Ulrike Rettig has a long, distinguished history of making foreign languages accessible. As the Development Editor for Pimsleur Language Programs for more than 20 years, she helped compile self-teaching foreign language CD audio courses in languages as diverse as French, Spanish, Hungarian, Turkish, Arabic, Danish, Dutch, and her native German. These days, she runs GamesforLanguage, a fun and highly interactive website that she cofounded five years ago with her husband Peter. Ulrike and I had the pleasure of working together back in the 1990s in Harvard University’s German Department, where she was Director of the Work Abroad Program.
Brent: Ulrike, it’s terrific to reconnect with you! When we worked together more than 20 years ago, it was always fun to indulge our passion for languages. Now we’re doing it in the context of memory.
Ulrike: It was great to hear from you! The role of memory in language learning is a complicated and fascinating one. I'm fluent in four languages and on an intermediate level in two more. For the thousands of words I know in each language, I think I've consciously memorized only a fraction.
Brent: For centuries, the preferred method of language teaching was rote memorization. Do you still think that’s relevant?
Ulrike: Obviously, we acquire much vocabulary and grammar in other ways than by rote learning. Still, deliberate memorization through repetition and practice is important for learning a language, especially if you're an adult.
Brent: Learning a foreign language means reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Do you think they can be prioritized in order of effectiveness?
Ulrike: Learning a foreign language indeed means working with all four skills in some way. Though each of the skills has to be practiced separately, they do reinforce each other.
Brent: Does the goal matter?
Ulrike: If your goal is to converse with native speakers in the language you're learning, then sound is key. I always start with listening, followed by sounding out and repeating the words. It's best to do this with your eyes closed if you can, and to repeat several times. Hearing yourself pronouncing the words is crucial to memorizing them.
Brent: This approach is remarkably similar to how actors learn their lines—in addition to understanding what motivates their character.
Ulrike: Equally important is to make sure you know the meaning of what you're learning. Once you know the sound of a word and its meaning, check to see how it's spelled. Writing or typing it out again reinforces memorization.
Brent: We agree on that!
Ulrike: The goal is to get your vocabulary into your long-term memory. There's lots to be said about spaced repetition, which means reviewing at increasing intervals of time.
Brent: “Spaced repetition” is a key component of the Pimsleur Method of language learning, where you spent more than 20 years of your career. Paul Pimsleur coined the phrase Graduated Interval Recall, which is brilliant in its simplicity: remind students at slightly increasing time spans of the word or phrase for maximum retention. And it’s all about listening and repeating, not seeing the language in print.
Ulrike: Since we've been schooled to read and write in our own language from early on, most of us automatically imagine how words in a foreign language may be spelled. That's why it's useful to learn the sound system of the new language. If we don't, we'll spell the sound of a word in the way that we're familiar with. For example, an English speaker would rhyme the German word "Tage" with "page" (instead of saying "TAH-geh"). Or, a German would not have the two words “eight” and “ate” sound the same.
Brent: It’s true. I recently used the 10-CD set to learn basic Romanian before a trip to Bucharest and Transylvania and found it incredibly effective. I was skeptical at first because there was no book, only the CDs. I’m a pretty visual person and thought seeing the words would be helpful. But the method may have helped my pronunciation because I wasn’t influenced by seeing foreign spellings.
Ulrike: If you just want to learn to read, then reading alone, plus looking up words and reviewing them, may be enough to make you a fluent reader. (If you do your reading online, then web translation or Lingualy's Chrome Extension and flashcard system are very helpful.)
Brent: Your GamesforLanguage site focuses on Western European languages (Romance and Germanic) that share many commonalities. Do you think these languages are a slam-dunk for native speakers of English?
Ulrike: If you're an English speaker, learning another language introduces you to grammatical forms that don't exist in English, such as noun genders, adjective-noun agreement, partial pronoun dropping, etc. Once you've grasped a new foreign language pattern, memorization will be easier. For example, learning how to conjugate the Spanish verb "hablar" makes it easy to memorize the conjugation of other regular "-ar" verbs in Spanish.
Brent: Yes, it’s all about seeking out patterns and hammering them home. And, of course, the abundance of cognates—similar-looking words with a common origin, like “conversación” in Spanish—helps.
Ulrike: Cognates shared between languages are really helpful for reading because they make it easy to guess their meaning. They are also easy to memorize and retain. On the other hand, false cognates, words that look and/or sound the same but are not related, can be a pitfall. For example, the Dutch word "bellen" means"to ring the doorbell/call on the phone" in English; but the German word "bellen" means "to bark." (Germans are always highly amused when they see the Dutch sign "hier bellen" beside a doorbell.)
