Category Archives: Learning Other Languages

Brainscape Flashcards: Website and Mobile Apps

By   February 2, 2011

Brainscape is a website that offers flashcards on a variety of topics – more than just foreign language vocabulary – using graduated intervals for maximum repetition and reinforcement of least-known items.  This learning technique goes by many names (spaced repetition seems to be the most common among language learning sites) and it is indeed based on actual scientific research that you can read about in scholarly journals. Brainscape explains the cognitive science behind their system and cites their sources, which is extremely important to a researcher like me who values empirical data and facts over random anecdotes of personal failure or success.

The concept is simply to rate how well you felt you knew each item on a numerical scale, starting at 5 for perfectly down to 1 for not at all.  The items that you rate lower will reappear more often so that you can focus your attention on them rather than spending time on the ones you already know fairly well.  Currently there are flashcards available in the subjects of Test Prep (GRE & SAT vocabulary plus Driver’s Ed), Languages (Spanish, French, Chinese, ESL and survival Russian & Portuguese), and Knowledge Junkie (random facts for nerds like me). Audio is provided for many of the language cards and will be continually added for languages that do not already include it. Keyboard shortcuts are also available (spacebar and numbers) so you aren’t required to click constantly.

At this time, all of the flashcard sets are available for free on the website.  Just create an account or sign in with Facebook and add them to your library.  You can also create your own cards or import lists of items in XML or CSV format as well as share them with other users on the site. If you have an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, Brainscape also offers apps for each of the flashcard sets.  More than half are free through iTunes’ app store.  Eventually there will be a single app for accessing your library and syncing your progress between the website and app so that you can start learning on one platform and continue on the other with no interruption.

Even if flashcards are not your thing, Brainscape’s blog is still worth checking out for articles on learning, memory, cognition, education, etc. They update it quite frequently and have great guest bloggers and interviews.

Finally, I have five promo codes for the French Vocab Genius app for iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch (normally $7.99) which includes nearly 3,000 audio flashcards. The first five people who e-mail me at ielanguages [at] gmail [dot] com requesting a code will receive one! [EDIT: All of the codes have been given away already!]

Spanish Resources for Teachers and Learners

By   January 28, 2011

Hi guys, my name’s Andrew, and I’ve been teaching myself Spanish on and off for over 3 years now, and in the process of doing so I’ve learned an enormous amount about how to learn a foreign language on your own and Spanish in particular, and of course I’ve accumulated a very large collection of resources that I’ve found to be useful in helping me. I talked about doing a guest post with Jennie because she has expressed an interest in learning Spanish herself and also said she wanted to get more information on Spanish up on her site, and she said that a list of resources (free sites, etc.) that I particularly liked would be great, so that’s what I’ve got for you below. These are only a very small fraction of the sites and tools that I’ve tried at some point, but they’re the best ones.

Tools: Dictionaries and Translators and Conjugators, Oh My!

First and foremost is my overall favorite tool: – The dictionary is excellent and works perfectly and everything, but it’s not just that, it’s that plus the translation tool you see there directly below it that, when you enter something in it to translate, runs it through Google Translate and Yahoo!’s Babel Fish and FreeTranslation so you’ve got 3 different translations to choose from (Google’s is almost always the best), plus the verb conjugator they’ve got there that produces what are easily the best organized and easiest-to-read conjugation tables of any conjugation tool I’ve found yet (you can get to it from the main page by hovering over the ‘More’ menu and selecting ‘Conjugation’).

The Spanish dictionary is the best I’ve used, the translator is the best I’ve used, and the conjugator is the best I’ve used, hands down. Awesome tool, and it’s so nice to just have one site that I have to have bookmarked and need to refer to whenever I need to do nearly anything reference-related with Spanish.

