Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

Learning Spanish: Bilingual in Barcelona...

Cafés in Vila de Gracia Learning Spanish - Today is only our second day in Barcelona. We experienced unusual thunderstorms and heavy rains during the night, but ventured out anyways in the morning drizzle.

While we are still exploring the district where our apartment is located - Gràcia - (see our favorite Vila de Gràcia square above) we also are figuring out how to get around the city with public transportation.

Public Transportation

Our first goal: to get a metro and bus pass. The number of choices are amazing!

Using our basic Spanish (learned with GamesforLanguage Spanish 1), we found out about passes for 10 trips, 50 trips in 30 days, 30 days unlimited, daily passes, etc. etc. We finally settled on a pass of 70 trips in 30 days for families (including couples). The price: Euro 51.80 - which breaks down to only $.74 per trip for each of us, if we use all of them. Quite a deal!

Learning Spanish in Museums

With this pass, we took our first subway trip to the Plaza d'Espanya and the CaixaForum. Inaugurated in February 2002, CaixaForum is the Barcelona headquarters of Fundació "laCaixa" - a social and cultural foundation belonging to "la Caixa" savings bank. The Forum is situated in an old but wonderfully renovated textile factory.

view of entrance of CaixaForum, BarcelonaBenefiting from the free admission, we saw two fabulous exhibitions: one of Francisco Goya (with many works lent by Madrid's Prado), the other of Eugène De La Croix (with works lent by Paris' Louvre). All descriptions of the paintings were in two languages: no, not in English – but in Spanish and in Catalan. Barcelona is indeed a bilingual city.

Not having had any exposure to Catalan before, we were surprised that we could easily understand the Catalan descriptions of the paintings as well as the Spanish ones. But why be surprised?

Yesterday, fresh off the airplane, I bought the “blue” edition of “el Periódico,” the local newspaper. Sitting in an outdoor café, we skimmed over some of the headlines and read a few articles. We only realized after a while that we were reading the Catalan edition! (The Spanish edition has red as a background color.)

As stated in the Lonely Planet guide, Catalan “belongs to the group of Western European languages that grew out of Latin, including Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.” Many of the words in our newspaper resembled Italian and French. A knowledge of both of these languages helped us understand the newspaper articles and the descriptions in the CaixaForum.

At both lunch and dinner, our menus came in two languages: Spanish and Catalan. (We are describing in "Solving Lunch and Dinner Mysteries" some of the clues we used...) 

So all you anglophiles: Brush up on your romance languages, if you want to know what you are seeing and what you are eating in Barcelona!

Bio: Ulrike & Peter Rettig are co-founders of They are lifelong language learners, growing up in several European countries before moving to Canada and the United States. You can follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

A Travel-Story course to learn & practice Spanish (& German, French..)

As we completed our Spanish 1 course in preparation for our upcoming stay in Spain, we were reassured that our idea of a “Travel-Story” for our language courses makes sense. (Click HERE to listen to the "The Story" Podcast of Level 1 as our Spanish 1 "hero" flies from Boston to Barcelona.)

Why a Travel-Story Language Course to Learn & Practice Spanish?

When we are trying to recall certain words and phrases, we begin to imagine the situation our Spanish traveler (David) finds himself in.

And expressions such as: “ la primera vez...”, “ muy bueno...”, or “ es muy bueno...”, “ quedo tres semanas...”, “ alegro...”, etc., etc. often come to mind as we are thinking about '”The Story”.

We also fully expect that with a vocabulary of only 700 words, we will not be “fluent”, nor likely to understand everything that is being said. But we also are sure that we will encounter many of the travel related words and phrases on our trip.

We already know that we can read a fair amount of Spanish text (which users of only audio and picture programs may not be able to); and watching yesterday a Spanish "soap opera" (La Que No Podía Amar) for the first time, we already understood quite a bit as well. We'll keep a log of our language adventures.

