Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

Which useful phrases should every traveler know?

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

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

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

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

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

The Case for Useful Words and Phrases

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

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

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

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

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

Useful and Essential Words and Phrases

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

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

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

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

Useful Words and Phrases for Special Circumstances

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

The Benefit of Useful/Essential Phrases

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

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: 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 for simple texts and 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-home2. 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 Short Stories for Intermediate Learners.

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, 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 newspaper4. 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 Aloudmother 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.

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 journal6. 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 also listened to Yuval Harari's Sapiens in French. And while I may not have understood each French word, I certainly got the meaning of every sentence. And I'm sure, my vocabulary was further enriched.

couple in conversation8. 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.
  • For words you're not sure about, 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 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 phrases.

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

Time to Recalibrate Your Language Learning?

Calipers and Measuring toolsWith summer just underway and your New Year's resolutions half a year behind you, it's time to recalibrate your language learning routine and give it a quick boost. 

Routines are good because they automatically shortcut any procrastination.

But, switching some of your routine around can do wonders for your motivation.

Ever heard of "interleaving"? This technique is used in various disciplines, such as sports, technology, music, medicine, maths, etc. See, The Interleaving Effect: Mixing It Up Boosts Learning (Scientific American)

Applied to learning a foreign language, interleaving means alternating between related skills, topics, methods, materials, etc. Though, the materials should always be on your level of understanding.

Summer, with the warmer weather, longer days, stronger sunlight and its "school's over" feel is a perfect time for mixing things up a little.

EXERCISE MIXES WELL WITH LANGUAGE LEARNING

It's no secret, exercise is good for the brain, especially aerobic exercise. Woman jogging while listening to language podcast

Simply stated in a Harvard Health Blog post: "Many studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don't."

Even more interesting are these findings: "A new study reports that working out during language class amplifies people's ability to memorize, retain, and understand new vocabulary."

In summer, it's wonderful to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Great favorites are walking, hiking and jogging, and these activities are perfect for listening to podcasts, audio books and audio courses.

Do you have a friend who's fluent in the language you're learning? Walking and chatting is great way to build your friendship while brushing up your language skills.

On rainy days, you can use the exercise bike, elliptical machine, or treadmill, etc. at your gym, or maybe you even have one at home. Yes, they can be boring. But your thirty minutes go by much faster if you're listening to a interesting podcast or audio book. Make it one in your target language.

MIX SOMETHING NEW INTO YOUR ROUTINE

Have You Tried Shadowing?

shadow of tennis playerDone according to Alexander Arguelles' method, Shadowing is a daunting discipline.

However spelled with a small "s", "language shadowing" works on many levels and in various situations. See our recent Blog post. The key is speaking a split-second behind the native speaker on the audio. It's not hard to do and can easily boost your pronunciation and intonation of a language.

Do you like music?

Find a song you like on YouTube and google the lyrics. Play the song until the tune and the words become automatic. Songs are an effective way to improve your pronunciation and intonation of another language.

Not only that, songs are a fun way to learn idiomatic phrases and grammatical patterns that are typical for the language. And, if you sing along (even silently), all the more power to you.

A sample of popular songs:

Do A Little Binge Watching

Couple watching TV in Living RoomTake a break from memorizing vocabulary (if that's what you do). Find films, or even better, a series in your target language and get into the stories.

Watch without subtitles. Or if it's an option, set the subtitles to the target language or to English. In any case, the context of the story, the background music and the visual clues will all help you to get what's going on.

A sample of series or films:

  • German: Babylon Berlin (Netflix; a period drama based on the novels of Volker Kutscher)
  • French: Les Aventures de Tintin (YouTube; beginners); Un gars une fille (YouTube; advanced)
  • Spanish: Destinos (Annenberg Learner; series created for Spanish learners)
  • Italian: Un posto al sole (Raiplay; soap set in Naples)

(You can also watch many foreign TV programs on the internet for free, especially if you use a VPN.)

SUMMER IS GREAT FOR SLOW TRAVEL

If you're heading out to discover new places abroad, try it the "slow way" - stay a few days, a week, or even longer.

Over the years we've done that in close to a dozen cities all over Europe: Amsterdam, Oslo (a few days); Stockholm, Copenhagen, London (a week); Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, Seville (a month); Rome (5 months). 

Staying for a time in one place takes some of the stress out of travel. Nowadays, it's easy to rent an apartment even for just a few days. (See our blog post: about short term stays). Also, it's a relief to not pack in five or more top sights per day.

Trastevere BakeryOne of the true pleasures of lingering in one place is that you can explore the city or neighborhood at your leisure. You also have a much better chance to meet some of the locals in your neighborhood shops, cafés, restaurants, at the open market, etc.

In each of the places we stayed, we immediately found a nearby bakery (to get fresh bread for breakfast), a kiosk (for the local newspaper), a couple of favorite bistros (for lunch or dinner), the local open market and shops (for fruit, cheese, olives, supplies, etc.)

Every occasion gave us the chance to use the local language, which we either spoke or had especially learned for the trip. The effort to use the local language whenever we could clearly made a difference, even though some of my Danish, for example, was a little shaky. In many cases, it broke the ice and people were doubly helpful.

Exploring a city or neighborhood by walking has its own charm. For many cities there are apps for self-guided tours (in English, or in your target language). But just walking the city with a couple of destinations a day is wonderful too.

Some cities offer walking tours organized by local guides. (In London, we took a Shakepeare tour; in Paris we enjoyed a walking tour through the Père Lachaise cemetery, it was called “Assassins et Assassinés”.) These tours are often quite entertaining and you learn some amazing things.

Penichette in the NetherlandsThere are also easy bike rentals for walkers who want a change of pace. And of course, short train and bus trips to nearby towns are always a fun adventure.

One last slow travel summer idea: canal boating. We did this several times in France and in the Netherlands.

Although you don't stay in one place, it's a delightful way to get to know a small part of the country. The good thing is that you take your accommodations with you as you move on. Usually bikes are on the boat so you can go off and explore as you like.

The summer is a perfect time to relax, to change gears and try out a few new things. Think outdoor cafés and long walks, bike rides, interesting audio books and films, listening to music. Sneak your language learning into things that you love to do, and have a great summer!