If you’re a flashcard person (I am, now that I don’t have to actually deal with the physical ones) then you’ll love Anki: it’s something called an SRS (Spaced Repetition Software) that functions like flashcards but much, much better in that it not only eliminates the actual paper ones but also deals with which card you need to review and when by using a special algorithm that takes into account when you last reviewed it, whether you got it right, how old it is, and how many times you’ve already seen it–you’ll go from initially reviewing a card once a day for a couple sessions quickly (if you get it right) onto once every 3 then 5 then 15 then 30 days then once every couple of months, this way you can have literally thousands of words and phrases that you review, you’re never allowed to forget any of them, and reviewing them only takes 10-30 minutes a day or so depending on how many cards you have (I have about 500 right now and my average review is 15-20 cards that takes all of about 3-5 minutes per day).

Also, in case you hadn’t noticed, is shutting down, so there are now going to be a LOT of people out there in need of a replacement, and I’m certain that Anki will get the lion’s share of them quite easily.

I don’t think I’ve heard this anywhere else, but I will tell you right now that the best source for looking up Spanish slang is…Urban Dictionary. Seriously. Nothing beats it.

Mind you, I’m talking about looking up a slang word that you heard in Spanish–if you want to find out if there’s a Spanish slang for something you know in English then Google is your best bet: “spanish slang for _____”.

Need to know what a “rolo” is? Urban Dictionary’s got your back (it’s a Colombian slang term for someone from Bogotá). How about the oft-heard Mexican slang term “pinche“? Yup. “Majo“? Yup (2nd definition is correct). “Chiflada“? It’s there. See what I mean?

Forvo is a very interesting website, and immensely useful to language-learners. It’s sort of like a dictionary in that it’s got most of the words currently in use in a language (and they’ve got over 180 languages at the moment) but instead of giving the definition for it they give you the pronunciation…in the form of an audio recording that you can listen to instead of that IPA gibberish that no one understands, that way you can actually hear a native speaker pronouncing the word you’re looking up! How awesome is that?

General Learning Resources

My personal favorite that I’ve used forever is Ben and Marina’s Notes in Spanish where you can listen to many, many, many hours of conversation between the two of them about all sorts of interesting things, and what makes it really outstanding is the fact that they’ve got 3 sections based on difficulty: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. I can’t tell you how nice this is, each lesson not only has a conversation in actual colloquial Spanish but they also take time after each one to explain what they were talking about, go over vocab, slang, etc. The Beginner’s level has about 5 minutes of conversation and 10-15 minutes of explanation, and the conversation itself is done slowly using basic grammar and vocabulary, but it’s not textbook or childish, it really just works perfectly, you have to try it to see what I mean.

The audio lessons are completely free and that’s what I’m referring to, they also have worksheets that they charge for: although they’re very helpful, you absolutely do not need the worksheets; all they are, are transcripts of the conversation in Spanish (no English translation–that would make them worth it) with a little vocab afterward. has got 165 children’s books in Spanish available online for you to read. Do I really need to tell you what a fantastic learning tool children’s books in your target language are? They’re at a children’s reading level, they’re fun and far more interesting than a textbook, and they’re free!

Wikipedia’s section on Spanish grammar is probably all you’ll ever need, if that–there isn’t much you can’t find an adequate explanation of in there, however…I do have a Spanish grammar book that I absolutely love, it’s concise, easier to understand than any other explanation of Spanish grammar I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot), small enough to fit in a back pocket, and fairly thin (200 pages): Barron’s Spanish Grammar

The Spanish section of the BBC’s language-learning page is fantastic, tons of free videos, newscasts, radio broadcasts, lessons, etc.

On my own site I’ve got a very long list of websites where you can watch streaming Spanish-language TV for free that I highly recommend–unlike every other list I checked when putting that post together, there isn’t a dead link on there anywhere (that I know of, if you find one let me know in the comments and I’ll fix it) and I’m constantly updating it to remove sites that don’t work any more and add new ones. Most of them are TV stations and they’re all organized by country so you can pick a specific country if you’re especially interested in it. This is, by far, the most comprehensive list of such sites you’ll find anywhere online, I promise you (I know this because I looked at every other such list out there in the process of making this one).