However, if you want to learn some basics in Spanish: greetings, polite phrases, travel terms, go to our - also completely free - sister site Lingo-Late, where we have 30+ Spanish words and phrases. You can Listen, Record Yourself, Playback Your Voice as many times as you want to learn and practice.

PS: See our posts about our month-long stays in Barcelona and Seville. We were fortunate enough to be able to practice our Spanish while also enjoying the many museums and cultural events in both cities.

Posted on by Pablo Montoya

ESL Learning Through Gaming

video game - I still remember the first time I played a game on a computer. I was just a 6-year-old kid, and as a native speaker of Spanish, it was an exciting and challenging experience to play games intended for the English speaking market. 

Simple on-screen messages like “loading” or “game over” were exposing me to the language for the first time, before I started receiving proper English lessons at school. A few terms, the easiest ones, I would learn by pure observation, others, I would have to check the dictionary for their meaning.

In any case, it didn’t feel like I was making any extra effort, because I was having fun and the new vocabulary I was acquiring would also help me complete each game I played.

What’s more, far from developing prejudices against the English language, I started having a genuine interest about the language and its culture. The whole gaming-based language learning process broadened my mind considerably.

Today, I think my first and natural approach to language learning shares many similarities with the type of approach that certain courses follow, which integrate fun and effective games for language learning. Truth is, I wish such courses would have been available back then, in the early 80’s.

Some of these new programs are especially designed for language learning in mind, unlike the computer games I played when I was a kid. But all in all, I am happy I put many hours into gaming, as it helped raise my curiosity for a new language.

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

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Foreign Language Learning: The Benefits of Set Phrases

Parc Gülle in Barcelona, SpainWe’re off to Spain next month!  We’ll be retracing the steps and travels of our “hero” David, from Barcelona, to Granada, Sevilla, and Madrid. In preparation, we are learning Spanish with our Spanish 1 course.

The similarities and differences between Spanish and Italian require constant vigilance. Distinguishing between a new language (Spanish) and a known one (Italian) certainly keeps our grey cells engaged, but also allows for comparisons and mnemonics.

As I’m playing through the various scenes and games, I notice how I can recall particular words better, when I remember them in the context of a phrase or sentence.
For example, with the expression for “Would you like to... (eat something)?”, in Spanish: “¿Te gustaría ...(comer algo)?”, I don't even worry about having to use the conditional verb form. Later on in the course, I can easily adapt the phrase to “¿Me gustaría...”, a very useful expression, as for example, in “Camerero, me gustaría pagar.” (Waiter, I'd like to pay.)

I still remember picking up the expression “J'aimerais...” (I would like...) when I was learning French some years ago. Though it was a staple of my daily interactions (I was then living in the French part of Switzerland), I was totally oblivious to its “conditional” form.

Another expression that helps me remember several words is: “Tengo que comprar algo.” (I have to buy something.) While learning this expression, I recalled that the Italian “comprare” is very close to the Spanish “comprar.”

However, the Italian and Spanish equivalents for “I have to” are different: “devo" vs. “tengo que.” As are the words for the English “something.” In Italian, the word for “something” is “qualcosa” and in Spanish, it’s “algo.”

This is how many of us learn our second, third (or more) languages: by constantly comparing and contrasting the new language(s) with the language(s) that we know.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Social Etiquette for a Bilingual

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a letter in the Social Q's column of the New York Times called "Misinterpreted." It was by a woman who speaks Spanish to her 15 month-old-son to teach him her language.

She, too, knows that young children pick up a language fast and that the sounds of the new language will be wired easily into their brain from the get go. As she says: "This way, our beautiful boy will know two languages." It's a dream that many parents share.

The dilemma

When the mother picks up her son from daycare, however, the teachers are unhappy when she speaks Spanish to her toddler and complain that they feel excluded.

This is definitely a dilemma in the US for someone speaking another language! And not just in the US. Intermarriage, dislocation, as well as travel have created the same problem on every continent.

There's a tug-of-war between wanting to speak another language to teach and practice it and irritating others by excluding them from the conversation. So what are the guidelines of good language behavior?

