Archive for the ‘Foreign Languages’ Category

Learning German with Felix and Franzi

October 19, 2017 @ 6:18 pm | Filed under: ,

A few weeks ago the kids and I discovered a new-to-us resource for our German studies. The Goethe Institute has a set of comprehensive and quite entertaining lessons for children—fun, thorough, and (amazingly) free.

The elementary-aged program is called German With Felix and Franzi, a cartoon frog and duck who move from Berlin to London. Each lesson begins with a short animated video. Supplementary materials include a Powerpoint with vocabulary-practice activities (we download them, move the words and pictures around as directed, and then close without saving changes), as well as music and lyrics for a couple of songs. The site is loaded with additional resources, and I’ve only just begun to mine the possibilities.

While the animation tends toward the preschool end of the spectrum, the lesson content is just right for my two beginners, ages 8 and 11. We work through several lessons a week, beginning each day’s session with a re-watch of earlier videos in the series, with the speed bumped up to 1.5 to help with comprehension. (Since conversational speakers usually talk a lot faster than the characters in educational videos.)

A real plus: the already rich lesson content is further enhanced by corresponding Memrise lessons for vocabulary review! (I’ve raved about Memrise before…)

So our lessons look something like:

—watch one or two of the videos whose content they’ve already learned;
—watch the next new lesson in the series;
—sing a few of the songs;
—(maybe) play with the Powerpoint activities;
—(maybe) watch a few other German children’s song videos on Youtube—not part of Felix & Franzi, just things we find in search;
—(later in the day) Rilla does a Memrise lesson. (Huck’s not a fan.)

It’s a good format for us and I’m pleased with their progress.

Beanie, with several years of German under her belt already, has been investigating the Goethe Institut resources for more advanced students. She especially enjoys the music playlists.

This was an accidental find last month, right when I needed a nudge, and so far the program gets high marks from me. Which is saying something, because I do believe I’ve tried just about every foreign language program on the homeschooling market, at some point or other!

Online Foreign Language Resources #2: italki

June 24, 2014 @ 8:44 pm | Filed under: ,

See #1 in this series: Memrise.


Last night I had a trial lesson at with a German teacher who currently lives and works in Taiwan. At the appointed hour he rang me on Skype and we had a delightful half-hour chat. We started with video but the connection was wonky so we switched to audio only, and that worked fine. Something I especially appreciated was that whenever I struggled with a word or phrase, Stephan corrected me and typed the correction in the chat window so I could see it as well as hear it. Afterward, the chat log provided a nice transcript of the things I’d learned.

language optionsSince this was a first lesson, it was largely conversational. Stephan spoke to me in German from the beginning (when I set up the lesson I’d had to fill out a form describing my current level), asking lots of questions and encouraging me to plunge in and answer as best I could. I loved it. He also sent links to a couple of resources—a German children’s book, the first half of which I read and translated with his help, and, when I mentioned that I often confuse which prepositions go with which verbs, a pdf with some preposition exercises.

Italki lets you choose between “professional instruction,” where the tutor will probably have you work through a textbook with homework, and “informal tutoring,” which is more the conversational kind of session I had with Stephan, practicing and improving my skills through dialogue. The latter is the less expensive option, but both kinds of lessons are pretty reasonable—downright cheap in some cases, depending on the language you’re studying and the exchange rates involved. Payment is all handled through italki; you purchase italki credits (ITC) at the rate of 1 dollar per 10 ITC, plus a small processing fee based on your payment method. When you book a session, italki holds your credits, and after you mark the session completed, they pay the instructor. If the session doesn’t happen for some reason, you get your credits back. Most lessons seem to be in the neighborhood of $10-15 per session.

The selection of language is fairly staggering. Basically, anywhere there’s Skype, there are italki tutors eager to take you on as a student. Most instructors have made short videos to introduce themselves. I love this one from Modabo in Spain. 🙂 Many instructors indicate on their profiles whether they have experience teaching children, if you’re looking for a tutor for younger kids. For teens, pretty much any instructor is a possibility.

Many instructors offer trial sessions like the one I had at a special rate. Italki allows new users to sign up for three of these trials, so you have a chance to try out the interface (and the teacher) without spending very much.

