Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

Better than Speech Recognition for Language Learning?

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

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

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

Speech Recognition for Language Learners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can a Beginner sound like a Native Speaker?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Goal of Language Learning

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

6 Listening Practice Tips for my Seventh Language

man-listening-to-big-blue-speaker Until 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 pre-teen.

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

listening practice of couple-watching-movie-on-television-in-living-room During a five-month stay in Rome, Peter and I 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. Below are the six techniques that I use and recommend.

6 Techniques for Listening Practice

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% of 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.

man climbing wallIf 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 concern you? hobby icons on whiteYou 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: When you choose topics you know and like, you'll be motivated to listen often.

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.

This 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 meaning. That's like being in a conversation where you can only hear what is being said.

smiling man with tablet and earphoneWhen 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 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 Rettig

Update: How to Individualize Your Language Learning?

Clock with sticky note: "time for an update" There are many ways to individualize your language learning once you start thinking about it.

A few years ago, we wrote a post on that topic and it's time to update it: The opportunities and ways you can learn a new language have mushroomed.

The questions we asked then:

  • How do you learn best? 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?

Today you should also ask yourself:

  • Are there ways I can learn with songs and music?
  • What are the best times I can learn? While commuting to work? In the car, train, subway, bus? While exercising?
  • How much time can I commit regularly to learning?
  • How can I work on my fluency?
  • Which of my portable devices (laptop, tablet, ipod, smartphone, etc.) can and should I use?
  • Which other skills do I have that I could apply to language learning?

(Some of these questions are answered in our Tips from Langfest 2017.)

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

Language Learning: Left and Right Brain

Research on left brain (logical, verbal, auditory, sequential) and right brain functions

man holding pillow to make right brain work(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 that learning a language involves many parts 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.

Since we wrote the section above, many more insights in our brain functions have been gained.

For example we now know that practicing a language BEFORE you fall asleep will improve the memory of the words and phrases you studied. (See our post: Foreign Language Learning while you sleep?)

Steve Kaufmann, a well-known polyglot and co-founder of, is working on his 17th language. In his talks and YouTube videos, he keeps reminding us that learning a language is gradual and involves constant forgetting and relearning.

Also, since memory is highly cue dependent, learning words and phrases in context (though listening and reading) is important for gaining fluency.

Pronunciation and Spelling

reading - listening - speaking sequence For adults in our society, the sounds of language are inevitably tied to how they are written. By the time we've finished school the sound-text correlation of our native language (or other languages we're fluent in) has become automatic.

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 usually learn best when I both hear and see a word or phrase.

I say “usually”, because recently we had a different experience with Danish.

We started learning Danish (to prepare for a trip to Denmark) with Duolingo, Memrise, and a Pimsleur audio course.

We discovered that although Danish is a Germanic/Nordic language, its spelling is not phonetic, even for German speakers like us. (My fluency in Dutch helps me somewhat because Dutch has many similarities with Danish.)

We also realized quickly that as we started out, spelling the Memrise phrases we heard became an exercise in frustration, and we gave it up.

The Pimsleur audio lessons, however, which didn't require us to consider the spelling, let us focus fully on the listening and pronunciation.

Later on, after we had learned some of the Danish spelling rules, etc. Memrise became a valuable option again.

Language Learning: Pacing Yourself

There's a lot of talk these days about how you can accelerate your language learning, e-learning cartoon: feet on the tableand lots of sites offer excellent language-learning hacks and tips. Still, it's good to remember that no one can learn a language for you, that you yourself have to do every bit of it. That means not getting your expectations too high. 

It also means finding a way that you can stick with your language-learning plan for the long term.

Starting out, you'll want to focus on pronunciation and on learning some basic vocabulary in context. The next step will be creating simple sentences. (Those are the steps I worked on for Danish.)

Focusing on pronunciation and basic vocabulary is why we got into digital games. We have found that they are a fun way to help in the early stages of learning. 

Digital games 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). They involve lots of repetition, which beginners desperately need.

But as you're learning a language, what works will change over time. As you get more fluent, you'll be looking for new and different challenges: more and interesting listening material, books to read, podcasts, YouTube videos, films to watch, conversation partners, etc.

From Basics to Fluency

It's no secret that achieving fluency requires a lot of listening and speaking.

Yes, you have to learn vocabulary, gather as much “comprehensible input” as possible and there are many programs and apps on the market today to help you with that.

In the past, conversation partners were not always easy to find.

Today, the internet and new companies, which connect learners and tutors online, have also solved that problem. We've been using our partner site, iTalki, ourselves for several languages.

(Recently we became aware of a new site, that works towards  “Socializing Language Practice”.)

Online tutors and language exchange sites let you individualize your language practice, rather than follow a fixed class schedule.

Fluent Forever?

Fluent Forever Book coverIt's also reassuring to know that a Kickstarter by Gabriel Wyner, who published “Fluent Forever” in 2014, made Kickstarter history as its most funded app.

Even with Google Translate, the Google Pixel Buds for real time translation and continued progress in this area – there are still many who want to become fluent in another language.

While “spaced repetition” and “memorizing through associations” are not new techniques, they are hot topics.

It will be interesting to see how Wyner can incorporate these and other techniques into his app so learners can achieve real fluency.

With fluency being the goal of most language learners, you have so many more options today.

Yes, it will take a little research and some trial-and-error on your part until you find the best language learning book, program, website or app that works best for you.

Stay with those that allow you to learn at your own pace and keep you motivated. Language learning will be more fun that way!

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada and speaks German, English, Dutch, and French fluently. She intends to become as fluent in Italian, Spanish and Swedish. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Disclosure: Certain links above are to a partner's program with revenue-sharing, should you decide to purchase or subscribe.

Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

Auditory & Visual Language Learning: Our Danish Experience

Language learning child with mother Language learning experts continue to discuss the relative benefits of auditory versus visual learning. This is not about "learning styles", the theory - debunked by cognitive psychologists - that you're born with a way of learning that's best for you.

Young children learn their first language(s) by listening to and repeating the words, phrases and sentences they hear their parents, caregivers, siblings and friends speak.

They can't read and write yet, but they do get a lot of feed-back from others in the form of explanations, corrections, etc.

