Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Willpower and Language Learning: 5 Simple Tips

willpower - Gamesforlanguage Willpower, do we need it for language learning? Well, a few simple tips may help.

It's Monday morning, top of the week, and I'm more than ready for the following headline in the Lifestyle section of my local paper: "How Willpower Works."

Research indicates that willpower can be strengthened like a muscle - and is a key predictor for success in life." That looks promising.

I'm just embarking on learning Mandarin Chinese, my first non-European language. A little extra willpower will be helpful for sure.

In her article, Deborah Kotz, health reporter/blogger for the Boston Globe, has tracked down pertinent research about willpower in general, and mentions various studies that show the benefits of self-control.

She concludes: "Willpower, it turns out, is one of the most important predictors of success in later life."

Research and Experience

But how can the research she describes apply specifically to learning a new language, which Kotz calls a "high-willpower activity"?

One key premise is a quote by the "endurance artist" David Blaine, who states: "Getting your brain wired into little goals and achieving them helps you achieve the bigger things you shouldn't be able to do."

Learning a new language, sticking with it, and getting some real results is definitely a "big thing." Like staying with a diet, language learning has a high failure rate.

In part, this may be because people expect too much too fast and don't find a way to stay with it. So how can you best strengthen your willpower for learning a new language?

Five Simple Tips

1) Set your mind on a specific long-term goal and be clear why you want to achieve that goal. 

For example: You're planning a trip to France in the spring and you want to get a good command of survival French.

You want to learn how to buy fruit at an open market or a newspaper at a kiosk; navigate the public transportation system; ask for directions to someone's house or apartment; make formal and informal introductions, etc.

2) Get into the habit of doing little self-control tasks on a daily basis.

And as I understand, they can be really "little." Some of these tasks don't need to be language related. Remember, you're just exercising your willpower muscle.

In his book "Willpower" Roy F. Baumeister suggests that cultivating specific new habits that require a mental effort - such as doing a habitual action in a different way - can strengthen self-control. For example, you can fix your posture several times a day, or brush your teeth with the other hand. 

3) Become creative with language learning mini-tasks.

Besides the regular language learning schedule you're committed to, do a number of language learning mini-tasks throughout the day.

For example, keep a journal in your new language and make several short entries throughout the day; practice a few vocabs intermittently on your smart phone; or line up a couple of YouTube videos for the day to click on.

Or scan the online edition of a foreign newspaper, initially just for some phrases and sentences, later for full articles or stories.

4) Get to know that part of your brain where you make your decisions.

Deborah Kotz explains the function of the prefrontal cortex (here, radically simplified by me): the right side helps you say "no" to temptation, the left side helps you say "yes" to the good choice, and the middle part helps you weigh the either/or.

Each time you achieve a small goal, it's a springboard for the next one. Also, be aware that there are things that will drain your willpower. Fatigue is one, being hungry or stressed out are others. I would also add boredom and being overwhelmed with choices.

5) Learn to pace yourself.

Unless you're studying for a language exam or you're one of those rare language geeks, a step-by-step approach may be best.

• Break the language down into chunks and then put it together again.
• Make sure that there always is a meaningful context.
• Doing 15 minutes a day, every day will get you farther than doing 1 hour twice a week.
• If you miss a day, don't be self-critical. When you're ready, just continue where you left off.

The Bottom Line

Doing little self-control tasks throughout the day can help your willpower for language learning. Conversely, setting regular language learning goals for yourself can help you be successful with other, larger achievements. It's a win-win situation.

Now, will my tennis practice help my acquisition of Manderin Chinese, or is my language learning helping my tennis? The answer is yes! The issue is not just the tennis or the Chinese itself, but the discipline of its practice. It's all good.

OK and now, before I start on my 15-minute Mandarin Chinese practice, should I have a little left-over Halloween candy for a glucose boost, or should I have that apple?

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

5 Key Steps for Relearning a Language

Key Steps - Did you learn Spanish in high school but don't remember much of it? Did you learn French in college and all you can now say is "bonjour"? 

Did you travel in Italy and pick up lots of Italian but now are beginning to mix up Spanish and Italian?

