Language Links: German MOOC and Swedish idioms

German Mooc and Swedish idioms

Just for fun, I publish a list of articles about foreign languages and language learning.

Coursera announced that it will launch its first foreign language learning MOOC in October in collaboration with University of Pennsylvania. Auf Deutsch: Communicating in German Across Cultures is a beginner course scheduled to run for six weeks. “The course will be informative and entertaining. People will hopefully be learning something new about German culture. Students will learn about the different lifestyles Germans have. That’s where the entertainment part will come in.” says Professor Edward Dixon, the course developer. I, for one, have enrolled and I can’t wait to dissect the instructional design of the course.

Speaking of fun in German, do you act as if you have fat pants? It’s not an insult, I swear! Head over to FluentU to find out what that means in a list of 10 German idioms. I haven’t lost my mind and all my cups are in my cabinet.

I bet you’re tickled pink by funny expressions in foreign languages. Check out this video of 10 Swedish expressions, unless you have a feeling there are owls in the moss (meaning something is quite off).

What happens when actors are told to speak in their native language for “authenticity”? Using Gratuitous Foreign Language (GFL) is Hollywood’s way of saying “hey, as long as it sounds foreign and exotic, we’re covered”. But is everything foreign-sounding really true to the plot of the film? Salon gives a few examples of native speakers who took a few liberties on camera.

Can you translate your standup routine into a foreign language, and still keep the same jokes? If you’re Eddie Izzard, you can try, but there is no guarantee that your audience will understand. Although the misunderstanding itself can become a source of humor.

P.S. More German language resources here and here.

Image: Nordic Summer Evening by Sven Richard Bergh (1889 – 1900)

Language and … personal development?


A good 70 percent of my students are professionals. A good 70 percent of my students want to learn a foreign language as an extra skill that will advance their career. A good 70 percent of those get something more in return.

How do you feel about made up statistics?

I thought so. But at least my guess is informed by the years of teaching and years of asking all sorts of people “Why do you want to learn another language? What’s in it for you?”

The truth is this: I set out to find research about the effect that learning a foreign language has on personal development. I found no such study. If you come across one, please send it my way. Professional development is clearly impacted by being bilingual or multilingual. But how does learning a new language make us grow and evolve on a personal level? Does it change the way we communicate? Does it change the way we view challenges and set goals? Does it force us outside of our comfort zones? Does it open up new ways of perceiving the world around us?

Let me tell you a few stories. Stories about people that I’ve worked with and the transformations I saw in them while they were learning a foreign language.

Let’s start with Aimee.

I first started working with Aimee in the middle of her two year long maternity leave from a market research position for large hospitality group. Aimee was a hard-working career woman who loved what she was doing for a living (a typical Sociology major), but had found herself stuck at home with a toddler and little intellectual stimulation. She was at an upper-intermediate level of English and always thirsty to learn more.

Honestly, Aimee was, at the time, my most advanced student. She was sharp, quick and confident. I thought the main reason Aimee had for wanting for work on her English skills was just to have some interaction with an adult while being stuck at home during the day.

I loved working with her because she wouldn’t say no to any challenge, and she would diligently do her homework.

Yes, your teacher really cares about these two things.

I started to slowly introduce advanced and proficiency materials into our lessons: a lesson based on a TED Talk here, an article from The Economist there, a “look what British skit I found, let’s see how much you understand” playful email a week all the way over there.

Aimee just took the ideas and ran with them. We spent an hour talking about Jamie Oliver’s TED talk on teaching children about food and how Aimee would apply it to raising her child. We would connect Charlemagne’s blog on The Economist with sociology ideas she remembered from college. Then, Aimee started doing these things by herself. First, she showed me a new British series she was into  (It was Smack the Pony but don’t Google it if you’re at work). She couldn’t understand everything, but she got most of the jokes and if she didn’t, she asked me about it (if you want to make your EFL teacher blush during a lesson, do just that).

Another time, Aimee was really excited that she could watch The Hunger Games in English, without subtitles or dubbing. Her favorite new words in English were “chatterbox” (usually to refer to her now-learning-to-speak-and-will-never-shut-up-but-look-how-cute daughter) and “brick and mortar” (simply because it’s so descriptive).