Language exchanges can be very hit-or-miss, but they’re a fantastic (and for some people: only) way to find native speakers to practice with, plus you do it via Skype so you never have to leave the house. The one that I’ve had the best luck with, by a long ways, is The Mixxer. Keep in mind that you’ll have to message 5 or 10 people for every 1 that you manage to get to converse with you on a regular basis, but it’s extremely convenient and entirely free unlike paying for a tutor or something, and a lot of people live in an area where they just can’t find native speakers to practice with face-to-face so this sort of thing is their only option.


Mine!!! Well you knew that was coming, right? I presume that you’re doing this from home, alone, and don’t want to spend much/any money on it. I have published such fascinating and riveting articles as how to learn Spanish from Shakira’s music videos (there are two prior similar posts based on two of her other songs: Suerte and La Tortura that are linked to from that one), and the ever-popular Telenovela Method of learning Spanish.

The blog formerly known as ‘Actualidades’ but currently called Zambombazo (no clue why he did that, but anyway…): this guy is super-active, posting really good quality stuff about 2-5 times per day. What he does is use current pop-culture media like music videos, short clips of TV shows, pictures, news stories etc. that are from a Spanish-speaking culture somewhere (he does a good job of changing up the countries and giving you a good variety) and then turning it into a little mini Spanish-lesson where he has a series of questions that either you or your students are supposed to answer afterward. It’s just one guy doing all of it and the amount of work he puts into this site is just unbelievable, either he’s retired or independently wealthy, there’s no other explanation.

Fluent in 3 Months is a general language-learning blog run by ‘Benny the Irish Polyglot’ and he’s currently in the Philippines and focusing on Tagalog right now, but this is one that anyone learning any language for any reason ought to be subscribed to, Benny puts out awesome stuff and his lifestyle is fascinating and something I hope to somewhat emulate eventually: what he does is move to a new country for 3 months at a time during which he forces himself to get conversationally fluent in the local language (in 3 months, hence the name of the site). So far he’s done Irish, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and German using this particular method (he also speaks Esperanto). Fascinating stuff, good writer, and he’s walked the walk (taught himself multiple languages) and consequently earns the right to talk the talk and be taken very seriously.

I especially liked his post on ‘the smartest decision you will ever make’, which does an excellent job of explaining his philosophy on language-learning.

Spanish Only. Oh this is going to be fun: Benny (above-mentioned) and Ramses (guy who runs Spanish Only) not only use diametrically opposed methods (Benny knows that the correct way is to start speaking a language as soon as possible, Ramses religiously follows the belief that you should go through a ‘silent period’ first where all you do is listen and read) but they’ve also been at each others’ throats a bit recently (watching the back-and-forth cat fight on twitter was genuinely entertaining, haha), so I’m sure they’ll be ecstatic about seeing their sites right next to each other here. He does publish really useful stuff, though, but nowhere near as frequently as Benny (Benny publishes 3-5 times a week, Ramses is more like 2-4 times a month).

Language Fixation is another great language-learning blog that I really like due to his analytical approach and extreme emphasis on numbers, analysis, record keeping, setting very specific goals, and in particular doing a great job of keeping track of his results and then publishing them for other people to see. He’s also of the input-only-to-begin-with school like Ramses but has also published some great advice on how to get speaking practice on your own that I found to be especially insightful and valuable.

Randy over at Yearlyglot is on a similar sort of program as Benny in that he has a set time (one year) to learn each of his languages and then at the end of that year he travels to the country in question to test himself (he’s currently in Italy but has already started on Turkish which is what he’s learning for this year).

And, of course, if you’re not subscribed to Jennie’s blog, you should be (click me!)–she posts great stuff regardless of what language you’re learning.


My personal favorite regardless of what language you’re learning, and probably the biggest language-learning related forum on the internet, is HTLAL (How to Learn Any Language). Keep in mind that people there are very analytical and logical about how they go about doing things, but that has resulted in a level of quality of information that you won’t find anywhere else. I especially recommend people check out Iversen’s ridiculously long ‘Guide to Learning Languages’ (set aside a few days for that one).