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact or below.

 

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

My Ways to Learn and Sharpen my Languages

pencil being sharpenedAre you looking for ways to sharpen the language(s) you're learning? Seeing yourself getting better at reading, understanding, speaking and even writing a new language makes it all worthwhile.

Languages have always been part of my life. By the time I was eleven, I was fluent in three languages because my family had moved from Austria to the Netherlands and then to Canada. As a student I chose to focus on language study and language teaching later became my work.

Now retired from formal work, I've teamed up with my husband to research and try out various approaches for learning languages. It's been exciting to explore new technologies and resources that are now available to language learners. And with many family connections and friendships abroad, languages have continued to be a big motivator for travel.

Not being monolingual continues to be a source of pleasure and provides us with opportunities to meet new people, discover new places and try out new things.

Here I'd like to share what works for me for my language learning: 

EMBRACE YOUR DIFFERENT LEARNING STAGES

No doubt, our individual personalities and attitudes have an impact on the way we learn. Are you a casual learner or disciplined to the point of obsession? Do you learn on your own or are you part of a group or class? These differences all matter.

Still, you learn differently when you're just starting a new language as opposed to being an advanced beginner, or after you've reached an intermediate level.

For total beginners, the first words and sounds of a new languageMan walking up progress steps may take a lot of time to learn. Just to remember the pronunciation and spelling of 30 new words or so might take a week and require lots of individual repetition.

That's what I'm experiencing right now. I've just started to learn Czech for a stay in Prague in the fall. Going through the early lessons of the Duolingo program has been a real challenge. I'm surprised how long it's taking me to become truly familiar with the meaning of new words and their pronunciation. But it's happening.

Advanced beginners can start building on the basics they've acquired. At this stage, you've learned to notice typical patterns in your target language and  are doing well when pronouncing most words.

That's the stage I'm now at with Danish, the language I started last year to prepare for a trip to Denmark. Learning Danish pronunciation has been difficult, because words are rarely spoken the way they're written. On the other hand, certain language patterns show up again and again, and these definitely help with reading and listening. For example, having the definite article ("en"/"et") attached to the end of a noun: "drengen" (the boy), brødet (the bread).

At the intermediate level, context begins to play an important role. You're ready to read and listen to longer texts and audios. When you can start guessing the meaning of words from their context, your vocabulary increases dramatically.

For me, Spanish and Italian are at that stage. I'm doing a lot of listening and reading. And although I don't know every word, I'm getting very good at guessing the meaning of words from their context. Also, I've found that when I listen and/or read the same piece several times, things start to click.

For Spanish I have the ebook La Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafón on my cell phone and I can listen to the audio on Ivoox.

I sharpen my Italian listening skills by regularly watching a 20-minute episode of the Italian soap "Un Posto al Sole", which is now in its 13th season.

But lots of learners get stuck on the so-called "intermediate plateau". To get beyond this intermediate stage in a foreign language, you need to adapt your learning strategies once again.

French has been a case in point for me. Last year I read all seven volumes of Harry Potter in French. Because of context I needed to look up only the occasional word. But my spoken French was definitely stuck on the "intermediate plateau".

To get unstuck, I've been doing two things: I meet bi-weekly with a French-speaking friend and we converse just in French for a couple of hours.

Secondly, I'm listening to a French Tedx lecture on YouTube and I'm using it as dictation. It may surprise you, but I find dictation a fantastic language learning tool. The lecture is quite interesting for language learners. It's about how children learn their native language: Mais comment font-ils pour apprendre une langue? 

Even when you're fluent in a language, as I'm with Dutch, there may be certain skills that need a little sharpening. I learned Dutch as a pre-teen when I attended school in the Netherlands for two years. I've spoken Dutch all my life - with my mother, with relatives and with friends. But my writing and spelling need some attention. For that I find the Duolingo lessons quite helpful, especially when I need to write things in Dutch.

To make my Dutch vocabulary more sophisticated, I watch the 35-part Video Series called "In Europa", which is based on the book "In Europa: Reizen door de twintigste eeuw" (In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century), by the Dutch journalist and historian Geert Mak.

Last but not least, though German is my first language, I've been living in the U.S. for some years now. To stay current with German, we often travel to Germany and Austria and we watch German news and TV programs almost on a daily basis. 

If you understand that each learning stage has its own challenges and ways to overcome them, you'll continue to move along nicely on your language journey.

MAKE TIME YOUR FRIEND

sporty woman with earphonesLife is busy. Daily commitments for work, family, friends, etc. sometimes leave little time for hobbies and special projects.

How often do you run out of time in the evening and are too tired to even think about language practice?

There are two ways to easily add language learning to your days:

1. Use waiting time, travel time, any kind of in-between time.

Look over the few words you have just learned when you started a new language. Go through some flashcards (electronic or paper), to learn new words or recall vocabulary. Play a free Quick Language Game, a Duolingo, or Lingohut lesson, or one of the many other online or app choices.

Or if your listening skills are already good enough, listen for a few minutes to a podcast, to songs, or to an audio book on your phone.

Read blog posts, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts or an ebook in your target language.

Keep a small notebook with you to write about your day in your target language. Send yourself an email with a few sentences that you can check later.

2. Add your new language to things you do anyway.

Do you keep up with the news? Read some headlines in your target language, or even a whole article. Besides language practice, you'll get a different perspective on events.

Do you listen to music? Add a song in your target language, play it over and over and sing along. Songs have a unique way of teaching you the sounds, rhythm and intonation of a language. You'll also pick up some words and phrases, especially the ones that are repeated throughout the song.

If you have an exercise routine, or if you're a runner, listen to podcasts or an audio book. An added benefit: moving around while you're leaning strengthens your understanding and retention of new vocabulary.

Do you read before you go to sleep? Look over the new vocabulary or read a few pages in your target language. Interestingly enough, studies have shown that learning new information before falling asleep helps retention. (Foreign Language Learning While You Sleep?)

LOOK FOR LANGUAGE PATTERNS

Grammar is the way in which words are put together to form proper sentences. patterens in sandIf you like working through grammar exercises like you did in school, good for you!