We continued to work together even after Aimee returned to work. She confessed that studying a foreign language, and going in depth with it, helped her in her job tremendously. Having worked with metrics her entire career made Aimee really good at goal-setting and working through objectives, but studying a foreign language opened her up to new ideas, that she would not have listened to or read in her native language. She took some of these ideas and applied them in her marketing department. She took other ideas and started up a conversation with her new German expat manager. Some of them became seeds for new projects, both personal and professional. Aimee now feels more fulfilled in her career because she has the freedom to explore side projects at work. She’s also the one to start a conversation about Smack the Pony (yes, she still watches that).

I watched her go from a fluent but still insecure English speaker to a fully fluent and can debate anyone under the table confident speaker.

The three short ideas from Aimee’s journey:
1.     Be curious.
2.    Capitalize on your strengths.
3.    Always apply what you learn.

*The names I use are slightly changed, but the stories are 100 percent real.

Image: Charlotte du Val d’Ognes by Marie-Denise Villers (1801), currently on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Language Links: Learning habits, listening skills and foreign beer

Language Links: Learning habits and foreign beer

On Sunday, I publish a list of articles about foreign language and language learning. Let’s keep it fresh!

Are you a serial highlighter? Does your page look like a neon fest when you’re done with it? Do you think this technique really helps you remember more? Think before you highlight and four other facts that will teach you how to learn.

Can you teach an old ear new tricks? Is it possible to learn to distinguish and replicate unfamiliar sounds in a foreign language? It turns out that it is possible, as long as there is feedback. Feedback is an essential ingredient in training our brains to hear new sounds and start to produce them more accurately.

Are you planning a trip to Italy and wondering if you’ll be able to get away with just knowing “Ciao!” You’re not really in luck here. According to the data collected by the Eurobarometer 386, your chances of having a conversation in English while visiting Italy stand at 34%. It could be worse; you could be in Hungary, where only 20% of the population can hold a conversation in English. Czech linguist Jakub Marian compiled a map of percentage of people speaking English in the European Union, divided by country. But, if you want to order beer in the local language, there’s a map for that too.

Speaking of beer (why wouldn’t you, it’s summer), is it pronounced Stella ArtTWAS or Stella ArTWA? It’s Belgian, so ArTWA. Read this list to learn how to pronounce beer names.

Deutsch fur Euch is a Youtube channel that I use to learn little tidbits of German. In episode 42, Katja teaches the vocabulary necessary for talking about your family in German.

Image: From My Studio Window by John Kane (1932) on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

4 Ways the Progress Principle works in language learning

Progress in language learning

Dear language learner, when was the last time you gave yourself a pat on the back for learning two new words?

Surely, you would be proud of yourself the first time you held your own talking about strawberry tarts in that language.

But did you consider that just knowing the words for strawberry and tart meant you were making progress?

According to research conducted by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, you should celebrate every little ounce of progress.

Dr. Amabile, a Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and the author of The Progress Principle, collected 12,000 daily journal entries from volunteers working in seven companies. She analyzed the responses and found that the most powerful driver of employee performance was whether they had made progress on a meaningful task that day.

The progress principle states that people experience a positive inner work life – a sense of accomplishment which leads to increased intrinsic motivation, positive perception and positive emotion – when they make progress on something that they personally find meaningful.

The idea of doing 10 minutes of language practice a day might not seem very productive, but the truth is that you’re more likely to start a task that requires 10 minutes of your time, rather than commit to a one hour task.

We are less likely to procrastinate when the task seems manageable.

Here are four ways to apply the progress principle and Dr. Amabile’s research next time you sit down with a language course:

1. Don’t think in terms of “too small a progress”.

There is no such thing as small progress. There is progress. Eliminate the scarcity mentality of not enough: I haven’t learned enough. I can’t speak well enough. I don’t understand enough.

Regular, minor accomplishments, what Teresa Amabile calls “small wins”, improve engagement and intrinsic motivation, positive perception and positive emotion.

Take a moment each day to recognize and celebrate the progress that you’ve made. You can do this through keeping a language journal, in which you write down the expressions, grammar rules or new notions that you learned. You can keep it simple and just highlight the day on the calendar to show that you showed up and studied something.

2. Deal with setbacks constructively.

In her study, Teresa Amabile found that negative events have a much greater influence on our mood and productivity than do positive events. On the one hand, we minimize our accomplishments, while on the other hand we tend to blow the setbacks out of proportion.

It’s crucial that you don’t let setbacks interfere with your forward momentum. If you missed your practice time one day, or even more, treat it like it’s no big deal, but resolve to do something about it. Avoid shaming yourself into never practicing or trying again. Teresa Amabile writes:

Given the demands of modern work, it is easy to ignore those small steps forward and focus on what still needs to be done instead. Take a moment each day to celebrate and recognize the progress that you, your coworkers, and your subordinates have made each day.