Foro de Español is one that I don’t frequent much but that’s only for lack of time. It’s huge and specifically for people trying to learn Spanish (it’s the only one I know of entirely dedicated to Spanish).

Omniglot forum is in a very similar vein to HTLAL except that it’s not quite as big (though it’s still very active).

That’s it, guys. I didn’t want to do an insanely long list of every possible thing that might be useful to someone somewhere, I wanted to only recommend things that I, personally, have used and found to be really useful and valuable resources–the stuff above is probably 10% of what I’ve got in my bookmarks and such, but it’s the best. I hope you find it as valuable as I thought it was.



In Search of More Multilingual Vocabulary & Verb Conjugation Lists

By   January 12, 2011

In my never-ending search for websites that provide multilingual vocabulary lists for comparative study, I came across Poliglottus last week. They have two main sections: Basic Vocabulary of 1,300 words in English, Spanish, French, German and Italian and Basic Verb Forms in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Sardinian.  Yes, Sardinian!

You choose two languages, a “chapter” and click Final Exam, then choose Memorize for the lists to appear to the right.  You can also choose Simulator for a flashcard system or Examination to test your memory by typing the translation.

Each chapter has 48 words or verb conjugations total, with 12 appearing at once. Vocabulary words are not in thematic categories, however, and seem to be just random. The verbs are not actually labeled for tenses (though there are two chapters per tense in this order: present, present perfect, imperfect, future, conditional, past conditional, past perfect, subjunctive, imperfect subjunctive, and past perfect subjunctive when I chose Italian/French) but the same verbs are used for each tense – be, have, do, go, want, know, etc. – and they are always in the classic I, you, he/she/it, we, you (plural), they order.

In addition to the sites I’ve previously mentioned such as Book2 and Internet Polyglot, Unilang also includes a MediaGlyphs Wordlist and Basic Phrasebook for comparing two languages. Yet the only resource I’ve found so far that includes more than two languages side-by-side, except my own Romance and Germanic vocabulary & verb pages, is Frederick Bodmer’s Loom of Language which was published in the 1940’s – meaning many of the words are no longer used and words related to technology are completely absent.

I’m still looking for a website, or even a spreadsheet, that includes multiple languages instead of just two that can be customized or modified.  I’m just wondering if a master comparative vocabulary list with words grouped thematically already exists somewhere.  Someone mentioned this on the forum a while ago, but I don’t know if anything ever came of it.

The Power of Babel by John McWhorter

By   January 7, 2011

The Power of Babel is a book about the natural history of language that I read recently while getting over my Christmas cold. (As you have probably noticed from the lack of website updates, I’m still recovering and not doing much besides sleeping and reading.) The book is rather inexpensive at Amazon though it is not available for Kindle, which unfortunately seems to be the case for many language and linguistics books.

Click image for page

Since I found the book to be rather entertaining and insightful, here are some interesting factoids from a few chapters.