As discouraging as that may be, you are still much better off than someone who has never attempted to learn a language.

Language Learning and Your Brain

The effort of learning a new language has lasting benefits for your brain. Even if it's been years. You may not be aware of it, but the skills you acquired are still there.

For example, you may have a sharper ability to distinguish language sounds. Or you have a better sense for how language hangs together. Or, you have a more intuitive understanding of grammar.

These skills stay with you, even if you're no longer using the foreign language you learned. You just have to find engaging ways to relearn it.

I'm a firm believer in the idea that dull, dry, boring stuff like grammar sheets, phrase books, or vocabulary lists won't fire up your language learning brain.
You want to keep your brain awake and you want to engage as many senses as possible. 

A Two-tiered Approach

When you're relearning a language, try alternating between "close" learning (focusing on individual words, sounds, or grammar points) and "sweeping" learning (listening to streams of sounds, reading longer texts without stopping, repeating full sentences even if you don't get it all).

The 5 Steps

1.  First, just Listen.
Retrieve the sounds and the melody of the language. Do this for a couple of days. Listen to individual words, songs, dialogs, videos, films. Don't work too hard to get the meaning, just soak up the sounds.

2.  Now add some Reading.
Use both short, easy texts and longer, more difficult ones. Read the short ones carefully; read the longer ones just to get the gist. Take in the look of the language and the structure of the sentences.

Don't get yourself all entangled in grammar rules. From time to time, look up a grammar item if you really can't figure it out intuitively.

3. The next step to add is to listen and repeat.
Start with easy words and phrases that you repeat after a native speaker. Alternate these with shorter and longer sentences that you try to repeat in their entirety and at full speed. Sound them out with gusto, ham it up, act as if you're a native speaker of the language. 

4. Then, start to write some.
Start by copying out words and phrases you want to remember. Write into a notebook or on the computer. Try also some simple writing games, they will also give you a good start. At the same time, begin writing a simple journal in your foreign language or write "postcards" to an imaginary friend.

When you feel more comfortable, look for a partner with whom you can exchange messages on Chat. Find one who'll give you some feedback, one who also wants to learn your native language.

5.  Any time you're ready, start speaking.
Start talking to yourself in the language you're relearning. Also find someone to talk to. It can be someone in your neighborhood or an exchange partner on Skype. Or travel to the country. You'll soon be ready to engage with local people!

Depending how much time you can invest, there are many resources available to you, including books, CDs, newspapers, Radio, TV, and obviously, the whole worldwide web.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

6 Key Elements for Learning a Language With Games

key elements - Gamesforlanguage.comThere's no totally right way to learn a language. You may learn a new language out of necessity or by choice, but you have to do it yourself and find a way that works. No-one can learn a language for you. 

Surf the net and you'll find hundreds of "tips" on how to best learn a language. The bottom line is that you've got to practice often, and have fun doing it.

Children vs Adult Language Learning

A lot of attention has been focused on how easily children assimilate one, two, or more languages. See a review of Welcome to your Child's Brain.

But adults learning a language actually have some advantages, as argued in this blog post. Or look at Agustina Pringganti 's blog: "Children VS Adults Second Language Learning."

For example: "Adults are able to digest abstract or formal  thinking cognitively," and are able to make abstractions based on their first-language's patterns. These are skills that children do not yet have.

Why Games?

Learning a language as an adult requires a disciplined effort and a commitment to practice on a regular basis. This is not always easy when your daily schedule is full. Adding another "chore" just doesn't cut it.

This is where learning with games comes in. Games put the player into a different frame of mind. When you are more relaxed, your brain is more receptive to absorbing what you are practicing.

Games can get you into a state of flow, where you can shut out the world (and your critical self) for a time. It's a great little break. So, for learning a language with games, what should you look for?

1) Structure: The key is to have structured lessons that have been put into a series of enjoyable games. (Games that are isolated drill snippets don't get you very far.)

2) Context: It's best to learn a language in a context that lends meaning and teaches communication. (Learning a series of unrelated words and phrases is not that useful.)

3) Pronunciation Practice: There should be lots of opportunities to practice your pronunciation. For an adult, pronunciation may be the hardest part of learning a language. If there's a way to record your own voice and play back, all the better.

