Tag Archives: languages

The Great Language Game

The Great Language Game: How many languages can you identify?

The Great Language Game

Here’s a fun new game to get addicted to: The Great Language Game

Data scientist Lars Yencken has created a neat game where you listen to an audio clip and choose which language it is. All of the clips are from Australia’s SBS (which you should listen to anyway since so many languages are available).

The number of possible responses increases the longer you play to make it more challenging. So far the highest score is 4,050. Can you beat that?

Free Children’s Books Apps in Foreign Languages

There are a lot of free language apps available nowadays but many of them are not very good or extensive. They tend to include some basic words or tourist phrases in flashcard format, but very few offer connected text (such as stories) in addition to pronunciation. Lately I’ve been looking for apps that include both text and audio in foreign languages, and I’ve mostly found apps that provide one or the other, i.e. ebooks or audiobooks but not synced together so that you can read and listen at the same time. I have found a few apps designed for children, however, that mostly include fairy tales but some include original stories. Many have a “read to me” and autoplay option so you don’t have to keep swiping the screen.

Free Children's Books Apps in Foreign Languages

Both Apple and Android

PlayTales Gold : download books for free, but ad-supported and internet connection needed. Stories available in 8 different languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese (Mandarin), and Japanese. [ Apple version is only a seven day trial so not quite as useful]

Luca Lashes : Original story available in English, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Italian.

Hao-Ming Yeh /QLL Inc. : Apple version seems to only include English and Chinese but Android also has Spanish. Two languages can be displayed on screen instead of just one.

Verlag Friedrich Oetinger : German and English stories (but in different apps)



Tri-Software : Lots of classic children’s books (in different apps) available in at least two languages. Most are available in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian and some even have Portuguese and Chinese. The free versions only include the beginning of the story.

Readalong Spanish : Only in Spanish but you have the option of including the English text on the same screen.



Vienom Kids Books : Two stories available in French & German and two stories available in French, German, and Spanish. Four different apps though, and the free versions only include seven pages of the stories.


Any other useful (and free) apps to add to the list?


I didn’t include any “free” apps that make you pay for every book.

Dora will help you learn half a dozen languages

I often buy DVDs from the European Amazon stores to ensure that I will have a choice of at least one or two other subtitled/dubbed languages besides the original language. I’m not sure how, but I came across Dora the Explorer DVDs at the German Amazon and noticed that they offered FIVE languages, or at least that’s what the Product Details claimed. I bought Entdecke die Welt to see if it were true and I’m so glad I did! It is indeed dubbed in five other languages: German, French, Italian, Spanish and Dutch. Even without subtitles, all the repetition and visual clues in the episodes make it so easy to understand – and if I can’t quite understand something, I’ll just watch the scene in English or French, then again in one of the other languages and try to translate what was said. Five foreign languages for five euros! Amazing! I wish I had bought more DVDs, like this Geburtstagabenteur one which has German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch AND Portuguese.

I decided to check the other Amazon stores to see if I could find any other languages, or any that also had subtitles (which is extremely rare for kids’ movies; sorry deaf kids!) Not only did I find a DVD at the Italian store with the same six languages, but three of those languages are also available as subtitles!  How cool is that?!?

Dora will help you learn half a dozen languages

Dubbed in Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Dutch with subtitles in Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch!

But that’s not the best part. I found a few DVDs at the Spanish and Italian stores that are dubbed in… wait for it… IRISH!!! Yes, Irish. Not English with an Irish accent. The actual Irish language! Whaaaaaat? SHUT. THE. FRONT. DOOR.

And it’s not a mistake or anything. This Italian one has an image of the back of the DVD where you can see that the language irlandese is really included. Wikipedia says that the Irish version actually teaches a few words of Spanish like the English version, unlike most of the other languages which teach some English.

Dora will help you learn half a dozen languages

I even underlined irlandese with a red crayon [brush in Paint].

I also looked at the US, Canadian, French, and UK stores to see if they offered other languages but it’s mostly French and/or Spanish or just English. So if you’re looking for as many languages as possible on one DVD, the German store has the cheapest shipping to the US or Australia, followed by Italian, then Spanish. But remember, the DVDs will be region 2 so you’ll need a region-free player.

P.S. Yes, I loved this and am totally geeked out for this.

