Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Le Mani in Pasta and More in Italian Idioms

Making PastaFollowing our recent posts about German and French idioms, we are now looking at 12 Italian idioms.
A few years ago, we lived for several months in Rome, on Via di Genovesi in the Trastevere neighborhood. Our apartment was located directly across from a small restaurant, Le Mani in Pasta. (
Photo by Jorge Zapata on Unsplash)
It was then a restaurant for locals and none of the waiters spoke English. We loved going there. Our Italian at the time was still quite rudimentary and it was a fun challenge to order from the Italian-only menu. (The restaurant has since expanded and continues to be popular. A nephew who had dinner there with his family early this year liked it very much!)
As new Italian learners, we were puzzled by the form “le mani”, but our tutor explained that “the hand” in Italian is feminine: it's "la mano, le mani".
What had obviously thrown us off was that most Italian nouns ending with “o” are masculine. (Sometimes a look at related languages helps. It's “la main” in French, and - no surprise - “la mano” in Spanish. And even in German, the word hand happens to be feminine: “die Hand”.)

1. Avere le mani in pasta

Idiom: to have a finger in the pie
Literally: to have the hands in dough
Explanation: To be involved, especially in a business matter, or situation of power.
Italian: Essere addentro a qualcosa, in particolare a una questione d'affari, o a una situazione di potere.

2. Avere le mani di pasta frolla

Idiom: to be a butterfingers
Literally: to have pastry-dough hands; "pasta frolla" = shortcut pastry
Explanaton: to be someone who drops things they are carrying or trying to catch, to be clumsy, awkward, not careful, not know how to do something or do it badly.
Italian: Essere goffi, impacciati, non accurati, non saper fare nulla o farlo male.

3. Calcare la mano

Idiom: to lay it on with a trowel
Literally: to tread or press down on the hand
Explanation: To exaggerate, especially regarding a punishment or accusation.
Italian: Esagerare in rigore e severità, soprattutto se riferito a una punizione, un'accusa.

4. Non perdere la mano

Idiom: to keep your hand in
Literally: to not lose the hand
Explanation: To not get out of the habit of doing something.
Italian: Non perdere l'abitudine di fare qualcosa.

5. Essere in gambaWomen soccer training

Idiom: to be on the ball (Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash)
Literally: to be on your feet
Explanation: To be in good health. Also more broadly speaking, to be smart, skillful, expert, efficient.
The first meaning alludes to the fact that a sick person is generally in bed and does not use their legs.
Italian: In buona salute. In senso lato anche intelligente, abile, esperto, efficiente.
Nel significato primo, allude al fatto che una persona malata sta generalmente a letto e quindi non usa le gambe.

6. Fare il passo piu lungo della gamba

Idiom: to bite off more than you can chew
Literally: to take a step longer than the leg
Explanation: To risk going beyond one's own possibilities.
Italian: Arrischiarsi oltre le proprie possibilità

7. Prendere qualcuno in giro

Idiom: to pull someone's leg, take somebody on a ride
Literally: to take someone for a stroll
Explanation: To make fun of a person, mock, taunt or fool someone.
Italian: Farsi beffe di una persona, burlarla, canzonarla.

8. Tenere un piede in due scarpe

Idiom: to keep a foot in both camps
Literally: to have a foot in two shoes
Explanation: Staying involved in two situations (groups of people, opinions etc), while trying to profit from both of them.
Italian: Barcamenarsi tra due situazioni cercando di trarre profitto da entrambe

9. Si è dato la zappa sui piedi

Idiom: to shoot yourself in the foot
Literally: He has given himself a hoe on the feet
Explanation: To hurt onself, to come to harm oneself, paricularly in a fit of anger.
It's used especially when someone hurts themselves while thinking they is harming someone else.
Italian: Farsi del male, procurarsi un danno, detto in particolare di chi agisce avventatamente o spinto dall'ira.
Usato soprattutto a proposito di finisce per nuocere a se stesso pensando di danneggiare qualcun altro.

Serving an omelet10. Ormai la frittata è fatta

Idiom: You can't unscramble eggs.
Literally: At this point the omelet has been made. (Photo by Cooker King on Unsplash)
Explanation: An exclamation that expresses resignation about a mess that was made.
Italian: Esclamazione, esprime rassegnazione per un guaio ormai avvenuto.

11. Rivoltare la frittata

Idiom: to turn the tables on somebody
Literally: to flip over the omelet
Explanation: To turn around a discussion, to change a situation to your advantage.
Italian: Rigirare un discorso, capovolgere una situazione a proprio vantaggio

12. Avere grilli per la testa

Idiom: to have a head full of nonsense
Literally: to have crickets in the head
Explanation: To have strange, bizarre or overly ambitious ideas.
Italian: Avere idee stravaganti, bizzarre o troppo pretenziosi.

Since our stay in Trastevere, Rome, we've continued to have fun learning Italian in various ways and with various programs. Building our own GamesforLanguage site - together with native-language writers and speakers - has been a direct way to keep our hands in the language dough.
And, especially now that travel has become more complicated, our site and our blog has allowed us to connect with an ever growing online language community.
For more Italian Idioms check also https://www.theintrepidguide.com/italian-sayings-you-wont-forget/#.XuFSyPJ7nm0 or https://dizionari.corriere.it/dizionario-modi-di-dire/P/pasta.shtml.

Posted on by Peter Editor

Apples, Butter, Rain and More in French Idioms

 Three ApplesIn our last post, Sausages, Fruits, Ships, and more in German Idioms, we listed a number of typical German expressions. In fact, what prompted us to write it, was overhearing a German woman "translate" a German idiom into French by giving a literal equivalent.
In their literal translation, many French idioms are also confusing to a German or English speaker.
Below are 12 French idioms that you might not have heard yet.
(Whenever available, I added a French synonym from Le Petit Robert, a popular French language dictionary.)

1. Haut comme trois pommes

Idiom: knee-high to a grasshopper
Literally: as high as three apples (Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash)
Explanation: Refers to someone who is not very tall, or just very young.
Origin: Even if you put three apples on top of each other, what you have is still not very high.

2. Tomber dans les pommes

Idiom: to pass out
Literally: to fall into the apples
Explanation: to faint, lose consciousness [Petit Robert: s'évanouir]
Origin: This expression first appeared in 1889 and may go back to the writer George Sand, who used "être dans les pommes cuites", a play on "être cuit" (to be cooked, exhausted).

3. Mettre du beurre dans les épinardsSpinach in pan

Idiom: to put butter on your bread
Literally: to put butter on the spinach (Photo by Kim Daniels on Unsplash)
Explanation: It means to earn a bit extra, to top up your income, or to improve a situation that is troublesome. [Petit Robert: améliorer sa situation]
Origin: This expression goes back to a time when butter symbolized wealth, while spinach was a common vegetable. Putting butter on your spinach makes it taste better, richer.

4. Vouloir le beurre et l'argent du beurre

Idiom: to have your cake and eat it too
Literally: to want the butter and the money for the butter too
Explanation: You can't have it both ways, you can't have it all.
Origin: This expression appeared at the end of the 19th century and is a piece of good old fashioned common sense (bon sens paysan). Once you sell the butter, you have the money, but no longer the butter. Or, in other words, to get something you want you may have to give up something else.

Rainbow at Arcachon, France5. Parler de la pluie et du beau temps

Idiom: to make small talk
Literally: to talk about rain and nice weather
Explanation: It means talking about trivial things, exchanging chit-chat. [Petit Robert: dire des banalités]
Origin: The weather is an innocuous subject to talk about, so it's a safe topic among strangers or a way to talk around topics you want to avoid.

6. Faire la pluie et le beau temps

Idiom: to call the shots
Literally: to make rain and good weather
Explanation: It means to be in charge, to control the situation or determine what action should be taken [Petit Robert: être très influent]
Origin: The idiom is said to go back to mythical times when the gods had power over the world. They could change the weather, create storms, hurl lightning, etc.

