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. You'll get the drift.

Benny Lewis, The Irish Polyglot: 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”.

Lindsay Williams, Lindsay Does Languages: 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.

Luca Sadurny, MosaLingua: 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.

Ellen Jovin, Words and Worlds of New York: 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.”

Shannon Kennedy, Eurolinguiste: 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).

Conversationally Fluent

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 jump We'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 appsFor 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 and you can do as well with Learn Portuguese For Travel!

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 choicesPlanning a trip abroad is a lot of fun. Deciding where to go, whether to stay in one place or travel around, etc. can already fill you with the pleasure of anticipation.

Now, if it's a country where you don't speak the language, you typically have four 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 and/or money can you invest?

For many English speakers who travel abroad, the obvious choice is: 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. The word in fact 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.n

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.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Before You Travel: 9 Tips to Boost your Language Skills

Mao of Bordeaux region, FranceIn the fall, we'll be spending two weeks in Bordeaux, France. So, before we get there, I'm super eager to take my French up a notch or two.

If I'm an Advanced learner (C1-C2), as I am with French and Dutch, or an Intermediate (B1-B2), as I am with Italian and Spanish, there are many resources to choose from: online programs, books, audio books, Ted talks, TV series, news stories, etc.

If I'm a Beginner (A1-A2) in the language, as I am with Swedish or Portuguese, I look for apps or online programs with words and phrases. Later on I'll start reading simple texts and listen to (slow) audios.

Free options like Duolingo and Lingohut can give you a good start. Others, such as Babbel, Mosalingua, Pimsleur, LingQ, Busuu, etc. also ask you to spend some of your money. (And - if you want to learn/practice polite phrases and greetings just before your next trip to Europe - take a look at Lingo-late.com. More about that below!)

The most important thing to keep me going is to choose interesting materials. I try to do something every day.

Below are 9 Practice Techniques that work for me. They are in no particular order, and I don't do each one every day. I practice a language when I can and feel like it.

1. Listen and Repeat (without seeing the text)woman listing on earphones

• Focus on the sound of words without visual interference.
• Imitate how words run together in phrases and sentences.
• Practice sentence intonation.
• Notice how the different intonation of sentences can change their meaning.
• Learn to listen for patterns in the language.

Pimsleur Language Programs are a good method for this. We practiced with 90 lessons of Pimsleur Italian before spending 5 months in Rome.  I ended up with a pretty good pronunciation and some basic phrases I could use. (But I still had to learn to read Italian and my vocabulary was very limited.)

Later, I used the 'listen and repeat' program, Ripeti con me for Italian. For Spanish, it was the fun app. SuperCoco.


smiling-man-with-laptop-and-headphones-at-home 2. Listen and Read

• Correlate the sound and spelling of words and phrases.
• Become aware of typical letter combinations.
• Notice "silent" letters that are written but not pronounced.
• Look for grammar patterns in the language.

Knowing how written words sound is very helpful for asking directions, for ordering from a menu in a local restaurant, etc.

We had our Pimsleur Italian experience before DuoLingo came out in June 2012. The wish to correlate text and sound digitally for learning a language was the impetus behind GamesforLanguage, which we launched in September 2011. Our courses and games helped me catch up on my Italian reading skills, expanded my vocabulary and kept me in pronunciation practice. They also gave me a good start for Spanish.

DuoLingo Stories are a fun way to read and listen. They started to come out in 2017, and are now available in Spanish, Portuguese, French, and German. You go through the story sentence by sentence. When you click on a word, the English translation comes up.

Olly Richards of IwillteachYouALanguage has a series of Readers with audio in various languages and for different levels. I've been using Spanish and Italian Stories for Intermediate Learners, and now also Swedish for Beginners. Typically, I listen to a story once while following the text. I write down a few key words that I don't know and look them up if I need to. Then I "listen only" to the story several more times.

3. Interactive Play (flashcards and games) Gamesforlanguage French shootout game

• Mix it up and add some fun by learning interactively.
• Use flashcards to learn vocabulary and test yourself.
• Build basic language skills for listening, speaking, reading, writing.
• Focus on practicing your pronunciation.

Create a "streak" or build "points" to motivate yourself.Many programs now offer interactive, gamified language learning: DuoLingo, Babbel, Memrise, Busuu, Drops, and yes, GamesforLanguage.