Adding Subtitles to Online Videos with Amara for Language Learning

Listening while reading a transcript of what is said is the best way to improve overall comprehension as well as pronunciation. Extensive listening and reading also contribute to vocabulary acquisition. I have previously talked about TV series and movies that may include subtitles, but what about online videos? Youtube does have an automatic closed captioning feature (that is notoriously bad) but you cannot add subtitles to videos that you did not upload. Luckily, Amara and crowdsourcing exist to fill that gap.


Amara, formerly called Universal Subtitles, is a tool for subtitling videos found on Youtube, Vimeo or coded with HTML5. You simply paste the video URL to add it to Amara, and then you and/or anyone else can add subtitles in any language. You can also link your Youtube account to Amara so that the subtitles appear on Youtube itself without having to use the embed code provided by Amara. (If the owner of the Youtube channel hasn’t synced to Amara, then the subtitles are only available through Amara.) You can also download the subtitles in many formats – SRT is the most common – through Amara, which is useful if you download the video and watch it through VLC Player.

For example, here is a video on my Youtube channel with subtitles that I added in Amara. You can watch it through either Amara or Youtube, and either way the subtitles appear.

Now here’s a video that I helped add subtitles to – but since the owner of the Youtube channel to which this video was uploaded has not synced to Amara, the subtitles are only available if you watch the video through Amara rather than Youtube. Usually this doesn’t pose a problem as long as embedding is allowed through Youtube.

Amara is a great tool though it does have a few minor problems. I can’t seem to delete any videos that were added automatically from my Youtube channel (such as travel videos that are silent) or videos that I added only to find out embedding was not allowed. The subtitle sync tool is a bit buggy and hard to use. The search feature is not very good, and it is not possible to simply browse videos in a certain language. You can choose to sort by spoken language and subtitle language, but you must also type in a search term. Sometimes people have identified the video incorrectly. I came across some English and German videos even though I sorted by Dutch for both spoken and subtitled language. One video had numerous misspellings and typos though, as if the subtitler didn’t speak the language well. (This is one of the major problems with crowdsourcing: quality control.) Finding videos that include subtitles of the spoken language can be a pain, but I do believe that Amara will get better over time as more native or advanced speakers help to add subtitles.

Amara emphasizes the need to make videos accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing, as well as reaching as many viewers as possible by translating and subtitling into other languages. Yet they don’t seem to emphasize how extremely important subtitles are to language learning. And it isn’t simply watching/listening and reading at the same time that helps language acquisition. Adding subtitles to videos can also be a language learning exercise.

First, request a transcript of a video on Rhinospike. Once someone has provided the transcript, you can then add the subtitles to the video on Amara by copying and pasting. You must listen a few times to make sure the subtitles are synced correctly to the video, so it’s a way of making sure you repeat the material over and over. As a bonus, you are making more resources available to other language learners AND helping out the deaf population who truly need subtitles.

I’ll continue to try out Amara for subtitling the French Listening Resources videos. I am also requesting transcripts of videos in other languages on Rhinospike so that I can add subtitles in Amara and create listening resources for Spanish, Italian, German and Dutch.

Quotes from The Loom of Language on Classroom Learning and the Direct Method

I started re-reading The Loom of Language by Frederick Bodmer while travelling around Australia a few weeks ago. I only made it through the Introduction when I realized I had already added nearly 20 bookmarks and notes on my Kindle. I love this book so much. Even though it was published in the 1940’s, it is still highly relevant to the state of foreign language education in Anglophone countries and it remains the best book for gaining comprehension of the major Romance and Germanic languages.



Here are some choice quotes on why this is my favorite book. Bodmer tears apart classroom language learning, grammarians and the direct method. I wish I could marry this man. (Interesting fact: Bodmer taught languages and linguistics at MIT when they were developing their Department of Modern Languages. Noam Chomsky was his replacement when he retired in 1955.)

“After two generations of experiment, educationists are not convinced that the results of school-teaching [of modern languages] justify the time devoted to them in English-speaking countries. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the prevailing attitude among American educationists is one of alarm at the poverty of return for effort put into the task. Subsidized by the Carnegie Corporation, the American Council of Education has undertaken a survey of methods and results in order to review the current situation in American schools. The published report is an honest admission of dismal failure.” p. 12 (This quote is actually in the editor’s foreword, by Lancelot Hogben.)

