Posted on by Pablo Montoya and Ulrike Rettig

3 Ways to Better Engage in a Spanish Conversation (1)

ConversationWhen in a Spanish speaking country, you certainly want the skills to deal with daily, practical situations: ordering in a restaurant, asking directions, greeting friends or strangers, introducing others, purchasing, paying a check, checking into a hotel, etc. But you'll also want to be able to engage in conversations with locals or with a Spanish speaker you happen to meet anywhere. To do this, you must swallow your anxiety about speaking up and find ways to start, sustain, and eventually end a conversation.

Conversing with strangers can feel a little awkward in any language. A blog post that caught my eye: 12 Ways To Make Talking To Strangers Less Awkward has some good tips on braving such a challenge. Of course, these tips also work for talking with strangers in a foreign language. We've adapted them here for conversations with Spanish speakers. A good antidote to "conversation anxiety" is to practice some useful expressions ahead of time. You can start with the list below.

When initiating a conversation, act confident and comfortable, this will put the other person at ease too. Be sure that you know how to address a stranger correctly to be appropriately polite. Best to use a neutral greeting such as:

  • “Buenos días,” “Buenas tardes,” “Buenas noches” (Good morning, Good afternoon, Good evening) or have a couple of polite phrases ready, such as:
  • "Perdone ..." (Excuse me …)
  • "Por favor ..." (Please [can you tell me] ...)

Formal "Usted" - Importantly, you should use the formal "usted" (the polite form of "you") as a starter with older persons, or in formal situations. If by any chance you’re being addressed with the formal “usted”, then you should use “usted” as well. That means, of course, that you also have to learn to distinguish between the appropriate Spanish verb endings. Listen HERE to a Spanish conversation where students talk about using the familiar "tú."

Spanish "How are you?" - By the way, in Spanish, it's fine to use "How are you?" (¿Cómo estás?/¿Cómo está?) as part of a greeting, even if you don’t know the person very well. Spaniards regard such a question as a token of genuine interest. Just make sure you use the appropriate formal/informal verb endings.

"Asking for directions" - Learn to ask for directions or for information; this may very well lead to a longer exchange. Start with a neutral greeting (see above) and follow up with a question, such as:

The "here and now" - Comment about the here and now. For example when you're at a café, a restaurant, a museum, in a shop, at a market, etc. Talk about what's around you, what you see; you can even mention the weather.

  • "¿Un cortado? ¿Qué es eso?" (A "cortado"? What is that?)
  • "¡Ese es un edificio realmente precioso!" (That's really a beautiful building!)
  • "¡Hoy hace un tiempo genial!" (Great weather today!)

Starting a conversation with someone in a foreign language may feel a little risky, but it's definitely something you can learn to do. Practicing some of these ice-breaker phrases and expressions ahead of time will be helpful. In our next two blogs we'll guide you on how to sustain(see Part 2), and finally, how to close a casual conversation with a Spanish speaker.  

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Proven Techniques for Learning Noun Gender

articlesIn English, you don't need to worry about noun gender. But in languages such as German, Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. you do.

The Non-logic of it All

There seems to be little logic about the gender of nouns. Take the word for "sun," for example. In German, it's "die Sonne" (feminine), in French, it's masculine: "le soleil," and in Dutch, it's "de zon," a word of common gender, which is a masculine/feminine category. On the other hand, "house" is neuter in both German and Dutch: "das Haus" and "het huis," but feminine in French: "la maison."

So, how can you learn the articles for all these nouns? Well, you can't get around doing it. But here are three ways you can make this task a little easier and stick better.

1. Auditory Memory

A language is a series of sounds. Even if you're just reading or writing, you're often silently "sounding out" the words in your mind. Sound is a powerful tool for memorization. Don't memorize "Haus is neuter." Repeat "das Haus" a few times, focussing on the sounds that go together, in this case, "-s with Haus." Later, when you're trying to remember the gender of "Haus," - the feminine or masculine articles will just not sound right with this word.

2. Visual Memory

Unless you only want to hear and speak a language, you'll spend plenty of time reading and writing it. These are excellent ways to get words, phrases, and structures into your visual memory. Don't just memorize "soleil is masculine." When you write out "le soleil" a few times and remember the “e” in both the “le” and “soleil”, the feminine article will simply not look right with "soleil."

3. General Rules and Exceptions

There are no iron-clad rules about the gender of nouns. But there are general rules you certainly should add to your tools and each language has a few that can supplement your auditory and visual memory. (Following are just a couple of examples, it's by no means an exhaustive list.) 

In French, nouns ending in "-e" are feminine, barring a few notable exceptions, such as "le problème."