7. Ce n’est pas la mer à boire.Looking at the ocean

Idiom: It's not that big a deal.
Literally: It's not the sea to drink.
Explanation: This is a metaphor for something that's impossible or very difficult to do. It's also used in its opposite meaning: C'est la mer à boire - it's very difficult. [Petit Robert: C'est, ce n'est pas difficile.]
Origin: The expression dates back to a 17th century fable by Jean de la Fontaine.

8. Chercher midi à quatorze heures

Idiom: to make a mountain out of a molehill
Literally: to look for noon at 2 pm
Explanation: To complicate things unnecessarily, to see difficulties where there aren't any. [Petit Robert: Chercher des difficultés où il n'y en a pas, compliquer les choses.]
Origin: This expression is said to date back to the 17th century as "chercher midi à onze heures" (to look for noon at 11o'clock), to look for something where's it's not.

Rolled in the flour9. Se faire rouler dans la farine

Idiom: to be taken for a ride
Literally: to get rolled in the flour (Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash)
Explanation: to be fooled, taken in, be cheated  [Petit Robert: tromper]
Origin: Flour-based makeup was often used in the theater and allowed actors to change how they looked and thus fool the audience.

10. Il ne faut pas mélanger les torchons et les serviettes.

Idiom: Don't mix apples and oranges.
Literally: One mustn't mix up dishtowels and napkins.
Explanation: Don't mix totally different things, don't combine things that are completely different. [Petit Robert: Il faut séparer, traiter différemment selon leur condition sociale, les choses selon leur valeur.]
Origin: This expression is based on the idea that you must not mix social levels - dishtowels were for servants and the poor, while napkins were for the bourgeoisie and aristocracy.

11. Ce n'est pas la mort du petit cheval.Small horse in grass

Idiom: It's not the end of the world.
Literally: It's not the death of the little horse. (Photo by Soledad Lorieto on Unsplash)
Explanation: It's not the worst thing that could happen. It's not as bad as it seems, even though it's a disappointment.
Origin: According to an article in Le Figaro by Claude Duneton, the expression "la mort du petit cheval" was probably coined in the 1930s and referred to losing one's bet on a horse that didn't win the race. The expression was picked up by d'Hervé Bazin in the title of his 1950 novel: "La mort du petit cheval." In it, the protagonist makes a shocking discovery about his mother but decides that it's not the end of the world.

12. Avaler des couleuvres

Idiom: to swallow a lie
Literally: to swallow grass snakes
Explanation: to be taken in, to believe anything, to take insults without protest  [Petit Robert: subir des affronts sans protester, croire n'importe quoi]
Origin: This expression came up already in the 17th century and suggests swallowing something slithery, tortuous. The image evokes unscrupulous people who in the olden days added a few grass snakes to a plate of eels without telling their guests or customers.

Learning a few idioms in your second language is not only fun, but it may very well break the conversational ice next time you try out your French, on zoom or in real life.

For the French idioms that are listed here, I looked at a few different sites. You can find out more about these expressions, or search for new ones: www.expression-francaise.fr www.thoughtco.com www.lawlessfrench.com/expressions www. linternaute.fr
I consulted Le Petit Robert, a single-volume French dictionary, for synonyms in French and added them to the explanations.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Sausages, Fruits, Ships, and More in German Idioms

Sausages on GrillIdioms - in any language - can lead to hilarious laughter or confused looks, when they are translated literally into another language.
I was reminded of that last year in French-speaking Switzerland when a German with obviously limited French skills, express his frustration to his partner like this: “C'est me absolument saucisse!” (Lit. That's absolutely sausage to me.)
From his partner's confused look, followed by a loud chuckle, I concluded that she also understood the German meaning.
The German idiom “Das ist mir völlig Wurst” means “Das ist mir völlig egal” and translates as “I couldn't care less.” (Photo by Khamkhor on Unsplash)
Not surprisingly – Germans are fond of good sausages – and there are several other German, sausage-related idioms.
While some idioms can be understood with a little imagination, others are impossible to guess. And as no. 12 below shows, the meaning of some idioms can change over time.
Here are 12 German idioms that you may not be familiar with.

1. Spiel nicht die beleidigte Leberwurst!

Idiom: Don't get bent out of shape, don't be a sorehead!
Literally: Don't play the offended liverwurst!
Explanation: Jemand zieht sich zurück und schmollt, weil er glaubt, dass man ihn gekränkt hat. Someone goes off in a huff and sulks because his feelings were hurt.
Origin: Scholars in the Middle Ages supposedly assumed that a person's emotions - anger, sadness, love, etc. - were produced in the liver. So if someone got annoyed, it's his or her liver where the emotion came from.
Plus, there's another traditional story behind the "offended liverwurst". There, a butcher has all kinds of different sausages in a kettle. When the kettle boils, he takes out all the other sausages first, because they need a shorter cooking time. So, the liverwurst bursts in anger because it's the only one left in the kettle.

2. In den sauren Apfel beißenBiting in a sour apple

Idiom: to bite the bullet
Literally: to bite into the sour apple (Photo by Khamkhor on Unsplash)
Explanation: Etwas Unangenehmes tun, obwohl es einem schwerfällt. To do something unpleasant, even though you find it hard to do.
Origin: This expression is quite old. It comes up in one of Luther's letters where he writes: "Not lehrt in saure Äpfel beißen". (Hard times teach you to bite into sour apples.) It means, that if you have no other choice, you'll just have to eat the sour apples. For example, if you want to pass your exam, you have to study for it.

3. Mit dem ist nicht gut Kirschen essen.

Plate of red cherriesIdiom: Best not to tangle with him.
Literal: Eating cherries with him is not pleasant. (Photo by Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash)
Explanation: Mit ihm kann man nicht gut auskommen. He's hard to get along with.
Origin: For this expression there's an interesting origin. It dates back to the Middle Ages when cherry trees were not abundant and grew mostly just in monasteries or in gardens of the rich. Should you be passing a group of dignified gentlemen eating cherries, it could happen that they would chase you off and spit pits into your face to boot. So, there are people that you wouldn't want to eat cherries with because they would treat you badly.
That could refer to people who think that they are better than you, and who are clearly contemptuous of who you are.

4. Wie man in den Wald hineinruft, so schallt es heraus.

Idiom: What goes around, comes around.Sunny forest
Literally: The way you call into the woods is the way it comes back. (Photo by Stepan Unar on Unsplash)
Explanation: So wie man jemanden behandelt, reagiert dieser auch darauf. The way you treat someone will determine their reaction.
Origin: This expression probably goes back to the experience of hearing an echo in the woods - your voice bounces back after you've called to someone. The echo has a similar sound to what you called in the first place.
So more generally, if you shout at someone in anger, they often respond in anger too. If you don't treat others with respect, they may not respect you either.

5. Um den heißen Brei herum reden

Bowl of hot porridgeIdiom: to beat around the bush
Literally: to talk around the hot porridge (Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash)
Explanation: Nicht ehrlich und direkt seine Meinung sagen. Avoid giving your honest and direct opinion.
Origin: Initially, the expression was: "Wie die Katze um den heißen Brei herumschleichen". (To tiptoe like a cat around the hot porridge.) The cat was of course looking for a cooler part of the porridge to start eating.
If you talk with someone who in the conversation tiptoes like a cat around the hot porridge, it means that they are afraid or reluctant to broach a certain subject.

6. Auf dem falschen Dampfer sein

Idiom: to bark up the wrong treeOld steamboat
Literally: to be on the wrong steamboat (Photo by ZEKERIYA SEN on Unsplash)
Explanation: etwas falsch verstehen, sich irren. To misunderstand something, be totally mistaken.
Origin: In the early 19th century, steamboat travel became increasingly popular in Germany, especially on the Rhine.
By 1850, steamship travel up and down the Rhine reached a million passengers. It was considered safer than travel by land, where raids and holdups were still common.
By 1900, transatlantic crossings by steamship were well established. If you now found yourself on the "wrong steamship", it was a real problem since the next harbor was often far off.
The image of being on the "wrong steamship" suggests a grave error, that someone was way off in their thinking.

