Seville, it's easy to keep getting lost in the narrow streets of the old city. They seem to run criss cross in no predictable direction, and the height of the buildings prevent you from orienting yourself with the sun's position. But Seville's "casco antiguo" is a very walkable part of the 700,000+ inhabitants city. Once you've learned the major street patterns, you can easily reach all historical sights on foot.
The Metropol Parasol, dominates the plaza and surprised us during our first evening (see picture above) as we explored the neighborhood. Suddenly we found ourselves under what Sevillians call "las setas" (the mushrooms). It is a giant structure, designed by the German architect Jürgen Mayer and constructed of wood panels and steel and built between 2005 in 2011 to replace a defunct and derelict space. We should note that this structure has created much controversy, both due to its form, as well as due its construction cost and cost overruns. We found it quite appealing, with the giant Plaza full of life, outside seating areas for cafés and restaurants. A fruit, vegetable, fish and meat market is easily accessible on the street level, and, from a viewing platform on top, you have a wonderful view of the city, including La Giralda and now the newest item of controversy, the "Pelli Tower".
The 580 foot, 43 story high tower, designed by Cesar Pelli's (former dean of Yale University's School of Architecture) New Haven firm, is currently being completed on the site of the 1992 Expo across the Guadalquivir river from Seville's historic city centre. As you can see on the picture above from the top of "las setas", the Pelli Tower in the back ground not only exceeds in height any of Sevilla's buildings, but is even nearly twice as high as La Giralda. Seville had to fear for its status as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2012. But after assuring the Unesco Commission "that there will be no more buildings of such great height in the area", Seville was not put the Unesco "danger list".
A cousin came to stay with us for the weekend, so we started out with visiting again La Giralda (the Almohad tower of the cathedral, picture left) and the Alcázar (a Mudéjar palace, picture below, right). We marveled not only at the wonderful architecture and mosaics, but also at the many orange trees, full with oranges, in the courtyards and gardens. Coming from New England and escaping the snow and cold, the weather here in Sevilla is a special treat. Sunny days with temperatures in the mid to high seventies encourage us to have lunch outside. The nights cool down into the high forties, providing perfect sleeping conditions.
On Sunday, the three of us ventured to Triana, a neighborhood with a traditional tile and pottery industry as well as a lively flamenco culture. Sitting in a sidewalk restaurant on the Calle San Jacinto, we experienced a somewhat funny exchange with the waiter, which made us pay special attention to the local dialect and pronunciations. I ordered three beers, and - being under pressure - let my Italian interfere. I said: “Tre cervezas, por favor.” The waiter gave me a quizical look and asked in turn “Un? ... Dos? ... Tres?” and when I confirmed: “Tres, por favor” he nodded and said: “Tre, vale.” We found this amusing because I had mistakenly said "tre," very much in the way he then acknowledged my order. He clearly had not expected a "Sevillian dialect" from me!
In Seville, final consonants, or consonants at the end of syllables are often dropped. So, we mostly hear "gracia" (instead of "gracias" [thanks]) and "die" (instead of "diez" [ten]). We've also been noticing - in our frequent queries for directions - that Sevillians say "i-quierda" for "left" (instead of izquierda).
A closer, more academic look at the dialects of southern Spain provides a much more complicated picture, of course. For now, we are happy to soak up the language as it happens to us and to speak as much Spanish as we can.
In one of our next blogs, we'll report on how we are progressing with our fluency goal.