The website also encourages connections among users; you can find language partners to practice with or do swaps—say, you help me with German and I’ll help you with English. After all, actually speaking a language—jumping in, trying to form sentences, making lots of mistakes and having someone correct you—is the best way to move toward fluency. Users are also encouraged to write notebook entries in their target languages, inviting native speakers to offer corrections and advice. There’s a handy markup system to use in editing others’ entries. All very friendly and low-pressure.

So far, in my limited experience (two weeks browsing the site and last night’s wonderful lesson), I give italki high marks. Rose is drooling over the language list. We’re thinking some italki Spanish lessons might be a very good option for her. Like me, she’s been using Memrise to build vocabulary in her target language(s), and she studies Spanish grammar in a print textbook. But there’s nothing, nothing, like speaking with a native speaker. I’ve been stuck at a sort of low-intermediate level in German for a very long time. As in: decades. It was exhilarating last night to discover how much I really can say and comprehend. I understood almost everything Stephan said, and when I didn’t, he repeated the phrase, typed it out for me, and told me the English. It’s a very organic way to learn. I would love to take more lessons with him, the informal tutoring kind. I see Sign Language is offered as well, which is a very exciting possibility.

Online Foreign Language Resources #1: Memrise

June 7, 2014 @ 12:31 pm | Filed under: ,

Post #2 in this series:

Note: this is not a sponsored post and I’m not affiliated with Memrise in any way. It just turned out I had quite a lot to say about it!

To follow up on my post about memorizing monarchs and presidents, I thought I’d elaborate a bit further on how we’re using Memrise to learn languages, along with some other resources like Duolingo, iTalki, and Earworms, which I’ll talk about in subsequent posts. It’s kind of amazing how much you can do from your couch. 🙂


MEMRISE. Free for computer, iOS, Android. Excellent for building vocabulary, not so much a grammar tool. (But read on.) You pick any of a multitude of courses in your target language. In small batches, words appear on your screen along with “mems,” mnemonic devices created by other users to help you remember the word. The best mems create some kind of visual image that helps fix the word in your mind, the way I was taught as a kid in the 80s to remember that Caspar Weinberger was Secretary of Defense by picturing Caspar the Unfriendly Ghost defending a bottle of wine and a hamburger. I don’t remember which teacher planted that image, but the picture is still vivid. That’s what the Memrise folks call a mem.

You can scroll through all the existing user-created mems for each word or phrase, and if you don’t like any of the choices you can create one of your own. The interface makes it easy to select a public-domain image, and then you add whatever text you want. Here’s a mem I made to help me identify Chad on a map of the Countries of Africa:


It’s corny but it works. Not all mems have an image attached; a good word-picture can help just as readily. I remember Ceuta on the map (a place I’d never heard of until taking this course; an autonomous Spanish city on the North African coast across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain) by thinking of the Spanish pronunciation —thay-uta—and using the mem “they oota be in Europe but they’re in Africa instead.” Again, not exactly the height of cleverness but it was the hook I needed to remember how to spell the name of the city.

As this image suggests, and as I described the other day, you can use Memrise to learn a lot of things besides foreign languages. Other topics I’m studying include British and English Monarchs, U.S. Presidents, and the World’s Tallest Buildings. (What can I say, I’m a junkie.) But foreign language is where Memrise really shines. The selection of languages is breathtaking in its scope. Lingala, anyone?


Rose, whose favorite pastime, I kid you not, is learning the first chunk of a new language, has absorbed beginner vocab in Dutch, Welsh, Russian, Hungarian, Italian, and who knows what else, in between her longer-term progress through a 1000 Spanish Words course. I’m taking several different German courses simultaneously—you can move as quickly or as slowly as you want. I too have a “1000 Words” course I use as my primary focus to add vocabulary, but there’s a “German Conversation” course as well that has lots of useful longer phrases like “I couldn’t care less,” “I completely agree with you,” and “he’s so reliable you could build houses on him.” Then there’s the short course on prepositions I whisked through as a review, and a challenging one on verb conjugations. And then—slowly, oh so slowly! probably only a hundred words over the course of a year!—I’m using the vast and comprehensive 5000 German words course which is packed with upper-level vocabulary.