7. Lügen haben kurze Beine.

pairs of legsIdiom: Your lies will catch up with you.
Literally: Lies have short legs. (Photo by Matheus Vinicius on Unsplash)
Explanation: Es lohnt sich nicht zu lügen, denn die Wahrheit kommt immer heraus. It's not worth it to lie because the truth will come out.
Origin: The image of a Lie having short legs suggests that someone with short legs simply cannot run that fast. So, the Truth with its longer legs (as we assume) can easily catch up to the Lie and expose the untruth.

8. Das ist Schnee von gestern.

Idiom: That's old hat. Yesterday's snow
Literally: That is snow from yesterday.
Explanation: Die Sache ist nicht mehr von Bedeutung. The matter is no longer important.
Origin: Possibly, this expression goes back to François Villon's "Ballade des dames du temps jadis", (Literally: Ballad of the Ladies of Long ago), which has the line "Mais où sont les neiges d’automne ?" (But where are the snows of autumn?)
When something is "snow from yesterday", it means that it's not new, not important, not interesting, not fresh.

9. Etwas mit in Kauf nehmen

Idiom: to put up with something
Literally: to accept something along with a purchase you've made
Explanation: Etwas als unvermeidlich hinnehmen. To accept something because it's inevitable.
Origin: This expression comes from the traditional world of trade and commerce. It was often customary for merchants to offer the combination of a high quality product with one of lesser quality. Or, the combination of a product that was high in demand, with one not so in demand. If the buyer needed the former product, he would also accept to take the latter one.
In that sense, "etwas in Kauf nehmen", means that if you really want something, you would accept certain unavoidable disadvantages that come with it. Or, accept the risks of an action that you see as inevitable.

10. Wo gehobelt wird, da fallen Späne.

Wood shavingsIdiom: You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs.
Literally: Where a (carpenter's) plane is used, shavings will fall. (Image Credit: Clem Onojeghuo on Sawinery)
Explanation: Eine Entscheidung kann auch Nachteile mit sich bringen. A decision can also have disadvantages.
Origin: This is a saying that originated in the world of trades, and points specifically to a carpenter's craft. When you "plane" ("hobeln"), you keep removing layers of wood until you smooth out the rough spots.
On the one hand, this expression can be used to justify ruthless or drastic behavior. On the other hand, it can also be a bit of wisdom: Something that has a lot of positives could also have disadvantages.

11. Aus dem Schneider sein

Idiom: to be out of the woodsTailor at work
Literally: to be no longer a tailor (Photo by Salvador Godoy on Unsplash)
Explanation: Aus dem Schneider sein, heißt eine schwierige Situation überwunden, das Schlimmste überstanden haben.
"To be out of the tailor" means that you have overcome a difficult situation, that the worst is behind you.
Origin: In the card game Skat, to be no longer a "tailor" (a profession of low standing in earlier times) means that you have more than half of the points needed to win (i.e. more than 30 points).
The expression "aus dem Schneider sein" is still commonly used in German. Actually, I've heard it multiple times used in connection with the COVID-19 crisis in German TV broadcasts. When will we all be "out of the tailor"?

12. Das passt wie die Faust aufs Auge.

One eyeIdiom 1: They go together hand in glove.
Idiom 2: They go together like chalk and cheese.
Literally: That fits like the fist on the eye.
Explanation: Etwas passt sehr gut zusammen, oder gar nicht. Things go together very well or they don't go together at all.
Origin: The German expression "Das passt wie die Faust aufs Auge" seems to have a clear message: Having someone put their fist on your eye is not a good thing. However, curiously enough, this expression is mostly used to mean the opposite.
Initially, the idiom was "Das reimt sich wie die Faust aufs Auge" (That rhymes like the fist on the eye). For one, "Faust" and "Auge" do not rhyme. Plus, fist and eye don't go together, the fist is hard, the eye is soft and delicate.
But already early on, the idiom was used ironically to mean the opposite, that two things fit perfectly together. Though, the original meaning shows up too.
So, to clearly understand what someone is telling you, you have to pay attention to the context in which it is used, and/or the speaker's tone of voice. For example, what does it mean when your partner tells you that your shirt and scarf go together like "a fist on the eye"?!

Keeping a few idioms in your German language “quiver” will make your language more colorful and authentic. And maybe at the next post-coronavirus dinner party you'll contribute to some laughter and fun.
For the German idioms that are listed here, I consulted a number of different sites. You can find out more about these expressions, or find new ones in these: Redensarten.net, Redensartenindex.de, Geolino Wissen, Wortbedeutung Info.

(For French idioms see Apples, Butter, Rain and more in French Idioms.)

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Grammar Baby Steps for Self-Learners

baby-steps_by_david-brooke-martin-qa4-KH8UjRA-unsplashHow to deal with grammar is a question we get a lot from language learners. Yes, classroom learning often focuses a lot on grammar. I also plead guilty to having used this approach with my students during my college teaching years.

But I now know that it does not help your speaking abilities early on.
Fortunately, if you're learning a new language independently, it's okay to put grammar on the back burner.
Still, not focusing on grammar doesn't mean you ignore it completely. A good approach is to start with "baby steps" to learn gradually how your new language works.

Grammar in any language is a huge subject. However, knowing a grammar book inside out doesn't mean you can communicate in the language. All it means is that you can remember a lot of abstract rules. And these don't automatically translate into fluent communication.

So, what are a few "baby steps" that self-learners can take?
Here are the steps that work for me when I start out in a new language. (My examples are from the four languages on our site.)

Step #1: A Quick Glance At Grammar Basics

I do mean a "quick glance", and really just basic grammar.Grammar topics spread across page Do it in whatever way works for you - on the internet or in a basic grammar book.

You don't really want to know ALL the grammar rules right off. Especially not all the dozens of exceptions to those rules to boot.

What you want to know is how your new language works. How it is essentially different from your native language(s). Knowing these main differences will help you when starting out with conversations.

Pronouns

In English, you always use pronouns. The same goes for German and French.
Italian and Spanish usually drop the pronouns, unless they are needed for clarity or emphasis.

The Pronoun "you"

English has just one word for "you", and it works for familiar and formal, for singular and plural.

French, German, Italian and Spanish have different pronouns for familiar and formal, and also for singular and plural. You need to sort out which pronoun and/or verb ending to use for each of those situations.

Present Tense Verb Endings

English verb endings are pretty simple. Generally, you just have to watch out for the third person singular, which adds an "s". (I go, you go, he goes, we go, you go, they go.)  

For Italian and Spanish the personal endings of verbs are important because of dropped pronouns. For German and French, the different verb endings depend on which personal pronouns you use.

Articles and Gender

English has the definite article "the" and no gender for its nouns.

French, Spanish, and Italian have two noun genders, and German has three genders, plus various case-dependent forms of the definite article.

Negation

Each language has its own ways to express negation. English has "not", which is often attached to a helping verb and contracted: "don't, isn't, can't, won't, shouldn't".

Generally speaking, negation is simple in Spanish and Italian. In Spanish you put "no" in front of the verb, and in Italian "non". French uses the double negative "ne ... pas", and German has "nicht" for negating verbs and "kein" for negating nouns.

Basic Word Order

Here you don't want to learn any rules. You only want to observe and understand that there are differences.

Once you've had a quick glance at basic grammar differences between your native language and your target language, forget what you've read. It will all come back bit by bit, once you start listening, repeating and reading - a lot - in your new language.

Step #2: Look for Patterns

Patterns in sandWe may not feel that we are "wired for grammar" (as Noam Chomsky once suggested), but we are certainly wired for recognizing and internalizing patterns.

Sounds 

For children in their early years, language is primarily sound. Even as adults we hear spoken language all day - in conversations, on the radio, on TV, on the internet.

Sound remains an important part of communication. To engage with others, we produce the correct sounds to get the message across.