A delightful and thought-provoking article called "Language Etiquette. Say What?" [New York Times, 1997] gives some answers: "Try to speak the language of the country you are in. Be tolerant of those who don't speak your language. ... Do not talk about others assuming they won't understand. ... But use your own language in private conversations if you wish."

These are very good suggestions, but they're not really relevant to the situation of the mother who wants to make her son bilingual.

The dilemma has been an issue for me for most of my life. My first language is not English, I learned it as a young teen when my family moved to Canada. In addition to my native German, I spoke Dutch fluently and by that time had also started to learn French.

That means, I've had lots of opportunities to speak non-English languages with family and friends. My mother especially was set on creating a multilingual family, a tradition I have vigorously continued.

Be inclusive

So, I'll echo Philip Galanes' suggestion for the mother who wants her child to become bilingual, and elaborate a little:
- Be as inclusive as possible and approach the situation in a playful, humorous way.
- It's OK to speak Spanish to your son, but then tell the teachers the gist of what you said in English. 

Who knows, the teachers might pick up a little Spanish in the process and could then teach all the other kids a few phrases too! You could even consider handing them a list of fun and useful Spanish kid-friendly phrases to share around ...

In any case, I definitely agree with Philip's caveat: "It's not nice to exclude people". I encourage multilingual people to find ways to be as inclusive as possible.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

False Language Friends - Spanish: me despierto et al

"Cognates" are words that have the same language root and often have the same or a similar meaning.

Word pairs that look like they have the same root, but have a different meaning, are called "false cognates" or "false friends."
Below are six Spanish examples (for speakers of English):

1. me despierto: I wake up 

Not: I'm desperate (Spanish: estoy desesperado)
Example: Mañana tengo que despertarme temprano para tomar el tren a Granada.
Translation: Tomorrow, I need to wake up early to take the train to Granada.

2. éxito: hit (success)

Not: exit (Spanish: salida)
Example: Este nuevo tour se está convirtiendo en un éxito para los turistas que visitan Sevilla.
Translation: This new tour is becoming a hit among tourists visiting Seville.

3. pretender: to try

Not: to pretend (Spanish: fingir)
Example: Pretendemos lanzar la campaña “Visita España” la próxima primavera.
Translation: We will be trying to launch the “Visit Spain” campaign next spring.

4. recordar: to remember

Not: to record (Spanish: grabar)
Example: Recuerde abrocharse siempre el cinturón de seguridad.
Translation: Always remember to fasten your seat belt. 

5. ropa: clothing

Not: rope (Spanish: cuerda)

Example: Es conveniente ponerse ropa de abrigo al visitar Granada en invierno.
Translation: It's advisable to wear thick clothing when visiting Granada in winter.

6. contestar: to answer

Not: to contest [a decision] (Spanish: protestar contra)
Example: ¿Podrías contestar al teléfono por favor?
Translation: Could you please answer the phone?)

Posted on by Peter Editor

Online Language Learning Program with Earn-Back

As of February 2014, GamesforLanguage has been a completely free-to-use site. You can play all Quick Games online without registering. When you register, you can also play our online courses. Because of their format, the games and courses work best on the computer. On a mobile device, you can squeeze the frame to fit. 

For us, GamesforLanguage has been and continues to be an amazing resource. We have used it to learn and improve our Italian, French and Spanish, with the result that our travels are much enriched.

We enjoy the interaction with other language enthusiasts online, and love the challenge of learning new languages for the pure fun of it. And, we are very happy so see that old and new learners come to our site daily.

Original Post. February 2012:

As a new online foreign language learning site – we just celebrated our first anniversary in January – that uses a story and games as key teaching tools, we are still experimenting with the pricing structure for our programs. currently offers beginner/refresher courses for four (4) languages: French, Spanish, Italian, and German.

