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(Updated 2-5-2019)
Recently I started to take a few Duolingo lessons for Portuguese, to prepare just a bit for a trip to Portugal in a few weeks. I have no illusions that I will be able to learn Portuguese during that time.
As I know Italian and Spanish, it was not difficult for me to recognize most of the vocabulary in the early lessons. I quickly figured out that the Spanish "una" becomes a Portuguese "uma" (female "a") and the "Yo soy"  the "Eu sou" (I am).
And although similarly written words are pronounced differently at times, I hope to discover a few rules that will  help me with understanding and reading Portuguese.
I don't believe that I will be able to really speak Portuguese, but hope that I will at least discover in the later Duolingo lessons travel vocabulary that will be useful for my trip. (I wish there were a site or app where I could practice essential Portuguese travel language terms!)
When you’re engaged in speaking a language, you don’t have time to think much about grammar. Conversations just move too fast. There are, however, a few rules that are easy to keep in mind. With time, you’ll apply them automatically.

1.Diminutive nouns with the ending -chen or -lein are neuter:
das Mädchen - the girl
 
das Schwesterlein - the little sister
2. Nouns ending in -heit, -keit, -ung are always feminine
die Freiheit - freedom
 
die Freundlichkeit - friendliness
 
die Rechnung - bill/check
3. “die” is the plural article for all nouns (subject forms)
das Kind - die Kinder
 
die Frau - die Frauen
 
der Mann - die Männer
4. All seasons are masculine:
der Frühling - spring
 
der Sommer - summer
 
der Herbst - fall
 
der Winter - winter
5. All days are masculine:
der Montag - Monday
 
der Dienstag - Tuesday
 
der Mittwoch - Wednesday
 
der Donnerstag - Thursday
 
der Freitag - Friday
 
der Samstag - Saturday
 
der Sonntag - Sunday
 
6. A group of prepositions contract with “das."  

      These all imply a “change  of place” or “direction to”:

an + das:  ans Meer gehen (to go to the sea)
 
auf + das:  aufs Land fahren (to go to the countryside)
 
in + das:  ins Haus gehen (to go into the house)
 
hinter + das:  hinters Auto gehen (to go over behind the car)
 
über + das:  übers Meer fliegen (to fly across the ocean)
 
unter + das:  unters Buch legen (to place under the book)
 
vor + das:  vors Fenster legen (to place in front of the window)
7. A predicate Adjective takes no ending

      A predicate adjective follows a noun and is preceded by a form of “sein” (to be).

Die Straße ist breit. (The street is wide.)
 
but:  Die breite Straße. (The wide street.)
8. Numbers: 
1-12 you have to memorize,
 
13-19 have the same format as English,
 
but 21-29, 31-39 etc. are “reversed” in German and are linked with "und" (and):
 

e.g.: einundzwanzig - twenty-one (21), neununddreißig - thirty-nine (39), etc.

(You can also learn the numbers with our Quick Games: German Numbers 1-20 and 21 and Beyond.)

9. The verb forms of formal "you" (Sie) and "they" (sie) are the same.
Gehen Sie heute ins Kino? (Are you going to the movies today?)
 
Gehen sie heute ins Kino? (Are they going to the movies today?)
 
Note: Formal "you" (Sie) is always capitalized; 
         "they" (sie) begins with a lower-case letter (except at the beginning of a sentence).
10. Word Order: In simple sentences, the verb is in second position.
Ich gehe heute ins Kino.  
 
Heute gehe ich ins Kino.
 
Note (1):  In the sentence "Heute Abend gehe ich ins Kino." the verb is the third word, but still in second position, as the (adverb) phrase "Heute abend" is in first position. 
Note (2): Whatever word/phrase occurs before the verb is emphasized.
You Want to Practice Your German?

Our games and travel-story based courses are also a great way to practice your German.

With our German 1 and 2 courses you'll learn and practice German for FREE - with stories of a young man traveling through Germany and - its sequel - solving a "Blüten"-mystery in Berlin. "The Story" and easy games will let you forget that you are actually learning German!

And you can also listen to both Stories by clicking on German 1 or German 2 on our Podcast page

If travel to Germany is in your near future, you may also enjoy our post: 4 Fun German Language Games Before You Travel.

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Learning a new language can often feel like a daunting task, particularly for young people. That’s why an increasing number of educators and students are turning to games as a way of making the challenging and often laborious task of learning a foreign language through textbook and translation exercises feel more enjoyable.

Learning a second language has multiple benefits. Not only does it provide the learner with the means of communicating with people of different nationalities, it also includes the potential for learning about another culture and for inspiring an interest in travel.

Learning another language also impacts positively on cognitive function. Requiring the brain to undertake regular translation from one language to another can improve attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, reasoning, problem solving and planning – and who doesn’t want their child to excel in all of these?

You can read more here about the benefits of being bilingual and how it impacts on cognitive function and development.

Technology as an educational tool – turning translation into a game

Today’s children are more technologically aware than ever before. Although this may seem concerning to some, the value of technology as a vital tool for education cannot be understated – particularly as portable devices are so widely accessible and are almost all capable of ‘on the fly’ media translation.

As distracting as devices such as laptops, smartphones and tablets may be, technology can provide avenues for education that are vastly more engaging to modern audiences than traditional learning methods, which often focus on repetitive translation and list learning. Through just a few clicks and keystrokes, an internet-connected device can offer us access to the entire world’s collective knowledge, including a wide range of methods for absorbing that knowledge.

Many studies have shown positive associations between gaming and cognition. Brain training games are widely accepted as a means of improving mental functioning, as we come to appreciate more and more the value of exercising the mind, as well as the body. When it comes to language learning, games are also valuable, turning repetitive translation tasks into something fun – and thus more likely to be remembered!

Learning to translate through gaming

Games can offer a means of engaging with language studies in a way that goes beyond traditional textbooks and translation exercises. They can help students not only to learn but also to improve their general cognition. Games can even have ancillary benefits such as enhancing self-esteem, thanks to the pleasure and pride associated with doing well at something.

Multiple studies have shown that exposure to technology and immersive media such as games improves memory, multitasking and problem-solving abilities, hand-eye coordination and even connectivity between different brain regions. All of these cognitive improvements contribute to more generally effective language and translation study.

Nor are dedicated language learning games the only way that students can benefit from gaming. From language students to translation professionals, the value of immersion in a language is well known. The audience for video games consists of more than a billion people worldwide and, due to their interactive nature, video games offer students a legitimately entertaining means of immersing themselves both into the spoken and written language of their study. Students playing foreign-language video games can therefore continue their studies even during their downtime.

Not only are games vastly more enjoyable to many students than traditional learning methods, but on average, students who learn with the assistance of immersive media are more successful in their language and translation studies than those who don’t. Rather than a tool for procrastination, the right games can allow a student to enjoy their studies more at the same time as learning faster.

Features of a good language/translation learning game

According to the fundamentals of good game design, the most engaging games – and thus the most educational – will offer a few key features:

1. An incremental challenge

Offering a continuous challenge to the player will help keep them engaged with the content. This can be achieved by designing a game with a number of clear, incremental goals, with each goal satisfying a specific learning objective. An example of this would be to challenge the student to a set of translation tasks increasing incrementally in difficulty.