But some of us aren't grammar heroes. Many grammatical terms are abstractions. Besides, learning a grammar rule doesn't mean you'll automatically apply it when you're in the thick of a conversation.

On the other hand, becoming aware of patterns in the target language will help you internalize "the way words are put together" without getting hung up on grammar rules.

For example, here's a typical French language pattern for expressing negation.

  • Je ne connais pas ce livre. - I don't know this book.
  • Je n'ai pas faim – I'm not hungry.

Or, a typical word-order pattern in simple German and Dutch sentences. (Note the position of the verb):

  • Heute bin ich zu Hause. - Vandaag ben ik thuis. - Today I'm at home.
  • Morgen bin ich nicht zu Hause. - Morgen ben ik niet thuis. - Tomorrow I won't be at home.

Once you've noticed a pattern, you'll start seeing or hearing it again and again. Then, if you do look up the grammar rule behind it, it won't see quite as abstract any more.

DON'T AGONIZE ABOUT REMEMBERING WORDS

learning vocabularyAnyone learning a language is on the lookout on how to best memorize words.

If you're disciplined enough, spaced repetition, or recalling words at increasing intervals, is a good way to get words into your longtime memory. It does mean you have to stick with your schedule and stay on top of the system.

Others, which includes me, just read and listen a lot to things that interest me. When words are in context, you're able to guess the meaning of many. Also, words tend to come up again and again and each time you see or hear a word or phrase, it becomes more deeply embedded in your memory.

Still, whatever method you use, it's inevitable that you'll keep forgetting words.

In a talk Steve Kaufmann gave at LangFest last August (2018), he said something that I've also noticed: "Language learning is a continual process of learning, forgetting, and relearning."

Just accept that forgetting is just part of learning. It's the "relearning" that's so important. If you keep engaging with your target language - by reading, listening, watching, talking, writing - remembering the words will eventually become second nature.

BE CREATIVE

Try out new ways to use the apps, courses, texts, podcasts, etc. that you have. Creative ideaYou can do this at whatever level you've reached in your target language.

For example, instead of just repeating words, phrases and sentences after the speaker, try speaking them along with, or "shadow" the native speaker.

Use audio (that matches your level) as dictation - by going back to replay sentences and writing down what you hear.

Do you like to draw? Create images for words you're learning or cartoons for basic conversations in your target language.

Do you play the guitar? Learn and sing songs in your target language.

We too found a fun and creative way to learn and practice languages. Our tech son built the site gamesforlanguage.com, we found native speakers to collaborate, and since then we've done some of our learning by playing our own courses and games. It's been a fun way to get to the intermediate level of Spanish and Italian.  

Ask yourself what makes learning a language fun for you! Plan and go on a trip, watch films, reread a favorite book in your target language, write short anecdotes.

Another language opens up your world, gives you new ideas, a fresh point of view, the opportunity to be a world citizen.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact or below.

 

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

20 Ideas to Overcome a Language Learning Block

woman with language learning block(updated 4-18-2018)

You're learning a new language.

You've managed to get a good start, but now you notice that you're struggling to continue.

The learning is just not going smoothly.

You start skipping a day here and there, then you miss a week or so.

Sorting papers seems so much more important than learning and practicing 10 more phrases in your new language.

Language Learner’s Block

Perhaps what you have is Language Learner’s Block.

In many ways it resembles what we call Writer’s Block. writers block

Borrowing and adapting a definition: Language Learner’s Block “is the condition whereby a language learner cannot summon up the will and energy to continue learning a foreign language.” (From Fiction Writers’ Mentor) 

There are all kinds of reasons for feeling blocked.

A major reason is lack of confidence in yourself as a language learner. Constant self criticism may be sapping your motivation.

Maybe it's also frustration with your slow learning progress. You wanted to become fluent - in how many days, weeks, or months?

Or you feel stressed because of too may other commitments. But even people with a busy schedule manage to add a daily item they really want to do.

I'm sure you've heard people say: “If you want to get a job done, find a busy person to do it”.

So, being busy is not a good reason to stop learning a language you really want to learn.

A language learner's block is not foreign to me. I've been there a few times. But I've also found ways to keep going nevertheless. 

Here are a few practical ideas to help you too overcome your Language Learner’s Block. Except for #1 - which is worth looking at anyhow from time to time - the other 19 are in no particular order.

Pick the one(s) that could work for you NOW.  Once you're back in your routine, your confidence and motivation will pick up again, and you can try out some others later.

Practical Ideas

1. Reassess. Before you tackle the obstacles that keep you from continuing with your language, reassess. Why are you learning your new language? Are you planning a trip?  Do you need it for your career or move to a new country? Are you learning your language as a longer-term hobby? Which of the four skills - reading, listening/comprehension, speaking, writing - will be most useful to you? Which one to practice more?

2. Limit your practice time. Promise yourself that you'll do clock set to 5 to 12 5 minutes a day as a starter. When you've done your 5 minutes, stop. If you keep up this mini-routine even for a couple of weeks, you'll be on your way to creating a language learning habit. It's not how long you practice, it's doing it on a regular basis.

3. Set a daily reminder. Do this for whatever language task you've chosen. Most online programs have that option. Or, if you're like me, put the reminder on your short daily "to do" list and check it off when you're done. Doing something every day creates momentum.

4. Do small tasks. If you're using a program, do short lessons. If you're learning vocabulary, limit the number of words you memorize. If you're listening to a podcast, do the same one several times. Doing small tasks, but doing them every day really adds up to big results.

5. Set up your next task. When you're done for the day, write down a small task for the new material you'll want to tackle next. That'll make it easier for you to get right into it the next day.

6. Reward yourself. When you reach a small milestone - let's say 10 days in a row - treat  yourself to something you enjoy. People have different ideas of a "reward", but for me a new ebook, listening to a song, a piece of chocolate, watching a TV show, all work well.

7. Write a journal. A sentence a day in your target language is great way to start a journal. Just write the way you would talk, and don't worry about making mistakes. No one's going to see it. With time, you'll become familiar with certain phrases and grammar patterns.

