Category Archives: Learning Other Languages

Languages of the European Union, Traveling in the Schengen Area, and Using the Euro (or Not)

By   November 8, 2010

The European Union’s official web portal,, is translated into the 23 official languages: Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish. Each page on the site has the same layout regardless of language so you can easily compare them side by side, as I mentioned in my previous post on multilingualism.

In the next few years, Croatian and Icelandic will be added as Croatia and Iceland finish their accession negotiations and officially join the EU. Macedonia and Turkey are the other current candidate countries, while the rest of the Balkan states – Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia – are potential candidates, which would put the number of languages over 30. Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Andorra and the city-states of Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City are not in the EU.

Naturally all of these languages was the reason I loved the idea of the EU, and being an EU citizen is the golden ticket since you can live and work in any other EU country just as if you were a citizen of that country, with some exceptions. Imagine having the right to work in 27 countries, plus any other countries that eventually join the Union. For someone who needs to be surrounded by languages, becoming an EU citizen would be like winning the language lottery. The Schengen Area (making traveling easier) and the Eurozone (making money issues easier) also contributed to my desire to live in Europe, but in the end, these three entities make the idea of “Europe” even more complicated, whether you live/work here or are just visiting as a tourist.

The Schengen Area includes most of the EU members, except the UK and Ireland, plus Norway, Switzerland, and the city-states; while Liechtenstein, Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus have yet to implement the Schengen rules. For tourists who don’t need a visa to visit Europe anyway, there are no more passport checks at every border, but there are still random checks on trains and buses. It makes crossing the border faster, but that’s about it. Personally, I really miss getting stamps in my passport. And neither the EU nor Schengen Area actually means that European countries are united together like Americans would probably think of. It still costs a LOT of money to leave a rental car in a different country, even if the distance is rather short between the two agencies. We paid 350€ to leave a car in Lyon when we picked it up in Turin (3.5 hour drive), though leaving that same car in Naples (8 hour drive) would have only cost 75€. Flying between European countries sometimes also requires you to go through security and passport control again at airports when you have layovers. In theory, flying within the Schengen Area is supposed to be flying “domestically” but in four years and dozens of flights later, I have yet to experience anything similar to “domestic” flying in the US where you get off one plane directly at the gate and wander over to a different gate to get on another plane. Your departure, arrival, as well as transfer airports must all be in the Schengen Area, but that’s actually difficult since most transfers go through London and some airports require everyone to go through passport control & security again anyway because they don’t have Schengen vs. non-Schengen zones.

The Eurozone currently includes only 16 out of the 27 EU members, though Estonia will adopt the euro in 2011. Some non-EU countries use it as well, such as the city-states and Andorra, Kosovo and Montenegro. The UK, Denmark, Sweden and most of the eastern countries do not use the euro. Honestly I don’t understand why the UK, Denmark and Sweden have gotten away with not using it when the newer members (Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) must eventually adopt it. What’s the point of the EU is there are opt-outs to certain laws and regulations? It’s just as unfair as states in the same country having different laws (talking about you, not-so-United States.)

I would love if the EU and Schengen Space were the same – I really wish Norway and Switzerland would join the EU! – but I’m not so keen on the euro. For tourists, it is great to not have to exchange money all the time. But when you live here, it just makes the cost of living ridiculously high and it’s very unfair when one country has higher salaries and a lower cost of living, but the next country over has the exact opposite (ahem, Germany and France). If you’re all going to use the same currency, why can’t prices and salaries be the same too? The euro has been in the news a lot lately because of the economic problems in Greece and Spain, and every French person I know complains about how expensive everything is with the euro. Ten years ago a baguette cost 2.50 francs (or 0.38€) and today it costs 0.85€ while salaries have barely increased, unless you’re the lucky ones who work in Luxembourg or Switzerland.

I suppose all of these differences depend on what union is supposed to mean. I know there is no real United States of Europe, and in any case, I would not want something similar to the United States of America. I have a lot of problems with states having more control than the federal government in a country that is supposedly rather homogeneous (in what world is it fair that some human beings can marry who they want but other human beings cannot depending on what state they live in, even if they are citizens of the same country???) yet at the same time, I would not want a strong federal government controlling states in Europe that are so diverse because of history, culture and language. Of course, I’m more of an observer and outsider since I am not an EU citizen. I can’t imagine what it would be like for my country to join a union of other countries, change its currency, and no longer have control over its own borders. Perhaps EU citizens can enlighten me on your feelings about it?

