Posted on by Peter Rettig

Palm Trees and Chevy Chase in England?

When somebody told me some time ago that there are palm trees in England, I thought they were kidding.

However, during our recent trip though Cornwall and the “English Riviera” we could convince ourselves first hand that indeed there are palm trees growing there! And - Chevy Chase has an English (or rather Scottish) origin...

Minack Theatre

Minack TheaterA wonderful discovery in Porthcurno at the very tip of Cornwall was the Minack Theatre.
The dream and vision of Rowena Cade, who started the construction in 1938, has now become a world famous open air theater. It could easily be mistaken for the remnant of the Roman occupation as it reminded me very much of the amphitheater in Taormina in Sicily with its spectacular view out to the sea.

We saw a wonderful performance of Oliver Twist during a sunny afternoon with sailboats in the background adding to the spectacle on the stage. Pictures of the subtropical garden can also be seen when clicking on the above link to this amazing theater!

Europeans and Languages

The many cars in the theater's parking area with French, German, Swedish, Dutch, Swiss, etc. number plates reminded us that most Europeans are quite able to communicate in more that one language, and their training starts early.

Right behind us on the seat terraces cut into the ledge, a German couple was seated with their 10-year-old daughter. We were quite impressed that the girl sat through the whole performance, without complaint, although, as her parents told us, she really did not speak any English (yet). She was following the action on the stage with great attention, with her parents, who were fluent in English, giving her brief explanations from time to time.

St. Michael's Mount

St Michael's mountAnother interesting visit during our trip was to St. Michael's Mount, which not coincidentally shares with its French cousin both its tidal island characteristics and its conical shape: The island was given to the Benedictines, the religious order of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France, by Edward the Confessor in the 11th century.

The Mount, as locals call it, with its imposing castle, has gone through various ownerships, after Henry VIII abolished the priory. The St. Aubin family retained a 999-year lease after donating it to the National Trust in 1954, and one of the Lord's nephews lives in the castle and manages the island's operations. (We ran into him, as he hurried from his private quarters through the museum to the chapel!)

Chevy Chase on the Mount

view from castleWe took a small boat over during high tide, visited the castle and walked back across the causeway during low tide.

The causeway and the harbor as well as the palm trees can be seen on the picture on the left looking out towards the town of Marazion, only a few miles from Penzance, the most westerly major town in Cornwall and home to the pirates in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera.

During our visit of the castle we were intrigued by the name of the "Chevey Chase Room"  and one of the guides explained to us that the name comes from the plaster frieze depicting hunting scenes of the Ballad of Chevy Chase:
"The ballads tell the story of a large hunting party upon a parcel of hunting land (or chase) in the Cheviot Hills on Anglo-Scottish border - hence the term, Chevy Chase."

room in the Castle There is actually another more linguistic explanation for the name, which can be found on the site of the Chevy Chase Historical Society:

"Chevy Chase may have been derived from the French word 'chevauchee' used in medieval Scotland and England to describe the horseback raids made into the ancient borderlands between the two countries.
Whatever its derivation, the name became the title of the English version of a ballad memorializing the famous Battle of Otterbourne which took place at Otterburn, in the Cheviot Hills, Northumberland, England, in August 1388, between the Scottish troops of James, Earl of Douglas and Englishmen led by Lord Harry “Hotspur” Percy, who challenged Douglas by mounting a deer hunt in the hills. The battle was stubborn and bloody, fought hand to hand in the dark -- and may have been fought hand to hand through the night.  The Scots prevailed, but many troops were lost, and Douglas died."

For more information on St. Michael's Mount, go to

"St Michael’s Mount is famous both for historical and mythical reasons. An important Benedictine priory used as a stronghold by a pretender king, held for the king during the Civil War before being taken by a parliamentarian Colonel, and machine-gunned during World War II, St Michael’s Mount has seen its share of real-life warfare. But the mount also has an aura of mystery they has made it the setting of the legend of Jack the Giant Killer and a filming location for various Dracula films. An iconic rocky island on the coast of Cornwall, St Michael’s Mount has many stories to tell and is very worth a visit if you’re in Cornwall."