In Spanish and Italian, nouns ending with “o” are generally masculine, those ending with “a” mostly feminine (with "el problema" [Spanish] and "il problema" [Italian] again one of several exceptions.)

In German, words ending in "-e" are mostly feminine; words that have the diminutive ending "-chen" or "-lein" are always neuter. For example, die Küche (kitchen), die Straße (street); and "das Mädchen" (girl), "das Sträßlein" (little street).

Learn to Trust Yourself

And once you've learned the general rules, you'll be able to apply your auditory and visual memory to the exceptions as well. With time, you'll learn to trust your auditory and visual memory more and are on your way to building that wonderful, uncanny skill that we all strive for: a real feel for the language.

Let us know about YOUR experiences with visual and auditory memory!  

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Key Aspects of Learning a Foreign Language

Learning Swedish recently moved to the top of my language "to do" list. We'll be spending some time in Stockholm in the fall and that's excellent motivation for me. Besides, I've always loved the sound of Swedish, in the Bergman movies, and most recently watching the three Swedish movies based on Stieg Larsson's popular novels, Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and its two sequels.

So, I signed up for one month to learn Swedish with an online language program. Besides getting a good grasp of Swedish basics, I again experienced the advantages of learning a new foreign language online.

For me, three key aspects drive my language learning: 1. motivation, 2. figuring out how the language works, and 3. building vocabulary.

These three aspects apply to all four language skills: reading, listening comprehension, writing, and speaking. The Swedish online course that I followed did a nice job with all four.


This is the engine that drives learning. To truly learn something, you've got to love your subject, and find ways, again and again, to stay crazy about it.

There's a lot of talk about "addictive" programs for learning. I'm not sure that's the answer. You've got to be addicted to the subject - in this case, the language itself. Then, at best, a good program will make learning the language a pleasure.

Figuring Out How the Language Works:

Our brain is wired for language and we are definitely capable of figuring out how a language functions. Kids do this all the time. By listening to a language, and reading, writing, and speaking it, we become aware of grammatical patterns. 

In addition, some of us like to check with a grammar book, to see if there's a rule that makes things clear. I, for one, don't memorize grammar rules. My favorite grammar books are very thin ones. The one I use for Swedish is a slim booklet called "Essential Swedish grammar."

Building Vocabulary:

Some people like to start a language by memorizing lists of words, or even just practicing all the sounds of the alphabet. I find that boring.

I prefer to start with everyday phrases or short sentences, and to add relevant lists a little later. I want to see the spelling, hear the words spoken, say them myself, and even write out some of them. That way, my language learning brain is fully engaged. Whatever vocabulary I learn has to be part of a context or a setting that is meaningful to me.

So far, I've spent one month learning Swedish. I'm definitely still motivated and yes, I've figured out how the Swedish language works. The program confirms that I've learned 380 basic words and phrases. That's a good start! In a later blog, I'll talk about what program I used and how it specifically helped me build the four basic skills. 

Posted on by Peter Rettig

La Paloma–Learning Spanish With a Song...

Victoria de los AngelesWe had previously suggested French, German, and Italian songs that are fun to listen to – and, when memorized, can remind you of some key aspects of the respective language. Very likely you'll have heard “La Paloma” in your native language many times.

In this YouTube video of “La Paloma”, Victoria de los Angeles, one of the great voices of the 20th century, sings the original Spanish lyrics, and the video shows the English translation. (There is also a wonderful Spanish version by Nana Mouskouri here, but without the text, you could listen to later!) 

La Paloma (meaning “the dove”) was composed and written by the Basq/Spanish composer Sebastián Iradier (later Yradier) after he visited Cuba in 1861.  (You can read in this Wikipedia entry that the motif of “La Paloma” dates back to an episode that occurred in 492 BC!) And the many different versions in many of the world's languages and performed by many famous singers are a testimony to its popular appeal across cultures and centuries.

The original Spanish lyrics of the first verse are below. (Note that you will find other Spanish versions as well.)

Cuando salí de la Habana,

¡Válgame dios!

Nadie me ha visto salir

Si no fuí yo.

Y una linda Guachinanga

Allá voy yo,

Que se vino trás de mi,

Que si señor.

Si a tu ventana llega

Una paloma,

Trátala con cariño

Que es mi persona.

Cuéntala tus amores,

Bien de mi vida,

Corónala de flores

Que es cosa mía

Ay chinita que sí ,

ay que darme tu amor

Ay que vente conmigo,

Chinita, a donde vivo yo.

Some of the lyrics of the original version may be difficult for a beginner, but, with the translation provided in the video, you'll be able to decipher the meaning quite easily. You'll also notice a number of typical Spanish constructions, e.g. valgame, trátala, cuéntala, corónala, darme, in which the object is added to the end of the verb. (You can also start paying attention to the spelling of words like "si" [if] and "sí" [yes]) 

By watching the YouTube video with its translation several times you can start memorizing the Spanish lyrics and their English meaning. Not only will the song sound even more beautiful now that you understand it, you'll remember the object constructs next time you see them in other contexts. 