2. An engaging and realistic story line

An interesting story line will help the student stay engaged with the content. Providing a setting allows the student to see the language they’re learning used in a real-life context and can help to motivate them to succeed in their translation. Realism also helps to ensure the content is taken seriously and can be viewed as useful in real terms.

3. Flexibility

Allowing some degree of flexibility to the way in which a student can approach their learning objectives can help to break up the generic step-by-step monotony of conventional language learning methods like repetitive translation exercises.

4. Regular rewards

Rewarding a student at regular intervals provides them with a constant sense of satisfaction and achievement as a result of their language and translation studies. Much like “levelling up” in video games, emphasis on progression helps students to feel like they’re getting somewhere throughout the learning process, rather than focusing solely on an end goal of fluency that may at times seem insurmountable.

Through playing games, the often dull task of learning and expanding vocabulary through repetitive translation comes naturally and with a sense of fun.

If you’re looking for an entertaining and immersive way to learn a new language in 2019, try picking up a game and reap all of the additional cognitive benefits that learning through technology and immersive media can provide.

Author Bio: Louise Taylor writes for Tomedes, a translation company specializing in game translation and other translation and localization services. When not writing about languages, Louise is usually doing her best to learn to speak more of them.  

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Speech 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 language 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 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.
Online 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.

uTalk

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 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 FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

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How to deal with grammar is a question we get a lot from language learners. Yes, classroom learning often focuses a lot on grammar. I also plead guilty to having used this approach with my students during my college teaching years.

But I now know that it does not help your speaking abilities early on.

Fortunately, if you're learning a new language independently, it's okay to put grammar on the back burner.

Still, not focusing on grammar doesn't mean you ignore it completely. A good approach is to start with "baby steps" to learn gradually how your new language works.

Grammar in any language is a huge subject. However, knowing a grammar book inside out doesn't mean you can communicate in the language. All it means is that you can remember a lot of abstract rules. And these don't automatically translate into fluent communication.

So, what are a few "baby steps" that self-learners can take?

Here are the steps that work for me when I start out in a new language. (My examples are from the four languages on our site.)

Step #1: A Quick Glance At Grammar Basics

I do mean a "quick glance", and really just basic grammar. Do it in whatever way works for you - on the internet or in a basic grammar book.

You don't really want to know ALL the grammar rules right off. Especially not all the dozens of exceptions to those rules to boot.

What you want to know is how your new language works. How it is essentially different from your native language(s). Knowing these main differences will help you when starting out with conversations.

Pronouns

In English, you always use pronouns. The same goes for German and French.

Italian and Spanish usually drop the pronouns, unless they are needed for clarity or emphasis.

The Pronoun "you"

English has just one word for "you", and it works for familiar and formal, for singular and plural.

French, German, Italian and Spanish have different pronouns for familiar and formal, and also for singular and plural. You need to sort out which pronoun and/or verb ending to use for each of those situations.

Present Tense Verb Endings

English verb endings are pretty simple. Generally, you just have to watch out for the third person singular, which adds an "s". (I go, you go, he goes, we go, you go, they go.) 

For Italian and Spanish the personal endings of verbs are important because of dropped pronouns. For German and French, the different verb endings depend on which personal pronouns you use.

Articles and Gender

English has the definite article "the" and no gender for its nouns.

French, Spanish, and Italian have two noun genders, and German has three genders, plus various case-dependent forms of the definite article.

Negation

Each language has its own ways to express negation. English has "not", which is often attached to a helping verb and contracted: "don't, isn't, can't, won't, shouldn't". Generally speaking, negation is simple in Spanish and Italian. In Spanish you put "no" in front of the verb, and in Italian "non". French uses the double negative "ne ... pas", and German has "nicht" for negating verbs and "kein" for negating nouns.

Basic Word Order

Here you don't want to learn any rules. You only want to observe and understand that there are differences.

Once you've had a quick glance at basic grammar differences between your native language and your target language, forget what you've read. It will all come back bit by bit, once you start listening, repeating and reading - a lot - in your new language.

Step #2: Look for Patterns

We may not feel that we are "wired for grammar" (as Noam Chomsky once suggested), but we are certainly wired for recognizing and internalizing patterns.

Sounds

For children in their early years, language is primarily sound. Even as adults we hear spoken language all day - in conversations, on the radio, on TV, on the internet.

Sound remains an important part of communication. To engage with others, we produce the correct sounds to get the message across.

When we write, we often silently pronounce what we're writing.

Sentences

Learning the meaning of foreign words is important. But hearing and seeing them in complete sentences is essential: That's where "Grammar" is happening! 

When learning a new language be sure to include the sound of words, phrases and simple sentences. Listen and repeat as much as you can. It's important to get the sound of what you're learning into your ear.

As you listen, repeat and read, watch for patterns. Patterns of verb endings are basic, so listen and look for them. Watch out for the differences between questions and statements. Try to notice simple idiomatic ways of saying things.

Stories

Easy stories are a good next step. They will put essential vocabulary in context and therefore give you a more precise meaning of words and phrases.

Stories also show how the language works. You'll hear and see questions, responses to questions, emphatic forms, the use of familiar or formal "you", negation, word order variations, etc.

Reading & Writing

Once you're reasonably happy with your pronunciation, begin to pay closer attention to the written text as you practice listening and repeating. It will help you to master the correlation between sound and written text in your new language. It's a good way to get into reading.

Reading is a fantastic tool for acquiring vocabulary and for internalizing typical patterns of a language.

Step #3 More In-depth Grammar

When you're happily into your new target language, when you continue to feel motivated and love the progress you're making, that's the time to tackle more grammar. But don't focus on rules. Focus on typical patterns. Below are two examples.

Gender and Articles

Suppose you've been reading and listening to Italian and notice that the simple English article "the" has several Italian equivalents: "il, la, lo, l', i, le, gli". You've probably figured out the articles "il, la, i, and le". But you're curious enough to check when "lo" and "gli" are used. From then on, each time you see or hear "lo" and "gli" in context, you become more familiar with its use.

French and Spanish have two genders, feminine and masculine, and four articles that go with it. In French, there's "le, la, l', les". In Spanish, you have "el, la, los, las". Good to know, but pretty easy to figure out on your own as you're hearing and reading a story.

German, however, has three genders: "der, die, das" (masculine, feminine, and neuter) and the definite articles, including the plural forms, change depending on the case of the noun. So, it will take more effort to really learn the correct German forms. You'll want to study the various article/case combinations written out in front of you. Then, saying the forms often helps to make them automatic. Still, perfect mastery is elusive for most, and that's okay. (You're not alone: Mark Twain in his “A Tramp Abroad”, Appendix D, makes some very funny, but cogent observations.)

Asking Yes-No Questions

There are often fundamental word order differences between languages. For example, it's not easy for foreigners to understand when to use "do" or "are" in a question in English.

For example, you say: "Do you know?", while the question, "Are you knowing?" doesn't make sense. On the other hand, you would tend to say "Are you going?" The question "Do you go?" needs more context, such as "Do you often go to the movies?"