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Cool German Idioms 1 - blau

London Eye

 Some Idioms with "blau"

ins Blaue fahren
(more literally: to drive into the blue yonder)
to take a trip without a clear destination
blau machen
(literally: to make blue)
to skip work or school

blauer Montag
(literally: blue Monday)
a Monday on which you skip work
die blaue Stunde
(literally: the blue hour)
time of dusk
das Blaue vom Himmel herunter lügen
(more literally: to lie so much that the blue color comes down from the sky)
to tell stories that aren't true
das blaue Wunder erleben
(literally: to experience the blue miracle)
to get the shock of one's life

mit einem blauen Auge davonkommen
(literally: to escape with a blue eye)
to get off lightly

jemandem blauen Dunst vormachen
(more literally: to fool someone with blue mist)
to throw dust in somebody's eyes

sich grün und blau ärgern
(more literally: to turn green and blue with annoyance)
to get very annoyed

der Blaue Planet
(literally: the blue planet)
the planet Earth

der blaue Brief
(literally: the blue letter)
a letter containing unpleasant news

blau sein
(literally: to be blue)
to be drunk

Blauer Brief

"Blauer Brief" most commonly refers to a letter that a school will send to parents warning that their son or daughter may not pass and be required to repeat the shool year.
A "Pink Slip" or notice from an employer that one is being fired or laid off is often referred to as "Blauer Brief".
The "Notice to Quit" from a landlord terminating your tenancy, is also sometimes called "Blauer Brief".
If you read German, find out more about the history of the term, and regional differences in how it is used in this Wikipedia entry.

I don't really know why German has so many idioms using the color "blue". Yes there is the English "feeling blue", or "being blue" i.e. being sad. But, if you were to express such a feeling and translate, "I'm blue", into German as "Ich bin blau", you will get some astonished or worried looks.

If you come across other German idioms using "blue", send us a note to and we'll add them here!

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Steps for Training Your Ear When Learning a Language

When starting a new language, one of the hardest things to learn is to understand a native speaker. It's definitely much easier to read a foreign language than to understand a stream of it when it’s spoken quickly.

When I started learning Italian, TV programs sounded like gibberish. But now, I’m pretty good at understanding Italian speakers and Italian TV and films. Just as with building any skill, it helped me to break down the learning process.

You can do it in these three steps.

1. Listen repeatedly to a short audio or video

Listen to a short audio of which you understand or can guess about 50%. Listen to this same audio segment several times in the next Man listeningseveral days.

This will make your brain familiar with the "music” of the language, its melody and rhythm. Pay attention to where stress goes on words and which words are stressed in a sentence.

You’ll quickly learn to distinguish individual
types of sentences (statements, questions, negative responses, short emphatic answers, etc.). You'll be surprised how repetition increases your understanding of what is being said.

Also, from day to day, your brain continues to processing the sounds that you are learning. After some time, you may find that you'll be able to identify individual words within the stream of sounds that is whooshing by. That's a huge step and a very exciting one.

To get the idea, here are the MP3 audios of Scene 2 from our four languages, French, Spanish, Italian, and German.

Pick a language that you understand somewhat. Then listen to the corresponding scene in a language you don’t know at all. It’ll give you a
taste of audio learning.

2. Watch or listen to an ongoing story

Watch a TV series in your new language. Or, if one in your language is not available, look for a foreign film that's not dubbed. Watch it in short increments.

The ongoing story will provide you with related vocabulary and lots of repetition. The context of the story itself will offer plenty of clues so that you can guess the meaning of what is going on.

3. Learn by immersion with a variety of materials

Now you’re ready to tackle all kinds of different audio and video material in your new language. TV programs in the language you’re learning, films, news audios and videos, a radio station. learning, etc. Increasingly, context clues will help.