Thank you Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland for your Multilingualism

By   November 6, 2010

The other main countries in Europe that speak French are Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland; however, they do not just have French as an official language. Belgium also has Dutch and German; Luxembourg has German and Luxembourgish; and Switzerland has German, Italian, and Romansh. What that means for language lovers is that certain websites have multiple translations and you can use one language to learn another as well as learn about the culture of the country at the same time.

If you like art, the Museum of Modern Art Grand-Duc Jean (MUDAM)’s website is in French and German.  Maybe you’d like to know train vocabulary in German, French and Italian. Try Switzerland’s official rail company. Need to learn words for various food and grocery items so you know what to ask for at the store? is available in French and Dutch thanks to Belgium. (Just choose a store that is on the border, such as Leers.) Then just use two browsers and put the windows side by side to compare the vocabulary.

Of course there are many other websites that provide translations into other languages, such as Wikipedia, but the content isn’t always the same so it’s much harder to compare. Another reason to use websites based in multilingual countries is so you can be sure (well, almost) that the translations are correct. Multilingual countries make much more of an effort to ensure quality translations by hiring professional translators – and not using computer translations – so that all of their citizens can have access to information in their native language(s).

Even though France is a monolingual country, a lot of resources are translated into English for tourists, but I’ve come across too many French websites with English translations that were obviously copied from Google Translate. The official tourism website,, does offer translations in four languages and even though I haven’t seen any mistakes in the English translations so far, the content is not exactly the same or even in the same place on each version so it’s difficult to compare and use it properly as a learning tool.

Portugal and Portuguese: First Impressions

By   November 2, 2010

Portugal was a nice break from the strikes in France last week and I am already planning to return to see more of this adorable country. Lisbon is one of those capital cities that makes you forget how many people live there and the fact that it is such a large city. The subway was incredibly clean, the architecture was beautiful and colorful, the people were nice, the prices were low, and I never once felt stressed or scared or annoyed as I often do in other large cities (especially Paris!)

The public transportation system is easy to use so you don’t have to spend 15€ on tourist hop-on hop-off buses if you don’t want to. The train to Sintra is 3.50€ and a day pass for the entire system is 3.75€, which we took advantage of the second day to visit Belém for the pastéis (tram 15) and the modern eastern side of the city where the World Expo ’98 took place (red line on the metro). In addition to the 1.45€ fare for bus 22 to & from the airport and 2.60€ for the bus to return to Sintra train station from the Palace of Pena (we walked the entire way to Pena, which I do not recommend because it takes 1.5 hours, all uphill with no sidewalk), I only spent around 13€ on transportation. Our lovely hotel only cost 49€ a night, and I doubt I spent more than 25€ a day on meals. Even a cup of coffee was only 80 cents!


Our biggest expense was the plane ticket since we took a regular airline, but free food and drinks and knowing that we wouldn’t be treated like dirt was worth it. Thanks to the strikes in France, we had to waste an extra 20€ to get to the airport in Geneva by taking the expensive bus since there were no trains. And of course the bus was late and we got stopped at the border because French customs apparently had nothing better to do than annoy people trying to leave the country. Shouldn’t they be more concerned about people entering the country?

Once we arrived in Lisbon, my frustration with France disappeared instantly. There is a tourism center at the airport where you can get a free map of Lisbon and the bus stop for either the Aerobus (which you should take if you have lots of luggage; costs 3.50€ but your ticket doubles as a day pass for the public transportation system) or the local buses is directly across from the exit. Our hotel was incredibly easy to find and so clean and bright and the reception was helpful and pleasant. The downtown area of Lisbon is completely walkable and I saw very few people begging or harassing tourists for money. Normally I despise large cities because of people who try to harass you on the streets, but I did not experience that at all in Lisbon.


Obviously I loved Lisbon, and as a linguistics nerd, being surrounded by the Portuguese language was interesting since I’m familiar with many other Romance languages. Even though I haven’t yet really started studying Portuguese, I was able to understand a few words and phrases; and when we came across the one person who couldn’t speak English, we were able to communicate in French. I sat down at a bus stop before getting on the metro to head to the mall because I was feeling sick and an adorable old man was concerned that we were at the wrong stop because he had seen me look at the map and point to a place that he knew the buses didn’t go. How cute is that? Seriously, the Portuguese are very good at English, probably because they subtitle instead of dub TV and movies.