8. Try things out. Don't worry about making mistakes. Remember that your native language will interfere powerfully when you speak a foreign language. It takes time to become familiar with a new language. Focus on communicating rather than perfection.

image of "song"9. Listen to songs. Add some fun to your language learning and treat it as a hobby. Songs are a great way to internalize sounds and vocabulary. First listen to a song by following the text, then listen again and again. Try not to translate as you listen. Just focus on the meaning. (Language Zen is a great option if you'd like to learn with Spanish songs!)

10. Watch movies. For your first movies, you'll probably want to see English subtitles. Then, when you're ready, start watching with subtitles in your target language. Again, try not to translate. You'll get many clues to the meaning just from the images themselves.

11. Read easy stories. A good start may be the "easy readers" which include vocabulary and translations of the language you want to learn. (We like Olly Richard's Short Stories, which you can also get with audios.)

12. Find new resources. Adding or switching resources can give you fresh ideas and new energy. Search the internet for materials available in the language you're learning. Join a language forum such as Polyglots, or My Polyglot, etc. to get recommendations from other members. Check out your library, listen to foreign books on Audible, try out a new language app, etc.

13. Add recall. It's better to spend a little time recalling what you've just learned than to cram in more new information. Also, keep in mind, recalling new information from time to time (spaced repetition) will put it into your long-term memory.

14. Memorize a short dialogue. Then, record yourself and play back the dialogue. This also works for practicing a telephone conversation in your target language.  Tell yourself you'll just have to get used to hearing yourself speak in the language you're learning.

15. Practice pronunciation. Get a list and the audio of basic expressions and "listen and repeat" them many times. Record yourself and compare your pronunciation to that of the native speaker. Next time you converse in your target language, you'll be happy you did.

16. Work on Fluency.  One way to improve your fluency is to listen regularly to podcasts in your target language. Or play streamed radio. Do this kind of listening practice whenever you're cooking, walking, exercising, etc. For real fluency, you need to internalize the intonation and rhythm of your new language, and this is a good way to do it.

17. Focus on practical phrases. Mastering greetings and basic conversational phrases is essential in any case. It's especially helpful for travels. If you're going to Paris for a week, it won't be that important to master the subjunctive.

18. Socialize. Language is a fantastic tool for socializing. cheerful friends socializingFind a meetup group, or join an online community to start using your new language to communicate. Rattling off phrases you memorized is very different from the dynamic back-and-forth of a conversation. Believe me, it's really exciting to be able to hold your own in another language.

19. Take on a new personalityThe well-known psycholinguist François Grosjean (author of the blog “Life as a Bilingual”) suggests that we don't really change personalities when we change languages. He states: "Different contexts and domains trigger different impressions, attitudes and behaviors. What is taken as a personality shift due to a change of language may have little, if anything, to do with language itself."

But, a different language will often put you into new and different situations, which in turn may change your attitudes and feelings. So, when speaking Italian, become Italian. Add Italian voice drama and characteristic gestures. Tap into your inner actor and explore new ways to express yourself.

20. Work on your attitude. It's easy to say: "Ah, I'll never get it. When I start talking with someone in my target language, my brain freezes up." Scratch those sentences from your inner vocabulary. Instead, tell yourself: "Every time I use my second language, I become more familiar with it, and my brain benefits."

Looking back at my own experience:  I was born in Austria and my native language is German. But when I was nine, my family moved to the Netherlands. Since I attended a local school there, I had to learn Dutch pronto.

Two years later, we emigrated to Canada and this time I had to learn English fast. During high school and college, I added French.

Much later, in my early sixties I started learning Italian and Spanish, and now I'm working on Danish and Portuguese.

Each stage of my life and each language has confronted me with challenges that I've needed to deal with.

I've used each of the above practical ideas at some point in my language learning life. I'd love to hear what works for you.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact or below.

 

 

 

 

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Games for Language Learning and “Senior” Adults?

older excited couple with tabletHaving reached the age when younger people kindly refer to us as “seniors”, we sometimes get remarks like this from friends and acquaintances:

“I was never good at learning a foreign language.”

“I'm too old for learning another language.”

“I don't think you can learn a language with games!” or

“I think playing games is a waste of time!”

Overcoming beliefs like that is often hard and we rarely try to convince those who have a set opinion.

But such negative remarks also point to perceptions that make it harder for older adults to learn a new language more rapidly.

To learn a language, you have to be enthusiastic, persistent and confident that you can do it.

Language learning should also be fun and interesting.

That's why listening to stories, watching movies and videos, engaging in one-on-one conversations are great ways to grow your vocabulary and fluency.

But how to get started and why not throw a few language games into the mix?

Simple, interactive games are not only a fun way to learn some language basics but also an easy way to get into a practice habit.

(A recent article of The University Network: Video Games: Not Just Fun And Games, According to SLU Professor describes how video games can be successfully used  in class settings.)

Language Games for Kids

We all know that kids love to play. In fact, most, if not all of their learning in their early years occurs during play.

So it's not surprising that educational games – especially those on kids' tablets, smart phones, etc. are pouring into the market place.

These games combine playing with targeted learning. children playing games for language learningThey include educational topics from geography, math, spelling, science, to native and foreign languages.

There are numerous audio, video, and other “toy based” games and apps, which children play in their native language.

With these, they enhance word recognition, pronunciation, spelling, and writing.

And, games don't have to be on a laptop or tablet. There are blocks with numbers or letters; there are playing cards and board games like KLOO; and there are more and more battery operated toys that combine colors, movements, music, and language sounds into interactive learning centers for young children.

Kids play native and foreign language games - not because it helps them to better communicate with their parents, siblings, and peers - but because they provide interactive fun.

Language games teach them basic vocabulary, often with funny pictures, cute sound effects, and “rewards” for getting it right.

Language Benefits for Younger and Older Adults

In contrast to children, adults typically have a specific plan or need for the particular foreign language they are learning.

Younger adults will learn another language to enhance their career options, or because of friends, family connections, etc. They have to develop the discipline and learning habits to keep going in the midst of work and family commitments and time constraints.