  • The future tense in Romance languages derives from combining the main verb plus the conjugated forms of have in Latin. I will love was amare habeo in Latin and it transformed into amerò in Italian. So having to learn various endings for all six person and tense combinations in Italian, French, Spanish, etc? Thanks Latin!  Inflections are transformed this way in many languages, but thankfully English had a simpler process with fewer endings overall (did became -ed for all six, for example.)
  • Much like inflections, tones developed over time from sound changes to distinguish meaning between words. In Vietnamese, for example, tones did not originally exist but then final consonants wore off of many words, changing the sound of the preceding vowel. Now it is these tones that distinguish the differences in meanings instead of the final consonant.  Inflections and tones were not present in the earliest forms of language and they are not necessary to human communication. They are merely accidental changes of words and sounds that produced a more complicated form of the language.
  • The Normans who invaded England in 1066 did not speak a standardized or Parisian French that many people think of, but rather the Norman dialect. The “French” words borrowed at that time were actually the Norman pronunciations, where Norman had k and ei but Parisian had sh and oi (compare carbon/aveir and charbon/avoir). This is also why Montréal is not Montroyal – it was settled by people from Northwestern France rather than Paris.
  • Most people know that double negatives used to be grammatically correct in English, but there are other features of contemporary non-standard dialects that are in fact closer to early modern English than today’s English. Even though thou went out of fashion by 1700, the singular you did not and its corresponding verb conjugation for be in the past tense was, in fact, was.  Letters written by educated people in the 1800’s indicate that “you was” was the standard and it was only because prescriptive grammarians decided that it didn’t sound correct that they stamped it out of modern English by rewriting grammar books.
  • One of the few examples of Scots that still exists, or at least is recognizable, in modern-day English is auld lang syne, literally old long since or “days of yore.”
  • The human proto-language (if you believe that there was one) was very similar to today’s creoles in that the grammar was much simpler – no inflections or tones, or even relative clauses, because these complex features developed due to sound changes and the fact that most language became written instead of only spoken.
  • And of course, my favorite part: the acknowledgement that French is actually two languages: written and spoken. McWhorter mentions a few of the parallels (nous vs. on, ne…pas vs. pas, est vs. c’est) and how textbooks do not do a very good job of informing the learner that the gap between these two is wider than for most other languages.  Written French was codified centuries ago and rarely changes, but the spoken form is highly dynamic, even for non-colloquial speech by the educated. It should be no wonder that c’est was the basis for is instead of est in French-based creoles – se in Haitian creole – because that is what the people always heard in everyday speech.

Christmas Wonderland in Michigan’s Little Bavaria

By   December 19, 2010

Every time I come back to Michigan, whether it’s in December or not, I have to go to Frankenmuth and Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland.

Originally settled by Lutheran immigrants from Franconia, Frankenmuth today is nicknamed Little Bavaria and is probably Michigan’s most popular tourist attraction. The city itself is rather small (2.8 square miles with 4,600 people) but the architecture is undoubtedly Bavarian and they even have their own Oktoberfest each year, which is sanctioned by the city of Munich. The biggest attraction is Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, the largest Christmas store in the world.

Located only 15 minutes from my childhood home, Frankenmuth began my love affair with all things German and started the association Germany = Christmas in my mind. I went to Bronner’s on Friday for some holiday cheer that I had been missing in France.

The best part of Bronner’s is of course the Christmas around the World section, full of ornaments from other countries.

You can find ornaments saying Merry Christmas in over 100 languages.

And ornaments in the shape of famous buildings and cultural objects, such as the Eiffel Tower and bottles of wine for France.

Even the trashcans are multilingual.

And outside of the store stands the Silent Night Memorial Chapel, a replica of the original chapel in Oberndorf, Austria where Stille Nacht was written. The signs along the sidewalk are translations of Stille Nacht/Silent Night into several languages.

Now I’m ready for Christmas!

Dr. Paul Nation & Survival Travel Vocabulary

By   December 9, 2010

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?

Education Systems, Creativity, Motivation and Results-Only Environments

By   December 6, 2010

Being snowed in for a week meant watching a lot of TED talks online, and a few that really interested me focus on certain established environments and how they are not very conducive to education, creativity or motivation.

Sir Ken Robinson on how schools kill creativity and the need for a “learning revolution” throughout the world:

Language Mastery also brought my attention to the neat RSA animated talks, such as Changing Education Paradigms which goes along with the above TED talk on education systems.

Dan Pink on the science of motivation:

All of the recent talk about failing education systems makes me wonder why more people aren’t advocating for a Results-Only School Environment similar to the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), especially for language education. It doesn’t matter how or where or sometimes even when you do something, all that matters is that you actually do it. It’s the same principle for work or school – as school essentially is work. Why should students be forced to learn something they don’t want to when they know it will not be beneficial to their future career? Or why should they be expected to remain in a certain classroom at a specific time every week? Or spend four years earning a degree when all of the material could be learned in much less time?