And when you hear other versions in Spanish (or in other languages) you may also recognize the changes in the lyrics...

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

5 Quick Ways to Boost Your Foreign Language

Shuttle boostersDoes your day look really busy, but you would hate missing your language learning fix? Are you looking to boost one or the other of your new foreign language skills? (Even the Shuttle, left, needed some boosters!)

Learning a foreign language as an adult requires you to find those methods and routines that work best for you and that allow you to apply them - ideally - on a daily basis.

Here are 5 ways you can improvise a quick foreign language learning moment.

  1. READ 3-4 sentences ALOUD - preferably from an ongoing book you've been following. Reading aloud (or even in a whisper) gets you to work on your "mouth mechanics" - the way you need to move your mouth in order to produce the correct sounds. In the meantime, your brain is registering word order and an idiom or two.
  2. Type or WRITE out (copy) a few interesting sentences from a book, magazine, Internet site, etc. Writing out a language is very different from reading it. You become much more aware of structure, spelling, endings, etc.
  3. Take a useful sentence from a book or story, MEMORIZE it, and then write it out from memory. It can also be a famous saying. The sentence can be as short or long as you wish. Do this with 2 or 3 sentences, checking back to see if what you wrote was correct.
  4. Doodle or DRAW 4-5 objects, such as furniture, clothing, fruit, items on your desk. Then write the name of each item in your new language. Maybe you'll have to look up the words. No-one has to see your drawing, unless you're a Picasso. But the act of creating images and labeling them is a great way to engage your brain.
  5. LISTEN for a few minutes to your favorite foreign language song and follow the lyrics closely. Music is a compelling way to experience the rhythm and intonation of a language. (We had posted suggestions for French, GermanItalian, and Spanish.)

Any of these 5 quick boosts will keep you learning. For steady progress, nothing can beat a regular learning routine, and these brief techniques can keep you going even in busy times. 

Posted on by Peter Editor

6-Day FREE Language Learning Statistics

6-day FREE Trial Home PageDuring the month of May, GamesforLanguage was running a 6-Day FREE Trial promotion for any (or all) of our four languages: French, German, Italian, and Spanish.

All our users come to our site “organically,” either through a translation search of the indexed words or phrases of our program, by “word of mouth,” or through other site referrals. (We don't run Google ads on other sites.)

We had also sprinkled a few questions among our various games, and here are the results:

How would you rate your language Fluency?      

                           Beginner: 63%    Intermediate: 25%    Advanced: 12%

How do you rate “Word Invaders”?  (a word-order game)

                           Too Easy: 44%    Just right:16%   Challenging: 36%   Too difficult: 4%

Learning for me with Scene 1 was:                            

                            Easy: 39%             Hard: 3%             Right On: 58%                                                                          

As the “language fluency” question appeared with the first game, it received the most answers. The “Word Invaders” question appeared in the middle and the final question  at the end of the first Scene. Some users either did not complete the first scene or skipped right to the next Scene after meeting their score goal, other players skipped the first game, all of which makes correlating the answers a little difficult.

We are somewhat surprised by the split in the Word Invader question, but are reassured that the majority felt our Scene 1 was “easy” or “right on.” Most of the 63% of the users who came to our site in May and who are beginners found it easy to play and learn with our games.

We also realize that even with a FREE Trial very few users are able to commit the time to learn and practice on a daily basis. The maximum score reached during the six days for one language was 2,355 points in Italian, which brought the player to Scene 4, in Level 2.

We therefore decided to DOUBLE our basic subscription from 1 to 2 months and continue to invite  feedback on our program and games.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Automatic Subscription Renewals – Good or Annoying?

Rocky Mountan RiderRecently I subscribed to an online language course that uses an automatic subscription renewal. I subscribed for one month to try out a new language and I set a reminder to cancel the subscription a few days before the automatic renewal. When my reminder alerted me, I started looking and got annoyed when I could not find a place to cancel. I finally found the answer in the FAQs: write an e-mail to sales@company or send a short note via “Feedback” while logged-in to the site. I was promised a confirmation within 48 hours, which indeed arrived just before the automatic renewal date. This experience was similar to ones I had at other automatic renewal sites: Quite easy to subscribe, but time consuming and often annoying to cancel!

Good for the COMPANY...