But then, I thrive on variety. Other users might prefer to move steadily through one course at a time. There’s a fair amount of overlap in my assortment of courses, which helps cement things in my mind, but I can see that it might feel redundant or confusing to others.

choosing a mem

Regarding mems for language, I’ve found that the best kind are those that help me work from the English to the German. I can usually remember the English meaning of a German word after a couple of repetitions, but it’s much harder for me to look at English and grope for its German counterpart. The majority of user-created mems seem to work the opposite direction—they’ll start with the German and use English puns to link the word to the English. For example, here’s a text-only mem I made for aufhören, German for “to stop doing something”:


It didn’t really work for me, not after some weeks away from the program. I couldn’t look at the English definition and get to the German word. What I really needed was something that starts with “stop doing something” and gets to “aufhören.” In this case, I tried to enhance the mental picture that goes with the above mem: I picture a Stop sign with Alf the TV alien perched on top holding a phone—the phone because the “hören” part reminds me of Auf Wiederhören, “until I talk to you again,” which you say when getting off the phone. Now, this revised image is working pretty well for me—but it requires me to remember to use the “stop” in “stop doing something” as my jumping-off point for memory. Will I remember that if I come across the word in another context a year from now? I don’t know. I do know that a vivid and specific mental image makes a tremendous difference in my ability to connect words in two different languages, and that after some repetition, the word is transferred to my permanent memory and I don’t need to rely on the mnemonic device anymore.

This repetition is part of what makes Memrise so successful: the program works by giving you the words at ever-increasing intervals as you demonstrate mastery. First you “plant” the words, a few at a time, and they give you a lot of interactions with it in different ways—English to German, German to English, multiple choice, type it in. This process only takes a few minutes for each new batch of words.

Here’s one example:


Here’s another:


Now the words are planted in your short-term memory. Memrise locks them for a few hours (sort of—you can override the lock by clicking “overwater” for extra practice). After that, they are ready for “watering”—you come back and review them again. If you get a word right on the first attempt, next time there will be a longer interval before it’s ready for watering. Eventually, as the words move from short-term to long-term memory, the intervals may be many days long.


As you can see, most of the words in this lesson are in my long-term memory and don’t need “watering” (reviewing) for several days or even weeks. A phrase I missed yesterday, “auf diese Weise,” is ready for watering now. “Auf,” a common preposition I learned decades ago, is (obviously) in my long-term memory and only comes around every few weeks. If I wanted, I could tell Memrise to ignore it altogether—there’s a setting you can click that means I’ve got this one down and never need to review it again. I certainly don’t need “auch,” a word I learned on day one of German, popping up in my word list. I don’t always bother to mark words “ignore,” though, since it’s an extra step.

I mentioned above that what Memrise excels at is teaching you vocabulary, but it’s not as strong at conveying grammar. You won’t necessarily learn word order or grammatical cases from this program—for that we use other resources like Duolingo (about which, more in a future post). But what my kids and I have found is that Memrise is invaluable for building our vocabulary, and grammar is so much easier to nail down when you have a big word list to draw from. And when I was really struggling to keep straight which prepositions take which cases for object nouns, Memrise came to my rescue. I found a German course that focuses on that very thing—you have to enter +A or +D after each verb-preposition combo to indicate whether the noun will take accusative or dative. That’s the kind of drill I need to take me to the next level of fluency. I’ve been stuck in the middle of Level B1 (going by the Goethe Institut’s fluency scale) ever since college. My periodic reimmersions in German have prevented me from losing what skill I’d gained, but to move forward toward real fluency I need some more intensive drill. This course is helping shift my recall from groping to automatic.

How much time does Memrise take? It can be as little as five minutes a day, if you want—plant a couple of new words, maybe water some of your older ones. I tend to go in intense bursts of activity with long lulls between them—sometimes many weeks will pass without my checking in, and that’s fine. The whole point of the program is to plant the words in long-term memory. If I’ve forgotten them—the app can tell by how I answer—they get pushed back into a more active, frequent rotation in the list.

During my intense bursts, I add new words, level by level. Then, when my focus inevitably shifts elsewhere, I stop accruing new vocabulary but the program is there to help me maintain the vocab I’ve got. “Watering” your words can be really relaxing and addictive. Some people play Candy Crush; I water my German verbs.