Brent: These words at one time probably meant the same thing, but their usage diverged. It’s like the Spanish word "éxito," which nowadays means "success" and not "exit." Another way to translate the source word, the Latin “exitus,” would be “outcome,” which could be understood as “successful result” or “coming out,” so the connection between the two meanings becomes apparent.
Ulrike: When you learn languages that share commonalities, such as Dutch and German, or Spanish and Italian, you may have quite an advantage when communicating. This goes beyond just cognates.
Brent: What about your experience learning non-Western European languages?
Ulrike: Except for Chinese, I haven't actively learned to speak any non-Western European languages. I was involved in course projects for Eastern and Egyptian Arabic, Hungarian, Turkish, and Hebrew during my years as development editor for Pimsleur Language Programs. Together with native speakers of these languages, I edited and corrected the "recording script" for the courses. My work was purely visual, I did not practice listening and speaking. But I do know how each of these languages "work." That could be a starting point for learning them.
Brent: Tell me more about how you tackled Chinese.
Ulrike: My husband Peter and I did learn Chinese, using Pimsleur's Level 1 audio course for a couple of months to prepare for a 10-day trip to China. Once in Beijing, we could use greetings, order and pay in a restaurant, buy things at a market, etc. That was pretty exciting.
Brent: What are some of your favorite "tricks" for remembering the rules of a language?
Ulrike: One "trick" I use for remembering rules is to memorize "minimal pairs" that illustrate a rule. With each minimal pair, I visualize an image that I conjure up every time I need to apply the rule. Sometimes I draw a picture and write on it.
Brent: What are some examples?
Ulrike: In Spanish, the distinction between "ser" and "estar" can be hard. For that, I start with the basic minimal pair that makes a specific distinction: "Soy de América" (I am from America [origin]), versus "Estoy en América" (I'm in America [location]). For words that I have a hard time remembering, I use associations or images for spelling, sound, or meaning. These associations are always personal, and that's why they stick.
Brent: Ideally, language learners should become accustomed to thinking in the new language, not translating back to their native one. What are some ways to do that?
Ulrike: For thinking in a new language, you need a lot of input, i.e., listening and reading. This should be immersive, meaning that you understand and guess just from the context, without using translations. You can start with very easy audio and texts and build up, always pushing somewhat beyond your comfort zone. Your goal should be to listen to audio books, watch TV programs, read books—just in your target language.
Brent: Any favorites?
Ulrike: For Italian, I've been watching a soap opera on my computer called "Un posto al sole." The series has been ongoing for a number of years. I know the characters well and can rely on plenty of contextual clues. Even though there are no subtitles, I can follow most of what's being said. For Spanish, I found a program (Lingualia) that uses no translation at all. Everything is in Spanish, including the definitions of new words. I don't find myself translating at all.
Brent: What about running lines in your own head, as actors do?
Ulrike: Besides getting lots of language input, you could try talking to yourself in the language you're learning, doing it very deliberately. Talk about what you're doing throughout your day, intend to do, or have done. You can also pretend you're telling all of this to a friend.
Brent: That’s a very useful idea. What other advice around language learning would you like to share with my blog readers?
Ulrike: In my experience as a teacher and learner, I've found that motivation is key. It's crucial that you as a language learner know what drives you and keeps you going during times when your enthusiasm is low.
Brent: So, the goal is to use different sources that the learner finds meaningful and relevant.
Ulrike: Yes, what helps is using different kinds of materials and programs that INTEREST YOU. Especially at the beginning, before you can understand or read about topics that really interest you, it's easy to get bored using just one program. Switching to a different one for a while can do wonders. Once you've begun to master some language basics, there are a lot of interesting resources available, both online and off: films, TV series, books and ebooks, audiobooks, online programs (both traditional and playful), interactive games, chat forums, Facebook pages, Google+ hangouts, online tutors, exchange-partners, neighborhood classes, meet-up groups, friends who speak the language, and so on.
Brent: And, of course, your website, GamesforLanguage! Any parting words of wisdom?
Ulrike: Don't expect to become fluent in a short time. But, the more you engage with a language in a way that you truly enjoy, the faster you'll learn.
Brent: Thank you for being so generous with your time and advice, Ulrike. Fluency is a lifelong pursuit. Indeed, when I read a great writer in English, my native language skills can feel inadequate.