French, too, has various ways to ask yes-no questions. But these are different from English. For one, you can put the question particle, "Est-ce que" at the beginning of a sentence and thus turn it into a question, "Est-ce que vous parlez anglais ?"

Then there's the inversion of subject and verb, as in "Parlez-vous anglais ?" Or, you can just add "n'est-ce pas ?" at the end of a statement: "Tu parles anglais, n'est-ce pas ?" Finally, in informal speech, you can just raise your voice at the end: "Tu parles anglais ?" Once you start paying attention to questions when hearing and reading French, these patterns will become familiar and you'll learn when to use which.

In Italian you can make a statement into a question by letting your voice go up at the end, and/or adding a tag: "È americano?" "É americano, vero?" "É americano, no?" It's as simple as that.

Similarly, in Spanish, you can change a statement to a yes-no question by using question intonation and sometimes adding a tag: "¿Hablas inglés?, ¿Hablas inglés, no? ¿Hablas inglés, verdad?" Or, in some cases, you can invert verb and pronoun: "¿Tiene Ud. sed?"

For yes-no questions in German, you normally invert subject and the personal verb: "Sind Sie Amerikaner?" Or, "Wollen Sie jetzt essen?"

Make Grammar a Treat not a Chore!

There are exceptions, but most language learners don't learn grammar to become fluent in grammar. They learn a language because they want to be able to speak with others. 

It's more fun to figure things out than to memorize rules. So, try to figure out little by little how your new language works. Don't focus too much on the rules.

Becoming fluent in another language is a hugely satisfying achievement. It's great fun to step out of your native language and step into another way of communicating. It can be a wonderful life-long adventure!

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments right here below!

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Learning Italian? Check out "Ripeti con me!"!

A couple of weeks ago, Stefano Lodola wrote to ask us about reviewing his Italian audio course "Ripeti con me!".

Stefano is an Italian Polyglot, language teacher and translator who speaks nine languages. He's also an opera singer, and as you'll hear on the audio, he has a clear and pleasant voice.

The description of the "Ripeti con me!" audio course and the method behind it intrigued me.

Readers of earlier blog posts may recall that - before our stay in Italy several years ago - my husband and I completed the 3 Pimsleur audio-only courses (no text), a total of 90 lessons. (And for complete disclosure: I was the course writer and development editor of several Pimsleur audio courses before 2011.)

Personally, I've been looking for an Italian course to refresh and boost my Italian speaking skills.

So, I am not only quite familiar with audio courses but also definitely motivated to try out a new approach and new materials.

Stefano gave us access to 15 Lessons of "Ripeti con me!" so I could review his method and course.

THE COURSE BASICS

 

  • Ripeti con me!” currently has 60 Lessons in audio format.
  • Each Lesson is made up of 30 basic sentences, spoken at a natural pace. 
  • For each audio Lesson there are three files, Part A, Part B and Part C, to be done in sequence. The three files have you practice the same 30 sentences in three different ways.
  • The sentences contain useful, conversational vocabulary and common, idiomatic grammar patterns.
  • Spaced Repetition of vocabulary and grammar patterns is built into the course. Sentences come up again and again, but each time with small changes that show how the language works.
  • The sentences and their translations can also be downloaded as a PDF file, but that is optional.
  • The course is for Total Beginners to Intermediate Learners who want to improve their speaking skills.
  • In his Introduction, Stefano has detailed instructions on how to learn with his course.
WHAT WORKS FOR ME   Audio Format

 

I love learning with audio. I agree with Stefano that spoken and written language are processed differently by the brain. When you just listen, your brain connects directly to the sound without needing to decode letter.

When I do a lesson for the first time, it's really effective to just sit with eyes closed while repeating and "shadowing" (i.e. speaking along with the speaker, or a split second behind him). That way I can also pay attention to the small but meaningful sounds that connect the sentence: prepositions, negatives, endings, agreements, etc.

With Audio, you can easily take the course with you and listen and repeat on the go, while walking, jogging, cooking, waiting for a bus, etc.

  PDF Download

 

The sentences and their translations can all be downloaded in PDF. Reviewing the text is optional.

Still, I've found it very useful to look at the written sentences after doing the Audio.

That's because living in a world of the printed word, I automatically make up my own mental spelling of any unfamiliar word I hear or see, no matter what the language. I might as well learn the correct form.

Besides, I love to read. For any language that I learn, it's my goal to learn to read fluently (online news, blog posts, articles, stories, novels).

Reading is one of the most powerful ways to learn additional vocabulary and grammar patterns, and stay interested in the language.

  Sentences and Spaced Repetition

 

In "Ripeti con me!", sentences (not individual words) are the basic building blocks. You learn and practice all vocabulary in the context of everyday, useful sentences.

By listening and repeating many sentences that use and reshuffle basic vocabulary, you become more and more familiar with typical phrases and idioms.

The application of Spaced Repetition in "Ripeti con me!" is very good. As you constantly learn to construct new, slightly changed sentences, you automatically internalize Italian vocabulary and grammar patterns.

The English translations, because they are often not literal, help you to think in Italian. For example:

  • Come sto con gli occhiali? - How do I look in my glasses? (literally: How am I with the glasses?)
  • Come fai senza macchina? - How can you live without a car? (literally: How do you make it without car?)
Three Types of Practice

 

Practicing the same 30 sentences of the lesson in three ways is quite effective, especially if you repeat/say the Italian out loud.

Part A: After the English cue, listen and repeat/shadow the Italian sentence. (For meaning, pronunciation of words, correct intonation.)

Part B: After the English cue, say the sentence in Italian in the pause that follows. (To produce the Italian and check if you're correct.)

Part C: Shadow each of the Italian sentences. (No English. To mimic the speaker and learn to think in Italian.)

I like the technique of shadowing when I'm learning a language. I use it often when listening to audio books or going over sentences in a course.

As mentioned, shadowing means speaking along with the speaker, or a split second behind. It takes a little practice. But once you've got the knack, you'll improve the rhythm, intonation, and pronunciation of your Italian.

Don't be afraid to talk over the native speaker's voice, you'll find that you can listen and talk at the same time.

  Grammar Patterns

 

I don't really know if my brain is wired for grammar, but it's definitely wired for language patterns.

Listening and repeating many sentences that have small shifts in pattern works really well for me.

I noticed that as I practiced, more and more phrases and idioms became familiar again and I would start using them automatically. (As Italian is not a new language for me, it's also likely that I notice these patterns more than a beginner.)

Each lesson focuses on a specific grammar point, built into the sentences. (The specific grammar items are bolded.) Here are some examples:

  • Lesson 1, has many sentences with present forms of the verb "essere" (to be).
  • Lesson 2, the sentences focus of the present forms of "avere" (to have), including common idioms with "avere".
  • In Lesson 3, you practice number agreement (un gelato-due gelati), and adjective-noun agreement. (see photo in PDF section) 
  • In Lesson 6, the sentences highlight the indefinite article forms: "un', un, una".
  • In Lesson 13, you practice sentences with "piacere": "mi piace/mi piacciono" (I like), "ti piace" (you like), "a Giulia non piace" (Giulia doesn't like), "a voi piace" (you-all like), etc.
A Well-Paced Course

 

It's recommended that you do a full Lesson a day. Because you're often reusing familiar vocabulary for new sentences, even a beginner can follow the pace.