When we write, we often silently pronounce what we're writing.

Sentences

Learning the meaning of foreign words is important. But hearing and seeing them in complete sentences is essential: That's where "Grammar" is happening! 

When learning a new language be sure to include the sound of words, phrases and simple sentences. Listen and repeat as much as you can. It's important to get the sound of what you're learning into your ear.

As you listen, repeat and read, watch for patterns. Patterns of verb endings are basic, so listen and look for them. Watch out for the differences between questions and statements. Try to notice simple idiomatic ways of saying things.

Stories

Easy stories are a good next step. They will put essential vocabulary in context and therefore give you a more precise meaning of words and phrases.

Stories also show how the language works. You'll hear and see questions, responses to questions, emphatic forms, the use of familiar or formal "you", negation, word order variations, etc.

Reading & Writing

Once you're reasonably happy with your pronunciation, begin to pay closer attention to the written text as you practice listening and repeating. It will help you to master the correlation between sound and written text in your new language. It's a good way to get into reading.

Reading is a fantastic tool for acquiring vocabulary and for internalizing typical patterns of a language.

Step #3 More In-depth Grammar

When you're happily into your new target language,Grammar items when you continue to feel motivated and love the progress you're making, that's the time to tackle more grammar. But don't focus on rules. Focus on typical patterns. Below are two examples.

Gender and Articles

Suppose you've been reading and listening to Italian and notice that the simple English article "the" has several Italian equivalents: "il, la, lo, l', i, le, gli".
You've probably figured out the articles "il, la, i, and le". But you're curious enough to check when "lo" and "gli" are used. From then on, each time you see or hear "lo" and "gli" in context, you become more familiar with its use.

French and Spanish have two genders, feminine and masculine, and four articles that go with it. In French, there's "le, la, l', les". In Spanish, you have "el, la, los, las". Good to know, but pretty easy to figure out on your own as you're hearing and reading a story.

German, however, has three genders: "der, die, das" (masculine, feminine, and neuter) and the definite articles, including the plural forms, change depending on the case of the noun. So, it will take more effort to really learn the correct German forms.

You'll want to study the various article/case combinations written out in front of you. Then, saying the forms often helps to make them automatic. Still, perfect mastery is elusive for most, and that's okay. (You're not alone: Mark Twain in his “A Tramp Abroad”, Appendix D, makes some very funny, but cogent observations.)

Asking Yes-No Questions

There are often fundamental word order differences between languages. For example, it's not easy for foreigners to understand when to use "do" or "are" in a question in English.

For example, you say: "Do you know?", while the question, "Are you knowing?" doesn't make sense. On the other hand, you would tend to say "Are you going?" The question "Do you go?" needs more context, such as "Do you often go to the movies?"

French, too, has various ways to ask yes-no questions. But these are different from English. For one, you can put the question particle, "Est-ce que" at the beginning of a sentence and thus turn it into a question, "Est-ce que vous parlez anglais ?"

Then there's the inversion of subject and verb, as in "Parlez-vous anglais ?" Or, you can just add "n'est-ce pas ?" at the end of a statement: "Tu parles anglais, n'est-ce pas ?" Finally, in informal speech, you can just raise your voice at the end: "Tu parles anglais ?" Once you start paying attention to questions when hearing and reading French, these patterns will become familiar and you'll learn when to use which.

In Italian you can make a statement into a question by letting your voice go up at the end, and/or adding a tag: "È americano?, È americano, vero?, È americano, no?" It's as simple as that.

Similarly, in Spanish, you can change a statement to a yes-no question by using question intonation and sometimes adding a tag: "¿Hablas inglés?, ¿Hablas inglés, no? ¿Hablas inglés, verdad?" Or, in some cases, you can invert verb and pronoun: "¿Tiene Ud. sed?"

For yes-no questions in German, you normally invert subject and the personal verb: "Sind Sie Amerikaner?" Or, "Wollen Sie jetzt essen?"

Make Grammar a Treat not a Chore!

There are exceptions, but most language learners don't learn grammar to become fluent in grammar. They learn a language because they want to be able to speak with others. 

It's more fun to figure things out than to memorize rules. So, try to figure out little by little how your new language works. Don't focus too much on the rules.

Becoming fluent in another language is a hugely satisfying achievement. It's great fun to step out of your native language and step into another way of communicating. It can be a wonderful life-long adventure!

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments right here below!

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

How to Use the German Modal Verb "können"

Gamesfrolanguage.com: German Modal Shoot Quick GameOne of the most popular games on our site is the German Modal Shoot. It's a three-minute interactive online game that gives you a quick practice of the basic forms of the German modals.

What are Modal Verbs?

Modal Verbs are helping verbs, also called auxiliary verbs. They add a chunk of meaning to the main verb of a sentence.
In conversations they show up all the time.
German has six modals. They express ability, necessity, obligation, permission, a wish, etc. They are:

  • können (be able, can),
  • müssen (to have to, must),
  • sollen (shall, ought to),
  • dürfen (be permitted, may),
  • wollen (to want) and
  • mögen (to like).

So for example, take the sentence: Ich arbeite heute - Architect greeting foremanI'm working today, and add the modals:

  • Ich kann heute arbeiten. (I can work today.)
  • Ich muss heute arbeiten. (I have to work today.)
  • Ich soll heute arbeiten. (I ought to work today.)
  • Ich darf heute arbeiten. (I'm allowed to work today.)
  • Ich will heute arbeiten. (I want to work today.)

But: Ich möchte heute arbeiten. (I would like to work today.)
Arggh, here you would use the (subjunctive) "would" form in German: "möchte", not "mag".
(The present forms of "mögen" can't be used with an infinitive verb.)

The modal "können" - can, to be able - is a very useful helping verb.
But its changing forms and conjugations often make it frustrating for the English-speaking learner, who is only used to “can” and “could”.

Modal Verb "können" - Present Tense

In the Present singular form, "können" changes its stem vowel from "ö" to "a":

  • ich kann - I can
  • du kannst - you(fam.) can
  • er, sie, es kann - he, she, it can
  • wir können - we can
  • ihr könnt - you-all can
  • sie, Sie können - they, you(form.) can

Below are examples of different ways you can use it.
"Können" - for a polite offer or request:

  • Ich kann Ihnen helfen. (I can help you.)
  • Können Sie/Kannst du mir helfen? (Can you help me?)
  • Ja, das kann ich. (Yes, I can.)

"Können" to express know-how:

  • Er kann Gitarre spielen. (He can play the guitar.)
  • Kannst du Deutsch? (Do you know German? i.e. Are you able to speak German?)
  • Ja, aber ich kann kein Englisch. (Yes, but I don't know any English.)

"Können" to express possibility:

  • Das kann doch nicht wahr sein. (Surely that can't be true.)
  • Kann das wirklich stimmen? (Is that really correct?)
  • Ja ja, heute kann's regnen. (Yes yes, today it may rain.)

"Können" to ask or give permission:

  • Kann ich jetzt gehen? (Can I go now?)
  • Nein, das können Sie nicht. (No, you can't.)
  • Ja, du kannst. (Yes, go ahead.)

Did you get all this? If so try this Quiz #1 for "können" on our siter site Lingo-Late.
Or, if you are looking for a fun German Quick Game: Practice "Können"

Modal Verb "können" - Simple Past Tense

Unfortunately the Simple Past is not that simple for English speakers, who conveniently use "could" for all persons.
In German, the stem drops the umlaut, and is "konn-" for all persons. But you still need to add the so-called "weak" personal endings for the Simple Past:

  • ich konnte - I could
  • du konntest - you could
  • er, sie, es konnte - he, she, it could
  • wir konnten - we could
  • ihr konntet - you-all could
  • sie, Sie konnten - they, you could

Past situations:

  • Sie konnte mich nicht verstehen. (She couldn't understand me.)
  • Ich war in Deutschland aber ich konnte kein Deutsch. (I was in Germany but I didn't know German.)
  • Warum konntest du mich nicht anrufen? (Why couldn't you call me?)