4) Writing: Brief writing games train an important skill and allow you communicate using social networks on the Web.

5) Grammar: What you want, especially as a beginner, are short grammar explanations, plus opportunities to figure out some of the grammar rules for yourself. You'll remember them and will apply them even better.

6) Progress Scoring: There's no way around having to memorize new foreign words and phrases. Scores are a way to measure your progress. Getting positive feedback when you improve your scores encourages you to continue.

Web-based foreign language games can be played for 10-15 minutes daily, even during a lunch break. They may be more effective for learning a foreign language than the 30-60 minutes (or longer) modules of many self-teaching programs that you end up doing only once or twice a week.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

How to Individualize Your Language Learning?

Language Learning - Gamesforlanguage.comWe all learn a little differently, so how do you individualize your own learning?
Here are some questions for you:
• Do you like grammar, or not?
• Are you a risk taker when you learn?
• Do you mind making mistakes?
• Do you read voraciously?
• Do you love listening to stories?
• Do you like memorizing things?

It's probably worth paying attention to your likes and dislikes. Being aware of HOW we learn makes learning so much more interesting and effective.


Research on left brain (logical, verbal, auditory, sequential) and right brain functions (creative, visual, spatial, emotional) has been ongoing for decades, and new imaging techniques have greatly enhanced our knowledge of how the brain works.

It's no mystery learning a language involves many functions of the brain for everyone.  We don't learn a language just by listening (a left brain activity) and speaking, and kids don't do that either.

Small children don't yet know how to read and write. Still, they pick up a lot of visual and other clues from people (facial expressions, gestures), their surroundings (objects, movement), the context of a conversation (asking for something, looking for a toy), etc.

Once kids have learned to read and write, a mental “text image” may start to play along. Because we live in a text-based world, wanting to know how a word “looks” (is spelled) is part of language learning.


For example, when I was learning Chinese strictly through listening, I found myself imagining how the word would be spelled with western letters.

Without thinking about it, I used the “regular” German sound-letter system for this. The pronunciation of almost every [German] word can be derived from its spelling. 

When not too long ago, I was learning Italian by just listening, I spontaneously (and erroneously) used French spelling to imagine how the Italian words are written.

I've come to realize that I best learn when I both hear and see a word or phrase.


Digital games are a perfect vehicle for structuring your own language learning.

They have auditory (spoken language, sounds) and visual features (text, colors, images, design), as well as kinesthetic elements (typing against the clock, clicking on moving images, etc).

If you want to focus on the sound, you can close your eyes or look away from the text.

If you want to focus on a text, you can click on it several times to absorb it visually. You can rush through a game to simulate a rapid-fire conversation. Or you can linger on specific individual phrases or sentences.

You can skip the writing games, or spend extra time with them. You can puzzle over grammar structures – and to follow up, google a dictionary and grammar to double-check. Or you can let your brain figure out the grammar intuitively.

Don't we all have an innate capacity to decode basic grammar?

It's a mistake to think that you have to learn in any prescribed way. Go ahead and learn a language at your own pace and in a way that keeps you motivated. Language learning more fun that way!

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Games For Language and Digital Learning Innovations

video games - GamesforLanguage In the last few years, Digital Learning Games have become an increasingly powerful presence on the Internet.

No doubt, it's been that trend, which has encouraged us to create and develop our platform for foreign language learning:


The landscape of Digital Learning through games is full of innovative energy and diversity. Just for fun, I looked what I could find on the web.

A digital learning site that caught my special attention is “Level Up” which provides STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and Language Arts standard-based lessons that use video game design as a teaching tool.

In other words, students gain the “knowledge and tools to design their own video games” and learn in the process. That's cool. How I wish this kind of learning had existed when I went to college!


There's also plenty of gamified digital learning going on outside of the strict educational setting. And the spectrum is wide.

At one end stand the “serious games,” which refer to games that are not just pure entertainment. One noteworthy example is G4C (Games For Change), an organization that supports games for social change and “provides a platform for the exchange of ideas and resources.”