Still, if you don't feel ready to move on, you can easily repeat that Lesson the next day.

My spoken Italian is probably at a Low Intermediate level (while my listening comprehension and reading skills are better).

With "Ripeti con me!", I found I can really focus on practicing to speak in Italian. I'm happy with the improvement I've noticed.

COST

At this time, the course has 60 Lessons.

Click on the left logo for a YouTube playlist with the preview of all the lessons.

You can buy the full course for 44.50 euros ($50.68), or in chunks of 15 Lessons for 14.40 euros ($16.40) each. (Use  Promo Code G4L2018  to save 10%)

FURTHER THOUGHTS

No program will teach you everything you want to achieve in a language. And a program can certainly not replace speaking regularly with native speakers, a trained tutor, or good conversation partners.

A real conversation is so much more than listening and repeating. You have to understand what the other person is saying, which includes all the non-verbal signals that are part of effective communication. Plus, as you're listening and decoding what's being said, your brain is also working on an answer.

Still, good programs offer you the chance to practice specific foreign language skills. The 15 Lessons of Fluent Simple, which I did according to instructions, have clearly boosted my basic speaking fluency.

Beyond that, one can always find more ways to learn with a good program. "Ripeti con me" is no exception. Once you've gone through the course, you can go back and do other things with it. It keeps the material fresh.

Memorize

For some people memorizing works. Once you've gone through the course as suggested, you can take ten sentences, for example, and just keep them in your head for the day. Say them to yourself from time to time, as you walk to work, take a break, or take the bus home. It's a good way to become totally familiar with certain sentence patterns.

Dictation

I've always enjoyed dictation and have used it a lot in my language teaching and learning. In "Ripeti con me!", Part C of each Lesson is perfect for this. Write down the sentence as you hear it, and stop the audio if you need to. At the end, you can check what you've written against the correct sentences on the PDF file. For one, dictation strengthens the sound-letter correlation. Plus for me, writing something down by hand helps me remember.

Writing

Journal writing for learning a language has become very popular. Even as a beginner, keep a daily journal by using the sentences that you've learned. Or you can even try out new variations of some of sentences. Do this just from your head, without looking up anything. Because of the many-sentence structure of the course, you'll have lots of possible sentences ready. It's a great start for beginning to write.

Italian is a wonderful language to learn, and you can do it at any age. Think about Italian culture and history, Italy's historic cities, villages, and beautiful countryside. And there's Italian music, and the world of Italian food, fashion and movies.

Besides, learning a language is good for your brain and learning Italian may inspire you to visit. Go for it!

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments right here below!

Disclosure: We intend to add "Ripeti con me!" to our Partner's list. Should you decide to purchase "Ripeti con me!" with the listed discount code, Gamesforlanguage will receive a small commission and help us keep our site ad-free.

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Fifty years ago I was in Prague as a young student. As luck would have it, that visit coincided with the Soviet-led Invasion on the night of August 20-21, 1968. (see also: Memories of the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia, August 21, 1968)

Whatever little sightseeing my travel friend and I had done on the preceding day - Charles Bridge, the Castle, (see picture) Wenceslas Square, Old Town Square - was eclipsed by the chaotic events of that night and the next day, when Warsaw Pact and Soviet tanks rolled into the city.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was followed in January 1993 by the split of Czechoslovakia into two countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia, both parliamentary republics.

Since that time, Prague has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Europe. It was high time for me to go back and see what I had missed 50 years ago.

Getting ready for a trip is always fun and interesting. My husband Peter and I like to read up on the history of a country and its language. (For anyone who'd like to learn more about the history of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, I can only recommend Mary Heimann's “Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed”.)

For our Prague trip, we were also bent on learning some Czech language basics.

In fact, I was particularly motivated to learn some Czech because my grandfather was born in Bohemia in 1880, when the region was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

He was born in the village of Netrebice (near Cesky Krumlov). He spoke only Czech as a child before being sent to live with an uncle in the neighboring, German-speaking region of Styria, Austria. He was five at that time. And that's how my father's family came to Austria.

WHY LEARN SOME CZECH

In our past travels, we've often found that English has its limits, that learning some of the local language has huge benefits.

For Czech, we spent fifteen minutes or so a day for three months learning to say and understand basic phrases and to practice pronunciation.

In Prague, we noticed that older people - those not in the tourist industry - often did not speak any English. That was quite understandable because during the Soviet era, Russian was the compulsory foreign language taught in all schools in Czechoslovakia.

We also noticed that younger people did tend to speak English. But, if they weren't working in the tourist industry, it sometimes had its limits.

This became clear the first night when we tried to buy some breakfast items at a small neighborhood market. 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 to me what the word “polotucne” on the milk carton meant. (I wanted to make sure I wasn't buying skim milk. In fact, it means “half fat” or “part skim.”)

In all though, we got by very well with English and, occasionally with German.

Still, learning some Czech before the trip was worth every minute. People would greet us automatically in Czech and only switched when we spoke English. By using greetings and polite phrases in Czech, we were making an effort that was clearly appreciated.

I can well imagine, that locals in Prague are sometimes overwhelmed by the hordes of tourists constantly present in their city, and by the barrage of English that often confronts them.

Don't we expect visitors to the US to greet and address us in English and not in German, French, Czech, Danish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, etc.?

Prague well deserves its popularity as a travel destination. There is lots to do and to discover.

In addition to the exhibits, museums, and public art works that we saw – the Caltrava and Kupka exhibitions, the Mucha, Kafka, and (new) National Museum, the often controversial David Cerny sculptures, – here are six (6) more highlights of our stay.

1. A WALKING TOUR

Walking is a great way to get to know a city. Peter's sister, who had joined us in Prague, speaks German and French. So we arranged for a private German-speaking guide for a four-hour walking tour the first day of our stay.(see photo on Charles Bridge)

Vaclav, whose Austrian-tinged German was delightful, took us first through the Lesser Town of Prague. With him we discovered special places we may not have found on our own.

He showed us Wallenstein's Garden, the Kampa Island, the Maltese and Grand Priory Squares, etc., and entertained and educated us with many historical facts (the fate of the Templars, the Hussites, etc.) and stories, some of them quite personal.

The John Lennon wall (see photo) had very special memories for him:

Vaclav related to us how scared he (and his parents) were when they were visited one evening by a policeman. Together with some classmates Vaclav had been part of a demonstration at the Lennon Wall during the “Prague Spring” and had not realized that they were all being filmed or photographed. He was a fourteen-year-old school boy at that time. The policeman's “advice” was easy to understand: If Vaclav wanted to finish school – he should stay away from demonstrations!

After the tour of the Lesser Town, we went over the Charles Bridge, to the Jewish Quarter, and finally to Old Town Square (see photo).

We waited for the famous Astronomical clock to ring at 6 PM, but in vain – it was still being repaired.

Since there were just three of us taking the tour and Vaclav's approach was quite casual, it felt like we were just having a conversation with him, not getting a tour lecture.