For making excuses:
The Simple Past of "können" is also perfect for making excuses, especially when you add "leider" (unfortunately)

  • Ich konnte leider nicht anrufen. (Unfortunately, I couldn't call .)
  • Leider konnten wir nicht früher kommen. (Unfortunately, we couldn't come earlier.)
  • Mein Mann konnte leider seine Autoschlüssel nicht finden. (Unfortunately, my husband couln't find his car keys.)

Modal Verb "können" - Imperfect Subjunctive Tense

This unapproachable-sounding tense is actually easier, if you remember the Simple Past forms above. You just add an umlaut to every Simple Past form.

  • ich könnte - I could, would be able
  • du könntest - you could, would be able
  • er, sie, es könnte - he, she it could, would be able
  • wir könnten - we could, would be able
  • ihr könntet - you-all could, would be able
  • sie, Sie könnten - they, you could, would be able

Use this tense for polite requests (with or without "bitte"):

  • Könnten Sie mir bitte sagen ... (Could you please tell me ...)
  • Könntest du mir das Salz geben? (Could you pass me the salt?)
  • Könnte ich etwas anderes bestellen? (Could I order something different?)

Make a polite suggestion:

  • Wir könnten jetzt gehen. (We could go now. Let's go now.)
  • Ich könnte dich morgen anrufen. (I could call you tomorrow.)
  • Du könntest auch später gehen. (You could also go later.)

Express a tentative possibility:

  • Das könnte teuer werden. (That could get expensive.)
  • Es könnte morgen schneien. (It could snow tomorrow.)
  • Wir könnten den 8Uhr Zug nehmen. (We could take the 8 o'clock train.)

Related verbs: können and kennen

Hearing the difference between “können” and “kennen” is often a challenge for the beginning German learner.
We've seen that the auxiliary verb "können" means "to be able, to know how".
On the other hand, the verb "kennen", means "to know, be acquainted with", referring to a person, a place, a song, a book, etc.
You say:

  • Peter und ich, wir kennen uns. (Peter and I, we know each other.)
  • Ich kenne Helsinki noch nicht. (I don't know Helsinki yet.)
  • Kennen Sie London gut? (Do you know London well?)
  • Kennst du dieses Buch? (Do you know this book?)

One clue to know whether you hear a form of “können” or one of “kennen” is to listen for another verb: In most cases, the auxiliary verb “können” needs another verb. (But as you've seen above there are exceptions.)

So, go ahead and use "können" as much as you can.
Ich kenne dich nicht, aber ich weiß, du kannst es. (I don't know you, but I know that you can do it.)

Posted on by Peter Rettig

“Offerieren" – “Offro io”: being surprised in Gstaad, Switzerland

Glasses with nose padsSometimes, your day can just become a little brighter after you have been pleasantly surprised. In this case it concerned my glasses. And here is the little story:

During our recent skiing vacation, Ulrike and I decided to walk down to Gstaad. We had skied the day before, and in the evening I discovered that one of the little nose pads on my glasses was missing.

It's about an hour's walk through fields and past chalets to get to Gstaad from Schoenried, where we usually stay. On this day, the weather felt like spring and there was no snow. (Snow was to arrive the next day.)

Mirage – Gstaad, SwitzerlandGstaad Mirage inside

On our way down, we visited Mirage Gstaad, a house made of mirrors that stands in the middle of an open field. It's another installation of such a  house by the well-known American artist Doug Aitken. The outside walls mirror the beautiful natural scenery that surrounds the house. Inside, as you go through the rooms, you see yourself move reflected in dozens of images.

Gstaad Mirage has become quite a destination for many visitors in the Gstaad area and is an interesting idea. As one of the Italian visitors called out: Che bella idea!

"Offerieren" @ Optik Gstaad

But on to my quest for those little nose pads. Normally, in the US I find pads like that in a drugstore, but I knew it was unlikely that a Gstaad pharmacy or a “Drogerie” (i.e. drugstore) would have them.

In Switzerland, shops are more specialized than in the US. When we asked at a Drogerie, the clerk pointed us to “Optik Gstaad”, the only optician in town.

There I showed my glasses with the missing nose pad to a friendly saleswoman, and she understood immediately. I also asked her for a couple of extra pads in case I should lose another one. She nodded, suggested that we take a seat and disappeared to the back of the store. I had expected that she would just sell me a bag with a few pads.

About 15 minutes later – I was already wondering what could take so long – a young man appeared holding a silver tray: on it were my spotlessly clean glasses, with one new and one replaced nose pad, as well as two additional pads and a little bag on the side.

As I moved over to the payment counter – already trying to calculate what this little repair might cost – the young man wouldn't have any of it and said in Swiss German: “... mi möchtn's offerieren!”. I didn't really catch the first part of his explanation. But it took me only a moment to understand what he meant, i.e. that there was not going to be any charge, neither for the Peter leaving Optik Gstaadreplacement nor for the extra pads.

In fact, in this context “offerieren” did not just mean “to offer” - the usual translation, but to offer the provided service (and product) for free.

I thanked him in my best Swiss German and put on my glasses. As I left the store, the world looked indeed very bright and clear through them.

And where do you think, I will buy my next sun glasses? This Swiss business clearly understood how good will is created. Rather than selling me a few Silicon pads for a Swiss Frank or two, the folks at Optik Gstaad understood that they are also in the service business.

“Offro io” – It's on me, my treat ...Gamesforlanguage.com: In an Italian café

Why did I understand, after only a moment's surprise, what the young man was telling me? Maybe it was because I had recently played our Italian Quick Game: “In an Italian Café”. The game  starts with the expression “Offro io”, which means, I offer it, it's on me.

In English, "to offer something" generally means to provide something, free or with a condition attached. The other person can accept or reject the offer.

by Nader Arman on Unsplash“Darf ich Ihnen einen Cognac offerieren?” - May I offer you a Cognac? If you hear this question asked at a dinner party, you don't expect to have to pay for it. On the other hand, if a waiter asks you that in a restaurant at the end of your dinner, and you accept, you'd better expect to see the charge for it on your check.

So the meaning of “offerieren” and “to offer” without any condition, will very much depend on the context and situation in which it is used.

As a noun, “die Offerte”, just translates as “the proposal” for a service and/or product and  typically includes conditions such as price, delivery schedule, etc. It's used quite frequently in business German.

Well, that's the true fun of learning a language: It gets you out of your monolingual corner and opens you up to surprising moments of discovery and pleasant personal encounters. That way, life becomes so much brighter and more interesting.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Techniques for Speaking More Fluently

Flowing river by tim-peters-on-unsplashBeing "fluent" in a language is not a very precise term.

Actually when we learn a language, we go through various stages of fluency.

Plus, fluency in a language is often a subjective issue and can mean different things to different people.

Here are a few takes on Fluency by several well-known Polyglots in a recent Lingualift post.

  • If I can talk to people confidently about normal things, at a normal speed, and understand their replies without them having to adjust to me as a beginner, then this seems like a reasonable place for us to assign “fluency”. (Benny Lewis, The Irish Polyglot)
  • What if there’s different types of fluency? You’re ready for your holiday to Germany? You’re holiday fluent. You spend all day emailing Thai companies about Facebook? You’re business email fluent. (Lindsay Williams, Lindsay Does Languages)
  • After building up your vocabulary and practicing, you start to express your thoughts in a more automated, fast and spontaneous way, even if you make some mistakes. (Luca Sadurny, MosaLingua)
  • Language fluency for me is when my words have the consistency of a liquid rather than a solid. For example, if I suddenly can’t remember how to say “broccoli,” I can replace it, as I continue talking along unimpeded, with “you know, that green vegetable that looks like a little tree that George H. W. Bush refuses to eat.” (Ellen Jovin, Words and Worlds of New York)
  • I feel that there are also different degrees of fluency — one can have a fluent reading ability or they can be fluent in the language just for a specific industry (for example, they can talk about laws and contracts without hesitation but might not be able to talk about the weather) or they can even just be conversationally fluent (and unable to go too in-depth on really specific topics). (Shannon Kennedy, Eurolinguiste)

You get the drift. To me, being conversationally "fluent" in a language means not needing to prepare every sentence in my mind before saying it.