In most cases, foreign language learning by older children and adults occurs somewhat differently. They already have a native language which they can read and write. This gives them an additional learning tool that can, however, both help and interfere.

Clearly adults can learn a new language just by listening. At the beginning it helps to hear the translation in their native language.

This is the method used by audio-only programs such as Michael Thomas and Pimsleur, the latter being the one we are most familiar with. (See also our reviews of Pimsleur German and Russian)

Language learning also occurs visually. One way is by using a combination of images and written words. Language books and dictionaries are the backbone of that approach. Apps and online learning programs typically combine audio, images, and words in written form. Some use a “teaching language,” others don't (such as Rosetta Stone, Lingualia, and others.)

Most other programs, including Duolingo, Memrise, Babbel, GamesforLanguage, etc. rely on reading (and writing) the foreign words, sometimes also together with images.

This works well when the foreign and teaching language use the same alphabet and have similar pronunciation rules. Language learning becomes more challenging when those are different.

Different Alphabets

For English speakers learning to read and write languages that don't use the Latin alphabet is quite a challenge.

scriptures-in-cyrillic-alphabetA few years ago, in preparation for a trip to Japan and China, we used the Pimsleur method to learn some basics. Learning Chinese characters was not even one of our goals.

As we reported elsewhere, we did not progress much beyond the usual greetings, please, thank you, etc. However, we drilled the Chinese numbers quite a bit and found knowing them very useful.

Learning other alphabets, e.g. Cyrillic (see picture above), Arabic, and others is easier for English speakers, than learning Asian writing systems.

In either case, you have to know the new writing systems before you can acquire “comprehensible input” through reading. Until then you can only learn though listening (or using transliteration, as is often done with Japanese, Chinese, and others).

Different Pronunciation Rules

English speakers sometimes forget how difficult it is for foreigners to learn the often inconsistent pronunciation rules of the English language.

Even children learning English as a native language have a tough time. We see it with our young grandchildren, as they are sounding out words like “through,” “though,” “tough,” “eight,”“height,” “weird,” or try to spell them.

French Girl speaking On the other hand, German, Spanish, Italian, and French (the other four languages on our GamesforLanguage site) do have rather consistent pronunciation rules, or as linguists may call it, more or less "phonetic spelling."

This is certainly true for German. Once English speakers can get past the American “r” and “l”, get the vowels and umlauts correctly, figure out the “ch” and end “g”, there is not much mystery remaining in German pronunciation.

Among the Romance languages, Italian and Spanish may be even easier, as long as you remember the spelling of the “k” sound at the beginning of words, and a few others.

For example: “when?” translates to “quando?” in Italian and “¿cuándo?” in Spanish; but “what?” is “che cosa?” in Italian, and “¿qué?” in Spanish. Aside from that, there's a strong correspondence between sound and spelling in both languages.

And yes, French has a lot of accents and letters that are not pronounced, which may make writing more difficult, but reading not that much.

Once you learn a few of the basic rules, you can figure out how to pronounce the words, even if you may not always succeed. In our experience to date, this is not at all the case with Danish.

Our Danish Language Learning Experience

In preparation for a trip to Denmark later this year, we have started to learn Danish. Because it's a Germanic language, we thought learning Danish would be quite easy.

Danish - dansk signFor the last few weeks we have been using Duolingo and Memrise (and lately also Pimsleur). On Duolingo, we are on a 52-day streak doing between 2-4 lessons every day. Peter's fluency is shown as 41%, and with Ulrike ahead in the lessons, her fluency lists as 49%.

But we both don't feel at all even close to those percentages and don't feel that we have made much progress in understanding and speaking Danish. Why? Because we have not (yet) figured out most of the correlations between written and spoken Danish.

Different from the four languages (besides English) on our GamesforLanguage site, the Danish pronunciation rules are not so obvious to us.

While we are continuing with Duolingo and Memrise at a somewhat reduced speed, we're experiencing something interesting as we're doing the Pimsleur Danish course. Again, it's not about the persistent myth of learning learning styles.

Simply, with Pimsleur, we can concentrate fully on listening, understanding, and speaking – without having to also consider the correlation between spelling and pronunciation.

Language Learning Insights and Conclusions

The experience with Danish gave us a few insights into the difficulties language learners can have with different pronunciation systems (in addition to different writing systems).

Growing up with or learning German, Dutch, English as children, later adding French, Italian and Spanish, (and trying a few other languages), we had never experienced such a disconnect between the written and spoken language as with Danish.

We both don't find it difficult to do the Duolingo and Memrise lessons and exercises. However, remembering the pronunciation AND spelling of Danish words remains a hit-and-miss affair.

We now find we are making more progress with Pimsleur. Maybe because we only have to remember the translation and pronunciation of words and phrases. Our Danish language learning experience is giving us this important insight: There are clear advantages to focusing on listening/understanding FIRST, when sound and spelling systems are different from the ones we are used to.

Once we have mastered basic vocabulary and with it the Danish pronunciation system, we'll then go on to consciously work on our reading and writing skills.

Have you had similar experiences learning foreign languages with spelling systems quite different from the one(s) you're familiar with? And if so, what tips can you give us?

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


Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Listening and Speaking: Language Fluency's Key Challenges

man an d woman listening and speakingFor many adults, listening to and then speaking a foreign language remain key challenges. And that may be so even after several years of school and college instruction.

Hearing and producing the new sounds of another language take a special effort. Plus, we may be shy about speaking up, afraid that we'll make mistakes.

A popular marketing promise of some language programs contains some wishful thinking: “Learn a second language like a child.” It implies that by following such program learning will occur as effortlessly as young children seem to learn their first language.

No matter that children spend nearly all the waking hours of their first few years just listening to and then learning to speak the language of their parents and caregivers. Once in kindergarten and school, it'll take them several more years to learn how to read and write.

What we may consider “effortless,” actually involves quite a bit of struggle and effort. As infants, children first learn to understand the meaning of the words, gestures, and expressions others use to interact with them. At the same time, they start using their own vocal chords to replicate the sounds of words they hear. It's only after much trial and error that they can make themselves understood.