Such a very personal introduction to Prague at the beginning of our seven-day stay was wonderful.

2. TOUR OF PRAGUE CASTLE

Prague's Castle complex towers high over the river Vltava. With the original building dating back to the 9th century, the Castle area was built and rebuilt over the centuries. It now holds several palaces, three churches, a monastery, defense towers, and gardens.

It was fascinating to walk around the Castle complex. Its buildings combine architectural styles from several historical periods: Romanesque, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Mannerism and Neo-classic. For art lovers, the Castle's Picture Gallery and the collections in the Lobkowicz Palace are a special treat.

St. Vitus Cathedral - whose spires give the Castle its distinct presence - is not to be missed. Begun in 1344, the stunning Gothic/Neo-Gothic cathedral was finally finished in 1929. The work by the early architects, Peter Parler and his sons, Wenzel and Johannes Parler, is particularly interesting. The so-called Parler vaults (or net-vaults) are said to have heavily influenced Gothic architecture in Slovenia, Austria, and Croatia. And, art historians speculate: Did St. Vitus Cathedral influence English Gothic, or was it the other way around?

The gorgeous stained glass windows of St. Vitus Cathedral were created by Czech artists of the early 20th century. A sweet discovery was the new window in the north nave, designed by the famous Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha. (It was installed in 1931.)

The way out of the Castle area took us past the Golden Lane, a narrow street with small colorful houses. Built in the late 16th century in the Mannerism style, they housed the families of Castle guards. Somehow it seemed fitting to me that Kafka lived in one of them for a year (number 22).

3. A TRAM RIDE TO VYSEHRAD

We made extensive use of Prague's public transportation system. With all three of us having passed the 70 year milestone, we could use it entirely for FREE! (We could first not believe it when we wanted to buy a ticket!) Vysehrad was only a short tram ride away along the scenic Vltava River.

Originally an 11th century fortress, Vysehrad has great historical significance for Prague. Legend has it that the fort was the first seat of Czech dukes. It stands on a hill surrounded by a large park. From the walls of the fortress, you have a fantastic view of Prague and the Vltava River.

The Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul is part of the Vysehrad complex. Inside, besides more traditional art, you'll find amazing Art Nouveau frescoes covering the walls. They are by the painter Frantisek Urban and his wife Marie Urbanova-Zahradnicka (done in the early 1900s).

We toured the cemetery, where many Czech luminaries are buried, including the composers Smetana and Dvorak. (By the way, Dvorak's name is a good example of how the Czech “accented-r” is pronounced: it's “r-zh”, that is r + zh, as in “measure”. Sorry, but my font doesn't support Czech accents.)

On the way back down to the tram stop, we had lunch at a small bistro that was obviously a favorite with locals.

4. DAY TRIP TO PILSEN

On one of the days, we took a train to Pilsen, home of the famous Pilsner Urquell. The town is located about 90 kilometers (56 miles) southwest of Prague. Trains go every hour and it takes about 90 minutes to get there.

At the Pilsen train station, we looked for a tram to take us to the center of town. We didn't see a ticket dispenser, so we tried to buy tickets from the driver as we got on. There was clearly a problem. It turned out that she had run out of tickets, so we rode free again.

We've been to plenty of breweries before, so we skipped the one in Pilsen. Instead, we took a 2-hour walking tour through the historical center of town. Tatjana, our guide, started us out on Republic Square. In its center stands the Gothic Cathedral of St. Bartholomew with its high spire. (The cathedral is currently undergoing extensive renovations.)

Around the square are buildings from varying periods, including an impressive Renaissance Town Hall. A curious contrast to the historical buildings are the three modern gilded fountains (built 2010) standing at three corners of the square. They symbolize three motifs from the Pilsen coat of arms (Camel, Greyhound, and Angel), and have caused plenty of controversy. (The one on the picture is the Greyhound.)

Pilsen, with 178,000 inhabitants is the Czech Republic's fourth largest city, and capital of the Pilsen region. After the hustle and bustle of several days in Prague (1.4 million), we enjoyed the more relaxed and quiet day in Pilsen. Our tour was also quite “private”, as it only included a young couple from Germany besides us.

5.VIDEO EXHIBITION: INVAZE 68 (Invasion 68)

An exhibition of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact Invasion of 1968 at the Fair Trade Palace was just being held as we were in Prague. The exhibition marked the invasion's 50th anniversary.

The show included a video installation based on photographs by the Czech-French photographer Josef Koudelka, together with authentic sound recordings.

Archival footage of the 1968 invasion by the classic filmmaker Jan Nemec was also part of the exhibit.

The powerful images of burning tanks and trucks together with the sound recordings of gunfire brought back to me how chaotic those days were.

And how lucky my travel friend and I were to be able to get out of Prague in time.

6. WALK UP TO PETRIN PARK

On the last day of our one-week stay in Prague, we walked up to the Petrin Park to take a last look at the city from above.

There is a Funicular Railway to the top of Petrin Hill, built for the national Jubilee Exhibition of 1891. We passed up the ride, however, for a leisurely but invigorating walk.

The path led us up through woods, past several open spaces and along the “Hunger Wall”. The story behind the name of the wall (of which about 1,300 yards remain) goes back to 1360 when Charles IV began its construction during a period of famine.

At the top of the hill stands the Petrin Lookout Tower, a small version of the Eiffel Tower. The Petrin Tower was built as part of the 1891 Exhibition, only two years after the completion of the original. At 200 feet high, this famous Prague landmark is about one-fifth of the height of the real Eiffel Tower.

We took the lift up the tower, though you can also walk up via 299 stairs.

The view from the lookout platform was magnificent. We had hit a clear day and could see far and wide beyond Prague into the verdant region of Bohemia.

OTHER THOUGHTS

I was glad to have visited Prague again. My memories of tanks, people running, long lines of shoppers in front of dark facades and buildings in disrepair have been replaced.

What I remember now is a modern city, with modern architecture, side by side with well-restored Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque buildings and the charm of times passed.

The Czech Republic was only born in January 1993 after the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia. However, this year the country also celebrates the 100-year anniversary of the formation of Czechoslovakia, the initial multi-cultural state that formed in 1918 after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

We heard that relations between Czechs and Slovaks are better now than during the 75 years when they both were part of one country.

For anyone visiting Prague, we can only recommend staying in New Town. There are fewer tourists, and you can walk and use public transport to wherever you want to go.

And, if you are a beer lover, you'll like both Czech beers and their prices.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments right here below! (And if you'd like to read the original German version, just send us a note to contact.)

 

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I recently came across a newspaper clip from September 1968, that I had found among my late father's belongings:

He had published excerpts from my (German) letter to my parents in the “Canada Kurier”, a German newspaper in Winnipeg, Canada under the title: “Erlebnisse und Eindrücke eines Besuches in Prag”. (Experiences and Impressions of a visit to Prague)

In the letter, I wrote how I had experienced the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968.

How I Got to Prague

On August 19th, 1968, an American friend and I arrived in Prague. A student from Canada, I had spent the year as an exchange teacher for English in Freiburg, Germany.