It means feeling pretty comfortable talking about everyday things. I'm not constantly stumbling over basic grammar or getting stuck because I can't find that exact word I need. But it does not mean that I don't make any mistakes.

Obviously, the best way to improve your fluency in speaking a language is to talk regularly with others, ideally with native speakers. And, for keeping your conversations going, you need enough vocabulary and a sufficient familiarity with relevant language patterns (word order, idioms, types of sentences, verb endings, etc.). For that, reading and listening a lot to your target language is helpful.

But to improve the flow of your speech, you can practice some specific techniques. They might just give you that extra push to better fluency.

These three practice techniques have helped me to speak more fluently in a couple of my languages. You can do them feeling none of the stress and anxiety you get when speaking up publicly. In Ellen Jovin's words, they have given my speech, "the consistency of a liquid rather than a solid".

1. Practice Sentences Aloud

Talking aloudTake an audio story that matches your level and which allows you to easily stop and replay any of the audio chunks.

A lot of programs have these. For example Duolingo has such stories for four languages. (I'm using the ones for Portuguese right now.)

But there's also LingQ that has mini-stories and podcasts in more languages.

You can also use a YouTube video, video series you watch on your computer, books on audible, etc.

Replay and repeat each chunk or full sentence two or three times in natural rapid speech, imitating the speed and melody of the speaker.

If your pronunciation is already pretty good, you can even take just a written text and read it aloud, repeating each sentence several times.

This practice has helped me:

  • Focus on and smooth out sound combinations that are hard for me
  • Sharpen my sentence intonation
  • Speed up my speech to a more natural pace

2. Explain Things in your Target Language

Friends arguingWhen you explain how to do something step by step in another language, it forces you to be both imaginative and precise.

That really helps you to become more versatile in using your target language.

Finding "how to do topics" is easy. Think about a hobby, a sport you love, a dish to prepare, or something practical, like ordering a book online, or fixing something that's broken. Use topics and vocabulary that interest you.

Conversations with a native speaker are the perfect place to try out some of your explanations. Urge him or her to keep asking questions to make you clarify what you mean.

If you don't have someone to talk to, write your explanations in a journal. You can then go over what you've written, check vocabulary, figure out other ways of saying it, etc.

This practice has helped me:

  • Find ways to keep going even when I can't remember a specific word
  • Become more resourceful in creating new sentences
  • Aquire vocabulary for topics that I'm interested in

3. Talk in your Head

If you're like me, you often talk silently to yourself. Sometimes I do it just to make sure I'm Talk in your head focused on a particular task.

But you can do self-talk your target language at any time during the day. It's a useful stepping stone to thinking in the language.

Tell yourself stories, go over things you need to do, figure things out verbally, or have internal arguments with an imagined conversation partner.

You may even end up dreaming in your new language! I'm told that's a sure sign of improved fluency.

This practice has helped me:

  • Keep the language in my mind off and on throughout the day
  • Learn to think in my target language
  • Try out conversations without the stress of being in a real one

Learning a language is a journey of discovery with many ups and downs. As you go along, it's not always obvious that your fluency has improved.

But there may be moments, when you realize you were talking away in your target language without thinking about endings or worrying about stumbling.

Those feel great. 

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Why Knowing Another Language is Cool at any Age

Cool ski jumpWe're well into January and I've already had a few days of cool skiing behind me.  (And no, that's not me, but a photo by Jörg Angeli on Unsplash.)

It's high time though to put together some goals for this year's language learning. But is learning a language even worth the effort?

Here we are at the doorstep of a new decade. New technology - such as instant translators - will make learning a foreign language unnecessary, if not obsolete. So why bother?

We're getting used to wanting things fast (by ordering from Amazon, believing in instant personal transformations, etc). But learning a language takes time. Certainly more than 10 days (as promised by Pimsleur) or 3 months (as promised by Benny Lewis).

Life is getting more automated (think of self-driving cars, robots for the house, etc). Why go to the trouble of memorizing and practicing words, figuring out weird grammar, or struggling to decode a stream of "gibberish"?

Yesterday, I reread Kirsten Winkler's 2015 piece on LinkedIn: The Grim Future of Language Learning. There she concludes: "It might sound like sci-fi, but at the current rate, we’re going to have working technologies in our ears and in front of our eyes that will make language learning pretty much irrelevant for most people". Argument closed!?

For a couple of hours, I felt a little depressed. But then I looked at my own life and went happily back to my language learning routine.

TECHNOLOGY AND SELF-LEARNING

screenshot of iPhone with language apps

For sure, advances in technology have revolutionized and disrupted the classical model of language learning - which in my time was a chapter textbook with short reading passages, grammar explanations, and exercises.

Many of us remember some of that from our college language classroom. (I taught college German for some years using the classic textbook plus-pattern-drill approach. But funny enough, it just wasn't the way I myself learned languages best.)

Now we have everything we need for successful self-learning. We can use language apps, join language groups on social media, access online language sites, learn with YouTube videos, watch foreign language movies with (English or other) subtitles, play other-language audio books, listen to online radio stations from other countries, participate in language exchanges, and so on.

Some of us also have the opportunity to travel and try out our language skills on location.

So what's holding us back? Is it the assumption that we can thrive in a global world just with English? Is it laziness, or the feeling that we have no time? Is it the idea that we've missed the language learning boat, because we're now "too old" - at 30, 45, 60, or at 70?

WHY MAKE THE EFFORT?

Once you're out of school, language learning is no longer a "subject". It becomes part of what makes life interesting and adventurous. Passing exams is no longer part of it. Your goal is to have a conversation with someone who speaks the language. Or to watch a film, read a book, listen to an audio book - all in another language. When you can do that, it's huge.

No doubt, it does get somewhat harder to learn other languages as an adult. Not so much because you have lost all abilities that you had when you learned your first language. It's more because work, family, and social commitments now fill your days. Your priorities have changed. 

And there are some other reasons too. For example, from the time we are young, we gradually lose the ability to hear certain sounds. Young children can absorb other languages easily because their brain can identify a broad range of sounds. (See Beyond "Learning a Language Like a Child".) But as children grow into adults, the sounds of their native language become dominant and their ability to hear some sounds of other languages diminishes. Still, studies have shown that listening to other languages can give us back the ability to hear a broader range of sounds again. Have a look at Gabriel Wyner's article in Scientific American: How to Teach Old Ears New Tricks.

Another complaint we have as adults: we don't like memorization. But language is not just a list of words, it's also context, grammar patterns, tone of voice, etc. By experiencing language as communication, you work your brain on a much more complex level.

Besides giving our brain a boost, learning another language gets us out of the monolingual way of seeing the world. It opens up other cultures to us, teaches us empathy, and helps us become citizens of the world.

Having a device for instant translation can definitely help in certain situations. Especially, if you use it to communicate specific information. But having "technologies in our ears and in front of our eyes" all the time when talking with people, can't be pretty or pleasant. 

And, when you have no understanding at all of the local language in the place you're visiting or even living in, you'll remain shut out. Locals are not going to speak English with each other just for your benefit.
So, why is learning a language worth the effort? Because it gives you the tools to live a richer and more interesting life. At any age.

4 TIPS TO MAKE LANGUAGE LEARNING PART OF EVERYDAY LIFE

1. Add language learning to your identity.

For many of us, what we do in our free time becomes part of our identity, in addition to the work we do. I see myself as a teacher, but also as a skier, tennis player, and yes, a language learner.

These are things I love to do and to talk about with others. They are often my priority. When I ski, play tennis, practice or use another language, it gives me the chance to stretch my abilities. It feels good. I get a sense of accomplishment.