A great way to get into immersion is a site like Also a good post to check out is Learn a Language by Listening to the Radio
Also, in an earlier blog post, I list 10 essential grammar items to become familiar with. They’ll help you get a good start with immersion learning.

Language learning is not a linear process

You may want to go back to any of the previous steps from time to time. Learning to understand a new language is not a linear process, it's more like a fun zig-zag, filled with new discoveries all the time. 

Of course, if you can interact with native speakers, you'll want to do that right from the start. They'll make your language learning personal, add direct experience of the language, and give your valuable feedback.

Have fun! And yes, research shows that these “language exercises” have all kinds of good benefits for your brain.

As said by the writer Rita Mae Brown: "Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going."

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Wonks, Foreign Languages, and Presidential Politics

A recent NPR a
rticle by Stephen M. Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University, cIn this photo from 1938 undergraduates of Oxford University walk to lectures, well equipped with books.aught my attention: Foreign Policy: 10 Things Future Wonks Should Know.

The article meant to address the "things" our future Secretaries of State or for that matter, the students and future international policy wonks should learn.

(The 1938 photo from the article shows undergraduates from Oxford University as they walk to lectures, well equipped with books.)

Foreign Language

While I certainly cannot argue with any of his ten points, I wish he had listed “Foreign Language” as #2 or even #1 (instead of #3) for all the excellent reasons he mentions:

“... I know that everyone is learning English these days, but learning at least one foreign language provides a window into another culture that you can't get any other way, and also provides a sense of mastery and insight that is hard to achieve otherwise.”

It seems clear to me that among the many other “things” a foreign policy expert should know, foreign language and history should be on top. Considering the interconnections of our lives with the rest of the world, Prof. Walt's reasoning does not only apply to foreign policy wonks, but indeed to many industries, businesses, and people.

He also speaks to “a sense of mastery that is hard to achieve otherwise,” a point that is rarely mentioned when enumerating the benefits of knowing a foreign language.

Presidential Politics

The current presidential election campaign in the US also makes me again painfully aware of the fact that knowing another language (than English) does not give any candidate an advantage with the voting public.

You may all remember that John Kerry downplayed his knowledge of French in 2004, and Mitt Romney is currently doing the same.

President Obama is now staying away from that topic as well, as he got blasted in 2008 when regretting: “I don't speak a foreign language. It's embarrassing ... It's embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup, right?" (CBS News 7/11/2008)

But for those who endeavor to learn another language both the “window into another culture” and the “sense of mastery” provide ample rewards.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

How to Fuel Your Enthusiasm for Language Learning

Yesterday, as I was poking around one of the Forums at Fluent in 3 Months, I came across a post with the topic of Time Management in Language Learning.

A forum member asked about goal setting. One answer to her question especially caught my eye because it expresses a familiar feeling: "Yes I have [set a goal] but I rarely keep to it. I don't know why, but when I set a goal, I do everything to not reach it. ... I feel compelled and I rebel."

A lot of language learners can probably empathize with such a statement. Rebellion of that sort may have to do with personality, with former school experience, with family dynamics, with the enormity of the project, etc. In any case, it means you have to deal with your own feelings of resistance to something you actually want to do.

Based on experience, here's my best advice for overcoming this kind of inner hurdle: Approach your language learning from an activity that you truly enjoy. It is bound to fuel your enthusiasm


book and gamesIf you're a great reader, dabble with texts and their translations. Google’s Language Immersion for Chrome or a program like LingQ work well for that. Just think, the better you get, the greater access you will have to anything written in your new language.

Watching Videos and TV

If you like to watch moving images (I don't want to say "if you're a TV addict"), find online news videos, or follow a soap in your new language. You'll learn a lot of vocabulary by guessing from the context of the story, gestures, facial expressions, sound of voice, and such.

In addition, becoming familiar with a few basic grammar items will help a lot (such as pronouns, question words, etc.). I've posted a couple of links to soaps and videos, as examples, on our Facebook site.