“…many would study [foreign languages], if they were not discouraged by the very poor results which years of study at school or in college produce.” p. 19

“The greatest impediment, common to most branches of school and university education, is the dead hand of Plato. We have not yet got away from education designed for the sons of gentlemen. Educational Platonism sacrifices realizable proficiency by encouraging the pursuit of unattainable perfection… Most of us could learn languages more easily is we could learn to forgive our own linguistic trespasses.” p. 19

“No one who wants to speak a foreign language like a native can rely upon this book or on any other.” p. 20

“It is a common belief that learning two languages calls for twice as much effort as learning one. This may be roughly true, if the two languages are not more alike than French and German, and if the beginner’s aim is to speak either like a native. If they belong to the same family, and if the beginner has a more modest end in view, it is not true. Many people will find that the effort spent on building up a small, workmanlike vocabulary and getting a grasp of essential grammatical peculiarities of four closely related languages is not much greater than the effort spent on getting an equivalent knowledge of one alone. The reason for this is obvious is we approach learning languages as a problem of applied biology. The ease with which we remember things depends on being able to associate one thing with another.” p. 21

“There is no reason why interesting facts about the way in which languages grow, the way in which people use them, the diseases from which they suffer, and the way in which other social habits and human relationships shape them, should not be accessible to use. There is no reason why we should not use knowledge of this sort to lighten the drudgery of assimilating disconnected information by sheer effort of memory and tedious repetition.” p 24

“Any one appalled by the amount of drudgery which learning a language supposedly entails can get some encouragement from two sources. One is that no expenditure on tuition can supply the stimulus you can get from spontaneous intercourse with a correspondent, if the latter is interested in what you have to say, and has something interesting to contribute to a discussion. The other is that unavoidable memory work is much less than most of us suppose; and it need not be dull, if we fortify our efforts by scientific curiosity about the relative defects and merits of the language we are studying, about its relation to other languages which people speak, and about the social agencies which have affected its growth or about circumstances which have moulded its character in the course of history.” p. 24

“One great obstacle to language-learning is that usual methods of instruction take no account of the fact that learning any language involves at least three kinds of skill as different as arithmetic, algebra and geometry. One if learning to read easily. One is learning to express oneself in speech or in writing. The third is being able to follow the course of ordinary conversation among people who use a language habitually… Whether it is best to concentrate on one to the exclusion of others in the initial stages of learning depends partly on the temperament of the beginner, and partly on the social circumstances which control opportunities for study or use.” p. 25

“Our knowledge of the words we use in expressing ourselves is not prompted by the situation, as our recognition of words on a printed page is helped by the context. Though the number of words and expressions we need is far fewer, we need to know them so thoroughly, that we can recall them without prompting.” p. 28

“The statistical method used in compiling word-lists given in the most modern text-books for teaching foreign languages evades the essence of our problem. If we want to get a speaking or writing equipment with the minimum of effort, fuss and bother, we need to know how to pick the assortment of words which suffice to convey the meaning of any plain statement.” p. 30

“The rules embodied in [Latin and Greek] conjugations and declensions tell you much you need to know in order to translate classical authors with the help of a dictionary. Grammarians who had spent their lives in learning them, and using them, carried over the same trick into the teaching of languages of a different type. They ransacked the literature of living languages to find examples of similarities which they could also arrange in systems of declensions and conjugations, and they did so without regard to whether we really need know them, or if so, in what circumstances… The effect of this was to burden the memory with an immense story of unnecessary luggage without furnishing rules which make the task of learning easier.” p. 37-8

“When sensible people began to see the absurdity of this system, still preserved in many grammar-books, there was a swing of the pendulum from the perfectionist to the nudist (or DIRECT) method of teaching a language by conversation and pictures, without any rules. The alleged justification for this is that children first learn to speak without any rules, and acquire grammar rules governing the home language, if at all, when they are word-perfect. This argument is based on several misconceptions… Since The Loom of Language is not a children’s book, there is no need to dwell on the ludicrous excesses of educational theorists who advocated the direct method* and fooled some teachers into taking it up. The most apparent reason for its vogue is that it exempts the teacher from having any intelligent understanding of the language which he or she is teaching.” p. 38 (Can I just say BURN!?!)

* The silliness of the direct method when tried out on adults was pointed out by Henry Sweet in 1899.

‘The fundamental objection, then, to the natural method is that it puts the adult into the position of an infant, which he is no longer capable of utilizing, and, at the same time, does not allow him to make use of his own special advantages. These advantages are, as we have seen, the power of analysis and generalization – in short, the power of using a grammar and a dictionary.’