2. Find your inspiration.

Language learning woman while joggingWithout question, learning a language takes time and determination. You have to recall words and phrases often until they become automatic. Only with practice can you improve your pronunciation.

How do you inspire yourself to keep going even when you get discouraged? For some, the advice of a language hacker or a polyglot - such as Benny Lewis or Steve Kaufman - will do the trick. For others, doing something fun with the language - such as playing a game or listening to a story, will keep them engaged.

Do whatever gets you excited about the language - from listening to songs or audio books, to planning a trip to the country or region you always wanted to visit.

3. Check your mindset.

Having the right attitude helps a lot. Learning a language cannot be an instant achievement, but rather stretches out into a series of small, enjoyable successes. If you accept that, you're well on your way. But there's more.

Making mistakes is simply part of learning and nothing to worry about. Learning a language is a process of learning, forgetting, and relearning, like any new skill.

When you make your language learning a fun habit (rather than a chore) it is easier to keep going.

4. Do something in your new language every day.

Make a list of "small things" that you could do in the course of your day. Listen to a song, do a few flashcards, watch a YouTube, read a page, write a few lines, list a few words, scan news headlines, check an Instagram account, make a grocery list, copy out a few sentences, read out loud, record yourself and play back, listen to an audio book or podcast, play a game. The list could go on and on.

Make some of the items part of your daily schedule. For example: sing a song in the shower; do a few flashcards with your morning coffee; write a few lines in a journal; take a break and play a language game; read a couple of pages on the bus home or at night before sleeping; watch a film.

So, go for it, take some risks, become adventurous, try things out. And remember these eight words: "Some is good. More is better. Everything counts."

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

European Travels 11 - Lisbon, Portugal


Lisbon PortugalIt was first the sound of Portuguese that I loved, a language we often hear spoken in the Boston area and in a small New Hampshire village where we vacation. The intriguing part: Portuguese looks very similar to Spanish but sounds so different.
So, before a March visit with family in French Switzerland, we discussed the idea of going to Lisbon for a week from there. We had just started our site, Lingo-Late.  Why not seize the opportunity to test its basic premise: Learning about 20-30 essential phrases before traveling to a new country is not difficult - even if you do it late, just before your trip - and adds to the fun and pleasure of the visit. 
Unless you're a dedicated Polyglot, you probably cannot become fluent in every language you try to learn. But, you can definitely master basic greetings, polite phrases, learn some easy "where is..." questions and a few directional words and phrases. 
That's what we did for Portugal.  

A BRAZILIAN IN PORTUGAL

Our nonstop flight from Geneva to Lisbon took about 2 1/2 hours. From the Lisbon Portela Airport, we took an Uber into town. (Uber is available throughout the city.) Our driver Eduardo was from Brazil and clearly eager to practice his English. We, in turn, took the opportunity to ask him about the differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese. Was the language a problem for him?
Oh, he said, no problem with the language: Brazil versus Portugal is similar to US versus UK. The big difference is that Brazilians speak with open vowels, in contrast to speakers from Portugal, who “eat their vowels”. And, he added, you have to be careful about a dozen words or so, since they have different (sometimes offensive) meanings, depending on the country you're in. He also said that speakers of Portuguese can understand Spanish quite easily. But, Spanish speakers usually have trouble understanding Portuguese. 

MY LANGUAGE BOOKLET

As always, I had a little notebook along. In it were written down all the phrases I had practiced on Lingo-Late. The key for me is to practice saying words and phrases often and with a kind of spaced-recall practice. (For example, I recall/test myself the next day, then four days later, then after a week, etc.)
I like having the option to record my voice (easily done on Lingo-Late), and then to play back and compare. For a new language like Portuguese, it feels a little awkward at first, but with time I get used to my own voice trying out unfamiliar sounds.
Once the sounds of the essential phrases are solidly in my head, I find it easy to pick up new words and phrases that I hear or see during my travels.

SEVEN HIGHLIGHTS

Lisbon is a beautiful, cosmopolitan city with a wealth of things to do. Here are seven places and activities we especially enjoyed.

1. Exploring Bairro Alto Lisbon, Portugal

Our rental apartment was in a building on Travessa da Espera, in Lisbon's Bairro Alto (Upper District). It's a trendy neighborhood where many restaurants and bars line the narrow streets. Most evenings, we found a restaurant nearby. 
At a couple of them, we definitely needed our basic Portuguese phrases, as the owners barely spoke any English. Our best and most fun experience was at the small restaurant A Nossa Casa, which features an amazing array of "petiscos" (the Portugese version of "tapas").

2. Praça do ComércioPraça do Comércio, Lisbon

On our first day, once we had lunch and studied the city map, we headed to the historic Praça do Comércio, a generously laidout U-shaped square.
There, at the Story Center, we learned about the different periods in Lisbon's history, from the early sea explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries, the devastating earthquake of 1755, to Salazar's dictatorial rule (1932 to 1968), and the 50 years since then. 

3. Miradouro das Portas do Sol

Later that first day, walking back to Bairro Alto, weOverlook of Lisbon were talked into a 90 minute e-TukTuk tour that turned out to be perfect. Lisbon is built on seven hills. The narrow streets go up and down and up again. In her quiet electric cart, our guide Maria drove us through several different neighborhoods. In her fluent French - the preferred tour language of our little group - she told us stories about Lisbon's history and its people. 
Because of its hilly cityscape, Lisbon has a number of Viewpoints (Miradouros) scattered throughout. Maria took us to the Miradouro das Portas do Sol (Doors of the Sun). The soft late-afternoon sun gave us a stunning first view of the city and the Tagus River (Rio Tejo). Over the next days, we were always on the lookout for other such viewpoints.

4. Day Visit to Belém

Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Belém, PortugalOnce we had figured out the city's transit system, we took a bus to Belém (the Portuguese word for Bethlehem). The bus was crowded mostly with locals and the ride took about 30 minutes.
Our reward was a wide, open promenade that stretches along the Tagus River. On it stands the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a stone monument celebrating the achievements of the Portuguese Explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries. It is a 52 meter high ship's prow and has on it more than 30 statues of historical figures of the time. The one best known is that of Henry the Navigator, (1394-1460), a prince who financed many of the explorations, but who is also known for founding the European slave trade. The excellent Marine Museum in Belém tells the story of Portugal, the seafarer nation.

5. Train Trip to Sintra

To get to Sintra, famous for its 19th century Pena Palace, Sintra, PortugalRomanticist architecture, we took a suburban train from Rossio Station. Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is only 27 km (16.5 miles) from Lisbon but the trip took about 45 minutes, since it's a commuter route with many stops. 
Exploring Sintra (on foot and by local bus) took us into the world of somewhat eccentric architecture. We were glad we could ask in Portuguese where the bus stop was for the bus to the palace - and understood the directions.  
The Palace of Sintra is in the lavish Mujédar style of architecture (Moorish revival); the old center of town, a little higher up, consists of narrow streets, stairways, and quaint mansions; still higher up, you have the ruins of the Castle of the Moors; and finally, on top there's the colorful Disney-style Pena Palace. 
Best of all, the large terrace at Pena Palace opens up an incredible view of the countryside. 

6. A Walk through the Maurario and Alfama Districts

Santa Just Lift, LisbonWe took a day to do some casual sightseeing on foot. We walked to the top platform of the Santa Justa Lift from a hill (we didn’t take the lift because of long lines). 
From there, we slowly made our way through the hip Maurario district, with its street and tile art, and into the historic Alfama district, going past the city walls and ending up at the Castelo de São Jorge. 

7. Ferry to Cacilhas

On our last day, Christo Rei Statue, near Lisbon, Portugalwe took the ferry across the river Tejo to Cacilhas on the other side. Then we caught the local bus to Cristo Rei - a monumental statue inspired by the Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro. An elevator takes you up to a 80 meter high platform, from where you have a panoramic view of the entire Tagus Estuary, the 25th April suspension Bridge, and the seven hills of Lisbon. 
Afterwards, we took the bus halfway back to the town of Olho de Boi, rode the Boca do Vento (Mouth of the Wind) elevator from cliff-top down to the river's edge, and walked the 15-minute path along the river back to the Ferry Terminal.