I was off for the summer and in my old Volkswagen Beetle, my friend Harris and I drove from the Black Forest, to Bavaria and into Austria.

On our way to Vienna, we decided to take a detour to Prague, Czechoslovakia, to see what the "Prague Spring" was actually like.

We had heard that Alexander Dubcek, First secretary of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KS?), had started a reform program to establish “communism with a human face”. The period of political liberalization got to be known as the "Prague Spring".

Dubcek had vehemently reassured Moskow that Czechoslovakia had no intention of leaving the Warsaw Pact (a political alliance between the Soviet Union and several Eastern European countries, established in May 1955).

We arrived in Prague late afternoon on Monday, August 19th, 1968 and got accommodations at a student residence. There they rented rooms over the summer to tourists. [I don't know if that particular one still exists, but it was located about 4.5 km from the city center.]

The Published Excerpts From My Letter (Freely translated and edited)

Yesterday [August 20th], we toured the city: the Town Hall with its old astronomical clock, the Synagogue, the Castle, Kafka's house, the Charles Bridge. On the bridge, hippies drew modern religious images and Dubcek slogans with chalk onto the sidewalks. Some of the young people were singing folk songs.

In the evening, before returning to the student residence, we strolled by the Vltava river and chatted [in German] with one of the locals. He painted us a rosy picture of growing freedom in his country.

That night I dreamt of grey airplanes in my room but I didn't sleep badly.

The next morning [August 21st], as I was in the women's washroom for a shower, a man rushed in and looked for his wife. He was Italian and kept shouting "russi, russi".

Later, at the reception, we were told that the Russians had unexpectedly entered the city with tanks and armored vehicles. It was to be a full fledged occupation.

Our first thought: Let's get out of here. We checked out of the student residence and tried to find gas for the car. But that seemed like a hopeless undertaking. We were told that all gas stations had been out fuel for hours.

So we drove to the train staton to call the Canadian and American embassies. But there we encountered Russian tanks and troops.

We didn't want to leave the car on the street. For now, it seemed best to stay calm, get a place to stay and to wait and see.

We drove back to the student residence and were lucky to get beds again for the night. We left the car there and walked back into the city center.

In front of the grocery stores, we saw long lines of people hoping to stock up on food.

An open truck drove down our street. On it people were people waving flags. A bystander told us that they were chanting "long live Dubcek".

As we got closer to Wenceslas Square, we heard shots. But when we got there, things had calmed down.

A large crowd of people had gathered on the square in passive demonstration.

A little farther on, we did see though, that the National Museum was riddled with bullets. When we asked a passerby why that building, he said: "Why, yes, why? They are Russians and they don't need a reason. Today, the 21st of August is a historic day for us".

Right then, a huge cloud of smoke rose up and we could smell rubber and gasoline. At the same time we heard the noise of automatic rifles and tank guns. Our passerby told us: "Oh, that's Radio Prague being blown up".

Armored tanks thundered by. The soldiers on them shot periodically into the air. All around, people shouted and cursed, some of them from behind bushes.

Finding the Embassies

When things calmed down again, we took a side street and walked in the direction of the Canadian and American embassies. It seemed like a good idea to register with them.

But the embassies weren't that close. And to get there, we had to cross the Vltava River. The bridges were all guarded by soldiers in tanks. As pedestrians we could still move around freely, but traffic was at a standstill.

We were afraid that once across the Vltava River, we would be cut off from our student residence.

Besides, a large part of the occupying forces were located around the Prague Castle, where Svoboda and Dubcek were being "isolated". The embassies were just around the corner from there.

[Ludvic Svoboda was president of Czechoslovakia from 1968 to 1975. He achieved great popularity by resisting the Soviet Union's demands during and after its invasion of August 1968. (Brittanica)]

Still, we continued on and crossed the Vltava River over the Charles Bridge. Just like the local pedestrians, we zigzagged our way through the rows of armored vehicles that stood guard there.

A group of soldiers called something to a young woman. She swore back at them. They cursed in return. The woman lifted her fist and shouted "Heil Hitler". It wasn't the first time that such a comparison was made. Swastikas had been chalked onto some of the walls and we even saw one on the inner side of a tank wheel.

Local Czechs clustered around some of the armored vehicles and spoke with the soldiers. Some even handed out flyers to the troops.

Later, we met an Englishman who told us the following: His girlfriend, who was Russian, had spoken with some of the soldiers. They told her that many of the occupying Russians were surprised to be in Prague and not in Poland. Others only knew that they were fighting a "counter revolution". Still others only shook their head and said: "We don't know anything, we only follow orders."

We finally did reach both the American and the Canadian embassies and left our names there.

By now it was three in the afternoon and it seemed wise to return to the student residence.

After all, we had a long walk in front of us and who knew what problems we would still encounter. Luckily, going back over the Charles Bridge went without a hitch.

But now all bridges were being guarded even more heavily. On all larger streets stood rows of armored vehicles.

On all public squares you could see an increased number of soldiers, each with an automatic rifle.

It seemed to me, though, that their uniforms looked a little ragged and not really adequate for an occupying force.

Food and Gasoline

The lines in front of the grocery stores had not gotten shorter. We needed bread, but couldn't find any. All we could get was a package of crackers and beer.

A few people carrying flags were still walking around or driving back and forth in small cars. Some of the flags were torn and spattered with blood.

We heard shouts of "Dubcek, Svoboda". But in general, people were passive. Once we arrived at the student residence, we knew we were in for a long evening.

Upstairs while we ate, we discussed our "gas problem". We knew we had enough gas for about 40 km. But the nearest border crossing was at Gmünd into Austria, and that was about 175 km away.

Other border crossings were even farther and we feared running into a blockade or being forced to take detours.

An East German man from Leipzig explained to us how utterly hopeless the situation was. But he mentioned that the only station that still sold gas was only about a kilometer away. We hopped into the car and drove there.

A long line and a long wait, just to get 10 liters of gas. It was not enough to reach the border, but it was something.

Information and Rumors

In the hall of the student residence, the radio brought the news, always the same bad news. Everything seems so unreal.

Waking up in the morning of August 22 we heard no airplanes, only the constant noise of Russian trucks bringing supplies, cannons, and new troops.

In the women's washroom - the place where we got our first information of the day - one rumor had it that it was impossible to leave the country by car.

Nor were there any trains back to the east block countries or to the west.

There were also other rumors:

  • All border crossings were blocked, except the crossing at Gmünd to Austria;
  • or, the best way to leave was via Hungary;
  • or, the only crossing that was open was the one at Waidhaus in the direction of Pilsen;
  • or, the Vtlava River was blocked everywhere, no chance to cross it;
  • or, some tourists had tried to leave the country and were sent back, etc.

People like us were beginning to feel a little desperate.

It was impossible to call either of our embassies, all telephone connections were cut off.

A man who spoke both Czech and German said that the Austrian embassy advised all tourists to leave the country as soon as they could. We knew we had to act.

Being Lucky

We lined up once more at the gas station. With an extra note, we bribed the attendant to go over the usual ration and fill our tank.

An American student, who had no hope of leaving Prague by train, asked to join us.

Together with him, we discussed how to proceed: either via Budweis to Freistadt or to Gmünd, depending on the information we could get.