Another, different example would be the Danish company “Serious Games Interactive” which has developed and sells educational games for “Corporate, Social, Educational, Health, or Market Education.”


At the other end of the spectrum stand “trivia games,” which despite their name, have a lot of educational potential. A site that immediately comes to mind is the trivia games site Sporcle, which was featured in a Boston Globe article last year: “On top of the world: Thanks to Sporcle, young people are learning about geography, and other subjects.”

Another popular trivia site is “Trivia Plaza” which has been online since 2001 and continues the interest in trivia, sparked by the board games of that name.


As I'm browsing around on the web, I learn that gamification is becoming the focus of all kinds of research projects. The word “gamification” is fairly new, but the trend itself goes back a few years. It seems to be one with good educational potential – provided the “products” are done thoughtfully and with pedagogic expertise.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Why People Of All Ages Learn by Playing Games

Children Playing - GamesforLanguage (Updated 8/1/2017) Play is a great vehicle for learning. In fact, we learn our first language while playing games, naming things, repeating, imitating sounds, etc.

Playing can transform any difficult learning task into something fun – if packaged in the right way.

Games, can be that package. With their specific rules and controlled processes, games provide an excellent platform for play and learning.

Childhood Memories of Playing Games

When I was 5 years old, I spent two weeks in the Netherlands with my family. Highlights of this visit were days spent at the magnificent North Sea beach at Zandvoort near Haarlem.

girl playing on the beach - Gamesforlanguage.comMy father often told the story that I had quickly found a group of kids to play with in the sand, and within hours I was fully engaged, playing and speaking Dutch.

(My mom was originally from the Netherlands, so I had heard Dutch at home, but had never needed to use it myself. This was my first chance to talk with Dutch kids.)

Playing at the beach: building a sand city, digging ditches around it, getting the water from the ocean, decorating our streets and buildings, all of this required skills of cooperation, strategy, and negotiation.

Apparently, within hours I had learned the basics for negotiating this kind of “team work” in Dutch, playfully. I wasn't aware of “learning Dutch” at that time, but I do remember feeling good about being able to communicate that way.

I wonder sometimes, if that early experience set me on my path to become a linguist and language teacher.

Adults Playing Games

Sports games, such as tennis, golf, baseball, etc. - which many of us love to play - are complex and complicated activities.

Lawn games - Gamesforlanguage.comThey are fun to do, especially because they challenge a player to focus, to figure out the rules, and to play at his or her highest skill level.

Usually, the more we play these games, the more comfortable we become with the intrinsic skill activities - we get better while playing.

Besides, there's a wonderful social aspect to playing such games. We are part of a team, we learn from each other, and of course, we compete with each other.


In an article entitled “Play,” Kevin Carroll (author of Rules of the Red Rubber Ball  and speaker on sports and play for social change) is quoted as saying:

connnections -“[sports and play activities] we remember from childhood … were also exercises in resourcefulness, planning, strategy, design, decision making, creativity and risk taking.” (See also Kevin Caroll's Ted Talk: Play is necessary.)

In the same article, founder of the National Institute for Play, Dr. Stuart Brown states: “Humans are designed by biology to play throughout their entire life cycle.”

He describes our state of mind during play as “... not cognitive, linear thinking. And it's not sleep and dreams. It's kind of a bridge between.”

In the last couple of years “Games for Learning” have become popular, and such sites have mushroomed.  Games for language learning are no exception. See also: Are Games Effective for Language Learning?

Multi-sensory games for language learning - using sound, colors, text, images, movement, etc. put the learner on the “bridge” between “linear thinking” and and the rich world of “imagination and memory.” Good games make language learning fun, and yes, effective!

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

My Rosetta Stone Blog - 6 Grammar Drill Driven Language Learning

Learning with Rosetta Stone: Latin American Spanish Level 1 Unit 2, Core Lesson (30 minutes)

What am I learning?

Unless your goal is to decipher old texts, you're probably learning a language so you can speak with others. Like, have a conversation, talk about things, find things out, flirt, buy things in shops, get directions, etc.

I've now done six RS lessons. So, what am I learning? In this lesson I learned the words for immediate family members ("mother, father, son, daughter brother"), as well as "friend" and "wife." Those are useful.

