Monday, August 31, 2009


One of the true wonders of my visit to France this past spring was the TGV. My previous exposure to so-called bullet trains was the Amtrak Acela Express, which was unveiled during the time I was commuting daily from New York to Philadelphia. The hype was tremendous: Speeds up to 150 mph! Comfort beyond compare! 21st century amenities! The reality was and is far less spectacular: Track limitations and regulations reducing average speed to under 80 mph. Ticket prices rivaling commuter flights. The look of a Star Trek set, but all style and no substance - not even wireless internet, which even buses have these days.

The TGV, which took me from Auxerre to Lyon and then back to Paris at the end of my trip, was a completely different story. Capable of reaching speeds in excess of 350 mph and having some trips with an average start to stop speed of more than 250 mph, the quiet-as-a-Prius TGV truly lives up to the bullet train moniker.

My friend and host Hether had accompanied me to the station and helped me buy my ticket, for I had yet to take even my first French class. She got the track and departure time, handed me my ticket, and sent me on my way. The train arrived, I boarded and took my assigned seat, and proceeded to spend two extremely comfortable hours watching the glorious French countryside fly past my window.

All the while, I was waiting for a conductor to stop by my seat and check my ticket, yet I arrived in Lyon and departed the train without encountering a single TGV employee other than in the cafe car when I got my coffee. When I brought this up to my colleagues in Lyon - How can they simply let people travel without checking their tickets? - I found out that I was lucky not to have had my ticket checked.

As many of you probably know, what I had failed to do was composter my ticket. At the entrance to every track is a machine into which each passenger is meant to insert their ticket for validation, and failure to do so subjects the traveller to potentially significant fines.

While some of the content will be beyond my learning level, I'm looking forward to the arrival next week of Bon Voyage !, one of our two new audio learning guides. How and when to composter is one of the cultural notes in the guide, which covers all of the essential elements of traveling in France from your arrival at Charles de Gaulle to picking up your rental car to asking for directions.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Getting further in a language faster

I can't help but laugh every time I watch this clip from The Sketch Show. I can identify with each character's challenge - some quite a bit more than I care to admit! But the truth is that if we open our mouths and make the mistakes, we'll get much further faster than if we waited until each sentence was perfectly formed. (Isn't we?)

I hope this video made your Wednesday a little funnier and makes your lanaguage learning experience more enjoyable. Bonne continuation !

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The most difficult languages

A wise man once told me that the hardest language to learn is the one you are currently learning. That sounds pretty accurate, doesn’t it? But which languages are actually the most difficult to learn?

There’s not a definitive answer to this question as it depends on the person’s native language and previous exposure to language learning. Let’s take for example adult native English-speakers. Which languages would be the most challenging to acquire?

According to the Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State, of the 63 languages analyzed, the five most difficult languages to reach proficiency in speaking and reading are Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean and Japanese, with Japanese taking the prize for the most difficult. These languages fall into the category of ‘88 weeks of study to reach proficiency’.

“Japanese is without question the most daunting language for a native English speaker to tackle,” agrees Richard Brecht, Deputy Director of the National Foreign Language Center, noting that the State Department allows its students three times as long to learn Japanese as it does languages like Spanish or French.

In an online poll, Chinese was chosen as the most difficult language to learn. Reasons given by poll participants included the writing system being different (every word is a different symbol and no phonetic clues as to how it is pronounced) and the tone system used. One participant hit the nail on the head: “Everything is different.”

What about German’s four cases or the seven cases and seven genders used in Polish? Learners of Hungarian have 35 cases to master. (How do you say ‘ouch!’ in Hungarian?)

So how do you stay interested and motivated when learning a difficult language?

My advice? Find interesting reading and listening material in the language. After spending two years immersed in a language spoken in a very small area, I didn’t want to lose what I had learned when I moved away. So now I watch the news from the local television and radio stations broadcasted online. It helps my ear stay tuned, broadens my vocabulary and keeps my knowledge of the culture and politics up-to-date.

What are your tips for language learners?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Unanswered Questions

I'd like to thank and welcome everyone who has registered for our new forums on speaking French, Spanish and English. However, to many of you, I have to say one thing: Don't be shy!

We've had some great posts and interactions, beginning with a fun discussion of "chansons retros" on the French forum that had me bouncing around Youtube listening to Charles Trenet (a great new discovery for me) and, of course, Charles Aznavour. Andrew then asked for some assistance with how to say "Just browsing" in French, and thanks to those of you who provided help.