We are interested in attracting learners who either can't afford the expensive programs on the market or who find some of the free programs not sufficient or effective. Programs which require CDs, DVDs, or downloads also may prevent learners from practicing while traveling or at a lunch break during the day. We believe that frequent, ideally daily, “language breaks” will greatly accelerate the foreign language learning process. That's where an online program really works well!

During our free Beta phase we quickly acquired thousands of learners who wanted to try our free language program. (See also: "How to Play and Learn with".) However, many of these learners were not motivated enough to “stick with it” and continue with the course.
On the other hand, there are clearly many who acquire language courses for hundreds of dollars (e.g. Rosetta Stone, Fluenz et. al.) and, because they now have “some skin in the game,” these buyers are quite motivated to use such courses. (They may also experience the “Rosetta Stone Effect” - but that's another matter...)

The G4l Earn-back program

That's why we came up with an innovative "earn-back your purchase price” offer. Maybe our purchase price of $29.95 per course is too low for anybody to consider having “skin in the game.” But for someone who is motivated to start learning a new language in 40 days, the incentive to earn back his/her purchase price by completing daily lessons with a 95% score should be irresistible. The first two (2) lessons of the 36-lesson course are free.

he 40-day window for completing all remaining 34 lessons will also allow for some skipped/lazy days. The reimbursement of $.88 for each completed lesson with a 95% score also applies to each referral to our site. (One caveat: As some buyers also benefit from our “Play&Learn” coupons and our four-course package of $59.95, the per lesson reimbursement may be lower for some buyers and, in any event, cannot exceed the purchase price.)

We assume that some interested learners may doubt their own commitment to complete all or most of the lessons in 40 days. They may also doubt GamesforLanguage's commitment to proceed with the earned reimbursement 40 days after the purchase – but those who do, should keep in mind that we want to acquire our language learning customers by word of mouth and referrals and not by expensive marketing campaigns.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Fluency in Foreign Language Learning and Speaking

Much has been learned about language acquisition by children. There appears to be some consensus by linguists that by the age of seven, children will have fully acquired the intonation and sounds of their first language. On the other hand, when they learn another language later in life, they will rarely equal the intonation of a native speaker in that language.

Does this mean the goal of foreign language “fluency” will be elusive to an adult?


A recent Wikipedia entry surfaced the following definition:

Language fluency is used informally to denote broadly a high level of language proficiency, most typically foreign language or another learned language, and more narrowly to denote fluid language use, as opposed to slow, halting use. In this narrow sense, fluency is necessary but not sufficientfor language proficiency: fluent language users (particularly uneducated native speakers) may have narrow vocabularies, limited discourse strategies, and inaccurate word use. They may be illiterate, as well. Native language speakers are often incorrectly referred to as fluent.” [Wikipedia: "Fluency"]

Well-known Public Figures

For Americans, there are wonderful examples of well-known public figures who came to the US as teenagers or adults and whose English could not be called anything but “fluent” - although their accent may still identify them as non-natives.

- Henry Kissinger was 15 when he arrived in the US in 1938.
- Arnold Schwarzenegger was 21 when he arrived in the US in 1968.
- Arianna Huffington was 19 when she moved to England in 1969
- Martina Navratilova was 19 when she came to the US in 1975

Most readers will have heard at least of one of these celebrities on radio and/or television. You probably would call their English fluent – even though their more or less distinct accent makes it clear that they learned their English later in life.

(Other examples, such as Albert Einstein, Leoh Ming Pei, the famous architect, Felix Frankfurter, the Supreme Court Justice, etc. could also be listed, but their voices are less well known.) 

It's likely, however, that most of these immigrants already had a basic knowledge of English when they arrived in the US. And, they perfected their new language in school and/or through diligent study.

So for all of you who shy away from learning a new foreign language or improving an “old” one, because you fear that you won't be able to speak it fluently: It is certainly not too late to start (again). You may never sound exactly like a native. It may even take an extended stay in the foreign country to give you full “fluency.”

But learning and practicing to speak, read, and write another language will open up a new world and - as an added benefit – it will keep your brain neurons moving...