But the endless sequences of having to identify the pictures for sentences such as "a man and a dog, a woman and her dog"; "a girl and a horse, a man and his cat" [to learn the difference between "a" and "her/his" etc.]

This was followed by such sequences as: "this is my son, this is my brother, this is my bicycle, these are my brothers" etc, etc," [to learn the difference between between the different forms of "this" and "these."]

Grammar and Communication

The whole Core Lesson is made up of simple grammar driven material, not unlike the examples above. For those who own the course, you can check out the rest of the grammar drills.

I see an interesting dilemma opening up: On the one hand, grammar is the organizing factor for the words and sentences that I'm learning; on the other hand, all this grammar practice is not tied to any meaningful communication.

For example, near the end of the lesson, I see a picture, and I learn "You are my friend." The next pictures teach: "You are my doctor" and "You are my wife." How often will I be saying that?!

Grammar has its place in language learning, for sure. Some people really want to understand how sentences are put together and what makes a language tick. It's a fun puzzle for them.

But others may suffer from (school related) grammar burn-out. They want to let their brain figure things out intuitively. Either way, if a meaningful context is missing, grammar driven learning doesn't cut it.

I've spent a full 3 hours (and more) learning Spanish. I have mastered a number of sentences describing what other people are doing ("the boys are eating, the women are reading"), but I can't yet have a simple, meaningful conversation with a Spanish-speaking friend. Well, I can tell her "You are my friend." At least that's a start.

Back to Blog #1: How Useful is the Vocab?

Posted on by Ulrike S. Rettig

My Rosetta Stone Blog - 5 Looking For Real Communication

Learning with Rosetta Stone: Latin American Spanish:  Level 1 - Unit 1 - Lesson 5  Milestone

Learning With a Story

In Level 1, Lesson 5, we have a situation, a story, and a conversation. A series of pictures creates the situation: "You" are walking in the woods with your dog and you come across a young couple sitting at their solitary camping spot.

The pictures continue to show a little story: "You" and your dog walking up to the young couple. You ask them questions and they ask you questions (7 in all). So far so good. However, neither the questions nor the answers are really part of a natural conversation. They are all artificial "textbook" questions and answers.

Here's what's going on: "You" approach the young couple, your dog runs ahead.  The man asks: "Do you have a dog?" A picture of the dog prompts you to guess the answer "Yes, I have a dog."

The next picture shows the woman inviting "you" to sit down. On her lap is a book. Above the picture, you see an empty box for the question, and a box with the answer "I'm reading." The question that you are supposed to ask/guess is "What are you doing?" 

"You" see a thermos standing on the ground, and you see the answer "That is coffee." The question you're supposed to guess is "What is that?"

The next 3 interactions are set up in a similar fashion:
- "Do you have a cup? "Yes, I have a cup." 
- "What do you have?"  "I have bread."
-  "What do you have?"  "We have apples."

In the last scene, we see that the dog has gotten hold of some bread and starts eating it. The young woman asks "What is the dog doing?" The answer you're supposed to say/guess is "The dog is eating." Then everyone says good-bye.

I'm beginning to understand the limitations of teaching adults a language without giving them some explanations and clarifications of the finer points. Asking and saying what is totally obvious is not real communication.

The first time I went over this milestone-lesson, I had trouble guessing the right questions and answers. By the third time around, I got a perfect score. That is because I knew what the answers were. But I don't expect to ever be engaged in this kind of conversation, in any language.

What's next? Blog #6 Grammar Drill Driven Language Learning

Posted on by Ulrike S. Rettig

My Rosetta Stone Blog - 4 Structure Is Not Everything

Learning with Rosetta Stone: Latin American Spanish:  Level 1 - Unit 1 - Core Lessons  3 & 4

The Pros of a Structured Program

Things got really busy, and I became sidetracked from my language learning schedule. Once I was ready to go back, I had to re-motivate myself. For this, a structured program is definitely a good thing. It was nice to just pick up from where I had left off.

New Vocabulary for these two lessons include (all through pictures): 6 basic colors; snake, rose, chick, panda, geese, sun, moon, flower, sky; teacher, police, doctor, student, cowboys; door, cell phones, tennis balls, bed, keys, chair, plates, cups, chair; shoes, skirt, pants, dress, hat, and a few more.