Listening to Music

If you are crazy about music, download songs, listen, sing along, google the words and memorize them. There's plenty of evidence that this is a fun and effective way to learn a language. 

Playing Games

If you like playing games, you're in luck. You'll find a host of language apps and sites online that include games. Obviously, I'm hooked on games, and there are plenty of sites that I like, including our own GamesForLanguage. Here are a couple of others to try out: Digital Dialects, Mindsnacks, and Drops.


If writing is what you love, then start by writing out words, phrases, and short sentences. Duolingo, the popular, free crowdsourced language learning website, has you writing right from the beginning.

Community style programs, such as Busuu or Lang-8 include writing exercises and offer a chat feature with which you can communicate with native speakers.


If you love to talk, tell stories, and are not shy about speaking up in a foreign language, get yourself into a situation where you can be your chatty self.
Finding a language-exchange partner who's on your proficiency level is the best way.

Meet with or skype with each other, and do this often. Here are two online resources: "Conversation Exchange" (a site we successfully used in Barcelona) and "My Language Exchange." 

Textbooks and Grammar

Should I add this category? I for one really like to figure out how a language works. It’s not a bad idea to have a way to check some grammar points, be it in a textbook or on an online grammar site. 

Just remember, progress with language learning is not linear. It's more like a zig-zag, a back and forth. Some things you won't get for a while, others you'll master immediately.

Still, whatever you put in will get you a step ahead - be it a stint of learning vocabulary, practicing pronunciation, watching a news video, reading headlines, or scrolling through a foreign language Twitter feed. Even a few minutes count.
If you approach your language learning in a way that you personally enjoy, chances are your you'll maintain your enthusiasm at a high level.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

10 Steps to Foreign Language Video & TV Immersion

Are you learning a new language? Soon you may be eager to begin watching videos or TV programs, with no translation provided.

The goal of this type of immersion is to start processing language like native speakers do. It’s a fun and challenging way to learn. Your mind goes into full gear and you're pushing yourself way out of your linguistic comfort zone.

Immersion Learning

To make your immersion learning productive, you’ll want to become familiar with some of the essential elements of your new language. The following 10 basic grammar items are crucial for beginning to understand spoken language on TV. Using audio and written examples for each, I practiced these before starting to watch a Spanish telenovela.

10 Basic Grammar Items

1. Subject pronouns. (Are they always used or mostly dropped?)
2. Regular verb endings for first, second, and third person.
3. Definite and indefinite articles. (Are they used or not used?)
4. The 5 most common question words.
5. The 5 most common prepositions. (eg. the equivalents for: in, on, to, with, from)
6. The different vowel sounds in the new language.
7. The consonants whose sounds don't exist in English.
8. The common words that express negation.
9. The sentence melody of statements. (Practice to imitate the melody.)
10. The sentence melody of questions. (Practice these too.)

As your listening skills advance, you may want to add other steps. In the meantime, these 10 grammar steps will help you make the jump from sound as “gibberish” to sound as “words that have meaning.” 

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Is it Cool to Speak a Foreign Language?

Recent innovations in technology have shown that language learning is becoming more and more popular. The other day I stumbled across a delightful “language learning” YouTube video. There are hundreds maybe thousands of such videos on the Internet and they get lots of visitors.

This particular one, called “language learning evolution (part 1)” was made by a 22-year-old student from Taiwan, who describes how he has learned several languages. The video runs about 13 minutes.

Essentially, his message is: “go slowly, language learning takes time” and “speak, speak, speak.” (He doesn't mention specific courses or methods.) It's personal, fun to listen to, inspiring, and yes, it's cool!  I hope it indicates a trend in language learning!

My Own Language Learning Experience

When I was a teenager, my family had emigrated twice and I had attended school in each of the countries. I spoke three languages fluently. Was that cool? No way! 

I had an accent, a kind of European mix that kids noticed and sometimes made fun of. On top of it, I was totally clueless about what's been called “the secret (social) rules” of my new home country, Canada.