I've used all of these at one time or another, with GamesforLanguage, of course, being my staple. Interactive play doesn't replace having a conversation with a native speaker, but it's a fun way to get in some practice time. It's a great way to learn a language bit by bit.



Man reading newspaper 4. Read Silently

• Practice reading fluently, without stopping if you don't know a word.
• Guess the meaning of words from their context.
• Notice verb tense markers, eg. whether the verb is in the present, past, future.
• Be aware of "who is speaking", as some languages drop pronouns.

Once you are able to read on a high Intermediate level in the language you're learning, there's nothing to hold you back. Reading is a powerful way to acquire new vocabulary and absorb grammar structures intuitively. When you start reading things that really interest you (novels, non-fiction books, news articles), the language is yours.

5. Read Aloud

mother reading to young girl• Practice reading aloud fluently, focusing on phrase and sentence intonation.
• Pretend you're a native speaker and add some drama to your reading.
• Record yourself and playback.
• Have a native speaker give you feedback (live, or of your recording).

A couple of years back, our French-speaking nephew visited us with his family while we were spending a month in Barcelona. His daughter was four at the time. She asked me to read her a bedtime story in French. It was cute, because like a teacher, she corrected my pronunciation here and there. (My French tends to have a German accent.)

The next day, I noticed that reading aloud had a clear benefit. It made me more confident in speaking French, which in turn improved my fluency.


Writing in journal 6. Listen and Write (dictation)

• Learn to identify words by their sound only.
• Produce the spelling of the words and phrases you hear.
• Be aware of word endings, agreement, etc. which may be "silent". 

I've always enjoyed practicing a language with dictation. It's very satisfying when you figure out what the sound you hear means and you get the word(s) right.

Producing the written version of words that you hear helps you to remember them better than just reading them.

To practice with dictation, I take an audio that I can easily stop and start again as often as I want. An audio book is perfect for that. I've also used TED and TEDx-talks that are not too long and deal with subjects that interest me.

7. Just Listen (and watch) couple watching TV

Get the meaning of each word or phrase through the context.
• Get used to the language spoken at normal speed.
• Pick up everyday conversational phrases.
• Learn the vocabulary around a particular topic.

While driving we often listen to German or French audio books. One we enjoyed was Guillaume Musso's "Fille de papier".

Recently we've also listened to Yuval Harari's Sapiens in French. And while I may not have understood each and every French word, I certainly got the meaning of every sentence. And I'm sure, my vocabulary was further enriched.


couple in conversation 8. Have a Conversation

• Anxious about having a conversation? Prepare yourself!
• Write down phrases and sentences you think you'll to use, and practice them.
• Look up vocabulary on topics you think may come up.
• Prepare some questions to ask your conversation partner.

All the Listen-and-Repeat or Reading-Aloud practice will help to prepare you for real conversations. Your mouth mechanics will have gotten lots of good practice, so anxiety about pronunciation will be less of an issue.

And don't underestimate the value of talking to yourself in the language you're learning. Have a self-conversation about things you need to do, things you've done, things you notice around you, etc.

9. Write an Email, a Chat Message, keep a JournalWriting in journal

• Try to write fluently, to say what you want to say.
• Then go back and see if you can catch any errors.
• Leave a space for words you're not sure about, then look them up.
• Note words you want to learn in your Vocab Booklet.

It's hard to write spontaneously in a foreign language. Your native language (or another language you're learning) often interferes. Still, if you focus on what you want to say, and not so much on grammar, your writing will make progress. Pretend you're just having a conversation with a (non-critical) friend, and write that way.

I'm not someone who spends hours and hours a day drilling and practicing languages. But I do speak a few languages. I've accumulated these patiently, step by step, always finding fun in learning, and always looking for opportunities to try things out.

I've also found that traveling is a great motivator for learning and practicing a language. Before every trip to a country where I don't speak the language, I spend some time learning useful polite phrases, greetings, numbers, etc.

Greeting people in their local language, thanking them, ordering in a café, asking for directions, these are all ways to show respect for the people whose country or region you are visiting. Just think how you'd feel if the tables were turned.