The reasons older adults learn a new language often relate to family, new partners or travels. Many are also becoming aware of new research findings, which show the benefits of language learning for the older brain.

silhouette head with "welcome" in different languagesThe strongest evidence of such benefits comes from a decades-long study of 853 Scottish people, first tested in 1947 at age 11, and then retested in 2008-2010.

Published in the Annals of Neurology in 2014, the study, titled Does Bilingualism Influence Cognitive Aging, the authors discuss the “protective effect of bilingualism against age-related cognitive decline.”

While the study does not make for easy reading, a number of key findings caught my attention:

  • The protective effects are not explained by other variables such as gender, socioeconomic status, or immigration.
  • The benefits appear to be independent of childhood intelligence (CI).
  • Knowing 3 or more languages produced stronger effects than knowing 2.
  • Little difference was found between active and passive bilinguals.

What I found especially interesting was the discussion of the study's limitations at the end of the article:

"Our study has limitations. The knowledge of language was defined by a questionnaire, not proficiency. Only few participants acquired their second language before age 11 years, so we could not study the classical cases of parallel, perfect, early acquisition of both languages. However, this limitation is also a strength. Millions of people across the world acquire their second language later in life: in school, university, or work, or through migration or marriage to a member of another linguistic community. Many never reach native-like perfection. For this population, our results are particularly relevant; bilingualism in its broad definition, even if acquired in adulthood, might have beneficial effects on cognition independent of CI (childhood Intelligence)."

Think about it. You don't even have to speak another language perfectly to acquire the benefits later in life.

This is good news for the many immigrants who have to flee their home countries.

But it's also good news for anybody who is learning another language but may never speak it fluently.

Your brain benefits from your learning effort anyway.

Language Games for Adults

When we started learning Italian in our early sixties and Spanish a few years later, language learning games and gamified language courses or apps were not yet available. This was January 2011. 

We found the The Rosetta Stone courses boring.

Duolingo didn't launch until November 2011 (see some of our Duolingo and Rosetta Stone Reviews) and we felt that Language Games could make learning and practicing a foreign language more fun.

We know from personal experience (and many other language enthusiasts agree) that the key to learning another language is regular - even daily - exposure to the new language.

Short, daily stints are fine. In fact, practicing each day for 20 minutes is much more effective than once a week for 2 hours or more.

But daily practice with boring lessons is hardly a very motivating proposition for a busy adult.

On the other hand, listening to a story sequel in another language appealed to us.

We've always used “easy readers” with accompanying vocabulary or translations. (For example, we love Olly Richard's Short Stories, which are also available as audio books.)

However, for anyone with no or little background in Gamesforlanguage French shootout gamethe new language, we felt that interactive “comprehensible input” was needed. What better way than learning and practicing new vocabulary with language games?

That was our original idea for GamesforLanguage: Learning and practicing a new language “playfully”. Our site went live in September 2011.

Later we added Podcasts of the stories as well as Quick Language Games – over 200 by now – which only take 2-3 minutes to play,

Do we think that one can become fluent in a new language with our Gamesforlanguage courses?

No, we do not.

Becoming fluent requires much more listening and speaking practice than our courses - and most other online programs and apps – provide.

But, if our free courses can engage adults to play just one 15-20 minute travel-story lesson a day for 30 days and more - that may be the start of a learning habit.

The next steps would be to continue with reading and listening to other stories and to start speaking in the language you're learning.

More and more new “senior” adults, the “baby boomers”, are computer- and tablet-literate.

They are beginning to realize that learning a second or third language opens up social opportunities. Plus, they are becoming aware of the benefits another language has for the aging brain.

As the above quoted study shows:

You don't have to speak another language perfectly to acquire the benefits at any time in your life.

So why not start today and give your brain a good workout!

Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. He is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

5 Top Reasons for Learning a Language with Stories

Find your stories screen Stories play an important role in our lives. Much of our communication with others is through stories. By exchanging stories with others, we connect with them.

Stories interest us. They tell us about the struggles and achievements of others and help us create our own identity. They are a way of making sense of our lives.

Stories are also tools for processing and remembering information. Narratives help us structure and organize content and give meaning to facts.

That's Why polyglots also use stories for language learning. And here are our 5 reasons why you should do as well. 

1. Stories Boost Your Vocabulary

In a story, words come up again and again, sometimes in various contexts.

Having the context of a story, you can often guess the meaning of new words. Especially when words show up several times in different sentences and combinations, their meaning becomes more accessible.

Each time you see a particular word again, it becomes more solidly lodged in your memory.

Guessing the meaning of words from the context of a situation is a useful skill. If we practice it, we become better at it - something that helps enormously when learning a language.

Yes, you can learn words in a list by repeating and walking up vocabulary stepsrecalling them often enough. But there's a "boring" factor attached to that. It's also frustrating to keep forgetting words because we don't connect them to a memorable context.

A list of words is pure memorization. The words stand in a vacuum. Besides, once you've memorized a word in your new language, you still have to understand and learn how to use it. That happens when you recognize that particular word in context. For that a story is perfect.

Can you learn new vocabulary you going through a series of unrelated sentences? Yes, that can be fun for a while. Each sentence gives you a limited context, which is helpful. But, it's a different kind of challenge for your brain from learning with a story.

The core of Duolingo courses is to translate sentences. For me, the random (often weird) sentences are like "language sudoku".

But I don't use such sentences for communication. For example, I had to puzzle out the following sentence in Danish:

Hun elsker at ve bjørnen lide. (She loves to see the bear suffer.)

I'll never use this sentence in real life.

So, why do I prefer learning vocabulary with stories (rather than with word lists or series of sentences)?

I just find that seeing and hearing words and phrases in the context of a narrative helps me remember them. I can picture a situation or an event and that will trigger my memory.

2. Stories Make Grammar Intuitive

Grammar is the glue that holds language together. But for most people grammar rules are not that memorable.

I'm not at all opposed to learning grammar.

I taught college German for a number of years and the textbooks I used had plenty of grammar.

But that's not what got my students excited. What they loved was to use German as much as possible and figure out patterns.

When I learn a new language, I feel the same way. I look up a grammar issue only when I want to figure out how the language works.

grammar types compositeWhen I started with Danish, I quickly understood that there are two noun genders (common and neutral) and that the definite article is normally attached to the end of the noun (rather than stand in front of it).