The popular myth that it is more difficult for an adult than for a child to learn languages has been disproved by experimental research carried out by modern educationists. Much of the effort put into early education is defeated by the limitations of the child’s experience and interests. The ease with which we remember things depends largely on the ease with which we can link them up to things we know already. Since the adult’s experience of life and the adult’s vocabulary are necessarily more varied than those of the child, the mental equipment of the adult provides a far broader basis of association for fresh facts… Children learn their own language and a foreign one pari passu. The adult can capitalize the knowledge of his or her own language as a basis for learning a new one related to it.” p. 42

So… nothing has changed in seventy years. Learning languages in the traditional classroom with grammar books didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. People still believe the myth that children learn languages better than adults and that banning the native language will magically make students fluent in another language. It’s so frustrating as a linguist and language teacher to have to explain to people all. the. time. that neither one is true.

I’ve previously written about the use of the first language in the classroom and why I am also against the direct method. It is not supported by research in any way, which should be a good enough reason to not use it, but I still come across teachers who insist on banning the first language of the students. Research clearly shows that students need to use their first language in learning a second or third language, and in fact, that they cannot NOT use it. Helping students go between their native and second language and discovering the similarities and differences that can improve and increase the rate of acquisition is a much better “method.”

Also check out Language Learning Quotes from other resources if you’re interested in linguistic research on second language acquisition.

And can we bring back saying nudist method instead of direct method??

Dr. Paul Nation & Survival Travel Vocabulary

Anyone who has done research on vocabulary acquisition has come across Dr. Paul Nation’s articles and books. His 1990 book, Teaching & Learning Vocabulary, as well as his 2001 book, Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, are the basis of most vocabulary acquisition classes at universities today.  He favors frequency lists, extensive reading, and the lexical approach to language teaching in addition to the need to teach students strategies so they can become autonomous learners. In case you haven’t read my previous posts on vocabulary in language learning, I completely agree with his methods.

Currently, Dr. Nation teaches at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and his homepage offers useful resources to download for those interested in vocabulary acquisition. The ZIP file Vocabulary Resource Booklet includes survival vocabulary in 19 languages, based on Nation and Crabbe’s 1991 article “A Survival Language Learning Syllabus for Foreign Travel” (which is also included), ideally for tourists who will be in a foreign country for only a few weeks or months. This survival vocabulary should take no more than 60 hours to learn.

Survival Travel Vocabulary

Here is the syllabus in English, from the article. Numbers in parentheses simply mean that the item occurs in more than one section.

1. Greetings and being polite

Hello/Good morning etc. + reply [there are many cultural variants of these, including Where are you going?, Have you eaten?]

How are you? + reply e.g. Fine, thank you.


Thank you + reply  e.g. It’s nothing, You’re welcome.


Excuse me [sorry]

It doesn’t matter

Delicious (6)

Can I take your photo?

2. Buying and bargaining

I want … (4, 6)

Do you have …?/Is there …?

Yes (8)

No (8)

This (one), That (one) [to use when pointing at goods]

There isn’t any

How much (cost)? (5, 6)

A cheaper one (5)

NUMBERS (5, 7) (These need to be learned to a high degree of fluency)



How much (quantity)?


all of it

(one) more

(one) less

Excuse me [to get attention] (4)

Too expensive

Can you lower the price? + reply  (Some countries do not use bargaining. In others it is essential.)

NAMES OF IMPORTANT THINGS TO BUY  (These may include stamps, a newspaper, a map.)

3. Reading signs






4. Getting to places

Excuse me (to get attention) (2)

Can you help me?

Where is …? (5)

Where is … street?

What is the name of this place/street/station/town?



Department store



Train station


Bus station







I want … (2, 5, 6)

How far?/Is it near?

How long (to get to …)?



Straight ahead

Slow down (Directions for a taxi.)

Stop here




5. Finding accommodation

Where is … (4)


How much (cost)? (2, 6)

A cheaper one (2)

I want … (2,4,6)

Leave at what time?

NUMBERS (2, 7)



6. Ordering food

How much (cost)? (2, 5)

The bill, please

I want … (2, 5, 9)



Delicious (1)

7. Talking about yourself and talking to children

I am (name)

Where do you come from?

I am (a New Zealander)/I come from (New Zealand)

What do you do?

I am a (teacher)/tourist

You speak (Chinese)!

A little/very little

What is your name? (Especially for talking to children.)

How old are you? + reply

NUMBERS (2, 5)

I have been here … days/weeks/months

I am sick

8. Controlling and learning language

Do you understand?

I (don’t) understand

Do you speak English? (7)

Yes (2)

No (2)


Please speak slowly

I speak only a little (Thai)

What do you call this in (Japanese)?


Do you agree with this list? Anything missing? Anything not that necessary for survival as a tourist?