(In fact, the realization that we can't learn all languages for the European countries we like to travel to, made us start a new site, Lingo-Late.com. Here we've begun to add the 50-100 most useful - “essential”- words and phrases for most European languages. The site is free and you can Listen, Repeat, Record you voice, and Playback any of the phrases.)

Posted on by Peter Rettig

From Budapest to Lingo–Late: Essential Words and Phrases

Prague CastleAs with GamesforLanguage, the idea for Lingo-Late was born straight out of our own experience.

In the fall of 2018 we stayed for a week in Prague, the Czech Republic. As we typically do before any travels, we had prepared ourselves by reading about Czech history. (The book "Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed" by Mary Heimann was an eye opener.) We had also learned some basic Czech words and phrases and Ulrike wrote about our trip in: European Travels 10 – Prague in 2018.

Finding some of the basic Czech greetings, as well as words such as yes, no, please, thank you, etc. - together with audio was in fact not easy. Yes, we obviously could find them on Google Translate and on our phone translation apps. But we really would have liked to have them in one place to listen to the audios, recording ourselves and to practice and review them often. Learning the new sounds of another language takes time and repetition. If it's not convenient to do, it's hard to sustain.

On Duolingo, what we consider “essential” words and phrases for travel are scattered throughout numerous lessons. You have to go through all kinds of other vocabulary to find the ones you want. And many other free sites have essential first words and phrases, but few have audios and none have recording features.

Not surprisingly, we found that people appreciated our attempts to use the local language. For us it was a way to show respect. And, even a few words were helpful in small local shops, although in Prague's restaurants and hotels many speak English.

Our Budapest Eureka

After a wonderful week in Prague, we took a train to Budapest. Buda Castle view across the Danube from PestAs we had only planned to stay there for three days, we didn't  put the same effort into learning essential Hungarian phrases as we had done with Czech.

However, breakfast in our hotel showed us that just a simple “Thank you” in the local language can bring a smile to even a taciturn waiter: As we ordered from the Menu, the waiter was silent and appeared quite tense. When he brought our plates, Ulrike thanked him with a friendly “Köszönöm".

This little word was all it took for him to lighten up. He then told us in broken English that he had been to England, but had not really learned enough English there, that he wanted to continue learning, etc. We gave him some suggestions for language sites and he shared some of his experiences in England. That was a really nice travel moment!

We realized in Budapest that we were in a similar situation as many travelers to Europe who take river cruises or organized trips through several countries: No time (or plan) to really learn another foreign language, but interested in just practicing some essential words and phrases for a next trip.

Lingo-Late.com Beginnings

Lingo-Late.com Home PageWhen we reserved the URL Lingo-Late.com, we wanted to attract a target audience, i.e. adults “later in life”, say 55+. But, we also wanted to suggest that you can learn +/- 50 essential words and phrases "late", i.e. in the last couple of weeks before your trip. Maybe you'll only remember the first 10-20, but this will still be better than knowing none at all.

Based on our own experiences, we thought that the first batch of 11 should include yes, and no, excuse me, please, and thank you, as well as the basic greetings. Lesson two includes the typical “Where is...” questions that many tourists will want to ask. In the third lesson, you learn directional responses i.e. left, right, straight ahead, etc. The lessons after that will include food and restaurant-related words and phrases as well as the basic numbers.

Our lessons have a simple format:
1. 11-15 words and phrases in the foreign language with the English translation below.
2. The foreign language audio that can be replayed as many times as wanted.
3. A recording feature that lets you repeat the foreign word or phrase and compare yourself to the foreign speaker.

We feel that a recording feature even for some very simple words and phrases is essential: Not only will saying them aloud make you remember them better, but hearing and comparing yourself to the foreign speaker will really sharpen your pronunciation.

As of May 2019 we have posted the first 36 words and phrases (3 lessons) for German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Icelandic, and the first lesson (11 words) for Dutch and Danish.

Why Portuguese and Icelandic?Essential Portuguese 1 - The first 11 Phrases

In March, we spent a week in Lisbon, Portugal and had the perfect occasion to try out our Lingo-Late idea firsthand. It worked great. But we have to admit, that knowing other Romance languages such as Spanish, Italian and French also helped. Still, without also learning and practicing the rather-different Portuguese pronunciation of similar Spanish words, we'd have missed quite a bit.