With some difficulty we got through the city by car. We had to avoid the heavily guarded areas. And even though locals kindly tried to help us, they were too upset to think clearly.

Outside of the cities, we saw confusing road signs. Some of them were obviously turned the wrong way and pointed north to Moskau. Others had different place names written over them.

In the villages along the road people gave us fliers. In one town they tossed flowers to us as we drove by. In many places, the names Dubcek and Svoboda were written in chalk on the road.

About an hour before the border, we came across another gas station and could fill up again.

A woman said we definitely needed to drive to the Gmünd border crossing.

On our way there we caught up twice to a convoy of tanks. It was easy to recognize the Russian tanks. They had a thick white stripe on their frame.

At the border, there was only a normal line of cars waiting to cross. We didn't see any Russian vehicles.

Later we heard that Gmünd really had been the only open border crossing at that time. A man we talked to had first tried crossing at three other places and but was turned back by the Russians.

We also heard that Russian tanks were supposed to arrive at Budweis at 5 o'clock. Half of them would continue on in the direction of Gmünd to close the border there.

I guess we'd been really lucky. In Viennese, you'd say we had "a Masl".

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments right here below! (And if you'd like to read the original German version, just send us a note to contact.)

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Maybe you're an adventure traveler who likes to explore a country on your own. But traveling to a country where you don't understand the language can be intimidating.

Yes, you can tell yourself, everyone speaks English. But actually not everyone does, and certainly not in areas that are off the beaten track. Or in areas that don't care that much about speaking English.

That last point was driven home to us during our one-month stay in Seville, Spain. One night when we tried to withdraw money from an ATM, the machine went on the blink during the withdrawal.

Our card was withheld, and "for technical reasons" the machine was unable to issue us the cash we had requested (though, as we found out the next day, the money had been withdrawn from our account after all – see for the full story: 5 Tips For Dealing With ATM Troubles Abroad - And At Home).

To our surprise, our several conversations with the bank manager (to get our card and our cash back) had to be done in Spanish. He proudly told us that he "did not speak English". The one employee of the bank who supposedly spoke English, didn't really.

Our Spanish turned out to be much better than his English. Still, using Spanish banking language proved to be quite a challenge and we had to brush up on it quickly.

That kind of experience has taught us a few things about preparing for our trips to foreign countries.

To prepare for our "slow travel" adventures - they include unhurried stays in Rome, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Seville, Madrid, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Amsterdam - we made sure to learn some language basics and to find out about cultural differences.

1. Practice the Phrases You Might Use

To prepare for speaking the local language on your travels, you need to practice. But you need to especially practice words, phrases and sentences that you are likely to use.

Greetings, please and thank you, numbers, question words, asking for directions, language for shopping, - all these are helpful, especially if you go outside of larger cities.

Obviously, you can't prepare for all occasions and emergencies, as we found out in Seville. But it didn't take us long to learn some of the key banking terminology either.

A good part of your language practice can be done on your own. To do that, nothing beats online sites that have audio and text, and which teach you the practical vocabulary you need.

You can pace yourself, you don't have to worry about making mistakes, and you can practice until the phrases you want to learn become automatic.

Words and Phrases

As I'm acquiring a new language right now - Czech - in preparation for a week's stay in Prague, I'm experiencing the challenge of learning totally unfamiliar words and sounds.

I find that it takes persistent practice to learn new words and their spelling with the goal to get them into my long-term memory.

Not only do I repeat the words often, and practice them in a kind of "spaced repetition", I also make sure I recall them frequently.

Learning vocabulary in "chunks" (meaningful phrases) is better than just learning individual words.

Once you have a set phrase, such as asking "Where is ...? or "How much is ...?" or requesting "I'd like ..." or "Please give me ...", you can put in other words to suit different situations.

Numbers

We discovered during trips to Japan and China that the most useful vocabulary we learned were the numbers.

The need to understand and say numbers came up again and again as we visited markets, paid in restaurants, requested tickets, asked for information, etc.

Listening practice

Clearly, understanding the rapid speech of native speakers is more difficult than speaking phrases and sentences that you've practiced.

So, learning to listen without translating is also really worth practicing. Especially with the kind of vocabulary that you are learning.

At the very least you'll get the gist of the responses people give you.

Pronunciation

Practicing pronunciation goes hand in hand with learning the words, phrases and sentences you want to use. No doubt, it's your goal to be understood when you speak. It therefore helps to practice out loud.

To get your pronunciation good enough, listen carefully to the native speaker and repeat what you hear. 

Some words and phrases may be easy to pronounce. Others might take a lot of practice because they contain sounds that are not part of your native language. Foreign sounds are a challenge because you may not hear them correctly at first.

2. Learn About Cultural Differences

Interacting with others who are from a different cultural background and speak another language is so much more pleasant when you understand some of the cultural assumptions they may have.

Yes, seeing YouTube videos about the social and cultural gaffes some people commit can be quite funny. And people are often very forgiving.

Still, understanding and respecting the values and traditions of others will help you engage positively with them. It will also make you more confident as a language learner.

Formal and familiar forms of address

English has one word for "you", but many other languages have two or more.

Because of the single "you", English speakers just doesn't have the ear for some of the situational differences that dictate a specific form.

Learning when to use the formal as opposed to the familiar forms of address is a must.

Differences in age, social class, type of business, etc. impact on some of the "rules" for using the formal versus the familiar "you". Also, these rules change over time.

The Internet has added some confusion to the issue since age, profession, or social class are usually not visible for participants in group discussions. Often the familiar "you" (German "du", French "tu", Italian "tu", Spanish "tú") is automatically used by all and feels friendly.

Still, if you're in another country and walk into a shop, you'll certainly want to use the formal, polite "you".

Hand Gestures

Becoming sensitive to non-verbal clues in another culture, such as hand gestures and facial expressions, is also important.

While a certain gesture may be respectful in one culture it may be rude in another.

Read more in LingoHut's guest blog post Are There Right or Wrong Hand Gestures? 

Personal Space

When we travel, we often become quite aware of how close people stand to us, including strangers in public spaces.

In some countries, we may feel we are being crowded. For example, people in "contact cultures" (e.g. Southern European countries, South America, Middle East) stand closer and touch more than people in "non-contact cultures" (e.g. Northern European countries, North America, Asia). (Amanda Eriksen, Washington Post) 

Just know that such differences exist and be aware of how you react to a person who handles personal space differently from you.

Sense of Time

Time is another factor where cultural differences occur. Not understanding them can cause unneeded friction even between people who are well-meaning and friendly.

Countries where public transportation and trains run on a precise schedule give you a different experience, as opposed to places where schedules slide and are unpredictably flexible.

The way we perceive and handle time also affects scheduling personal get-togethers. We all have expectations and reactions regarding punctuality and lateness.

But a people's culture isn't just levels of politeness, the experience of personal space, or the perception of social time. When you visit a country or region, it's also worthwhile to learn about its history and traditions.

No doubt, you can learn about cultural differences without learning a language. But inversely, if you acquire another language, learning about the culture that has evolved with it is a must.