Clearly, it takes time and effort to develop good listening and speaking skills in a language. Children learning their first language have the advantage of being immersed in the language on a daily basis. They hear their native language and speak it all the time. (In fact, they can even handle more than one language!)

For adults, who are learning another language, listening comprehension and speaking are important skills to practice. However, many language programs focus more on reading and writing, than listening and speaking – with the exception of predominantly audio programs such as Michael Thomas, Pimsleur, and some others. 


We recently had a conversation with a friend of ours, who spent over head above water cartoon30 years teaching German to English speakers in U.S. colleges, as well as English to German students in high schools in Germany.

He firmly believes that students progressed most in his classes – both in the U.S. and in Germany - when he taught with a method that uses immersion. In particular, he found the Rassias method to be very effective.

John Rassias, former professor of French and Italian at Dartmouth College, believed in the motto: Speak to learn a language, not learn to speak a language. The Rassias method, which continues to be widely used, combines theatrical techniques and rapid-fire drills to fully engage the learner in the target language.

My experience with college language teaching in the U.S. was pretty similar. In a classroom, you can create an immersive environment by staying in the target language and explaining things using gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions, pictures, reformulations, etc.

But clearly, getting students to understand and speak in their new language in class does require a lot of extra theatricals and energy. And, no matter what you do, if you have a large class, students won't be speaking much in the target language. 

Teachers at international language schools, such as the Goethe Institute, the Alliance Française, or Berlitz, often create an immersive learning classroom. But unless the school is located in a country where the language is spoken, students rarely use their target language outside of class. 

(Some language schools, e.g. the Middlebury [summer] Language Schools, ask students to sign a pledge to only speak in their target language.)

It seems that one-on-one lessons taken in person or online via Skype may provide the best chance for immersion learning, if you can't be in a country or region where people speak the language. That's especially true if the tutor pushes you to speak a lot.


New technology has made it convenient to learn a language online and doing so has become very popular. But to what extent can online programs and apps provide immersion learning, and with it, fluency in listening and speaking?

Immersion learning, especially for beginners, is not easy to create in an online program. But training listening and speaking in foreign language is a challenge that different programs have attempted to solve in various ways.

Having developed our own GamesforLanguage courses and reviewed a number of other language learning programs, here's a quick snapshot how these programs encourage listening and speaking (in sequence of our development/review).


Each of our course lessons (we call them “Scenes”), start with a dialogue of an ongoing travel story. The learner reads and hears sentences in the target language, which he or she might encounter while traveling, but may or may not fully understand.

New words are then taught and tested with various games in which learners see the words and are encouraged to repeat them. In the listening game Say It, the player hears and is asked to repeat a new word, which then appears for just a moment. In another listening game, Balloon Words, the player hears the word and has to pick the correct one from three words with a similar spelling. In both, no translation is given so that the attention can remain on listening and repeating.

After other translation and writing games, learners can then record the sentences of all story-dialogues at the end of each lesson, as often as needed. This helps to both memorize phrases and expressions, and to get close to the pronunciation of the native speakers.

Rosetta Stone

Are you now thinking, but isn't “Rosetta Stone” total immersion? Yes, there are no English translations and you are indeed “immersed” in the foreign language throughout a session.

I only bought Level 1 of Spanish, quite a while ago, so that's all I can comment on. The four Levels are set up as pictures and short sentences that describe the pictures.

You hear a sentence, identify the corresponding picture, and then are prompted to record your voice. My voice recording often gets rejected even after several tries. But it's not clear why some sentences are accepted and others aren't. Rather than improving, I just get frustrated. 

Is there a boredom factor built into Rosetta Stone? People do seem to give up easily on the kind of "immersion" this program offers. It may be because in each lesson you go through repeating dozens of unrelated phrases and sentences. On top of that, many grammar lessons are in the form of simple pattern drills, where you just click on one word each time. And, because everything is done with pictures, it gets hard to remember what each picture is supposed to mean. (See our 5 Rosetta Stone reviews)


This program has a fairly traditional approach: A lesson starts with a flashcard exercise where you are asked to Study the words and their spelling. Then you go through exercises to practice writing, reading, listening, speaking, and basic grammar. Most of the exercises work from translation. Explanations are in English.

For listening practice, I particularly like the dictation exercises (Write what you hear), and the part where you complete the sentences of a conversation by adding a word that cued from the English translation of the sentence. In both of these sections, you see and hear language in context.

Speaking practice is up to you: It's best to repeat words and sentences as much as you can. Most lessons have a section for practicing sounds that are different from English. 


My main beef with Duolingo is that it has me often write English translations, which I find a huge waste of time. I'd rather be writing answers in the target language. I would be learning so much faster. To avoid writing in English, I've set my native language to another language I'm learning.  (I now have an account to learn Italian from Spanish.)

I do like the voice recognition part because it makes me say things out loud, which I sometimes forget to do. (Of course, there is no REAL voice recognition with feedback.)

Duolingo's newest addition are the Chatbots. At this time, they're available for French, German, and Spanish conversations. What you do is chat in your target language with a partner by writing predictable answers to questions and comments, with help from pictures. It's really quite neat.

You hear and see what your Chatbot partner is saying. You can check the meaning of the vocabulary, and get feedback for what you've written. To practice speaking, though, you just have to push yourself to say out loud whatever you hear and see. (see also Duolingo and Babbel: How They Differ)

Language Zen

At the moment, Language Zen is only available for learning Spanish online. The addition of Spanish Music (songs and lyrics) to its courses let's you focus on listening.

In general, you hear a lot of Spanish in this course. You learn new Spanish words and phrases by hearing them (and seeing their spelling and English translation). Next, you hear the Spanish word or phrase and have to identify the correct English translation among five options. When you click on the correct translation, you'll hear it again, see it spelled in Spanish, and are thereby induced to repeat it yourself.

Speaking is an important part of the course. Once you've heard and learned a few words, you are asked to translate an English sentence into Spanish – either by saying it (or by writing it). The voice recognition software is actually pretty good. It has adjusted to my voice, as well as Peter's voice and accent, and writes what it hears.