We added Icelandic, as our son and his family will spend a week in Iceland this summer and want to also learn and practice some essential Icelandic words and phrases. And of course, Iceland is also on our own travel list.

Next steps?

Once we have added the first +/- 50 words and phrases for most of the European languages, we plan to add some simple and entertaining games and quizzes as well. Might as well have fun learning.

We also have to do more work on our website, make it easier to find languages and lessons, etc. As we build our audience and users, we'd like to hear from travelers and share their stories of how learning local words and phrases made their visit of a place more enjoyable and interesting. And who knows, maybe we'll expand the vocabulary from their stories and suggestions a little further.

If you have any suggestions or stories to share, please comment below or send us a note at contact@gamesforlanguage.com.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

10 Easy Rules to Help Your German:

Know the rules - for German (Updated 3/2021)

Learning German? A few easy rules will give your grasp of German grammar a boost. These rules are a kind of "back-ground language work" that you do, like setting up the frame of a building.

Grammar rules, even easy ones, are not what you think about when you’re engaged in speaking a language. In the flow of speaking, you don’t have time to think much about grammar. Conversations just move too fast. In a conversation, there's too much else going on.

However, when reading, listening to a podcast, doing some online practice, easy grammar rules are good to keep in mind. You'll keep seeing or hearing certain examples over and over again. With time, you’ll start to apply them automatically also for speaking.

1. Diminutive nouns with the ending -chen or -lein are neuter:

Note: in some cases, the stem vowel becomes an umlaut.
• das Mädchen (the girl)
• das Schwesterlein (the little sister) [but: die Schwester]
• das Tischlein (the little table) [but: der Tisch]
• das Gläschen (the little glass) [das Glas]
• der Vögelchen (the little bird) [but: der Vogel]
• das Brötchen (the roll) [das Brot]

2. Nouns ending in -heit, -keit, -ung are always feminine

• die Freiheit (freedom)
• die Gesundheit (health)

• die Freundlichkeit (friendliness)
• die Tätigkeit (activity)

• die Rechnung (bill/check)
• die Bewegung (movement)

3. “die” is the plural article for all nouns (subject forms)

• das Kind - die Kinder (child - children)
• die Frau - die Frauen (woman - women)
• der Mann - die Männer (man - men)

4. All seasons are masculine:

• der Frühling (the spring)
• der Sommer (the summer)
• der Herbst (the fall)
• der Winter (the )winter

5. All says of the week are masculine:weekdays in German

• der Montag (Monday)
• der Dienstag (Tuesday)
• der Mittwoch (Wednesday)
• der Donnerstag (Thursday)
• der Freitag (Friday)
• der Samstag (Saturday)
• der Sonntag (Sunday)

6. Seven common prepositions contract with “das."  

Note: these all imply a “change  of place” or “direction to”:
• an + das:  ans Meer gehen (to go to the sea)
• auf + das:  aufs Land fahren (to go to the countryside)
• in + das:  ins Haus gehen (to go into the house)
• hinter + das:  hinters Auto gehen (to go over behind the car)
• über + das:  übers Meer fliegen (to fly across the ocean)
• unter + das:  unters Buch legen (to place under the book)
• vor + das:  vors Fenster legen (to place in front of the window)

7. A predicate adjective takes no ending

A predicate adjective follows a noun and a form of “sein” (to be).
• Die Straße ist breit. (The street is wide.)
Compare this to "article + adjective + noun":  Die breite Straße. (The wide street.)

• Der Kaffee ist stark. (The coffee is strong.)
• Compare this to "article + adjective + noun":  Der starke Straße. (The strong coffee.)

• Das Haus ist groß. (The house is big.)
• Compare this to "article + adjective + noun":  Das große Haus. (The big house.)

8. Numbers: 

• 1-12 you have to memorize. Eins - one (1); zwei - two (2); drei - three (3); vier - four (4); fünf - five (5); sechs - six (6); sieben - seven (7); acht - eight (8); neun - nine (9); zehn - ten (10); elf - eleven (11); zwölf - twelve (12).

• 13-19 have the same format as English. For example: dreizehn - thirteen (13); fünfzehn - fifteen (15); neunzehn - nineteen (19)

• But 21-29, 31-39 etc. are “reversed” in German and are linked with "und" (and). For example: einundzwanzig - twenty-one (21), neununddreißig - thirty-nine (39), etc.