3. Don't Be Afraid to Use the Language You've Learned

Once you're in the country where the language is spoken, it's up to you to find ways to engage in conversations with native speakers.

Of course, such conversations are very different from practicing online or even practicing with a tutor (which you obviously could also consider as part of your travel preparations.)

In a conversation so much is going on at the same time. As you listen to your conversation partner and try to understand what the flow of sounds coming at you means, your mind is also working on a possible answer.

It may sound simplistic, but it's true: You can't learn to engage in foreign language conversations unless you do it. Start with baby steps and keep building.

Insist on using the local language at the market, in restaurants and bars, at the bakery, at the supermarket, when asking for directions.

You'll certainly encounter situations when the other person would rather practice his or her English – especially when their English is better than your new language. It's easy to succumb to such an offer, but try to resist.

Such situations are especially true in countries where many speak English. But in rural areas or places off the beaten track you'll certainly have the opportunity to practice what you've learned.

I've always found that locals are very supportive of my attempts at using their language. Often it has led to further conversations about their city, about travels, about my home country, etc.

And if you are also a practitioner of "slow travel" and are staying in a city for a longer period, you may be able to engage a tutor. Or you could personally meet an online conversation partner you found via one of the many language-exchange sites.

Even knowing just the basics of the local language will enhance your travel experience. And being able to listen and participate in conversations will get you to another level.

If you're an adventure traveler who likes to explore a country on your own, learn as much of the local language as you can before you get there. You won't regret it.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's 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 right here!

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If you're traveling to Italy, you won't want to miss Florence. Exploring this romantic and historic university town will leave you with some wonderful travel memories.

Our first ItalianTravel Memories post covered Pisa, where Marco, the young traveler in our Italian 1 course, visits his aunt and uncle. He then takes the train to Florence where he looks up a friend he met back home. At his friend's place he meets two other students who join him on his walk through the historic center of Florence.

We'll follow Marco's explorations of Florence. For those of you who are doing or have done our Italian 1 course: Marco in Italia, the additional details will complement those of the course.

The Travel Memories blog posts tell you a few interesting facts about the cities that are featured in GamesforLanguage's travel-story courses. We typically use the cities' names of the streets, hotels, squares, restaurants, etc. and we've been to many of them ourselves.

In future blog posts, we'll provide more details of the other two Italian cities Marco visits, Venice and Rome. And we'll do the same for the cities that our other travelers visit in France, Spain, Germany and the U.S.

In our travel-story course you learn everyday conversational language. In this post, we've listed some additional basic words and phrases in Italian that you may encounter in your travels.

Quick Florence History

The city of Florence (Firenze), considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, is the capital of Tuscany (Toscana), one of Italy's 20 regions. It lies in central Italy, about 2 1/2 hours north of Rome by train.

The most populous city in Tuscany, Florence was named a Metropolitan City (città metropolitana) in 2015. This includes the city itself and the large urban sprawl around it.

Early Florence was a Roman city, established in 59 BC by Julius Ceasar as a place to settle his veteran soldiers. Because of its position at the confluence of rivers (the Arno and its tributaries Murgone, Ema, and Greve), this outpost was first named Fluentia. But the name was later changed to Florentia ("flowering").

In the early Middle Ages, Florence was a city state. It had a flourishing textile industry and developed into an important international trade and finance center.

The Medici family held power in Florence for three centuries (from 1434 to 1737). They were bankers to the pope and great patrons of the arts. Lorenzo die Medici 1449-1492 for example, was a poet as well as a statesman, and commissioned works by Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci.

From 1737 to 1859, a number of foreign powers governed Florence (the Austrian House of Lorraine, the Italian House of Bourbon-Parma, Napoleonic France). Then in 1861, Tuscany became a region of the Kingdom of Italy. For six years, Florence was its capital.

Italian Unification (or Risorgimento) was a complicated process that lasted from 1815 to 1871, when Rome finally became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. After unification, the state adopted Italian as the official language.

Standard Italian is based on the Tuscan dialect, which was a literary language spoken by the upper class of Florentine society.

Florence is a beautiful city to discover on foot. Its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site containing numerous monuments, art museums and architectural treasures.

Marco's Arrival in Florence

The trip from Pisa to Florence takes Marco around an hour by train. He arrives at the Santa Maria Novella Train station in the center of Florence. (see picture)

From there, it takes him ten minutes on foot to arrive at Via Montebello 52, where his friend lives. His place is in the historic center of town (Quartiere 1).

The other four administrative boroughs (quartieri) of Florence lie in a ring around the historic center.

Nearby is the Arno River, which runs through the old part of the city. The best known of the five bridges that cross the Arno is Ponte Vecchio with its gold and jewelry shops.

  • il tren - the train
  • la stazione ferroviaria - the train station
  • la via - the road, street
  • il quartiere - the district, part of town
  • il centro storico - the historic center
  • il fiume - the river
  • il ponte vecchio - the old bridge
Palazzo Ricasoli and James Fenimore Cooper

On a walk through the historic district, his friends show Marco the Palazzo Ricasoli, where the popular American writer, James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) lived during his nine-month stay in Florence in 1829. (The Palazzo is now a hotel right in the center of town, where you can stay, see picture.)

Fenimore Cooper's most famous novel, "The last of the Mohicans", was written in 1826. He's also known for a series of adventure stories called the Leatherstocking Tales.

Reportedly, Fenimore Cooper loved the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Florence. He met and socialized with emigrés from various countries and became a kind of celebrity with travelers on the Grand Tour and with American expatriates.

  • la passeggiata - the walk
  • il soggiorno - the stay, temporary residence
  • il palazzo - the building, palace
  • il scrittore - the writer
  • il romanzo - the novel
  • il emigrato - the emigrant
  • il viaggiatore - the traveler
Palazzo Vecchio

Next, Marco and his friends walk past the Piazza della Signoria and the famous "Palazzo Vecchio" (Old Palace). The palazzo has a long and interesting history.

Construction on the building started in 1299. During the centuries the palazzo was used for various purposes, including a prison. Since 1872 it has served as Florence's City Hall. A replica of Michelangelo's David stands near the entrance.

A tour of the Palazzio Vecchio takes you through several courtyards, Roman ruins, a Medieval fortress with secret routes, beautifully decorated Renaissance chambers, and more.

  • la piazza - the square
  • la prigione - the prison
  • il comune - the city hall
  • la entrata - the entrance
  • le rovine - the ruins
  • la fortezza - the fortress
Piazziale Michelangelo

Finally, Marco and his friends take a 15-minute bus ride to Piazziale Michelangelo, a large square in the Oltrarno (beyond the Arno) district of Florence. From that piazziale (large square) one has a stunning panoramic view of the city.

Marco's Next Stop

From Florence, Michael takes an Intercity train to Venice. There he stays in a hotel he had booked on the recommendation of his friends. To get to the hotel, he has to take the "vaporetto", or water bus. In Venice he meets up with Claudia, one of the students he met in Florence.

Have you been to Florence and want to share some of your suggestions and travel memories? It would be great to hear from you!

Register, or log in again and continue with the Italian 1 course.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's 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 right here!

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With 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.

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?

Done 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

Take 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.

One 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.

There 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.

 

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