But understanding a grammar rule is quite different from really knowing how it works.

It took me some time to internalize that a Danish word like "katten" means "the cat" and not "cats" (whereas in German "die Katze" multiplies to "die Katzen").

As we become more and more familiar with a language, we get good at recognizing such "grammar elements". Not to forget, though, that seeing a grammar pattern is a different skill from hearing it.

When we communicate, we use a variety of sentences. Each is made up of various grammar elements.

Depending on our message or narrative, we resort to simple statements, questions, requests, commands, and if necessary, different kinds of complex sentences.

The sentences are, of course, not in a random sequence. They are connected in a meaningful way.

Conjunctions and other connecting words are important elements in a narrative. Beyond "and" and "but", there are other useful words and phrases that link actions, events, ideas, etc.

To name but a few in English: "if, because, however, in case, in spite of, even, even though, neither nor".

Stories are a good tool for understanding the different ways actions and ideas connect.

By paying attention to how a narrative unfolds, we train our mind to pick up and internalize such grammar clues.

Beyond gender, case, and connecting words, there are other grammar elements in a language that carry meaning. Just think of pronouns, including formal and familiar forms of address, prepositions, and negation.

And, just as you can guess the meaning of words, you can also internalize grammar patterns from the context of a story.

The more you read and listen to stories, the more you become aware of the characteristic patterns of the language.

3. Stories Teach You About Present, Past and Future

Drilling verb forms is always quite boring, and then you still have to learn how to apply them.

In some languages this can get pretty complicated. When, for example, do you use the simple past versus the present perfect? Not to mention the conditional, or the subjunctive mood.

Yes, there are rules. But they don't help much unless Present - Past - Future dicesyou've already internalized some verb patterns in a meaningful context.

Stories help. They move back and forth easily between present, past and future actions and events.

Context provides you with various time markers and clues. As you follow a story, you remember earlier events or what was said previously and how this fits into the present situation, etc.

You also notice how future events are anticipated and talked about.

Your brain is constantly figuring out what's going on, the causality of events, when something happened in the past, or what future possibilities are triggered by present actions.

That's what our brain does in everyday life: We remember thoughts and actions, we make decisions about what actions to take, and conjecture about the future.

Why not practice doing this in the language we're learning?

4. Stories Help You to Stop Translating

People often ask me: How do you stop translating when you hear, read or speak another language?

Yes, it's a dilemma. When you're beginner at your target language, you need to know what words and expressions mean in your native language.

Pictures can help. But learning a language just with pictures doesn't get you very far.

So, in my mind it's okay to build one's basic vocabulary with translations as they are needed.

But it's easy to get into the habit of translating everything.

That's where stories come in. They can teach you to stop translating.

Stories (even brief anecdotes) have a narrative sequence with meaning.

silhouette head with "welcome" in different languagesAt first you may need some help with translation, but the meaning itself will stay in your mind.

So, by listening to a story several times, you can train yourself to get the meaning without translation. By doing this often enough, you can create a new habit: understand what you see and hear without translating it.

I'm currently listening to Luca Lampariello's travel stories in Italian on LingQ to keep up my Italian. (You may be able to listen to his Viaggio in Russia if you register for free on LingQ).

Luca reads the stories himself and his natural speed is very fast. So fast, in fact, that there's no way I can do any translation at all.

While my Italian is good enough that I don't have to look up many words, this is not the case with Danish.

Listening to Danish stories on LingQ, I do read through the text one time (after listening a couple of times) and click on any words I don't know. But then I listen to the story several more times and make a point of not translating. Each time I understand the story better just by hearing it.

As with any skill, you have to practice, and with regular practice you get better.

5. Stories are a Creative Tool You Can Individualize

Stories give you a lot of material to work with as you're learning a new language.

You can create your own stories in a target-language journal. Make up stories or write about thoughts, experiences, or encounters in your daily life.

Stories for language learning have become very popular. You can find stories for various levels and in many languages (on Amazon, on Pinterest, on LingQ, etc.).

Take a simple story and retell it from another point of view (first- or third-person), with other details (a different setting, place, people etc.), or change the time (from past to present).

Tell the story aloud or write it out. Brave souls share your story sign with iconscan make a video of themselves and post it in a social media language group.

I used stories a lot to teach our sons German. When they were very young, I recorded little stories I made up and played them when the boys were falling asleep at night.

When they were a little older, I read stories to them in English, with certain words and phrases repeated in German. Later, I read stories to them, and translated every sentence into German.

Finally, I just used German, or we played German stories in the car: Tim und Struppi (Tintin), Asterix und Obelix, or the popular stories of Enyd Blyton: Fünf Freunde (the "Famous Five" series).

For ourselves as adult learners, we had another idea. We love to travel, and especially like traveling in a country where we know the language.

Because we were eager to spend time in Italy and Spain, we wanted to learn Italian and Spanish. To get us started, one of our sons set up a site for us, which we called GamesforLanguage.

Together with a team of native speakers, we created simple, gamified travel stories. These we then used to learn our two new languages.

(You can listen to our Story Podcasts, play our Quick Language Games or read our Blog posts without registering.)

It's been great to combine language learning with travel. Our Spanish course writer and speaker lives near Seville. We had found him online.

Once our course was done and we had used it for learning and practicing Spanish, we traveled to Barcelona and Seville. We stayed in both cities for a month. And we met our course writer in Seville in person, over a wonderful lunch of special local dishes.

We love to tell our story of why and how we created GamesforLanguage.

It works in every language that we know.

What is your story?

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact or below.

 

Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

Why Travel is a Great Language Motivator

travel books as language motivator- Gamesforlanguage.comTraveling can be a great motivator for learning a new language.

As you're making your travel plans, don't forget the language(s) you may encounter.

Obviously this does not work so well for trips such as “Europe: 6 Countries in 7 Days” or similar offerings.

But if your plans include a stay of a couple of weeks or so in one city, or even in one country, learning at least the basics of the local language should be part of your preparations.

(As readers of previous posts will know,  after our [first] retirement we enjoyed longer stays in several European cities and countries, see also Learning Spanish..)