You can also learn the numbers and practice your pronunciation with our Quick Games: German Numbers 1-20 and 21 and Beyond.

9. The verb forms of formal "you" (Sie) and "they" (sie) are the same.

• Gehen Sie heute ins Kino? (Are you going to the movies today?)
 
• Gehen sie heute ins Kino? (Are they going to the movies today?)
 

Note:
• Formal "you" (Sie) is always capitalized
• The pronoun "they" (sie) begins with a lower-case letter (except at the beginning of a sentence).

10. Word Order: In simple sentences, the verb is in second position.

• Ich gehe heute ins Kino. (I'm going to the movies today.)
• Heute gehe ich ins Kino. (Today, I'm going to the movies.)

Note:
• In the sentence "Heute Abend gehe ich ins Kino.", the verb is the third word, but still in second position, as the (adverb) phrase "Heute abend" is in first position.

• Whatever word/phrase occurs before the verb is emphasized.

You Want to Practice Your German?

Our games and travel-story based courses are also a great way to practice your German.

With our German 1 and 2 courses you'll learn and practice German for FREE - with stories of a young man traveling through Germany and - its sequel - solving a "Blüten"-mystery in Berlin. "The Story" and easy games will let you forget that you are actually learning German! And you can also listen to both Stories by clicking on German 1 or German 2 on our Podcast page.

If travel to Germany is in your near future, you may also enjoy our post: 4 Fun German Language Games Before You Travel.

Posted on by Louise Taylor

Why games are the best way to learn a language

Scrabble tiles on Game BoardLearning a new language can often feel like a daunting task, particularly for young people. That’s why an increasing number of educators and students are turning to games as a way of making the challenging and often laborious task of learning a foreign language through textbook and translation exercises feel more enjoyable.

Learning a second language has multiple benefits. Not only does it provide the learner with the means of communicating with people of different nationalities, it also includes the potential for learning about another culture and for inspiring an interest in travel.

Learning another language also impacts positively on cognitive function. Requiring the brain to undertake regular translation from one language to another can improve attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, reasoning, problem solving and planning – and who doesn’t want their child to excel in all of these?

You can read more here about the benefits of being bilingual and how it impacts on cognitive function and development.

And here are the reasons why learning with games is such a great way for acquiring languages.

Technology as an educational tool – turning translation into a game

Today’s children are more technologically aware than ever before. Although this may seem concerning to some, the value of technology as a vital tool for education cannot be understated – particularly as portable devices are so widely accessible and are almost all capable of ‘on the fly’ media translation.

As distracting as devices such as laptops, smartphones and tablets may be, technology can provide avenues for education that are vastly more engaging to modern audiences than traditional learning methods, which often focus on repetitive translation and list learning. Through just a few clicks and keystrokes, an internet-connected device can offer us access to the entire world’s collective knowledge, including a wide range of methods for absorbing that knowledge.

Many studies have shown positive associations between gaming and cognition. Brain training games are widely accepted as a means of improving mental functioning, as we come to appreciate more and more the value of exercising the mind, as well as the body. When it comes to language learning, games are also valuable, turning repetitive translation tasks into something fun – and thus more likely to be remembered!

Learning to translate through gaming

Games can offer a means of engaging with language studies in a way that goes beyond traditional textbooks and translation exercises. They can help students not only to learn but also to improve their general cognition. Games can even have ancillary benefits such as enhancing self-esteem, thanks to the pleasure and pride associated with doing well at something.

Multiple studies have shown that exposure to technology and immersive media such as games improves memory, multitasking and problem-solving abilities, hand-eye coordination and even connectivity between different brain regions. All of these cognitive improvements contribute to more generally effective language and translation study.

Nor are dedicated language learning games the only way that students can benefit from gaming. From language students to translation professionals, the value of immersion in a language is well known. The audience for video games consists of more than a billion people worldwide and, due to their interactive nature, video games offer students a legitimately entertaining means of immersing themselves both into the spoken and written language of their study. Students playing foreign-language video games can therefore continue their studies even during their downtime.