Most of the research on how the brain learns, and more importantly remembers, information goes against the established school schedule and curriculum. In addition to studies showing that self-study or mixed mode classes are better for learning, more and more schools should be catering to what educational research encourages in order to help students learn the most and in the most beneficial environment.  I’ve expressed my views on self-study in the past, and I still believe it is the best way of learning for motivated people. The problem is that current education systems in place do not provide this choice to the many motivated students, besides the occasional online courses which are still bound to schedules set by the school.

I learned everything in my Anthropology 101 textbook before the semester even started, and the actual class was nothing more than lectures of the various chapters of the textbook. I did not learn anything extra by going to class, but I still had to waste 3 hours every week for 15 weeks because the professor lowered our grades if we did not attend. It was incredibly frustrating to feel that more value was placed on students occupying seats in a classroom than on learning the material. In addition, I was only taking the class because it was a General Education requirement, and not because I wanted to or because it had any direct relation to my declared majors of French and Linguistics/Second Language Acquisition. An entire year of my four year Bachelor’s degree was nothing more than Gen Ed classes, all of which were similar to the Anthropology class: class time was simply a reiteration of the chapters in the textbook. Perhaps for students who did not actually read the book, the class was helpful, but for those of us who did the readings, it was a waste of time.

Even when I was in high school, I felt that I could learn much better and much more by studying on my own, away from the distraction of American high school life where sports and popularity were more important than academics. I was always tired (starting at 7:45am, seriously?) , hungry (25 minutes for lunch!) and uncomfortable (you try sitting on plastic chairs for 7 hours) which left me in a constant bad mood. I begged my parents for years to let me be home-schooled though I knew it wasn’t possible financially. I skipped a year of French by learning everything in the textbook over the summer because the other students were just holding me back. If I learn much faster than others, why do I still have to be in the same class as them just because we’re the same age? I did graduate at the top of my class with a 4.0 GPA, but I still felt that school was too easy and not enough of a challenge for me. I did not care for football or Prom; I valued education and learning. Unfortunately I wasn’t surrounded by people who believed the same.

Obviously, results-only environments cannot be applied to all forms of education and they do not work for all people, especially for those who have no interest in autonomy and think they need very specific schedules and deadlines to function properly. Nevertheless, I truly believe that simply giving students the choice and flexibility of learning the way that humans are supposed to learn would improve overall results, especially for foreign languages. When people are free to do what they want, when they want and how they want, they are more motivated and more productive – and the end result is what matters most, not how you got there. If you feel that you learn better at midnight instead of 8 am, or while eating instead of just before or after, or on the couch instead of in front of the computer, then by all means do the things that make you the most comfortable. The only question that should matter is: Did you learn something or not?

Never let your schooling interfere with your education. – Mark Twain

My two year-old niece will help you learn spoken French [New informal French video]

By   December 1, 2010

My two year-old niece was recently talking to David on the phone, and she asked t’es au boulot ? Are you at work? However, books will tell you to say es-tu au travail ? instead – or actually it’s more likely they will insist on êtes-vous au travail ? because foreigners never need to use the informal you, right? Most French books also still teach that using inversion is the best way to form questions, and they ignore slang vocabulary such as boulot in place of travail. Yet even my young niece knows that nobody talks like that in everyday conversations in France.

Real French is very different from textbook French. When I think about how many years I spent learning French before I ever came across the reduction t’es or the slang word boulot, I wonder what the heck kind of French these books are trying to teach. My niece may only be two but she can teach you real French much better than any French book found in bookstores. I’ve made a video of one of the eavesdropping mp3s available on French Listening Resources, with the transcript and notes on the informal words used, featuring Mélina eating a snack and wondering where her shoes (shushu) are:

Review of Language Learning Websites II: Mango Languages, LangMaster, LinguaTV, and Yabla

By   November 27, 2010

Six months ago I posted my thoughts on the popular language learning sites Livemocha, Busuu, LingQ and Hello-Hello. Now I would like to review four other language learning websites that I have used recently.  The previous four sites were “communities” where not only can you use their flashcards and exercises, you create a profile and interact with other languages learners on the site via chat or messaging. Mango Languages, LangMaster, LinguaTV, and Yabla are not communities but do offer just as much language input and are just as – and sometimes more – useful even without the social aspect. I am more interested in the actual language provided by the website and its pedagogical implementations rather than ways to get in touch with others. Interacting with native speakers is obviously the best way to learn, but you don’t necessarily need a language community website to find native speakers.