Portuguese is the 5th most spoken language in the world with 260 million speakers (the most in Brazil, of course), though it is not studied as much as Spanish, French or even Italian. Most language learning communities, such as Livemocha, Busuu and Mango, all offer Brazilian Portuguese, but few offer the European accent from Portugal. I hope they add the European dialect someday, and I certainly plan to incorporate it into the Portuguese tutorial currently available on If you are interested in reading authentic European Portuguese from everyday life, I’ve already uploaded Portuguese realia.

Portuguese is closely related to Galician, spoken in the northwestern part of Spain. At one point, they were considered the same language, but political boundaries have separated the two. Portuguese is not quite mutually intelligible with Spanish (Castillian), but the written language is easy enough to decipher if you do know Spanish. Understanding the spoken language is much harder. Portuguese is closer to Catalan and French in pronunciation because of the sibilants and nasal vowels, and some people say it sounds more like a Slavic language rather than Romance.

For those who speak Spanish and want to learn Portuguese, there are some resources available, such as Foreign Service Institute’s From Spanish to Portuguese and the University of Texas-Austin’s podcast Tà Falado: Brazilian Portuguese Pronunciation for Speakers of Spanish.

If you are planning a trip to Lisbon, the official tourism website is Visit Lisboa and I’ve written up some travel tips about my experience in Lisbon, Sintra, and getting to and from the Lisbon airport. Also don’t forget to check out my Lisbon & Sintra photos to see for yourself how beautiful Portugal is!

Losing my Native Pronunciation: The Case of ArchipeLAgo or ArchiPELago

By   October 10, 2010

I’ve been contributing to RhinoSpike lately by recording myself reading texts in English for other language learners to use in their independent studies. This weekend, however,  I could not remember how to correctly pronounce a few words in my native language. I still use English often in my day to day life, but it’s mostly in written form. Obviously I don’t speak English as nearly as much as I used to when I lived in the US. So when I came across certain words in the texts, I was stumped on how to say them because I had momentarily confused the British pronunciation with the American one (herbivore), or was influenced by the pronunciation of the same word in French (recompense). But when it came to archipelago, I was completely lost.

I thought that archipelago was pronounced with the stress on the penultimate syllable (ar-kih-puh-LAH-go), but all the dictionary and pronunciation sites I’ve consulted say it is pronounced with the stress on the antepenultimate syllable (ar-kih-PEL-uh-go).  The way I pronounce it doesn’t sound 100% correct to me to be honest, but the other pronunciation sounds a million times wrong. So so wrong. As in it hurts my ears to hear it pronounced that way.

Even the British pronunciation has the same stress pattern (ar-kih-PEL-uh-go), and the French word is simply archipel (ar-shee-pel), so why in the world do I think the stress should be on the penultimate syllable in American English? Maybe it’s merely a case of never using this word very much so I’ve forgotten how I used to say it, or perhaps it is a regional thing and some other Americans or Michiganders pronounce it the way I do?

For the love of science, how do you pronounce archipelago?!?

In my classes, whenever students asked which phrase was correct (for example, keep in touch or keep me in touch), normally I could instantly reply which one was correct, and every once in a while I just had to repeat the phrases to myself to discover which one sounded right. Yet in the case of archipelago, I’m not quite sure which one sounds right – it’s just that one sounds more right than the other, but I’m not convinced that either pronunciation is “correct.”  Is it the British influence? I’m definitely pronouncing a few vowels differently nowadays, but I have yet to change the stress (no way I will ever say adVERtisement instead of adverTISEment.) Perhaps I’m just assuming the American stress should be different.

It’s very frustrating to doubt yourself  in your native language. A study from 2007 (Why Learning a New Language May Make You Forget Your Old One) touches on this phenomenon of forgetting words, but states that it mostly happens in the beginning stages of language study and it refers to not being able to recall the word. In my case, I do remember the word, and the spelling and the meaning, but I do not remember the pronunciation.

Are there any other Americans out there who say ar-kih-puh-LAH-go or am I really just forgetting my own native language?

Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning Online and Teaching (MERLOT)

By   October 7, 2010

The MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning Online and Teaching) website is a great collection of online materials for students and teachers across all disciplines, ranging from agriculture to world languages. If you’re looking for resources to use in your classroom or for self-study, I recommend starting with MERLOT before doing a general internet search because the materials are peer-reviewed, under a Creative Commons license, and the results are not influenced by certain companies who are promoting a product.

From their About page: “MERLOT is a free and open online community of resources designed primarily for faculty, staff and students of higher education from around the world to share their learning materials and pedagogy. MERLOT is a leading edge, user-centered, collection of peer reviewed higher education, online learning materials, catalogued by registered members and a set of faculty development support services.”

I am proud to announce that my French Listening Resources mp3s are now included in the French materials and that they are available under a Creative Commons Attribution – Non-Commercial – Share Alike license, meaning that you can copy, distribute, and modify the mp3s as long as you attribute me as the creator, do not make money off of them, and share your adapted works under the same or a similar license.

After a short summer break, I have started updating the podcast once again with another eavesdropping mp3. I plan to continue adding a new mp3 each week, recorded by various native speakers in France and hopefully other Francophone countries as well.

French Listening Resources Podcast

You can subscribe to the French Listening Resources podcast through iTunes, regular RSS, or e-mail and the accompanying webpage is available as a regular blog or as an html page, the latter being where you can also find the transcripts and online listening exercises (and eventually the English translations).

Pragmatics: Knowing what to say in certain situations

By   October 2, 2010

The Foreign Language Teaching Methods modules from the University of Texas-Austin includes a section on pragmatics – how context and situation affect meaning – which is extremely important for language students to learn, yet remains difficult to master. Learning what to say and when to say it, the appropriate use of language, varies significantly among cultures and languages and if students are not even aware of these differences, they risk offending or confusing others or misunderstanding what is said to them. Textbooks do address pragmatics, but in a limited way, such as offering possible ways to accept a compliment, agreeing/disagreeing, or sharing opinions. They do not, and probably cannot, provide all of the possible responses found in native speech.

As pragmatics encompasses all aspects of language, it is not good enough to simply know the grammar and vocabulary; students must also have the cultural knowledge to understand and respond appropriately according to social norms. However, at the beginning stages of language learning, pragmatics may have to take a back seat to basic vocabulary acquisition. If students can’t even produce a coherent sentence in the target language, they certainly won’t be able to focus on the pragmatic aspect of the utterance as well. Nevertheless, we can teach some pragmatic information to beginning students.

One example from my classes is the constant misuse of excuse me and I’m sorry by my French students. In American English, we use excuse me when we want to get someone’s attention or need to get through in a crowded space; whereas we use I’m sorry to apologize for having done something or to express sympathy for someone who has experienced something sad or disappointing. In addition, we may also say Sorry? when we don’t understand or haven’t heard something. Yet my students would constantly say “excuse me” when they had done something wrong  (such as throwing pencils across the room… and yes, I taught at a university) because excuse-moi is what they would have said in French. Then they would start with I’m sorry when they wanted to get my attention. I tried to teach them the differences between the two phrases, and in which situation they should use each, but their habit of translating literally from French into English always interfered until I specifically pointed out the context, like a mother trying to teach her child good manners: If you’re apologizing because you did something wrong, what do you say?

In a different context, this wouldn’t be funny

An example of Americans learning foreign languages is the overuse of I’m sorry in the target language. In some languages, such as French, saying I’m sorry should not be used to express sympathy. If you need to send flowers because your friend’s grandfather just died, you should definitely not write Je suis désolé on the card, because then you would be apologizing for having done something, i.e. causing the death. A standard phrase such as Veuillez accepter toutes mes condoléances would be appropriate in this situation, instead of a literal translation of Sorry for your loss or My thoughts are with you. Pardon is used to apologize for something (accidentally bumping into someone) or to ask someone to repeat what they said (compare I beg your pardon? in English) in addition to meaning excuse me when trying to get someone’s attention, just as excusez-moi is used, especially in restaurants to get the server’s attention. Excusez-moi is also found in the set phrase excusez-moi de vous déranger – sorry for bothering you – so there are several translations for I’m sorry in French depending on the context.

The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota has a nice site on Pragmatics and Speech Acts, including interactive units on Japanese and Spanish. I’m still looking for a site that focuses on pragmatics in French. Anybody know of any sites like this?