Because we had learned and practiced greetings in Portuguese, asking for directions, and ordering in a restaurant, we tried these out whenever we could. For sure, we weren't even close to being fluent. But, people appreciated our willingness to use Portuguese, rather than immediately throwing English at them. Because of our persistent attempts at using the local language, we had many a conversation that otherwise would not have happened. It clearly added to the enjoyment of our stay in Lisbon.

Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

Which useful phrases should every traveler know?

young couple with vacation choicesWhen planning to travel to a country where you don't speak the language, you typically face some choices:

  1. Don't bother learning anything new – just rely on your native language, or whatever you already know.
  2. Learn and practice a few useful words and phrases, a few minutes a day.
  3. Spend time and effort to relearning the language, if you studied it in school.
  4. Invest time and effort to learn the language from scratch.

Obviously, your decision depends on other factors as well, including:

  • How much time will you spend in the foreign country, or countries?
  • How likely is it that your native language will be understood there?
  • How much time can you invest?

For many English speakers who travel abroad, the obvious choice is No. 1: Don't learn anything new.
That is because English has become more and more a “lingua franca” for travelers. (Pamela Druckerman's recent article in the New York Times points up some pitfalls for monolingual English speakers.)
But think about it. Even if English is your native language and the only one you speak fluently, learning just a few words and phrases of the local language can make your stay in a place so much more interesting and enjoyable: It can become the starting point for more tips and insights, or simply the beginning of a conversation with a local resident - even if it continues in English.

The Case for Useful Words and Phrases

From every country we visited and whose language we don't speak, we have a couple of anecdotes that remind us how useful it was to know at least greetings, polite phrases and some numbers in the language locally spoken.
Several years ago, we visited Japan and China. We learned and practiced the basic numbers, and a few common phrases and greetings: thank you, please, excuse me, good morning, goodbye, etc. For us, knowing the numbers in Japanese and Chinese proved especially useful.
In Hiroshima, we ventured out one evening and found a restaurant Flat lay of Sushi seton the second floor of a building. As we entered, we soon realized that nobody spoke English. Nor did anyone speak any of the other European languages we know. The restaurant was crowded. But because we knew the Japanese word “fifteen”, we understood that we could have a table in about fifteen minutes. So, we decided to wait. We had read earlier that it's a Japanese custom to overestimate such waiting times. Still, we were pleasantly surprised that after less than 10 minutes our booth was ready.
It was a memorable Japanese dinner. We had dishes we had never tasted before and savored the sake that overflowed our small ceramic cups. We were glad we had waited.

In China we visited the Great Wall and afterwards our tour guide led us into one of the government-run shops that lined the road. Being able to negotiate prices in Mandarin, proved not only to be fun but also made us feel that we got some bargains. (That was very likely just wishful thinking.)

On a trip driving from Germany to Denmark to catch a ferry, we wanted to get some Danish Krone at a bank ATM. (Denmark, as well as the UK, Sweden, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania don't use the Euro.)
In one of the small towns we drove through, we stopped and asked a passerby: “Undskyld, hvor er en bank?” and immediately got a fast Danish response, which we didn't understand. It prompted us then to ask: “Taler du engelsk”? And we realized that when you ask for directions in a foreign language, you should also know a few of the typical directional responses, e.g. left, right, straight ahead, around the corner, etc. We then had a very pleasant conversation with the woman in English and she also showed us the way to a Bank ATM.

In Stockholm, Sweden, we asked for directions in Swedish to one of the museums. We were delighted that the older gentleman continued in Swedish when giving us directions. That was maybe a bit unusual for a Swede, as most of them speak English quite well. But we felt great that our 3 months of studying Swedish beforehand paid off. Not only did we understand his directions, but we found the museum quite easily.

Czech milk cartonLast year we stayed in Prague, the Czech Republic. (See also European Travel 10 – Prague in 2018). As we had rented an apartment for a week, we went to a neighborhood grocery store for some breakfast items.
The young man at the cash register was able to say in English how much we owed. But he did not understand the English words jam/marmalade, butter, cereal, etc. Nor could he explain what the word “polotucné” on the milk carton meant. (We wanted to make sure we weren't buying skim milk. In fact, it means “half fat” or “part skim”, as we later found out.)
We now also look up and practice the foreign words of our typical breakfast items ahead of time, if we travel to a country whose language is new for us . (And we'll add some basic food terms to our Lingo-late Essential Words and Phrases.)

Useful and Essential Words and Phrases

In fact, our experience at our next stop, Budapest, Hungary caused us Home page of Lingo-late.comto start our new site, Lingo-late.com, for those who choose #2 above: Travelers who invest a little time to learn and practice just a few useful or “essential” words and phrases.

What are useful or essential phrases for YOU?
We believe that the first +/-10 polite phrases and greetings in a local language could and should be learned by any traveler.
They include words and phrases such as:

  • Yes
  • No
  • Thanks/Thank you
  • Please
  • You're welcome
  • Excuse me
  • Good morning
  • Hello/Good Day
  • Good evening
  • Goodbye
  • Do you speak English (for English speakers)

(You'll find the translations for 12 of the European languages on Lingo-late.com)
What else you then want to learn and practice may depend a little bit how you travel and where to.
We took part in a tour to Japan and China, but we have never used organized tours for our travels in Europe. So, for European countries we like to be able to ask “Where is...?” questions.
We do this not only to ask for directions. We have found that politely asking “Where is...?” questions can also be the beginning of a conversation with someone who lives locally.
And even if our conversation partner's English turns out to be better than our foreign language skills, we often have a nice exchange. Many times we've ended up with tips and local information that has enriched our stay.
Plus – based on our experience in Denmark – we also like to learn and practice a few of the directional phrases: left, right, straight ahead, around the corner, at the light, etc.
Food and drink items vary quite a bit from country to country. Menus in the big cities often include English or are even multilingual. However, in the countryside, the local language prevails and you may well want to know the foreign names for chicken, fish, snails, clams, beef, tongue, lamb, mutton, tripe, sweetbread - that is, any food or drink items that you may want to order or or want to avoid ordering.

Useful Words and Phrases for Special Circumstances

Obviously, if you just learn a handful of words and phrases, you won't be able to have a conversation in the foreign language. But even you can understand and speak the language, you may come across special circumstances that require you to learn new terms.
Unicaja bank branch Seville, SpainThis occurred to us in Seville a couple of years ago. On the way to our apartment after a late dinner, we used a bank's ATM to get cash. However, there was a problem, and the ATM did not dispense the cash to us. The next day though, we saw that our account had been charged Euro 500.  When we tried to explain this in Spanish to a bank official, we realized that we needed to brush up on some banking vocabulary. Nobody in the bank's branch office spoke much English. So it was clearly better to use our Spanish. The branch manager even declared proudly: “No hablo ingles”. You can read more in 5 Tips for Dealing with ATM Troubles Abroad (and at Home).

The Benefit of Useful/Essential Phrases

In a foreign country, using polite phrases and customary greetings in the local language is always a good idea. This is even more so when you leave the big cities and venture out into the countryside or to places that are off the beaten track.
Our best memories from our car trip from Seville to Madrid are visits in towns like Carmona, Almagro, Aranjuez and conversations with locals there.
Often these conversations start when we ask for a restaurant, or how to get toFriendly conversation a museum or a church. Yes, in some cases we could use our smart phone (if we have Wifi or phone reception), but then we could not practice our foreign words and phrases and have a conversation either – even in English.
Traveling is not just about seeing new sites or monuments. What you'll remember more are the interactions with the people you meet, the conversations you have.
Just knowing a few words and phrases in the local language can get you a smile, and sometimes a conversation and valuable local insider tips.
And yes, English may well be the "Lingua Franca" of the World. But you'll never go wrong by learning just a few "essentials" for your next travels...

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