I have always been wary of automatic renewals, except for certain services, e.g. subscriptions to news, magazines, investment, or other services you need and value on an ongoing basis. And although I understand full well the benefits of automatic renewals - FOR THE COMPANY - I believe users of an online language learning service should at least be given the option at the start. It should not be made obligatory. (I love the picture above, which is part of the automatic renewal plan of the monthly magazine.)

Motivation for the Learner?

We, at, have decided to leave it to our subscribers whether they want to renew (and we make this explicitly clear on our subscription page).  But maybe we are wrong, and automatic renewals are a good thing for a learner. Learning a foreign language as an adult requires ongoing motivation and encouragement. And, could it be that the automatic renewal charge that appears on your monthly credit card or Paypal statement provides another motivational push to log in again and continue learning?

We'd love to hear some comments and opinions on this question: Are obligatory automatic subscription renewals for online language programs a good thing or do they annoy you?

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Cool German Idioms 3


das Dach - the roof

  • mit offenem Dach fahren
  • to drive with the top down
  • Literal: to drive with an open roof

  • jemandem eins aufs Dach geben
  • to show someone what's what
  • Literal: to give someone a smack on the roof

  • etwas unter Dach und Fach bringen
  • to complete something, settle it
  • More literal: to bring something into safety

  • Die Spatzen pfeifen es von den Dächern.
  • That's common knowledge.
  • Literal: Sparrows whistle it from the roofs.

  • Da ist bei ihm gleich Feuer im Dache.
  • He flies into a passion.
  • Literal: He right away has fire in his roof.
Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Is Too Steep a Climb For Beginners?

Too steep a climb?Recently I started an online Swedish course and was surprised by how difficult the first few lessons were for me, although there were only 7 or 8 new words/expressions in each lesson. Swedish is a Germanic language – and I speak Dutch and German fluently – but it is really quite different from the Romance languages that I speak. As readers may recall from an earlier blog: my husband and I had used our Spanish 1 course in preparation for our stay in Spain last year. But even though Spanish was a new language for both of us, its similarity to French and Italian (languages we know) did not make us real “beginners.”

Early Feedback

Based on the feedback from many buyers and users who tried our free demo lessons and promotions (in May: FREE 6-day trial for complete 36-lessons courses of all four languages), we had concluded that our first few lessons were too easy. Maybe some players had come to this conclusion because our games made the beginning lessons indeed seem easy. “I was learning, but it didn't feel like learning” was an early, typical comment.

Expanding Lesson 1

We therefore began expanding the first lesson ("Scene") of our German 1 and our Spanish 1 program, which initially consisted of three foreign dialog lines with about 16 new words. The additional six dialog lines, however, stopped many beginners from progressing to the second Scene. Did they feel that learning a new language was too steep a cliff to climb? We decided to wait for more feedback before expanding the French and Italian scenes.

What makes different?

By learning a language (Swedish) that has fewer similarities with languages I already know, I put myself again into a beginner's shoes (for the 5th time, actually). And I experienced first hand the difference between a  typical language program and GamesforLanguage:

Rather than teaching and drilling lists of words and short expressions (hello, good-bye, thanks, how are you?, I am fine, thanks, etc., etc.) GamesforLanguage deconstructs, practices, and reconstructs the dialog of a story beginning with Scene 1: Words and expressions, as in the examples above, come up as well, but later and always within the context of "The Story."

Indeed, the learner is immersed in real life, every-day language right from the start. While those with some background in the language will find the program easily accessible, beginners may need a few baby steps to help them get started.

German 1 now starts with “Scene 0”

With German 1, we have therefore added a Scene 0, with simple words and expressions that beginners can practice with our various games (and others, with more language backgrounds can skip). We also are “lightening up” the first few scenes so that players can better ease into “The Story” of our program. We'll be curious to see whether more beginners will “stay the course” in German. If that is the case, we'll then also add a Scene 0 (or even a Level 0) to all courses.

We invite your feedback

We love comments and feedback! So, if you have tried our course or have experience with other language courses, just add your comment below!

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

QUICK TIP German: "holen" vs "abholen"

Dog fetches paperholen - to get, to fetch 

Er holt die Zeitung.

[He's getting the paper.]

**German simple present tense often translates into English "progressive" (is getting).


abholen - TO GET, to pick upPick-up

Er holt mich später ab.

[He's going to pick me up later.]

**ab- is a "separable prefix. In a simple sentence, "ab" goes at the end.

Toll, dass du mich abholst.

[Great, that you are picking me up.]

**After a conjunction: "dass" etc., the full verb goes at the end.


CONJUGATION of abholen

ich hole ab - I pick up

du holst ab - you pick up (familiar)

er, sie, es holt ab - he, she, it picks up

wir holen ab - we pick up

ihr holt ab - you (all) pick up

sie holen ab - they pick up

Sie holen ab - you pick up (formal)

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