The iPhone app is pretty sharp. I like to check in last thing before I go to sleep and see if any of my words need watering. It’s a good waiting-room activity, too, since the courses I’m taking work fine with the sound turned off.

1402171723.jpg  1402171655.jpg

Okay, I’ve talked a lot about how I use Memrise for my own learning. What about the kids?

My younger kids are very interested in it; Rilla begs to use it for French, but it’s a skitch above her level. Her spelling isn’t strong enough yet for her to be able to easily enter answers in English, let alone French. Also, and significantly, Memrise is designed for adults, and the mems are created by adult users, which means that occasionally you come across one that’s a bit off-color. For these reasons, I think it’s better saved for kids 13 and up, depending on your parental comfort level. For us, 12 or 13 is a good threshold.

For my younger set, we tend more toward apps specifically designed for children, like the ones I reviewed at GeekMom a while back.

Before heading off to college, Jane used Memrise to learn Japanese kanji. Rose, as I said, likes it best as a way to experience a wide variety of languages. She’s very interested in language and linguistics, and Memrise has allowed her easily to explore the rudiments of more tongues than I can keep track of. Meanwhile, she’s making steady progress through her Memrise Spanish course, which we supplement with a grammar workbook. (She’s not keen on Duolingo. Beanie and I love it.)

Also, Rose doesn’t bother with mems. She says she remembers better without them. What clicks for her is Memrise’s repetition cycle, the way the words you’re weakest on will appear more frequently in your practice sessions.

Beanie, like me, is into German. She does about 15 minutes of Memrise a day, 4-5 days a week. Her vocabulary is growing steadily and the program has the advantage of building excellent spelling skills as well.

There are also Memrise courses for the SAT and other college admissions tests, including SAT vocab builders. You can create brand new courses, too, and make them private or public as you choose. (Choose: wählen, she CHOOSES to wear a VEIL IN church. That’s someone else’s mem but it worked like a charm for me.) If I hadn’t found a course with the verb-preposition-case info I wanted, I was thinking about creating my own. I’m always happy, though, when someone else does the leg work. 🙂

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have 21 mems to water!

Me gusta Cat Spanish (so far)

December 6, 2013 @ 10:57 am | Filed under: ,


A peek at the new “Cat Spanish” app from Memrise. We’ve only just begun playing with it. Will report back later when we’ve worked with it for a while (mainly Rose; she’s the one learning Spanish), but it’s safe to say it’s a hit so far. Conversational phrases with amusing kitty photos: you have us at hello.


Learning Languages and Other Stuff at Memrise

November 23, 2012 @ 8:12 am | Filed under: ,

How I Learned a Language in 22 Hours” — Joshua Foer describes how he used to learn Lingala, an African trade language, in 22 total hours of study (over a three-month period). Memrise uses visual memory techniques and modern computer gaming incentives to make such a feat possible.

If five million people can be convinced to log into Zynga’s Facebook game Farmville each day to water a virtual garden and literally watch the grass grow on their computer screens, surely, Ed believes, there must be a way to co-opt those same neural circuits that reward mindless gaming to make learning more addictive and enjoyable. That’s the great ambition of Memrise, and it points towards a future where we’re constantly learning in tiny chunks of our downtime.

Naturally, I leapt straight from that article to the Memrise website and, two days later, am happily up to my eyeballs in German vocabulary. The kids and I are working our way through a course on the trees of England. (I always wondered what yew and rowan looked like.) Highly, highly, highly recommended.

Monday Links & Language

September 10, 2012 @ 8:53 am | Filed under: , , ,

New Thicklebit: Tats for Tots.

New interview: Writing on the Sidewalk.

Foreign language app we are finding irresistible, with a deliciously mockable edge: Earworms. (I learned about it at GeekMom. Rose and Beanie are using the German; Jane, the Japanese. Rose likes it so much she ponied up her own funds for the Arabic.)

Other resources Jane is using to learn Japanese (answering Ellie‘s question from my learning notes blog): Pimsleur Approach audio program (check your library for these); Free Japanese Lessons; Learn Japanese Adventure (another free site).