Our three-week trip to Denmark in 2017 motivated us to learn Danish with Duolingo and Pimsleur. (We'll report about our experiences with Danish in a future post.)

Did You Learn a Language in School?

Learning a language in school is a very different experience from learning one outside of the classroom.

What is a "school subject" on the one hand, becomes a "hobby" when you're no longer in school. It becomes a way of trying new things and discovering new places.

A school subject includes daily homework exercises, classroom lectures and drills, tests, exams, and grades. And who likes to be called on in class? All that can be a chore and may well put a damper on your enthusiasm.

On the other hand, learning a language as a "hobby" puts you in charge of your own learning. It's an adventure. Not only do you learn new skills, you explore other cultures and make new friends. Language learning can be a perfect tool for self-discovery and self-development.

And, who knows what new doors a second language will open in your work life, or even in your planning for retirement?!

A Motivator: Your Imagination!

If you drop the "school-subject mindset", learning a View of Nyhavn in Copenhagen - Gamesforlanguage.comlanguage can be a fresh and fun experience. One way to do this is to tie language learning to planning a trip.

Often, as we plan and organize a trip, we anticipate being there. 

We imagine touring the Reichstag Dome in Berlin; enjoying a caffè macchiato in Trastevere, Rome; strolling through the Marché Mouffetard in Paris; taking a night tour of the Alhambra, in Granada.

Or as we did before our trip through Denmark: picturing ourselves strolling through the streets of Copenhagen, ordering an "øl" in one of the harbor-side bistros on Nyhavn (picture), exploring the Hamlet castle in Helsingør.

We made your imagination the motivator for learning Danish!

In Visitors' Shoes in the US

Language Motivator:bLiberty Statue by Charles DeluvioWhat does knowing the local language matter?

Imagine yourself coming to the US without knowing any English.

You would certainly experience the country and its people as a tourist, from the outside.

Imagine having to ask everyone, every time: Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Parlez-vous français? Parla italiano? Or, Habla español?

If you stayed a little longer, you would of course pick up a few words.

But if you had learned some basic English phrases ahead of your trip, your interactions with us locals would be more meaningful. I bet you'd enjoy your stay so much more.

It's the same for us when we travel abroad.

The better we speak the local language, the more deeply we experience the place and its people.

Being able to communicate allows us to go off the beaten track and feel confident about doing so.

We try to go with the idea that not everyone speaks English. It's something we actually have found to be true in many cases, especially if you venture off the beaten track.

The Beginner's Conundrum

However, in countries like Denmark where nearly everybody speaks English, it is often hard to practice your new language: Danish people switch immediately to English when your Danish does not seem to be authentic.

I (Ulrike) was therefore quite pleased, when a woman in a small town, whom I asked (in Danish) for directions to a bank ATM, answered in Danish.

However, I also experienced the “Beginner's Conundrum”: When her answer came back in rapid fire Danish, I was lost.

She switched to English, but I just asked her to continue in Danish and to slow down.

We indeed found the Bank with an ATM and could replenish our travel funds.

And if you wonder why we don't like to use an ATM at night or not connected to a bank, read about our experience in Seville, Spain: 5 Tips for Dealing with ATM Troubles Abroad (and at Home).

That early success encouraged us to use our Danish as much as we could: when ordering food, buying tickets, asking for information, etc.

Why Learn Danish at all?

Why did we persist, even though English is so widely spoken and Danes themselves tell us not to learn Danish because it's too difficult. Yes, why?

When you're in another country, you're in a totally new environment. Everything's different, the way people interact, the look of the countryside, the bustle of the towns, the taste of the food, and obviously, the sound of the language.

By using the local language, you're no longer experiencing the country just from the outside.

So, if you have a travel destination on your bucket list, add learning the language to your preparations. Give yourself, let's say three months, like we did with Danish. And then see how much of the language you can acquire in that time.

Use whatever resources you enjoy (flashcards, songs, films with subtitles, etc.) and just keep going, a little bit every day. As an added benefit, you'll sharpen your memory and train your ear.

And when you arrive in the country you're visiting, challenge yourself to speak up whenever you can! Try to experience your visit as a mini-immersion.

Peter's Confession

I have to confess that I have developed a love-hate relationship with Danish.

Even though Danish is a Germanic language and there are many words I can decipher when I READ them, I'm still a long way from SPEAKING Danish, or rather – pronouncing it correctly.

Why is that?

It's because Danish spelling is not phonetic in many cases: Not only are many endings not pronounced at all, but certain vowel and consonant combinations produce very unfamiliar sounds, at least to my German ear.

Examples of pronunciation as I hear them:

  • jeg (I) - <yigh>
  • mad (food) - <melth> and spelled differently but sounding very similar to
  • meget (much) - <melth>
  • det er ikke nogen (there isn't anything) - <de ehr igge noarn>

Nevertheless, I am continuing with Danish using Pimsleur, Duolingo and Memrise lessons at the moment, and hope to be able to listen soon to some LingQ mini-stories. (as Ulrike is already doing).

The Pimsleur audio course for Danish lets me focus more on listening and pronunciation, without getting confused by the non-phonetic spelling.

Why am I continuing with Danish when our travels are behind us?

Because I want to figure out at least the most common Danish pronunciation rules and I won't stop until I do.

What started out simply as preparation for a trip to Denmark now has become a personal challenge as well as a way to keep my brain sharp.

And what keeps motivating me to continue are my memories of our wonderful trip - and my determination to figure out the Danish pronunciation rules.

I'll keep you updated about my success (or failure)!

So, pick a travel destination and, yes, jump into your new language. This too is an exciting adventure.

Do it with enthusiasm and with imagination, and find your motivation to stick with it. Then go there and speak up!

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 Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

 

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

6 Listening Practice Tips for my Seventh Language

man-listening-to-big-blue-speakerUntil recently, I did not focus much on deliberate listening practice for the languages I learned in the past.

I said “deliberate”, because I must certainly have listened when I learned my first language growing up in Austria. We now know that babies spend most of their first year just listening and then trying out some basic sounds.

And anybody who has watched babies knows that they pick up the meaning of gestures, names of objects, etc., long before they can even pronounce their own name.