3. Use nourishers to gain and maintain momentum.

A nourisher can be a language teacher, a language coach or simply a community of language learners, be it a classroom or a virtual forum. It makes sense that in such a long-term and high effort endeavor we need a support group for motivation and ploughing through the difficult parts of language learning.

Nourishers directly support people’s inner work lives and include actions like providing encouragement and recognition. Because they support inner work life, nourishers also lead to better performance.

4. Build on progress

When people have made good progress in a task, that could be an ideal time to introduce new challenges. This is because their inner work lives, particularly their intrinsic motivation for the work itself, will likely be high as a result of their success.

The moral here is to always aim for growth in your language skills. It is easy to fall into the comfort zone trap: I know these words so I will only use these words. I can make myself understood just using the present tense, so I won’t bother with the other tenses. I know the right way of saying hello, so there’s no point in learning all the informal ways.

Yes, recognize progress. Yes, acknowledge progress.

No, don’t dwell too long on past progress.

Do you have any good ways to track your language learning progress?


Teresa Amabile explains more about the Progress Principle and the research behind it on her website and her Twitter account. I also recommend the interview she did as part of the Truth About Creativity virtual conference with David Burkus.

P.S. More tips about language learning: Why learn another language?

Image: A City of Fantasy by an unknown 19th century artist from the National Gallery of Art

Language Links: web app, easy Thai videos and how to talk nonsense

EasyThai German Greetings and talking nonsense in a foreign language

Every Sunday, I publish a list of articles about foreign language and language learning. Let’s keep it fresh! announced the launch of their web app this week. is a cloud-based language learning technology that is mostly based on vocabulary building. Simply put, you install their Chrome extension, choose the language that you want to learn, and go about your business browsing the web. When you come across a word that you’d like to remember, you click on it. translates it into your target language and saves it. You can then review your list of visual and audio flash cards. Their new platform also recommends content based on your level, creates personalized exercises and draws from gamification theory.

Do you think that you’re talking nonsense when you speak in a foreign language? If you don’t, but you’d like to, there’s an app for that. MuchPhrases equips you with the weird sentences to impress your quirky friends in Spanish, Norwegian and French. I always thought you should aim for foreign language phrases that make sense, but then again it might be easier to break the ice with gibberish. On that note, “I bought these shoes from a wizard.” Here is the story behind the app.

Take advantage of a slow summer and advance your language skills. Here are 15 ways to practice a foreign language this summer via the Transparent Language blog.

Want to know how to say “hi” and “bye” in German? Here are 22 ways to greet someone in German.

Learn Thai through easy YouTube videos via the WomenLearnThai blog.


Image: The Golden Bend in Herengracht, Amsterdam by Gerrit Berckheyde (1671 – 1672) from Rijksmuseum.

P.S. Language Links: French habits, English countryside MOOCs and sustainable economics through language learning

Learning a language is like traveling

Traveling and language, Norfolk Virginia

As summer closes in, this morning I was thinking about traveling.

I love the anticipation of traveling somewhere. Even the planning. I don’t like being on the road, but I like that sense of possibility when you get out of the car in a new place and you try to take everything in: the sights, the smells, the air, the way the wind blows.

Then I noticed this quote staring at me from the spine of an AFAR magazine:

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move. (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Isn’t this what we’re doing when we’re learning a new language? The anticipation of finding out a new way to express a thought or a desire; the way the mind races to see what you can do with a new word; the feeling that it will reveal a world unknown.

I like the planning of language learning too. The laying down of pencils if you’re old school – red is for feminine nouns, green is for masculine, purple is for neuter. The logging into the app. The points, the lingots, the levels.

That feeling when you get out of the car and take in a new place. That feeling at the end of the session when you know three more words. What can you do with three more words in a foreign language? The possibilities are endless.


* I took the picture on the waterfront of Norfolk, Virginia.

Language Links: French habits, English countryside MOOCs and sustainable economics

Each Monday, I publish a list of articles about language and language learning. Let’s keep it fresh!

5 Things for Adults who Learn a Foreign Language – “Older brains are like the Library of Congress” so we must train ourselves to retrieve information.

5 French Habits that Scare Foreigners – Why you should still speak bad French and how to deal with arguments, weird food and la bise.

Literature of the English Country House – a Downton Abbey kind of MOOC. Be ready to embark on a historical journey through literature and notable country houses through, a new MOOC provider based in the UK.