I confess, I did not do all the individual exercises in the units, there was too much of the same. But I did go through the grammar until I understood it.
These are the basic Grammar points covered:
- Matching colors with singular and plural (masculine/feminine) nouns.
- Identifying numbers (1 to 6) with nouns (5 fish, 3 cell phones, 4 chairs, etc.)
- Learning to say: "There are X items" and to ask: "How many X?" "What is this?" "Who is doing X?"

It's nice to start learning some simple expressions. They are taught through "pattern imitation" which works well at this level: You see and hear a phrase, then you identify a similar phrase that has a slightly different content. Once you've understood the question "How many geese are there?", you can identify the question "How many snakes are there?"


However, I did notice that there may be limitations to the method: A picture of running horses tells me: "The horses run." (Los caballos corren.) The next picture shows me 1 horse running, and it tells me: "The horse is running." (El caballo está corriendo.)

From the two pictures, I cannot figure out why they use two different verb forms ("run" versus "is running"). Since Spanish is rich in verb forms and verb tenses, I hope that these differences will be explained later.

I'm still not crazy about most of the vocabulary that I'm learning. I'm taking a trip to Spain in a few months- that's why I'm learning Spanish. I want to be able to converse with people there.

So far the vocabulary I'm learning in this program is disjointed and not relevant. I may have to schedule my trip for May 2012 and the Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament. There, I'll be able to use my new sentence: "There are three yellow tennis balls."

Having a structured learning program is good because it saves time. The downside of a structured program is that you are locked into its limitations.

What's next? Blog #5 Looking for Real Communication

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

My Rosetta Stone Blog - 3 Where Is the Context?

On I go ... Learning with Rosetta Stone: Latin American Spanish:  Level 1 - Unit 1 - Core Lesson

Context helps you to learn, right?

I'm learning plenty of new vocabulary: (all through pictures) includes sandwich, egg, apple, bread, coffee, milk, rice; dog, cat, horse, fish; adults, children; drives/drive, has/have; pen, book, bicycle, and others.

But let's look at how grammar points are taught.
- The word and concept "and" is practiced extensively: bread and water, a girl and a woman, the man and the woman eat rice, etc.
- Besides joining words with “and,” this Core lesson also teaches basic negation.

If we agree with Andy Hunt whose mantra in "Pragmatic Thinking and Learning" (p.6) is “Always Consider the Context" - because it is important for understanding the world around us - then context is also crucial for language learning.

In the Core Lesson of Unit 2, Rosetta Stone teaches negation in a curiously non-contextual way. We see two pictures and learn: "The woman is driving" and "The man is driving."

The next two pictures show first a boy and then a girl sitting in the back of a car, and we learn: "The boy is not driving" and "The girl is not driving." OK. They're sitting in the car and they're not driving. That's true.

The exercise goes on: A picture follows showing a group of men and women running, and learn: "The adults are not cooking." Another picture shows a group of kids running around, and learn: "The children are not writing." Another picture shows a boy eating, and I learn: "The boy is not sleeping," etc. This goes on for a while. I do get how to express basic negation: You add "no" before the verb.

But I don't think that the method really reflects how we (children or adults) understand and learn to express negation. A child doesn't automatically think: "The boy is not sleeping" - when he or she sees a boy running around. Rather, the child may think something like, "Why can't I run too!"

When I see an object, let's say "a pen," I don't spontaneously say to myself: "That's not an apple." But I might think: "That's not a good pen!" or "That's not my pen."

The Core Lesson for Unit 2 winds up with a series pictures and corresponding questions which require a “yes” or “no” answer. In one of the pictures we see girl eating an apple. We are asked "Is she eating an apple?" The answer is, “Yes, she is eating an apple.”

In the next picture, we see a girl sleeping, and we are asked "Is she eating an apple?" The answer is “No, she is not eating an apple.” I could also say, “No, she is definitely not eating an apple.” But first I must learn the word “definitely” in Spanish ...

What's next? Blog #4: Structure is Not Everything

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