You can correct any spelling (or hearing) mistake. Click on “Check Answer” and you now hear the correct answer. If you're correct, move on, if not, you have one more chance to say or write the correct Spanish translation.

We very much like the fact that you're encouraged to say (or write) Spanish words and phrases quite often, and that you're not asked to say or write sentences in English. (see also our detailed Language Zen Review.)


This is a new app for Spanish, created by Larkwire. It can be used hands-free. The program is very well done and clearly focuses on listening and speaking. So far, four (4) Levels have been released, from Beginner to Intermediate (with higher levels to come).

Each lesson (almost 250 to date) has you listen to and repeat individual words and sentences, with an emphasis on individual sounds, intonation, and the rhythm of the language. Since the purpose of the program is to repeat what you hear, that's what you do. English translations are spoken and written, so you do hear lots of English not just Spanish.

Brief pronunciation lessons teach you the basic sounds of Spanish. You're told how to produce the sounds and are given examples. Then you record yourself, play back your voice, and compare your pronunciation to that of the native speaker. This is a great feature. (See also our SuperCoco Review.)


Lingualia is an online program (with iOS and Android apps) to learn Spanish or English. All word definitions, audios, fill in the blank and unscramble exercises, image identification, etc. are in the target language. 

If you want, you can set the interface language to English, Spanish, and now also to German. So, if you're learning Spanish and if you set the interface language to Spanish, everything will be in Spanish.

In the program, you're not asked to do any translations (though translations with google are available).

With Lingualia you can work seriously on your listening skills. The program contains 200 rapidly spoken conversations, one at the beginning of each lesson. You can listen to them as often as you want, with or without seeing the text.

There's less chance for practicing your speaking skills, unless you make a special effort to constantly repeat individual phrases of a conversation as they scoot by. There are no exercises to practice sentences. There's no recording feature to play back your voice. (See also our Lingualia Review.)


Having worked at Pimsleur both as author of the first three German courses and co-author and development editor of various other courses, I'm both familiar with and fond of the Pimsleur approach. We have not (yet) published a review of this program, which started out with audio tapes and CDs, and now also has MP3 files for download. In addition, there's an interactive product called Pimsleur Unlimited, which can be downloaded on your computer or mobile devices.

With a Pimsleur Audio course, you listen and speak right from the beginning. The Narrator guides you along (first in English and later in the target language) and gives explanations. After you've heard the initial dialogue, you learn new words by hearing and repeating them, usually by building them from the end.

As a lesson progresses, the Narrator gives you the English cues for the words that you've learned, sometimes prompting you to make new combinations. However, the audio lessons are hard to navigate beyond listening in sequence.

Pimsleur Unlimited contains the 30-minute audio lessons, Flashcards and Quick Match to practice new words and sentences, plus a Speak Easy part to practice the conversation. Except for Speak Easy, where you participate in the conversations, everything is prompted from English.

In all, Pimsleur does a great job pushing the learner to say everything aloud. Its particular audio method (backward buildup, anticipation of the answer) is very effective to train the ear and help the learner get a good pronunciation.


dilemma - Gamesforlanguage.comAs this quick survey shows, none of these programs (including our GamesforLanguage courses) can provide a true immersion experience, the way a live conversation, or online session with a tutor can.

Online courses or apps have to rely on images (e.g. Rosetta Stone, etc.), written text, or English audio to transmit meaning to the learner. A teacher or tutor can do that with gestures, mimic, different sounds, or alternate expressions in the target language, etc., all options that apps or online courses do not have.

The online/app dilemma then is this: Images are rarely sufficient for explaining the meaning of thoughts, feelings, and complex activities, etc. in the target language. You require a teaching language to translate from. (I don't know if Lingualia is an exception for beginners, who may use Google translate in the early stages.)

Translations, however, take the learner away from the the target language. The moment the learner hears or reads the translation in his or her native language (English or otherwise), immersion is interrupted.


Still, using online programs and apps to learn can give you a good basis for getting started and progressing in a language, for learning vocabulary, expressions, and pronunciation.

My advice: Don't just click on the correct translation or answer. Repeat and speak the words and phrases you hear and learn in such programs. Without speaking and trying out the new sounds you won't become fluent.

So, what can you add - besides a regular language tutor - to strengthen your immersion experience in the language and become more fluent?

  1. Watch a film or YouTube video in your target language, without English captions (or with captions in the same language).
  2. Listen, with attention, to an audio book. If you can, follow along with the text in your target language.
  3. Listen to a passage from your audio book, and then read and record the same passage. Play back and compare. Do this several times. This is really powerful.

And remember: learning to become fluent in a new language is a long-term project. Use as many different means and methods to read, listen to, or speak the target language every day. Daily “exposure,” if not “immersion,” will get you there.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of She is a life-long language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagramand leave any comments with contact.

Disclosure: Several of the language learning companies mentioned above are partner sites with revenue sharing should you decide to subscribe.


Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

My 5 Top Tips For Speaking More Fluently

River in NorwayIt may surprise you, but "mumbling" is one of my 5 top tips for speaking a foreign language more fluently.

How fluent are you in the language you're learning? Can you read and understand spoken language pretty well? But your ability to give "quick responses in conversations" is lacking?

There's definitely a way to learn and practice to speak more naturally.

I have a very particular reason for wanting to work on speaking more fluently. It's for French. Curiously enough, it's not that my French is particularly bad, but ... Well, I talk more about it at the end of this post under the heading: My Own Project for Speaking More Fluently


Whatever level you're at and using resources you like, start listening to phrases and sentences, and repeat them aloud whenever you can.

Speaking and ListeningLearning how to say things with some fluency is not a one-time practice. Rather, it's best to go back to working on the same phrases, sentences, or even conversations again and again. That way, your pronunciation will get closer to that of a native speaker.

Close is good. If you're learning a language as an adult, perfect native pronunciation may take much longer, or may not happen at all.

In most languages, when words are used in expressions or in a sentence, they become part of a stream of sounds. Letters are dropped, stress changes, there are contractions, etc. This has to be practiced.

It also helps to memorize short conversations and repeat them to yourself when you're in the shower, as you prepare breakfast, or while jogging, etc.