For the purposes of self-study when you cannot or do not have a native speaker to help you, I am looking for the most useful websites with regards to receptive and productive skills involving vocabulary. I am looking for authentic language with plenty of opportunities for active listening and self-testing – criteria that language acquisition research supports, and more importantly, criteria that I know works best in my own language learning experience.

Mango Languages

Previously, I did not review Mango Languages because they only offer one demo lesson, and I didn’t feel as if that was enough to really see how the website works. Mango for Libraries, however, allows me to use all of Mango’s features for free by logging in with my American library card number. Check your library’s website to see if yours has a subscription.

Mango offers 9 foreign languages and 3 ESL courses for individual subscribers (and even more for library patrons – 21 foreign languages and 15 ESL courses) and each of the 100 lessons is based on phrases and dialogs rather than individual words. I like that you have the option of turning off the narrator since a lot of language programs rely too much on instructions in English. There are also keyboard shortcuts for advancing through the lessons, and you can choose the Main Lesson or shorter Vocabulary and Phrasebook Reviews. Grammar and culture notes also appear throughout the lessons but they are not the focus.

The main problem is that the entire program is mostly receptive. You simply listen and repeat as there are no real productive exercises for self-testing. There are often “quizzes/flashcards” in the sense that you are presented with one word or phrase and need to say (not type)  the translation, but that’s not exactly effective self-testing. The recordings are obviously scripted and rehearsed so there is no real authentic language. Nevertheless, I have used it as a refresher for pronunciation and vocabulary but I most likely would not have used it if I didn’t have free access through my library. An individual subscription is $160 for 3 months per course.


I was initially impressed by LangMaster not only because their online lessons are completely free, but also because of the number of exercises and audio files available. For example, the Italian course includes: 125 chapters, 853 interactive exercises, 1,450 pictures and photographs, 117 minutes of sound, and 3,595 audio recordings. Even their software and listening programs are reasonably priced (13-27€) with a 14-day free trial plus Collins dictionary. The free online lessons are available in German, French, English, Italian and Spanish while the software also includes Russian.

There are plenty of opportunities for improving reading, writing, and listening skills and increasing your vocabulary. The lessons are completely in the target language so you may need to keep a dictionary open in another browser. There are cultural notes and grammar notes throughout but they are mostly examples until you get to the last chapter of each lesson, where there is a review explained in English (and which you can skip if you don’t care so much for grammar.) The recordings are mostly scripted but there are also some interviews with more authentic language, and examples of realia from the countries where the language is spoken (photos of signs, menus, brochures, etc.)  Usually the transcripts are provided, whether in the same lesson or later on, so you can check your comprehension.

A few of the disadvantages to LangMaster are that it is only available in the four main foreign languages and the audio is only streaming so you can’t download it. If you like flashcards, there’s no built-in system to review vocabulary, but you could easily create your own Anki decks while working. In spite of these few faults, it is the most complete language program available online for free so I recommend it.


LinguaTV is a German company that offers videos with subtitles in 5 languages: English, German, French, Spanish and Italian. The videos are scripted and rehearsed so they are not quite authentic language, but they are helpful for learning basic vocabulary and phrases for everyday situations. The material is designed for beginners (A1-A2 level) and you can turn off the subtitles if you prefer. Grammar reviews and transcripts can also be downloaded as PDFs for each video, but translations are not provided. The quiz section has a variety of exercises including comprehension questions, crossword puzzles, dictations, fill in the blank, etc.