When I learned my second language, Dutch, while attending school in the Netherlands, I must also have listened to the language around me. Within three months, I was fully participating in my 4th grade class.

The same was probably the case when I picked up English in Canada as a young teenager.

French, my fourth language, I learned in high school and college. While I remember the required “language labs”, I did not enjoy them because they consisted mostly of grammar drills. I speak it quite fluently by now, only because I often have to speak French when we visit my husband Peter's family.  

Italian and Spanish I started to learn as an adult, just a few years ago. And so, I'm discovering that focused listening practice with audios and videos can make a huge difference.

The Beginner's Dilemma

You may have been learning a language for several weeks or months. You feel good about your ability to understand most of what you read or hear in your course lessons.

Perhaps you feel confident that you'll be able to order a meal in a restaurant or make yourself understood buying this or that, and even negotiating a price.

Then you travel to a place where the language is spoken and are eager to jump into conversations with locals.

It doesn't take long for you to realize: The other persons may understand what YOU say, but you don't understand them, unless they speak slowly and with simple sentences.

It's hard to have a real conversation that way.

Active Listening Practice in Rome, Italy.

During a five month stay in Rome, my Peter and listening practice of couple-watching-movie-on-television-in-living-roomI faced the “beginner's dilemma” certainly more than once. But we also noticed that our listening skills improved dramatically.

In the evening we often watched TV.

Even though we had prepared ourselves with Pimsleur audio courses before our arrival, the fast Italian on TV just came at us like a stream of rapid-fire sounds.

After a couple of weeks of daily listening practice, the stream started to slow down.

I started to recognize some words, and could hear when the words started and ended.

After a while, I also began to understand phrases and short sentences.

I certainly knew then that practicing listening is essential for understanding conversations.

So now I'm making a deliberate effort to practice listening with Danish, my seventh language.

These are the six (6) techniques that I use and recommend:

1. Do a lot of "listen and repeat" with words containing sounds that are difficult for you.

Babies are born with the ability to hear all sounds and they start learning their first (or second) language by just listening.

French girl talkingBy the time we're adults, we can hear mostly just the sounds of our own language or the languages that we hear in daily life.

However with focused listening practice, adults can both learn to hear and to produce sounds that are not familiar.

Sometimes it helps to understand how the sound is produced.

Although Danish is a Germanic language there are certain sounds that don't exist in German, Dutch or English.

A good example for Danish is the soft "d" sound, as in the words "mad" (food), "flød" (cream), "rød (red). At first the final soft "d" sounded like an "l" to me.

But while we were in Denmark a woman explained that it's actually like a very soft "th". She showed me that you can make the sound by putting your tongue against your front teeth. Once I knew that, I even heard the sound better. (Go figure.)

Some time ago we wrote a post about "Mouth Mechanics", and for many languages learning HOW to produce certain sounds is essential.

2. Pick a Level of difficulty that challenges you, but not too much.

A good guideline is that you'll want to understand at least 80% man climbing wallof what is said.

In order to make progress, start out at a level that's right for you. Then keep building on the vocabulary and grammar patterns that you know.

If an audio is too difficult and keeps sounding just like gibberish, it's easy to get discouraged and give up.

Finding the right level is not always easy. It will take a little experimentation and trying out different sources.

For some beginning learners, Slow German, Slow Spanish, etc. is helpful. But you should listen to natural speech as soon as you can.

For German, French, Spanish, and Italian, GamesforLanguage has natural-speed audios of each lesson, and Podcasts of each level. We recommend that you listen to the audio AFTER each lesson or level you completed and challenge yourself by listening to the podcast of the NEXT level.

Also, Steve Kaufmann's LingQ has many excellent audios of different length and difficulty.

3. Start with short audios and build up to longer ones.

stack of golden coins on whitePracticing sounds and individual words, of course, is not enough. Speaking is a stream of sounds, and you need to practice by listening to words-in-a-stream.

Start with (very) short audios. As you increase the difficulty and length of the clips, you'll also increase your vocabulary.

When you listen to full-length audio books, you'll hear the same vocabulary and grammar patterns come up again and again.

Each time they'll lodge a little deeper in your memory. A great source for foreign-language audio books is Audible.

(And, yes, it's like putting money in your language bank...!)

4. Listen to topics that interest you.

Why would you want to listen to something that does not interest or hobby icons on whiteconcern you? You don't have to, once you have gone beyond the basics of a new language and have acquired enough vocabulary.

There are two important reasons why finding topics that interest you is important:

  1. When you choose topics you know and like, you'll be motivated to listen often.
  2. The familiar context will make it easier for you to guess the meaning of unknown words.

If you have many interests, your vocabulary and listening comprehension will grow exponentially.

5. Listen to audios more than once.

9 Repeat iconsThis works best, of course, with shorter audios or with passages from longer ones. I have found that every time I re-hear a clip, I understand more.

Sometimes I "shadow" what is said, i.e. repeat what I heard just a second or so behind the speaker.

If there's an option, listen to a slow and a fast version of the audio. This is also a good practice technique. I like it because it makes me more keenly aware of the sounds, and how the isolated sounds (slow) become part of the natural sound stream (fast).

6. Listen to the audios WITH and WITHOUT reading the text.

When you listen without text, you're totally focused on sound and smiling man with tablet and earphonemeaning. That's like being in a conversation where you can only hear what is being said.

When you see the text as well, you are also aware of the spelling of words and how they look. For me, hearing and seeing the text helps me to remember the words and phrases.

For languages that have phonetic spelling, seeing and hearing reinforce each other. I'm thinking of German, Spanish, Italian.

Danish, on the other hand, is phonetically quite challenging. So it takes extra effort to correlate sound to text.

As English speakers, we often forget that the relationship between sound and spelling in English also has its challenges.

Understanding without Translating?

When I listen to a passage in French, or even Italian, I'm aware that I'm not translating at all. I just understand what is said. That's my goal also for Danish, but I'm not there yet.

I'm actually not sure whether that can be practiced or if you just automatically stop translating when the language becomes familiar enough.

I'd be interested in the thoughts of anyone who has experienced the same.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact or below.

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