But we have a member who has been left hanging: La petite Americaine is planning a trip to France this fall, and is looking for some suggestions for interesting and affordable destinations. Personally, I'd suggest Lyon for its architecture, people and incredible cuisine, but I bet there are many of you out there with strong opinions on this subject. Once again, don't be shy!

Vee posted a query on which of the many Spanish dialects is the best to learn. With some help from Lyon and a bit of research I found that Standard (or Neutral) Spanish, which is a hybrid of European and American Spanish, is the most commonly taught form (and is also used in our Hispanica Esencial audio learning guides).

Vincent christened our English forum with an incredibly inspiring post that really should be read. Let me just say that all of the challenges he is taking on at age 49 have me feeling a lot less daunted about learning French at 43.

Bon-weekend, everyone! I hope to see you on the forums, and I'll be back early next week with a preview of Bien-dire issue no. 66.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Is it grave?

The accent grave in French always sounded so intimidating to me. And then when I figured out that the accent aigu actually means the 'acute accent'... Well, to be honest, it just seemed unnecessarily serious. On top of that, remembering which direction is grave and direction one is accute was always difficult for me. Couldn't we just call them the left and right accent instead?

About a month ago, a fellow Georgian living in France told me her secret for remembering which direction these two accents go. (And now I'm going to pass it on to the blogosphere!) It's a very simple three-step process you can do in your head.

1. Write the letters G A in caps.

2. Draw two lines to form a V over the letters.


3. The line over the G = accent grave
The line over the A = accent aigu

Accents are not optional in French. Using them incorrectly (or leaving them off completely!) is misspelling the word. Capital letters are often left unaccented, but that's the only exception.

Did you know that an accent aigu is only used on the letter E? Often it means that there used to be an S after the E, such as in étudiant (student) or état (state).

The accent grave, on the other hand, can be used on the letters E, A, U.

Et voilà!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Got a language? Give!

With all the benefits knowing another language gives you, don't you think it would be cool to give something back as well? Have you considered using your language skills as a volunteer translator? Many organizations are recruiting volunteers to translate documents either to or from English. Your language skills could be an asset you offer to help a cause of field of interest. These listed below are just a sampling to get the wheels turning...

Kiva is the world's first person-to-person micro-lending website, empowering individuals to lend directly to unique entrepreneurs around the globe. Now accepting translator registrations for languages that Kiva may need additional help with in the future: Arabic, Armenian, Bahasa Indonesia, Dari, French, Khmer, Mongolian, Nepali, Pashto, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Thai, Urdu, Vietnamese and more. More information

UN Volunteers is currently seeking translators for 45 projects in French, Spanish, Albanian, Turkish, Zulu, Japanese, Malay, Somali, Amharic, Chinese, Portuguese, Korean, Tamil, Gujarati, Polish, Bengali and Marathi. More information

The International Education Committee (IEC) has launched the Volunteer Translators Network Program to make American Society of Microbiology web-based materials more accessible to international members. Currently, the IEC is working with Spanish, French, and Portuguese-speaking members and actively seeking additional volunteers. Other languages will be added in the near future. More information

Action Against Hunger needs help from bilingual volunteers to translate between English and Arabic documents. Volunteers should be native English speakers with good knowledge of Arabic and be familiar with the nuances of translation. The ideal volunteer will have experience translating documents, articles or technical reports in nutrition, water, sanitation and agricultural techniques. More information

Since 2004, the French daily newspaper, L’Humanité has an on-line English language version of selected articles. This project is produced by a team of translators from across the world including French to English translators and proof-readers. More information

ICVolunteers is an international non-profit organization specialized in the field of communications, in particular languages, communication technologies and conference support. Through volunteer effort, they cooperate with organizations in the humanitarian, social, environmental and medical fields to implement projects and conferences at local, national and international levels. ICVolunteers recruits and coordinates volunteer translators for French, Spanish and other languages. More information

Volunteer to translate Google's help information and search interface into your favorite language. By helping with the translation process you ensure that Google will be available in your language of choice more quickly and with a better interface than it would have otherwise. There is no minimum commitment. You can translate a phrase, a page or the entire site. Once enough of the site is translated, it will be made available in the language you are requesting. For example, Urdu is at 88% complete, Belarussian at 86% and Estonian 79% - almost there! More information

It's time to get your volunteer on.