I had such a fun time yesterday recording a Brave Writer podcast with Julie Bogart and her son. I’ll let you know when it goes live! The Prairie Thief is the October selection for Brave Writer’s Arrow program—a monthly digital language arts curriculum featuring a different work of fiction in each installment. Brave Writer is one of the first resources I ever gushed about on this blog, way back in 2005. 🙂 And as you’ll discover in the podcast, Julie Bogart was the blogger who inspired me to start Bonny Glen in the first place!


Greek (And Latin!)

January 6, 2009 @ 9:07 am | Filed under: ,

Updated to add: lots of useful links & recommendations for both Latin and Greek materials are popping up in the comments—don’t miss ’em!

Kathy asked,

Wasn’t Jane learning Greek at one point (or maybe she is still)? I searched the archives and didn’t see anything. When you have a moment could you please share what she used? My 11yo daughter is just dying to learn Greek and I’m starting my search for a program/book/guide here. Thanks so much!

It was Rose who was (and remains, in intermittent flares) on fire for Greek a few years back. She made her way through the first two levels of Hey, Andrew! Teach Me Some Greek and quite enjoyed them. As I recall, Jane too whipped through the primer to learn the Greek alphabet. Both girls liked the format of the Hey Andrew materials, which were very, very simple and bare bones. (The first levels focused primarily on mastering the alphabet.) Looking at the website now, I see they’ve redesigned the covers but the interior page samples look the same.

I would say that I was happy with Hey Andrew as a gentle introduction to the alphabet, with one large caveat (and this is rather delicate, and I hope won’t sound insensitive—bear in mind that I’m the mother of a five-year-old with only semi-intelligible speech, so I really am sensitive to the challenges of speech impediments): the pronunciation CD that came with the workbooks was voiced by a speaker with a pronounced lisp. And for a foreign language program, that really is a bit of a problem. I had to keep correcting Rose’s pronunciation of “epthilon,” and “thigma,” for example. At first I wondered if the classical Greek S-sound really was meant to be a TH, but the speaker lisped in English as well, so I think it was just an aspect of her manner of speaking.

Jane has so enjoyed Classical Academic Press’s Latin for Children materials that I’m quite eager to get a look at their new Greek for Children series when it comes out. Mind you, CAP’s program is extremely workbooky and therefore quite out of character with our unschooly, loosy-goosy, CM-inspired but not CM-structured atmosphere, but our language studies have been a consistently fun and challenging pursuit over the last several years, and absent an immersion experience (which I cannot provide for Greek or Latin!), a kind of methodical, steady study is pretty much the only way to gain absence [edited: “gain absence”?? I plead preggo brain] master a new language. Our path to Latin works for us. (Rose actually prefers the even-more-schooly structure of Memoria Press’s Latina Christiana program, so that’s what she uses, and Jane uses LFC. Beanie absorbs by exposure to the vocab CDs the other girls listen to. For that matter, so do I!)

Hope this helps at least as a starting point, Kathy. If anyone else has a more substantive review of Greek materials, please do chime in or link to a post!

P.S. Here’s a fun video from Steve Demme: Learn the Greek Alphabet in Ten Minutes.

Related posts:
What the Tide Brought In
All Roads Lead to Greece

What the Tide Brought In (and Carried Out, and Brought Back In, etc.)

In my recent post on “tidal homeschooling,” I mentioned Rose’s determination to learn ancient Greek. This has been a driving interest for her for about a year and a half now. (She was seven last August.) Like all good drives, this one has involved frequent rest stops. She sets her own pace, and she’s the one to decide when to get behind the wheel again. As a passenger on this trip, I have to say it has been (and continues to be) a most delightful journey so far.

Her fascination with ancient Greece began with the fabulous Jim Weiss. His story tapes, “Greek Myths” and “She and He: Adventures in Mythology,” have been favorites with all my girls. Rose especially was captivated by the stories of Atalanta, Hercules, and Perseus. Observing her eager interest, I pulled our trusty D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths off the shelves, and Rose read it until it literally fell to pieces in her hands. Like the children in Linnets and Valerians, her imagination was stirred by the bright islands in the wine-dark sea, the “mountains crowned with ruined palaces, statues and temples and shrines…”

A burning interest in mythology seems quite common among children of Jane’s age; I’ve known many a six- or seven-year-old who couldn’t get enough of these tales of high adventure and meddlesome deities. It is certainly an easy appetite to feed. We scoured the library for picture books; we explored a website chronicling the lives of a fictional Spartan family and their counterparts in Athens. We read long passages from Padraic Colum’s The Odyssey, and Rose begged several re-readings of selected chapters from Hillyer’s A Child’s History of the World.