Collection of Articles & Sites Related to Languages, Learning, Education, etc. (from Twitter)

By   September 25, 2010

It’s been six months since I posted the last collection of links to language-related articles and sites from @ielanguages on Twitter. Here’s what I’ve been tweeting about recently:

Tomorrow is the European Day of Languages (September 26)

Studies on Language Learning & Acquisition
Education & Teaching / In the Classroom
Language in Society
In French / About French
General Language Learning
I’m also tweeting a colloquial French word/phrase of the day each weekday, so don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and/or “like” the Facebook page – and subscribe to the YouTube account for informal French videos and Flickr for travel photos of Europe.

The Shaping of Language on iTunes U from La Trobe University

By   September 16, 2010

La Trobe University in Australia is offering an interesting podcast on iTunes U that just became available this summer (or winter, depending on where you are). The Shaping of Language is about “the relationship between the structures of languages and their social, cultural, historical and natural environments.”  Looks like they’ve been updating it every week since the semester started in late July and they provide PDF handouts along with the mp3s.

The Research Centre for Linguistic Typology also has another podcast on iTunes U about the documentation and analysis of “the linguistic structures of endangered and previously undescribed or under-described languages.”

Just searching for linguistics, I also came across a few other interesting podcasts, such as Center for World Languages by UCLA and University of Arizona’s Introduction to Linguistics and Linguistics Lectures.

Free and/or Public Domain Materials for Listening to & Reading Languages Simultaneously

By   August 22, 2010

Previously I explained how reading subtitles while watching TV shows or movies helps enormously with foreign language comprehension. I wanted to expand on the Listening & Reading method – because it is what I use foremost when studying languages – and list some freely available resources where you can find text and audio in several languages.

When I first started learning languages in the mid 90’s, audio was an expensive component of language resources and even when cassettes or CDs were provided, the recordings were limited to an hour or so of common phrases and simple dialog. It was never enough to progress beyond the beginning stage. Luckily the internet and the ease with which materials can be accessed and downloaded changed all that – especially concerning materials in the public domain.

Below are websites with free and/or public domain audio files and transcripts to download for your personal use. There’s never any reason to spend hundreds of dollars on language courses!

  • When learning a new language, I like to start with Book2 because they offer 100 phrases & sound files in over 40 languages. You can choose any combination of languages instead of just using English as the first language. It’s handy for comparing two languages or using one language to help you learn another at the beginning A1/A2 level.
  • LangMedia offers many videos of common conversations and situations that you’re likely to encounter, filmed in the country where the language is spoken. A lot of cultural notes and even realia are also provided. About 30 languages are available.
  • If you already have a certain text in a foreign language, but you want to hear how it is pronounced, request a recording at Rhinospike. Native speakers will record an mp3 that you can listen to online or download – and usually more than one person will do the recording so you can learn from a variety of accents.
  • There are a lot of language podcasts these days, but many do not offer the transcripts for free. The type of speech available can be put into two categories: rehearsed and spontaneous. Sites like Spanish NewsBites, Radio Arlecchino, and Slow German provide recordings of native speakers reading a text with no mistakes because it has been rehearsed, while sites like France Bienvenue and my French Listening Resources provide spontaneous speech with false starts and fillers. I prefer the latter because it’s more representative of what you hear in normal everyday conversations, but spontaneous resources are much harder to find.

FSI Italian FAST course

  • Foreign Service Institute courses can be a bit boring because the vocabulary is aimed at diplomats serving abroad, but nevertheless, they do contain common phrases and useful conversations for everyday use – not to mention hours and hours of audio and materials for languages that have very little resources available. The books can be downloaded in PDF format, but I am still attempting to create HTML and perhaps eventually DOC or EPUB versions for some of the courses. (I just uploaded six more units of Italian FAST this weekend.)
  • For a more literary approach, Librivox and many other e-book sites, such as Logos, offer many classic books and children’s books in several languages, with recordings done by volunteers. I tend not to use these books as much as other materials because literature is very different from everyday speech, but they are helpful for pronunciation and vocabulary nonetheless.
  • News sites, such as Euronews which is available in nine languages, sometimes do not offer exact transcripts of what is said in each video. This is the same problem with subtitles for a lot of programs or films. The sentences are similar enough so the meaning is generally the same, but it can be really distracting for beginning learners. At an intermediate level, you can start comparing what is said to what is written and learn two ways to say the same thing.