New Word Wednesday: Katzensprung

Happy Wednesday! Here’s your new word for the week:


Katzensprung noun

  • a stone’s throw; literally, a “cat’s jump”

Example: “Es ist nur einen Katzensprung entfernt,” “It is only a stone’s throw from here”


Literal idioms are my favorite. Ignoring the fact that sometimes cats can jump an absurd distance (not to mention that it’s possible to throw a stone quite a long way!), both the English and German versions of this idiom make sense when translated literally. The interesting part comes from seeing how different cultures interpret the same idea into their own words.

Prepare to see more idioms in the future! I may have found a couple lists… 😉







The Greek Alphabet

One of my favorite books is called The Last Samurai (nothing to do with the Tom Cruise movie!), about a child prodigy who goes on a quest to find his father. His mother has some unconventional approaches to education, and the boy learns Latin, Arabic, Greek, Japanese, and a handful of other languages, along with astronomy, calculus, aerodynamics…all before the age of 10. This book was the source of a lot of motivation for me, and through it I learned how to read Greek. I even made a little song…

The method she used in the book worked really well for me, so here it is (because I know you’ve always wanted to be able to read Greek!).

In the book, the boy’s mother started out by writing out the alphabet, like above. Oddly enough, this didn’t result in education! So, she next showed him all the letters that looked like English letters:

βατ = bat
εατ = eat
αβουτ = about

Then, she introduced some letters which looked a little different: γ = g, δ = d, λ = l, μ = m, ν = n, π = p, ρ = r, σ = s.

γρατε = grate
δατε = date
σπελλ = spell
μεν = men

After that, some more complicated letters: ξ = x and ζ = z. Also, h, which works differently in Greek. It doesn’t have a letter, but instead a ‘ symbol gets placed over the letter. If the h is silent, a ’ gets used. So you get:

μιξ = mix
ζιπ = zip
ìτ = hit
íτ = it

Then there are letters that stand for sounds that, in English, are written with two letters. θ is th, but separated, like when you say “spit hard”. φ sounds like the ph in “slap hard”. χ sounds like kh as in “walk home”. And, ψ sounds like ps in “naps”.

παθιμ = pat him
βλαΧεαρτεδ = blackhearted
ὲλφερ = help her
ριψ = rips

Finally, there are the long vowels and diphthongs. Long e has the letter η, like the e of bed stretched out. Long o has the letter ω, like the o of hot stretched out. And the diphthongs:

παι = pie
παυ = pow
δει = day
βοι = boy
μου = moo

As it turns out, because of this and growing up Jewish (reading Hebrew from prayer books), I can read more languages than I can actually understand. It’s not as much fun as being able to actually understand the language, but I really like learning new alphabets. This is probably why I liked the Artemis Fowl series so much: the fairies in that book had their own alphabet, and there were secret messages along the bottom of the pages for me to decode! By the end of the book I could read that script fluently too…



New Word Wednesday: German “Zeug” Words

This should probably just be my motto for Wednesday’s post… Source:

One really fun thing about German is the way new words can be created by compounding them with other words. So for this lovely Wednesday, you get three new words, all with the same root!


Werkzeug noun, German

  • tool

Literally, “Werk” (work) + “Zeug” (stuff) = work-stuff


Spielzeug noun, German

  • toy

Literally, “Spiel” (play) + “Zeug” (stuff) = play-stuff


Fahrzeug noun, German

  • vehicle

Literally, “Fahr” (travel) + “Zeug” (stuff) = travel-stuff


Zeug is an amazingly useful word: it can be used to make words like “Rasierzeug” (shaving kit), “Schreibzeug” (writing materials), “Schulzeug” (school stuff)…it’s one of those patterns that is easy to remember after the fact, though it may not be intuitive beforehand. German is full of these, and it’s an endless source of amusement.


Enjoy your new words!



Thinking in a New Language

The mighty thesaurus! Not actually relevant, but too cute to pass up.

The mighty thesaurus! Not actually relevant, but too cute to pass up.


One especially hard part of learning a new language is thinking in that language: that is, if I need to say say the word for the piece of furniture I put my plate on, I think “der Tisch” and I don’t first think “the table” and then translate it. Thinking in your target language (TL) can dramatically improve your skills, because you can understand what you hear or read more quickly, without having to translate to your primary language to reach understanding. The key moment for me with Spanish was when I had a conversation on the phone with someone and we talked at a normal pace, exchanged all the information we needed, and agreed on a time to meet – all in Spanish! I was a bit giddy afterward. It was such a fantastic feeling, having worked so hard to get to this point and realizing I’d actually made it.