The whole dating scene was a mystery to me (at age 13 “everyone” went to weekly dances in church basements and community centers). I may have been able to speak English pretty well, but I was not fluent in the kind of social small talk that teenagers on this side of the ocean engaged in.

Did I hide that I could speak other languages? For sure!  I didn't want to be different. I had two personas, and my social one did NOT include being trilingual.

When friends came to my place, I tried to keep my parents linguistically in line. But they did slip up from time to time and lapsed into German, the language they spoke with each other. That embarrassed me a lot.

To top it off, my mother did not have the vocabulary for scolding me in English. So she usually reprimanded me in her native language, Dutch. My friends already knew and would tease me: “Now she's getting mad, she's speaking Dutch! What did you do?”

Are Attitudes Towards Foreign Languages Changing?

It wasn't just my peers who thought it was uncool to speak in another language. Riding the bus, my mom and I would speak Dutch with each other. On occasion, someone would turn to her and say: “You are now in Canada. Why don't you speak English!”
I imagine that one could hear a similar comment today, in any country - even though the Internet allows easy access to foreign cultures, social networks, and a large array of language programs - all across language barriers.

As children and adolescents grow into adults, they may discover that speaking another language not only is “cool” but also opens doors professionally. A second language is an asset for studying, working abroad, or traveling.

To the extent that Generation Y (also called the Net Generation) can take advantage of the language learning offerings of the web, they may even get a head start in overcoming the language attitudes of former generations.

What do you think, can the web help change attitudes about people speaking other languages?

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Innovative Language Learning and Social Interaction

Friends socializingRecently, I came across a report by, entitled: “5 Innovative Language-Learning Tools.”

So far, I've learned five languages either through immersion, or with traditional methods (grammar-translation, audio-lingual) and materials (textbooks, classroom, CDs).

Now I was curious to see what new technologies were available for my next language learning project: Spanish. Here are some of the innovative features listed in the report for five language programs:

For Pronunciation Practice

- audio clips
- speech recognition technology
- function to record your own voice and play back to compare

For Vocabulary Acquisition and Practice

- flashcards, vocabulary games
- feature to build your own vocabulary lists
- community page for sharing word lists
- review manager (for managing vocabulary practice)

For Improving Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing Skills

- online audio, tv, radio programs, interactive video
- spoken and written exercises
- visual text
- chat feature

For Social Interaction

- spoken and written exercises which can be submitted for peer review
- a community platform to find language partners
- crowdsourced content

Language Learning with Social Interaction Online

For me, communicating with others is the goal of my language learning. If that is also true for you, then from day one, you’ll want to focus on learning the language of communication.

It means that the vocabulary you practice should relate to your interests, and the topics you cover should be ones you enjoy conversing about.
The well-known Australian linguist David Nunan calls this: “learning real language for use in the real world.”

To that end, the features mentioned in the report that provide social interaction seem the most interesting and most innovative to me. (Voice recognition systems to help with pronunciation hold great promise, but the ones I have tried were more frustrating than helpful.) Engaging online with native speakers anywhere in the world is a great way to practice. But you have to push yourself to take a few risks.

Yes, it's stressful to speak in a foreign language in a real situation. But just think: Your language partner is in the same situation as you.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

10 Easy Rules to Help Your Italian

Know the Rules - for Italian Learning Italian? When you get into a conversation with Italians, you have little time to think about the many particularities of the language: noun gender, different types of articles, prepositions, etc.

Here are ten easy rules that you can become aware of when reading, listening, or writing Italian. With time, you'll start recognizing items or patterns that follow these rules and they'll become automatic even when you speak.

These rules cover just a few Italian grammar points, but they're a start and easy to remember. You can used them to build on.