Not only are games vastly more enjoyable to many students than traditional learning methods, but on average, students who learn with the assistance of immersive media are more successful in their language and translation studies than those who don’t. Rather than a tool for procrastination, the right games can allow a student to enjoy their studies more at the same time as learning faster.

Features of a good language/translation learning game

According to the fundamentals of good game design, the most engaging games – and thus the most educational – will offer a few key features:

1. An incremental challenge

Offering a continuous challenge to the player will help keep them engaged with the content. This can be achieved by designing a game with a number of clear, incremental goals, with each goal satisfying a specific learning objective. An example of this would be to challenge the student to a set of translation tasks increasing incrementally in difficulty.

2. An engaging and realistic story line

An interesting story line will help the student stay engaged with the content. Providing a setting allows the student to see the language they’re learning used in a real-life context and can help to motivate them to succeed in their translation. Realism also helps to ensure the content is taken seriously and can be viewed as useful in real terms.

3. Flexibility

Allowing some degree of flexibility to the way in which a student can approach their learning objectives can help to break up the generic step-by-step monotony of conventional language learning methods like repetitive translation exercises.

4. Regular rewards

Rewarding a student at regular intervals provides them with a constant sense of satisfaction and achievement as a result of their language and translation studies. Much like “levelling up” in video games, emphasis on progression helps students to feel like they’re getting somewhere throughout the learning process, rather than focusing solely on an end goal of fluency that may at times seem insurmountable.

Through playing games, the often dull task of learning and expanding vocabulary through repetitive translation comes naturally and with a sense of fun.

If you’re looking for an entertaining and immersive way to learn a new language in 2019, try picking up a game and reap all of the additional cognitive benefits that learning through technology and immersive media can provide.

Author Bio: Louise Taylor writes for Tomedes, a translation company specializing in game translation and other translation and localization services. When not writing about languages, Louise is usually doing her best to learn to speak more of them.  

Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

Better than Speech Recognition for Language Learning?

Voice recognition buttonSpeech recognition has become a popular feature in online language learning programs and apps. You've probably come across speech recognition as a language-learning tool if you've used programs such as Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, Babbel, Mondly, Busuu, Rocket Languages, etc.

As a starter, it may be necessary to distinguish between speech recognition and voice recognition.

Totalvoicetech explains the difference as follows:
"Voice recognition and speech recognition are terms that are interchangeably used. However, they both refer to completely different things. The purpose behind speech recognition is to arrive at the words that are being spoken. Therefore, speech recognition programs strip away personal idiosyncrasies such as accents to detect words. Voice recognition aims to recognize the person speaking the words, rather than the words themselves. Therefore, voice recognition software disregards language. Voice recognition can also be called speaker recognition."

Speech Recognition for Language Learners

Ideally, speech recognition provides an immersive languagelatino student with earphone language learning on laptop learning experience. Using a speech recognition feature, will help you improve your pronunciation and make you more fluent.

The idea seems compelling:
• Have the language program - with the stored and correct pronunciation of a native speaker - judge a learner's pronunciation of a sentence.

• Let the learner repeat the sentence until the program determines that there is a match with the stored and correct sentence.

What's wrong with that? Well, different from a teacher, who can explain what you do wrong (or right), a speech recognition tool can give you at best limited feedback. It can't really "grade" your pronunciation, (although some reviewers seem to suggest that some programs do.) Your pronunciation is either accepted or rejected.

Let's take Duolingo as an example. (In my experience, Rosetta Stone and Babbel, etc. are similar.) Duolingo lets you speak foreign sentences here and there and judges whether you did it correctly.

However, you have no clue whether you actually said the words right. I've actually recorded myself adding a different language but similar intonation and found my answer accepted.
Surprise: - For the Italian "lui ha vinta le elezioni", I said "Er hat die elezioni gewonnen." So, no way did my words match those of the native speaker! Maybe the only match was that the length of both sentences was nearly the same.

Or sometimes, I'll try several times and none of my tries are accepted. I know I have a trace of a German accent in all my languages and certain sound or word combinations just never make it.
Rocket Langauges screenshotRocket Language has a somewhat improved method: The program gives you a percentage rating of your recording and transcribes the sentence while highlighting the mistakes, as can be seen on this screenshot. Still, it still took me several tries until my purposely wrong pronunciation of “Je saute” was flagged.