Online language programs are perfect for practicing natural, rapid speech because you can try as many times as you want. Frequent repetition is key.


exclamation mark signInterjections are short words, usually said at the beginning of a sentence, that express strong emotions.

They can be learned together with vocabulary and practiced as part of conversations.

Common interjections in English are:
• hey
• oh
• good!
• right!
• no way!

Some common French interjections would be:
• Ouf (Whew)
• Zut ! (Darn)
• Mais/Bah oui ! (Why yes!)
• Quoi ! (What!)
• Allez ! (C'mon!)

Common Spanish interjections: 
• ¡Ay! ( Oh)
• ¡Ojalà! (I hope so )
• ¡Vaya! (Wow!)
• ¡Claro! (Of course!)
And mostly in Spain:
• ¡Guay! (Cool)
• ¡Vale! (Okay!)

Common Italian interjections:
• Magari! (I wish!, If only!)
• Bravo! (Well done!)
• Dai! (Come on!, Come now!)
• Boh! (No idea!)
• Basta! (Stop!)
• Peccato! (Too bad!)

Common German interjections:
• Aha! (I get it)
• Hä? (I don't understand)
• Also... (Well...)
• Wau! (Wow!)
• Ach nee! (I knew it!)
• Klar! (Of course!)

The best way to learn to notice and use interjections in a language you're learning is to watch films or TV series. You can do this online, which also gives you the chance to repeat snippets of language aloud without annoying others.

Repeating aloud is absolutely essential for learning to say interjections. Seeing and hearing them as part of conversations puts them into context and shows you their exact meaning.


Besides interjections, you can learn to add pauses and fillers to your speech.

Pause IconFillers are sounds, or words and phrases that are an essential part of conversational speech, but don't have much meaning in themselves.

They mark a pause when someone's speaking, or a moment of hesitation, as the person is considering what to say next. They help to keep the conversation going.

Speech fillers have to be practiced, since they impact on the intonation and rhythm of spoken language.

There are three good reasons why you should learn to use fillers in the language you're learning.

For one, it'll help you navigate better through a conversation. For example, if you just can't find the word you're looking for, you won't be stuck in an awkward silence. Instead, you can use some "hesitation sounds" of a few filler words, as you think about how to reformulate or how to get onto another topic.

Secondly, it will help you keep conversational contact with the person you're speaking to. With fillers, you can keep your own part of the conversation going, or indicate interest in what the other person is saying.

Thirdly, it will make you sound much more like a native. Most native speakers of a language don't hold conversations in full, perfect sentences all the time. They hesitate often enough, break sentences off, change topics as new ideas occur to them, etc. The fillers will help you do that too, without feeling like you're stumbling.

Fillers in American English that I hear a lot in conversations are:
"uuh" "uhmm" "err" "well..." "yeah" "like" "right," or the phrase "you know."

French conversational fillers (mots de remplissage, mots bouche-trou):
"euh" "bah" "hein" "bon" "ben" "alors" "bah" "eh bien."

Spanish conversational fillers (muletillas):
"eh" "este" "pues" "bueno" "mira" "ya" "vale" "¿no?"

Italian conversational fillers (riempitivo, parole superflue):
"mm" "mh" "e(eee)" "tipo" "ecco" 

German conversational fillers (Füll-Laute, Verzögerungslaute, Pausenlaute):
"äh" "ähm" "mhh" "so" "tja" "halt" "oder" "gelt"

To find YouTube videos with TV series, romantic or action films you can watch, do a search, for example, "youtube serie tv français" "youtube series tv español" "peliculas en español youtube" "peliculas completas en italiano youtube" "deutsch filme youtube komplett" - and so on.


young man with laptop Yes, it's hard to listen to your own recorded voice. I used to try to avoid it as well.

But, recording and listening to your voice and comparing your pronunciation to that of a native speaker is a very powerful technique for improving.

Start with words or short phrases, then work yourself up to full sentences. You have a lot to listen for: individual sounds, rhythm, intonation, the flow of what you're saying.

In different languages, stress is used differently. Listen for it and try to imitate.

In different languages, the same letters that we have in English may have a similar sound, but are pronounced less or more distinctly or explosively.

And, when you are recording yourself, you can practice difficult word combinations, saying them faster and faster.


You will unlikely hear this tip from a language teacher: In conversations don't worry about mumbling some of the words, especially their endings.

In casual conversations, most native speakers don't use the enunciation of a TV announcer. Especially when they speak in a local dialect, they talk quickly, mumble, mutter, ramble, blurt out things, drop endings. 

In German, "to mumble" is called "nuscheln."
In French, you'd say "marmonner."
In Spanish, it's "mascullar."
And for Italian, the equivalent seems to be "borbottare."

The huge advantage when you learn to mumble a little in a language you're learning, is that you can slide over some of the tricky grammatical parts. It's especially good for endings that are supposed to change in different grammatical context. A neutral mumble can easily suggest the right ending.

All my reading - dozens and dozens of classic and modern novels in college and later on, and more recently, all of the Harry Potter novels in French - did not make me conversationally fluent in French. For sure, I have all the vocabulary that I need, but now I must practice the skill of speaking fluently.

I am fluent in Dutch, though I've done very little reading in it. What I have done for years and years is speak with others and imitate their natural conversational speech.

Repeating normal and fast-speed sentences, adding interjections, pauses and fillers, and finally recording yourself and playing back your voice - all these together are bound to increase your ability to give "quick responses" in a conversation and become more fluent.


What I need to work on is relaxing when I speak so that I don't over-pronounce each individual word. Not just in French, but in all languages that I speak and am learning.

What's wrong with my French? Not that much really, except ... Well, let me back up a little. I learned French in a classroom setting: in grades 4 & 5 in the Netherlands, then from grades 6 on through grade 11 in Canada, followed by a French Honors university program.

At the end of my studies, I had great reading skills, a large vocabulary, and adequate writing skills. But my listening skills were lacking. I could understand the news (local French Radio) and formal lectures in French, but I could not follow fast conversational French. I also could not hold my own in natural, fast conversations with French speakers.