LinguaTV also has a community website called Lingorilla (in beta) where you can watch the first 9 videos in their Neu in Berlin German series, with transcripts and quizzes. They also have a section on learning languages with music videos but it’s not yet complete. Among their two websites and Youtube channel, quite a few videos are available for free so you can check them out before deciding to pay for a monthly subscription, in the range of 1-10€ depending on the language and course. I am a big supporter of using video and subtitles for teaching and learning languages, but these videos are somewhat limited in that they are not spontaneous, authentic speech.


Yabla is “language immersion through online video” and probably the most useful language website I’ve used so far. The videos come from a variety of sources, whether they are news reports, interviews, or just random scenes filmed in the country to illustrate authentic use of the language. Subtitles and translations appear under the video, which you can turn off if you’d like, and clicking on a word will search for its definition in the dictionary pane to the right.  You can also slow down the play back so the speech is slower, or put it on a loop to repeat a certain word or phrase.  Then you can choose the play game button to start the listening/cloze exercise and type in the missing word.

Currently, there are four languages available: Spanish, French, German and English as a Second Language. They’ve just added a new flashcards feature, and the Spanish & French sites also have blogs of language lessons on grammar and vocabulary. All of the languages have hundreds of videos available, and the French site does have some Quebecois videos as well. Monthly subscriptions are $9.95 a month per course, with discounts for 6 or 12 month subscriptions ($54.95 or $99.95) with a 7 day money-back guarantee.  You can download many of the videos through the website or iTunes as well to take with you instead of watching them all online.

Some of the videos are similar to the authentic/eavesdropping videos provided in the Français interactif & Deutsch im Blick online textbooks from U of Texas-Austin, but the main problem with those videos is that many do not have transcripts available unless you are a language teacher (you must prove your credentials to the university) which means they aren’t exactly useful for those who are learning on their own. The textbooks were designed to be used in the classroom however, and not as self-study materials. The advantage of Yabla, even though it is not free, is that transcripts and translations are available for everyone so it is ideal for self-study.

Regional Differences in France & Italy: Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis & Benvenuti al Sud

By   November 22, 2010

In 2008 when Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis was released in France, it was an instant success. The plot focuses on the manager of La Poste in Salon-de-Provence, who is transferred to Bergues in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region and all the negative stereotypes about the north of France, i.e. it’s always rainy and cold, the people are poor, ignorant and backwards, they speak a strange dialect of French called ch’ti, etc. This film is now the most successful French movie ever and Italy has just released their remake of the film, with one major difference – the main character lives near Milan and is transferred to the south, to a small town near Naples. Essentially the same negative stereotypes exist for people in the south of Italy as for the north of France, including the strange dialect that the main character has trouble understanding (Napoletano).

These movies are great for language enthusiasts to learn about accents, dialects and cultural differences within the same country. The French language or French culture doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere in France because it just depends on where you are in the country, which is true of every country and every language. I speak American English but I certainly don’t sound like someone from Alabama. Even if we all speak the same language, we really don’t. But in the end these comedies are about tolerance and discovering that people are people, regardless of differences in location or culture or language.

Another interesting aspect is the translations into English of the original French film. (I haven’t found English translations for the Italian film yet.) Obviously the translations cannot be exact when dealing with puns or words that sound similar in French but do not in English. Usually the English translation just add sh- to the beginning of words. However, the scene about the misunderstanding of siens and chiens (his and dogs) becomes fish and office in English. Here are the trailers of the two films in their original language, with English subtitles for the French film:

Allociné has the Benvenuti al Sud trailer with subtitles in French if you want to compare the two languages. Several clips are also available on Youtube, including Dany Boon’s cameo.

The American remake will supposedly involve both Will Smith and Steve Carell. The plot will essentially be the same, with a southerner being transferred to the north (North Dakota) instead of near the sunny coast (Hawaii).

Benvenuti al Sud will be released in France on November 24 (hopefully sub-titled and not dubbed!)