Forbes published an interview with Duolingo CEO, Luis von Ahn. Here are two takeaways from the article:

I believe that to have sustainable impact, you have to have a model that generates sustainable economics. For me the important thing is getting capabilities to large numbers of people who need them—for free—and having a sustainable business model behind that whose monetization strategy is neither exploitive nor is it charity.

We looked at the different theories of language pedagogy when we started out, and we discovered that they’re like diets: There are thousands of them, they’re not well supported by data, and they all contradict one another. But working at the scale of millions gives us the advantage of being able to engineer better teaching methods quickly. For example, we might look at our data and see that a lot of people are having trouble learning how adjectives work. So we posit that maybe we should teach adverbs before we teach adjectives.

 Image: View of the Gardens of Villa Medici by Michel-Martin Drolling (1811 – 1816) from Rijksmuseum.

Should you be fluent or accurate?

Fluency or pronunciation

When you speak a foreign language, what is more important: fluency or pronunciation?

Imagine this scenario: You are trying to have a conversation with two really interesting people. You’re using your native language, which is a foreign language for your interlocutors. Both of them speak really well, but they differ in a couple of ways.

One of them, let’s call him Alex, pauses unnaturally in the middle of a phrase and repeats the same word until he gets it right.

The other one, Daniel, has a fluent speech pattern, but mispronounces a word every now and then.

At end of the conversation, you will realize that it was harder to keep track of what Alex was saying and you might have missed a few details of his story. However, you understood everything that Daniel had to say, even if some of the words sounded a bit goofy.

This is what researchers at the University of Purdue discovered in a study of the perception native English speakers have about non-native speakers of English. Alexander L. Francis, associate professor of speech, language and hearing sciences at Purdue, says:

“With more fluent speech, listeners are not working so hard to keep track of what the speaker is trying to say, so they can devote more effort to figuring out sounds the speaker is trying to produce.”

“With more fluent speech, listeners are not working so hard to keep track of what the speaker is trying to say, so they can devote more effort to figuring out sounds the speaker is trying to produce.Read more at:
“These findings may sound counterintuitive, but as the speakers with better fluency in this study also received higher subjective ratings of intelligibility and acceptability and lower ratings of listening effort, it suggests that native listeners are better able to cope with divergent pronunciations if they appear within otherwise fluent speech.”Read more at:

Fluency is more important than pronunciation.

What does this mean for language learners?

1. Stop sweating the small stuff NOW. It does not matter if you stumble on words. Mispronouncing “warm” as “worm” may trigger some smiles, but it’s really no big deal. You will make yourself understood from the context.

2. Jump right into speaking. There are people who study a language for years and never build up the courage to actually have a conversation in that language. Don’t make that mistake! The sooner you start speaking, the faster you will progress in your language learning.

3. Listen intently. The best way to internalize speech patterns is to listen to native speakers. Movies, podcasts, radio stations and news stations are just a few of ways to expose yourself to the spoken language.


Image source: Tour Group with Princess of Biscaris by Louis Ducros (1778) via Rijksmuseum

“These findings may sound counterintuitive, but as the speakers with better fluency in this study also received higher subjective ratings of intelligibility and acceptability and lower ratings of listening effort, it suggests that native listeners are better able to cope with divergent pronunciations if they appear within otherwise fluent speech.”Read more at:
“These findings may sound counterintuitive, but as the speakers with better fluency in this study also received higher subjective ratings of intelligibility and acceptability and lower ratings of listening effort, it suggests that native listeners are better able to cope with divergent pronunciations if they appear within otherwise fluent speech.”Read more at:
“With more fluent speech, listeners are not working so hard to keep track of what the speaker is trying to say, so they can devote more effort to figuring out sounds the speaker is trying to produce.Read more at:
“With more fluent speech, listeners are not working so hard to keep track of what the speaker is trying to say, so they can devote more effort to figuring out sounds the speaker is trying to produce.Read more at:

“With more fluent speech, listeners are not working so hard to keep track of what the speaker is trying to say, so they can devote more effort to figuring out sounds the speaker is trying to produce.Read more at:

Are you clear about “the why”?

Like any plan worth pursuing, learning a foreign language has to have a reason behind it. Whether you are motivated by a promotion, a pay increase, a romance with a native speaker or simply wanting to travel, you should find the why behind your desire to learn a language.

Finding the why is easy when the desire is extrinsic, like in the examples mentioned above.

But what if none of these things applies? What if you just want to learn for the sake of learning or because you’re simply attracted to a foreign culture and you’d like to know more about it?