Later, when we started to regularly visit family in French-speaking Fribourg, Switzerland, my listening and speaking skills had already improved a lot. But even now, when I participate in conversations, my contributions are nicely constructed sentences, painstakingly pronounced. I resemble an announcer, who interrupts a group of people who are pleasantly chatting away.

My goal for further improvement is to be ready for our visit to Switzerland next year. With a French friend and with my husband I'm now practicing to not over-pronounce, to speak faster, to add interjections and fillers, and to “mumble” here and there.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

5 Quick French Pronunciation Steps: Mouth Mechanics 101

Girl, with French flag on cheek, shouting Some time ago we wrote a post about "Mouth Mechanics" and how simple lip and tongue adjustments can help both German and English speakers. 

French pronunciation - for example of "bienvenue" - can be hard for English speakers because the language contains sound combinations that are quite different from English.

Yes, there are the nasal sounds (such as in "bien") that were especially embarrassing when you had to practice them in front of your classmates. And the French “r” and “u” and various “e” sounds can often be a challenge.

But it's not that English speakers can't produce these sounds once they are aware of some basic "mouth mechanics." Here are five French pronunciation steps that will help. You can practice them with the games below.

1. The FRENCH "r"

French "r" is everywhere and very different from the American "r." Getting the French "r" right (or even just closer to "right") will give your pronunciation a big boost. Just try pronouncing “France” the French and the English way and you should hear letter "r" - Gamesforlanguage.comthe difference.

Tip: The sound of the French "r" resembles the "ch" in Loch Ness.

The American "r" is pronounced in the middle of your mouth and you need your tongue to produce it.

The French "r" is pronounced in your throat. It's the same place where you produce a hard "g" (as in "go.")

You do not use your tongue. Just do a slight scratching sound in your throat.

Common words/phrases with "r":

• "très bien" (very well)
• "merci" (thanks)
• "je parle" (I speak) 
• "pas de problème" (no problem)
• "américain(e)" (American)
• "parents" (parents).

Note: Verb infinitives with an "-er" ending are an exception.
For the "-er" ending say the English "day" or "say," but don't extend the "y" sound.
Examples or words with "-er" ending:

• "manger" (to eat)  
• "acheter" (to buy)
• "payer" (to pay)
• "chercher" (to look for)
• "déjeuner" (to have lunch)
• "tutoyer" (to say "tu"/use the informal form of address).

But:  Verb infinitives ending in "-ir", "-re" and also "-r" (without an "e" before) DO have the French "r" sound.
Examples of words with "r":

• "avoir" (to have)
• "voir" (to see)
• "écrire" (to write)
• "faire" (to do)
• "dire" (to say) 
• "servir" (to serve)

Practice the French "r" with this French Quick Game


letter u - French "u" is a sound that does not exist in English. But you'll hear and need to say it a lot since it comes up in a number of frequently used conversational words.

Tip: The sound of French "u" lies between the English "oo" (too) and "ee" (tee).

So, to find the mouth position for "u", first say "too," then pull your lips apart slightly to start saying "tee." Half way there, you have the French "u" sound.

Common words/phrases with "u":

If you have French friends, you'll be using "tu" with each other. There's even a French word for that: "tutoyer." But there are lots of other little daily words that you'll need to say too.
Examples of words with "u":

• the ubiquitous "du" (some, masc. sing.) as in "je veux du café" (I want [some] coffee)
• "une" (one/a, feminine)
• "jus" (juice)
• "plus" (more)
• "la rue" (the street)
• "sur" (on)
• "salut" (hi) 

Note: There is an exception.
If French "u" is followed by an "n" or an "m," it is nasalized and has a different sound, unless "n" or "m" are followed by another vowel as in "un/une," as further explained below.

You can practice the "u" sound with the French Quick Game "Vowels and Accents".


When vowels are followed by an "n" or an "m," the vowel has a nasal sound, and the letters "m" or "n" are not themselves pronounced.

Tip: To pronounce nasal vowels, let air pass through the nose, as well as the mouth.

One way to practice the difference, is with the minimal pair "un/une."
• In the first word - "un" - the vowel "u" is nasal, and you do not pronounce the "n."
• In the second word - "une" - the vowel "u" is not nasal and you DO pronounce the "n."

Common words/phrases with "nasal vowels":

A lot of short words (as well as longer ones, of course) have a nasal vowel.
Examples of words with a nasal vowel :

• "un" (a/one, masculine)
• "on" (the impersonal pronoun: "one/we")
• "très bien" (very well)
• "en" (in)
• "train" (train) 
• "vin" (wine)
• "tante" (aunt)
• "enchanté" (delighted/ pleased to meet you).

But: If another vowel comes right after "m" or "n," then the vowel before is not nasal.
Examples of a vowel before and after m/n:

• "une" (a/one, feminine)
• "la banane" (the banana)
• "samedi" (Saturday)
• "il se promène" (he walks)

You can practice the nasal sounds with the French Quick Game "Vowels and Accents".


Linguists call this sound a "schwa." In French it's inverted letter e _ Gamesforlanguage.comknown as "e-muet" or "e-caduc."

Tip: In English the same sound exists in unstressed "a" or "e":  a book (uh book), the man (thuh man), etc. The phonetic symbol for the latter is an inverted "e"

Common words/phrases with the weak, unstressed "e":

It's a matter of knowing when to use the unstressed "e." It helps to frequently listen to French, and to repeat not just individual words, but full sentences after a French speaker.

The unstressed "e" or schwa sound gives a French sentence its particular rhythm. Easiest to remember is that an (unaccented) "e" at the end of a syllable or at the end of a word is unstressed. It can be pronounced as a schwa or even dropped completely. You'll find it in verb forms, nouns, feminine adjectives, etc.

Examples of unstressed "e" that is commonly dropped:

• "appeler" (to call - the first "e" is unstressed)
• "il admire" (he admires - )
• "il passe" (he spends)
• "il note" (he writes down) 
• "la banque" (the bank)

In addition, many of the short common words contain the schwa sound.
Here it is pronounced.

• "de" (of)
• "ce" (this)
• "que" (that)
• "le" (the, masc.)
• "ne" (not) 
• "je" (I)

Click on the link and play a Quick Game to practice words and sentences with the schwa sound.