(However, you can also replay your own recording - with the arrow beside the microphone – to compare yourself against the native speaker – the upper arrow, which, we believe and discuss below, is a more effective way.)

For both of us, speech recognition has always proved very frustrating. But there are other issues.

Can a Beginner sound like a Native Speaker?

In fact, during the early phases of language learning, it's nearly impossible to sound "like a native speaker". And, having a perfect pronunciation – while obviously a desirable goal for most - is certainly not essential for the beginner.

Focusing initially more on listening and hearing the melody of the new language will pay greater dividends later on, when you work on your speaking skills. Having a beginning learner worry about correct pronunciation is a little bit like getting a new student driver on a highway with fast moving traffic. He or she could get easily scared and discouraged.

But even for the advanced learner, learning with speech recognition may not always be useful. Just having my spoken translation accepted as “correct” may feel like a pat on the back, but can I really trust it? What was correct? What do I need to improve?

Still, if the idea of speech recognition prompts a learner to speak aloud and imitate the native speaker - that's good! Indeed, anything that gets you to start talking in your new language is a good thing.

The Mondly app has an interesting approach: it uses augmented reality create a language learning environment. Animals and objects come to life and you're encouraged to participate in a conversation.

On the whole, though, we've always found that there is a better way for improving your pronunciation with language apps or online language programs:

Record Your Voice and Compare it to that of the Native Speaker

When you are learning a new language, a teacher or tutor will at times point out your mistakes and correct your pronunciation. He or she will often not only encourage you to imitate their pronunciation, but also explain to you the mouth mechanics that the particular language requires.

computer keyboard with microphoneOnline language programs can also give you such advice or suggestions, but then it's mostly up to you to figure out how to produce the new sounds of your language. For most languages there are also Youtube videos that explain the mouth mechanic specifics that you can then practice on your own.

And it's here that recording your own voice and comparing it to the native speaker does three important things for you:
1. It lets you become aware of the pronunciation differences between you and the native speaker.
2. It lets you try as many times as you want to get closer to the native speaker.
3. It lets you yourself become aware of the progress you are making.

Now, I also know that for many beginners hearing themselves in a foreign language can be frustrating and even discouraging. You may ask yourself: Will I ever be able to speak like the native speaker? The honest answer for me and many other adults is: Probably not.

Unless you heard the new language as a child, chances are that you may not HEAR certain sounds any longer as an adult. You'll therefore also have trouble reproducing them.
(This is due to our “categorical perception”, which we discussed in an earlier post: Beyond “Learning a Language Like a child”)

However, hearing yourself and imitating the native speaker both in pronunciation as well as in language melody, is an excellent way to practice and improve your pronunciation.
And, as a precursor to speaking, listening to as much of your new language as you can, is the obvious thing to do.

uTalk

We recently re-discovered the app uTalk, (available for Android, iPhone/iPad, Windows 10. Mac and Kindle Fire HD) with 140 languages. It has an excellent self-recording/native speaker comparison system and two of its six units for each topic lets you listen to phrases and then record yourself saying them.

It's not free, but we recently picked up a life-time subscription for 6 languages for $24.99. So look around for a deal, if you are interested. We are planning a review later on.

The Goal of Language Learning

For some language learners passive activities like listening and reading are enough. But for most others, communicating with friends, family, business associates or during travel adventures is the real goal of language learning. That means speaking practice is essential.

If speak recognition features of an app or online program encourage you to do that, great! We find self-recording/native speaker comparison systems more effective than speech recognition.

What is  your experience? What works best for you? Please share with us your thoughts below.

PS: Previous users of our online GamesforLanguage courses will have noticed that we turned off the Flash Player based recording several months ago. Flash Player recordings were not supported on most phones and mobile devices and had other problems. We are still looking for a replacement.

Bio: Ulrike & Peter Rettig are co-founders of Gamesforlanguage.com. They are lifelong language learners, growing up in several European countries before moving to Canada and the United States. You can follow them on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Steps for Tackling Grammar Slowly

grammar books stacked How 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 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

Man studying laptopI do mean a "quick glance", and really just basic grammar. 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

Carpet PatternsWe 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

Grammar Book on table with woman's handsWhen you're happily into your new target language, 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?" "É americano, vero?" "É 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!

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