Thus far, the path we traveled was much the same as the one I’d followed with Jane a few years earlier—and, I daresay, quite similar to the roads followed by many a parent of a child this age. Then Rose veered off onto a side route.

“I want to learn ancient Greek,” she announced. “I need you to find me a book. The kind with lots of blanks to write in.”

She meant a workbook. I don’t like workbooks. They make me shudder and look for the exits. Jane has always felt the same way. But for Rose, my orderly, methodical Rose, an empty workbook is a treasure, a blank coin waiting to be engraved. Obligingly, I searched. A few minutes at Anne Zeise’s invaluable website led me to a promising resource: a series called Hey Andrew! Teach Me Some Greek! With Rose panting at my side, I ordered the first level.

As I said, this was well over a year ago. She was very young—is still very young—and I certainly had no plans to commence the study of a classic language—one with a different alphabet, no less—with a six-year-old child. But it’s what Rose wanted. Emphatically, urgently, relentlessly. And that’s what we do. We follow our children’s interests, all of us learning as we go. My job is to outfit her for the journey—or to return to my tidal homeschooling metaphor, to provide the ship for the fishing expedition.

Right now she is about halfway through the second level of the Hey Andrew books. Here’s how she likes it to work. Every day in our home, there is a two-hour period of quiet time. The girls go to separate rooms: Beanie to their bedroom (they all still share a room); Jane to the sewing room; and Rose to my bedroom. I put Wonderboy down for his nap and take a half-hour lunch-and-email break, a welcome hush after our busy mornings. Then I read a story to Beanie, and then I spend 30 to 45 minutes of one-on-one time with first Jane, then Rose. Quite often, Rose chooses to spend her mommy solo time working on her Greek.

What she likes is for me to sit beside her on my bedroom floor, knitting while she does a lesson in the book. Often the entire half hour will pass in silence while she doggedly fills in her beloved blanks. Other times, she’ll lay down her pencil and chatter away to me, or ask me to practice her flash cards with her (flash cards are another thing that make me shudder and fill Rose with delight). She likes me to look over each page as it is finished; she jots little notes at the bottom to record the time and day.

Sometimes she’ll want to do Greek during quiet time every day for a week. Just as often, she wants me to read to her—we’re halfway through Old Yeller right now—while she nibbles a piece of candy. Sometimes she’ll lay aside the Greek books for weeks at a stretch. This is why I call it tidal homeschooling. The tide carries this interest in and out. I’m not imposing these studies upon her; there is no pressure to complete the book in a certain amount of time, or even to complete it at all.

And that’s why I think she remains as interested in the subject as ever. If I were to sit her down and the table every day and say, “Now it’s time for your Greek lesson,” I know without a doubt that sooner or later her eagerness would have given way to reluctance. “Now listen, honey,” I could say. “You wanted to learn this and Mommy is going to help you fulfill that goal.” But what if a child’s goal changes? What if she didn’t have any goal in mind to begin with? I doubt Rose said to herself, at the age of six, “I want to attain proficiency in ancient Greek.” I think she said, “Ooh, this stuff is interesting, I want to know more.”

I know some parents might worry that allowing a child to start a project (or workbook) and cast it aside when interest fades will encourage habits of laziness or irresponsibility. You don’t want to give a kid the idea it’s ok to abandon ship as soon as you find out how much work is required of a sailor, right? But these fears don’t trouble me. I find that there are plenty of other areas of life for the establishment of good habits of discipline and follow-through: household chores, thank-you notes, pet care. I don’t need to harness a child’s interest in ancient Greece to a plow so that she can get practice making nice, neat furrows. My own interests wax and wane; why shouldn’t hers?

And suppose the interest dies a sudden death—then what? What if the Greek workbook gets shoved under my bed and Rose never mentions it again? Well, then that’s what happens. And that’s fine. The tide will bring in something else.

It always, always does.

Click here for the master list of all my tidal homeschooling posts.