You can practice the weak, unstressed "e" sound with the French Quick Game "Vowels and Accents".


An accent on a letter changes its pronunciation and sometimes the meaning of a word. Often, the accent tells you which pronunciation to use.

In some cases, the accent is used to distinguish between words that are otherwise spelled identically.

The acute accent ("l'accent aigu") appears only on the letter "e" - as such: "é."

Tip: The sound of "é" (e-acute) is similar to the vowel sound of "say." The letter "é" can appear at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a word.

Common words with "é":

• "une école" (a school) 
• "le séjour" (the stay)
• "le crédit" (the credit)
• "la clé" (the key)
• "il a parlé" (he spoke) 
• "il a réservé (he reserved).

The grave accent ("l'accent grave") appears on "a", "e" or "u."

Tip: Connect the sound with an English word: "à" - father; "è" - fair (without the English "r"); "ù" - similar to "too".

Common words with "à":
You'll most frequently see and say "à" meaning "at," "to" or "in." (The unaccented word "a" is pronounced the same way, but it means "has.")

• "à" (at, to, in)
• "voilà" (here is, there is) 
• "là" (there, versus "la" meaning "the")
• "là-bas" (over there)
• "déjà" (already)

Common words with "è":

• "très" (very)
• "le problème" (the problem)
• "père" (father)
• "mère" (mother)
• "frère" (brother)
• "après" (after)
• "près de" (near)

Common word with "ù":

As with the word "à," the accent grave on "ù" only serves to distinguish between words otherwise spelled identically. In fact there is only one word you need to remember, but the difference is important:

"où" means "where" (while "ou," written without the accent, means "or."

The circumflex accent is used on top of any of the vowels (â, ê, î, ô, û).

Most commonly, it indicates that historically a letter had fallen away, most often a missing "s." In many cases the circumflex accent minimally affects the pronunciation of a word.

Common words with the circumflex accent:

• "bâtiment" (building)
• "théâtre" (theater)
• "prêt" (ready)
• "être" (to be)
• "connaître" (to know/meet)
• "le dîner" (the dinner)
• "l'hôtel" (the hotel)
• "tôt" (early)
• "bien sûr" (of course)
• "ça coûte" (that costs)

The c-cedilla "ç" mark under the "c"

When it is followed by an "a" or an "o" - shows that the "c" is pronounced like an "s" instead of a "k."

Common Words with a "ç":

"ça" (that/this/it)
"français(e)" (French)
"glaçons" (ice cubes)
"garçon" (boy)

Note: "ça coûte" (this costs). The word "ça" starts with an s-sound; "coûte" starts with a k-sound.

You can practice the accents with the French Quick Game "Vowels and Accents".

This blog post just touches on five points of French pronunciation. The list is by no means complete. If you want to review all the French sounds and letters take a look at this TalkinFrench post.

By paying attention to your mouth mechanics and practicing aloud, as you can do with our games, you can improve your pronunciation substantially. And finally, listen as much as you can to French podcasts and radio programs (like TuneIn, for example), watch films and videos, talk with native speakers.

After all: Is getting closer to sounding like a native French speaker not one of your goals?

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Why Worry About Your Accent? Speak as much as you can!

Gamesforlanguage - People talking Reading William Alexander's very enjoyable Flirting with French - How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me & Nearly Broke My Heart, I was reminded again how difficult it is indeed for adults to become fluent in a foreign language.

Yes, I still believe that using every opportunity to SPEAK ALOUD is key. (The topic of: The Three S's of Language Fluency).

Mr. Alexander's many hilarious anecdotes also make it clear that there are many obstacles to overcome before an adult can speak a foreign language fluently. However, he also found that the process of learning French has its own rewards.

Listening and Understanding

When my wife and I arrived in Italy several years ago, after having studied Italian with the 90 lessons of three Pimsleur Italian courses, we felt quite confident. Watching a television show the first evening quickly destroyed our illusion. We could barely distinguish words, even less understand what seemed to us to be just rapid-fire Italian.

After a couple of weeks of watching and listening, however, and doing the homework that our tutor gave us, we started to hear individual words. And sometimes we guessed the meaning from the context of the show or movie.

Understanding is obviously crucial - without it, there is no conversation. Listening/understanding is considered a passive activity, but it's importance should not be underestimated.

When we marvel at the ease children learn a language, we should not forget that their listening already starts before they are even born and it still takes them several years before they can speak fluently.

Daring to Speak

Overcoming the fear of speaking a foreign language is a big step for many adults. There are no shortcuts to speaking. You have to do it as often as you can, starting with reading aloud, repeating, recording your voice, etc.

What only could be done in "language labs" in schools and colleges in the past is now possible with many CD or online language courses.

In learning Italian and Spanish I have found that recording myself and comparing my pronunciation to that of the native speaker works best for me: I begin to hear the sound differences and while I'm often not successful in imitating the native speaker completely, I seem to get a little closer with every try. (And voice recognition programs just frustrate me!)

But speaking as part of a conversation obviously requires more than just pronouncing words more or less correctly. You have to recall vocabulary, consider word order, tenses, conjugations, and other grammatical idiosyncrasies to form sentences in a particular language. And, you have to do it in "real time."

Now, while learning vocabulary is essential, it's been our own experience that we recall words much better if we learn them in context, i.e. with phrases and sentences we would use ourselves. (That is also the idea of the travel story approach of!) When you recall and adapt phrases and sentences that you have heard and memorized, you have to think much less about word order, conjugations, endings, etc.

Yes, some apps and translation gadgets may help you look up a forgotten word or two, but for a real one-on-one conversation they are also a distraction.

We now know that, as we grow up, we lose our ability to distinguish certain sounds. Asian language speakers find it difficult to distinguish "l" and "r" sounds, as they don't exist in their languages.

English speakers have trouble with French nasal sounds, German speakers with the English "w." While certain sounds can be learned with a focus on the mouth mechanics (a previous post), chances are that an adult will rarely speak a newly acquired foreign language completely without an accent.

But stop worrying about your accent and start speaking! You will never become fluent in any language, if you don't start speaking. Once you start speaking, you'll also find out that there are quite a few words that you are missing. This will give you an incentive to use one or two of the many apps that help you learn and memorize new words.