1. Nouns ending in -o are normally masculine.

• il ragazzo (the boy)
• il libro (the book)
• l'albero (the tree)

Notable Exceptions: Feminine nouns ending in -o
• la mano (the hand)
• la foto (the photo)
• la radio (the radio), l’auto

2. Regular masculine nouns that end in -o change their ending to -i in the plural.

• i ragazzi (the boys)
• i libri (the books)
• i cavalli (the horses)

3. Nouns ending in -a are normally feminine.

• la ragazza (the girl)
• la scuola (the school)
• la casa (the house)
Notable Exceptions: Masculine nouns ending in -a
• il problema (the problem)
• il cinema (the movie theater)
• il programma (the program)

4. Regular feminine nouns that end in -a change their ending to -e in the plural.

• le ragazze (the girls)
• le scuole (the schools)
• le idee (the ideas)

5. Instead of il, the definite article lo (the) goes before masculine singular nouns beginning with z, s+consonant, ps, gn.

• lo zio (the uncle)
• lo studio (the study)
• lo psicologo (the psychologist)

Note: Feminine nouns starting with z, s+consonant, ps, gn, have the definite article "la".
• la zia (the aunt)
• la strada (the street)
• la psicologa (the psychologist, f)

6. The definite article gli is the plural form of lo, instead of the masculine plural i.

• gli zii - the uncles
• gli studi - the studies
• gli psicologi - the psychologists

7. The definite article is used with possessive adjectives, except with singular nouns denoting family members.

• il mio libro (my book)
• la tua amica (your friend, f)
• i miei amici (my friends)
• le tue case (your houses)

• mio padre (my father)
• tua madre (your mother)
• mio zio (my uncle)

Note: With plural family members, you use the definite article:
• i miei parenti (my parents)
• le tue zie (your aunts)

8. To make a sentence negative, put non before the verbal expression (incl. object pronouns).

• Non voglio mangiare. (I don’t want to eat.)
• Non ho finito. (I haven’t finished.)
• Non lo conosco. (I don’t know him.)

9. The preposition in (to/in) is normally used with continents, countries, regions, and large islands.

• in Africa  (to Africa/in Africa)
• in Francia (to France/in France)
• in Toscana (to Tuscany/in Tuscany)
• in Sardegna (to Sardinia/in Sardinia)

10. The preposition a (to/in) is normally used with cities and small islands.

• a Roma (to Rome/in Rome)
• a Capri (to Capri/in Capri)

Posted on by Pablo Montoya

Learning English as a Second Language (ESL) in Spain

Man asking:"Do you speak English?" Last week, I read an article on the difficulties that the majority of Spanish high school students are facing in understanding spoken English.

According to data taken from the latest European Survey on Language Competences (ESLC), only 12% actually understand simple expressions about everyday topics.

Given such data, a simple question arises: What is wrong with ESL programs in the current educational system in Spain? From my own experience, two main reasons immediately occur to me:

1. Firstly, the quantity of English input that a student receives in class is extremely low. On average, the amount of time spent engaging in listening activities is 30 minutes per week.

2. Secondly, and as importantly, the quality of the English that students hear is quite poor because:
(a) Portable stereo systems have inadequate sound quality and can hardly be heard in the back of classrooms.        
(b) Exceptions aside, the pronunciation of non-native teachers is sometimes not quite up to standard. This fact, together with not hearing native speakers often enough, makes it hard for students to improve their listening skills.

Consequences of Dubbing

In addition, there are a few extra-academic factors, which definitely have an influence on the listening skills of high school students. One mentioned in the article is the dubbing into Spanish of movies and television shows.

This alone represents an additional obstacle to ESL students because, as a result, they are not being exposed to the English language as much as it would be desirable outside of class.

Benefits of Digitalization

However, I'm convinced that with the advent of media digitalization, the option to choose between Spanish and English audio tracks on multimedia content is giving students the chance to improve their language competence. I

It might actually be interesting to research a bit further: Will those students, who regularly watch content in English, do better than the 12% percent of students who understand simple expressions?

Bio: Pablo Montoya is both the writer and a speaker of our Spanish 1 course; he is also assisting us in developing our ESL course for Spanish speakers.

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