That is perfectly fine, but the motivation is harder to sustain.

What you can do is this:

On the first page of your language journal or notebook, write the reason. For example, I really like Mexican soap operas or I just found out that learning a language can delay the onset of Alzheimer by four years.

Under the reason, give yourself five secondary reasons to fall back on when your motivation starts to wane. Let’s say you also think that maybe you’ll travel to Mexico or Spain some day. Or learning kanji might improve your drawing skills. Maybe you’re a graphic designer and you think Arabic type will spark your visual creativity.

Brainstorm secondary reasons. Don’t stop until you think of at least five.

The point is this: at every stage in the learning process you must have clear reasons why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Here are a few reasons that can drive your language learning journey:

  • get in touch with your roots. Do you have foreign ancestry? What was your Italian grandma’s favorite storybook as a child? Can you read it in its original language?

  • read a recipe in its original language;

  • explore your own country’s ethnic neighborhoods;

  • understand movies and music without the filter of translation;

  • be perceived as knowledgeable by others; yes, showing off is a valid enough reason if it makes you happy;

  • give your brain a workout;

  • improve your memory;

  • increase the network of people you’ll be able to communicate with;

  • gain a better understanding of the world and global politics;

  • understand your own culture from the perspective of an outsider;

  • get better in a debate;

  • become more comfortable in unfamiliar situations.

The point is this: at every stage in the learning process you must be clear about the reason you’re doing this. Why are you investing time, energy and possibly money in this? You don’t need to have grandiose goals. You don’t need to read Voltaire in French after just one year of studying French. If you can read Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, then that is a goal worth pursuing.

Photo by Sue Clark

Your language or your morals

Does language influence moral decisions?

Very much so, according to a study by researchers at the University of Chicago and Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

They posed the question: would you choose to push one person off a bridge in front of a moving train, knowing that his fall (and subsequent death) would stop the train and prevent it from running over 5 people. In other words, is one life less precious than five lives?

The researchers collected data from 725 participants in France, Spain, the U.S., Korea and Israel and found that more participants selected the utilitarian choice when the problem was presented in a foreign language rather than their native language. “Those using a foreign language were twice as likely to respond with the utilitarian approach that is more in the service of the common good of saving more people,” said lead author Albert Costa, according to Science Daily.

“Deliberations at places like the United Nations, the European Union, large international corporations or investment firms can be better explained or made more predictable by this discovery” states Costa.

Why is this important? Because as actors in a globalized world, we rely heavily on interactions in a foreign language. Do our emotions take second place when we think in a foreign language? Are we distancing ourselves from the consequences of our decisions? Is decision-making influenced by the words we use to describe the dilemma, and not by the dilemma itself?

Keysar says decisions appear to be made differently when processed in a foreign language.

“People are less afraid of losses, more willing to take risks and much less emotionally-connected when thinking in a foreign language.”

Co-author Sayuri Hayakawa from the University of Chicago, says that the emotional context in which we learn a language also plays a part in the decision.

“You learn your native language as a child and it is part of your family and your culture,” she says. “You probably learn foreign languages in less emotional settings like a classroom and it takes extra effort. The emotional content of the language is often lost in translation.”

It may be important to ask how well the participants understood the dilemma in a foreign language (not bilingual, but foreign).

Were they focusing on understanding the language or just solving the problem?

Do the words used in the explanation have exact correspondents in the foreign language?

Is the dilemma processed in the same part of the brain when it’s presented in a foreign language?


Image source


Cats can teach you Spanish

Do you know what the internet loves?


Do you know what cats can do?

Pretty much anything they want.

Even teach you a foreign language?

Especially that.

Cat Academy thinks humans are not as dumb as you’d think. Sure, they may have a center in their brain entirely devoted to Facebook, celebrity gossip and smartphone scrolling, but humans could be highly trainable.

Felines have the ultimate goal to educate the human race, and not just in Laser Chasing 101. Felines will first start with Spanish and see if that sticks.

The Cat Academy app uses the theory of visual association and spaced repetition combined with the humor factor and the ubiquity of memes to teach Spanish (for now). They are thinking of expanding into other popular languages, such as French, Italian, German or Korean, so cat your vote on their website. I mean cast.

The basic version of the app is now free on iTunes, but you have to pay to unlock more cats. As if cat lovers don’t pay enough for the privilege.

Learn Spanish with cats

Hey Donny, boss wants to have a word.

Learn Spanish with cats

You’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.

Learn Spanish with cats

I dare you to say no. I double dare you!

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