We especially like apps which let you read articles and collect the words you don't know into a vocabulary list. You can practice those words later and then delete those you now know. In addition to the Apple and Android apps, there is also a Chrome extension, which you can apply to any document you read online.

A slick iOS app is Drops, available in the App Store, which is a lot of fun! They currently have 5 languages (English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish). You can play 5 minutes for free every day (for additional minutes you either have to pay or watch a commercial.)

Living with a Foreign Accent

I have been in the United States for quite a few years, but I still have a German accent. As I can't eliminate it, in spite of earlier "accent reduction" tutoring, I'll just live with it. I do speak English quite fluently - maybe better now than French, which I had learned in my twenties while living and working in Switzerland.

I have been told that my accent in French is not quite German (maybe Swiss German?), but I can clearly hear my German accent when I record myself while learning and improving my Italian and Spanish.

I recently heard Henry Kissinger on a TV show. His German accent is certainly much stronger than mine, but nobody would argue that he does not speak English fluently.

My point is: Once you dare to speak, you can always work on improving your accent. But do not let your accent be the reason for not speaking.

Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

Learning Languages Online With a Mystery Story... As lifelong language learners - by necessity and passion - we've used different methods for learning a new language.
- English and French classes during in school
Assimil records, tapes and books
- Immersion French courses in France
- Pimsleur CDs to learn Italian and Chinese
- Various Online courses for difference languages

We've also lived and stayed in various countries, sometimes for an extended time. It gave us the chance to use and practice the language in daily life. We also took courses there, and learned with local tutors and language exchange partners.

Classroom courses also involved reading novels and newspaper articles (activities that online add-ons can now also make more accessible for more advanced learners.) And for us, a story or interesting text made language learning both relevant and effective.

Overcoming Boring and Frustrating Beginnings

But beginning to learn a new language with CDs or online was often boring and frustrating. Many courses start out by teaching vocabulary and word combinations that seem useless and nonsensical. (Even Duolingo, a program we like a lot ourselves, started out with strange sentences, but is now constantly improving!)

While various grammar points, word order, etc. can obviously be practiced with out-of-context sentences, it's been our experience, that we recall vocabulary much better, if (a) we learn vocabulary in context and (b) we learn useful, everyday language.

With our Gamesforlanguage courses we are using a travel story right from the start. The vocabulary grows from a few simple words in an airplane to phrases and sentences that describe a young man's experiences as he travels through various European cities.

A Mystery Story for Non-Beginners

For our German 2 course, ( the full 76-lesson course is online and can be played for Free with simple registration), we are using a mystery story.

Michael, the young traveler from our German 1 course, returns to Berlin. The young woman who sits beside him in the airplane gives him a book, “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” which she does not want to finish. Without giving away too much, let's just say that this book plays a key role in the story.

Each lesson is built around 4-8 dialog or story sentences, which are broken up into words and phrases - then heard, read, practiced and, re-assembled again, and finally recorded by the learner.

German 2 will add another 700 NEW words to the 700 words of German 1, many of which will be recalled in various games of German 2. Learners will again have to exceed certain point thresholds with each lesson, before they can unlock the next one. 

We believe that getting “to the end of the story” will not only be a worthwhile incentive to learn, but will also make learning more fun AND effective.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

The Three S's of Language Fluency

GamesforLanguage - Three S's imageYou can't become fluent in a foreign language without practicing to speak. This appears to be self-evident.

But learners often seem to forget it, when they practice flashcard apps on their phone or on mobile devices, and do so without repeating and pronouncing the foreign words and phrases. 

Yes, learning vocabulary is important and yes, it's difficult to practice aloud in public, at work, or even at home while others are listening. However, there are no shortcuts: You have to practice your pronunciation and learn to speak.

The opportunities to speak are obviously greatest with week- or month-long language immersion programs, and also exist with private tutors or even in classroom settings. Learners are constantly encouraged and challenged to speak. With textbook- and CD/DVD-based, or online language programs speaking can become an option. 

Even with popular programs, such as Duolingo, speaking is only required in, maybe, 30% of the exercises. However, in most online programs, including Duolingo and our GamesforLanguage, learners obviously have the option to repeat the foreign words and sentences they hear and read.

“Say It”

All our GamesforLanguage courses have a “Say It” sequence, which is especially popular with many beginners. In “Say It,” the learner hears a word or phrase spoken by a native speaker, which then is followed by a “Say It” command.

With time to repeat the word or phrase several times before it appears on the screen, the learner can then correlate the audio, i.e. what s/he heard with the spelling of the word/phrase. In these examples for German and French, you can see how it works. Repeat each “game” a couple of times and you'll be surprised how much you'll learn and remember.

Read Aloud

As your language skills start to improve and you begin to read paragraphs, articles, and maybe soon books, read aloud whenever you can. Don't worry, if you can't yet pronounce each word correctly. 

At the start, it's more important that you keep trying to convert the written words into spoken language than trying to sound like a native. Think about how long it takes children to pronounce each word of their own native language correctly and give yourself time to improve.


The earlier you start using your speaking skills in real life situations, the better. But unless you are living in a foreign country or a neighborhood were the language is spoken, have a foreign-language friend or partner, or are traveling, your options will be limited. 

Online communities, using Skype, Facetime and similar networks can open the doors to speaking and communicating, but such arrangements have to be planned and scheduled.

Maybe not everybody can muster the time or commitment that Benny Lewis promotes with Fluent in 3 Months. But if you watch his clip and consider the points above, you will conclude as well:

To become fluent in your target language, start SPEAKING it whenever you can - right from the start! Creating a habit is not easy – but the start of a new year is a great opportunity to set some goals. Make this YOUR year to become fluent in your target language!

The truism proposed at the beginning: “You can't become fluent in a foreign language without practicing to speak it,” also means that any adult serious about language fluency has to plan where and how to practice speaking. In addition to the suggestions above, you'll also want to include speaking opportunities into your language practice plan.

Disclosure: The above Link to Fluent in 3 Months is to a site with revenue-sharing, should you decide to buy or subscribe.

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