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Why Foreign Language “Mouth Mechanics” matter...

Mouth Mechanic Gears - Games for Language I recently had lunch with my friend Sue, who teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) to adults in Boston.

She said that she spends a fair amount of time explaining to her students how to pronounce English words. For example, how to move one's mouth and where to put one's tongue to produce certain sounds.

English is a hard language to pronounce just right. Particular “culprits” for foreigners are often the two “th” sounds (think/those); the “l” and “r” sounds; “v” and “w”; and the combination “wh.” (This infographic demonstrates well the difficulties learners of English often encounter.)

As she was talking about how to produce various sounds, she laughed and moved her jaw around, by way of demonstration.

A mouth full of teeth

When we speak our own language, we don't think about “mouth mechanics.” We don't think about how our jaw is moving, where we place our tongue, and how we position our teeth, etc.

But try to pronounce a foreign word that has a sound which is not part of your own language – and suddenly there you are, aware that you have “a mouth full of teeth.” There's a Dutch expression: “je staat met een mond vol tanden” (you stand with a mouth full of teeth), which aptly describes a sudden feeling of awkwardness about speaking up. I love this expression, it makes me smile.

I think about it when the “mechanics” of my “foreign language mouth” fail. Just one of these all too human moments!

My friend went on to describe how one of her students had difficulty with a particular sound in English. Then she said: “All I did was tell him to put his tongue against his lower teeth.” He tried it, and the word sounded “like spoken by a native.” All the other students applauded.

English and German Speakers

When I was teaching (college) German, I would ostentatiously demonstrate “mouth mechanics” for certain German sounds that are difficult for Americans. For example, the difference between the harsh “ch” and the soft one.

Or the sound of the German “l” which is light and lilting, as opposed to the American one, which has a “heavy” sound. The German “l” is produced in the front of the month, the American one in the back.

On the other hand, Germans find the English “w” is a hard sound to pronounce. It's a sound that does not exist in German. (The German “w” is pronounced like an English “v”.) Remembering to “round” his lips (like blowing) helped my husband improve his English “w”s!

The wisdom of teaching "Mouth Mechanics"

Later, during the time that I was a writer and editor of self-teaching language courses, mentioning “mouth mechanics” was off limits. But I'm coming back to the wisdom of my teaching days. And so, I've decided to start including a few critical “mouth mechanic” descriptions in our Games for Language courses. 

Once you've understood the mechanics of producing a particular sound, the next step is to practice. Certain French sounds and sound combinations always were hard for me (my first language was German). But here I am, babbling away in French with my friends and relatives, no problem.

What has helped me to get over the pronunciation hurdle is practicing a lot, while remembering some key French “mouth mechanics.” And if you want to pick up some quick French "mouth mechanics" tips read this post.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Expand Your French for the Davis Cup: USA versus Switzerland...

The 2012 (tennis) Davis Cup between the USA and Switzerland is taking place in Fribourg in February.

I'm just now spending some time in Fribourg, one of the western cantons of Switzerland where mainly French is spoken. Because of its common language, this region is called “la Suisse romande” or “la Romandie” (Romandy).

With my knowledge of standard French, I have no problem conversing with locals here. But once in a while, I'm baffled and not sure I'm really getting what's being said. That's because in French Switzerland, some words have acquired a different meaning.


Here are a few Swiss French words and a common expression that I've encountered during my visits to Fribourg. I've also added three numbers in French that have a wonderful simplified Swiss French version.

Swiss French 

American English

Standard French


special offer


Fr: action = action, act


round bread roll

petit pain (rond)


place setting


Fr: service = favor, services


bath towel

serviette de bain

Fr: linge = linen


hair dryer


Fr: foehn = dry wind from mountains


cell phone

Natel = brand name of Swisscom



text message

Eng: Short Message Service


simple course

one-way (ticket)

aller simple




Ça veut jouer. 

That works.

Ça marche.

FR: veut jouer = lit. wants to play 









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