Thinking in your TL has a lot of benefits, but the biggest one to me is the conversion of passive vocabulary to active. Passive vocabulary is the words you understand when you’re listening or reading, but you don’t actively use them in speaking and writing. For me, the word for “farmer” in German is passive vocabulary: when I see or hear it, I know what it means, but I don’t have it available when I’m speaking or writing. By thinking in your TL, you force those passive words to become active, so that your inner monologue doesn’t run out of words.

One key point to make: thinking in your TL is not the same as being fluent! Fluency involves grammatical correctness, or native speech. In this case, we are talking about being able to produce something that makes sense and allows you to communicate (to yourself and others), automatically and without translation. Think of how children can communicate before they are fluent: what they say isn’t grammatically correct, but it is still communication.


So, how do you actually go about thinking in a new language? As always, repetition is key, as well as immersion. Practice a lot in your TL, and surround yourself with the language. Switch the language in your your browser and phone (you may have to keep Google Translate handy for a while, until you learn the new vocabulary!). Browser extensions like Mind the Word! for Chrome can switch a percentage of words on a web page to your TL.

Set aside time (short sessions at first) each day to practice thinking only in your TL. Tell a story, or describe how you are feeling, what you’re doing, what’s around you, or what you did today. Daily practice is important: this way, you make a habit of it and make it normal. Try having a free writing session: get a notebook and set a timer. Until the timer runs out, keep writing, as quickly as you can think. Don’t fix mistakes, and don’t go back, just as if you were doing this exercise in English! The goal here isn’t to write or talk fluently, but to get practice in increasing the pace of your words and to make it more natural to use the language regularly.

With any of these exercises, make a list each day of words that are missing from your vocabulary. Then, learn those words! This way you focus on the words you’ll actually use (unlike, say, some of the helpful words that come up in courses designed by other people – I knew the words for king/queen/prince/princess in Spanish before I knew “pencil”). Over time, you’ll notice your list getting shorter, as you learn more and more of the words you use every day. Focus on the words that are most relevant to you, and you’ll be able to communicate smoothly much sooner.


For multilingual learners, try switching from one language to another without stopping in your primary language! I’m working on translating between Spanish and German (“mesa” gets translated directly to “Tisch” without my having to think through “table”), to encourage flexibility in all directions.


A warning: you may confuse people around you if they talk to you when you’re practicing in your TL, and you answer them in the wrong language. That’s a good sign! Embrace the confusion, and laugh at it! Your transitions will get smoother, in time, and you’ll be able to switch languages as needed.

So, what techniques do you use for thinking in your target language?

¡Hasta pronto!




Skills for Language Learning

We take for granted that public speaking is its own skill, separate from reading, debating, writing, or listening. We understand that these skills need to be practiced separately: being a good writer is no guarantee that you’ll be a good speaker. The same philosophy applies to learning a new language. To be fluent in the language, you need to practice your skills in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Looking at your skill level in these separate areas can give you areas to focus on: for example, I’m fluent in Spanish. However, my skill in speaking it is not as great as my skill in listening, writing, or reading. It’s something I have to practice more, so I can speak smoothly and confidently, without tripping over my tongue.


There are lots of ways to practice the various skills. The language app Duolingo makes sure to test these skills separately: translating from written phrases, transcribing spoken phrases, and speaking into the microphone. For practicing listening, try finding podcasts, tv shows, or news broadcasts in your target language. This can also help with gaining familiarity in different accents. Most of my experience with Spanish came from Latin American accents, and it took a while to get used to the accents in Spain (with their odd habit of dropping consonants all over the place!). Taking the time before the trip to find some examples of Spaniards speaking would have smoothed my transition.

Some resources for practicing the listening skill, here: SBS On Demand offers free movies in lots of languages; Librivox has audiobooks; here’s a list of Latin American movies to watch; and this is a tool to control playback speed in files, to catch parts you missed the first time through.


Practicing speaking could involve: finding someone on Skype or Italki to chat with (this also improves your listening skill!); reading aloud from a book or article in your target language; or narrating your activities and life (describe the people and things you see around you: what they’re doing, what they look like, etc.). Make it a habit: the more time you spend in your target language, the more confident you’ll be speaking it. Don’t wait until you know “enough” of the language to start doing this! You will never know enough; there will always be more words to learn. Instead, slip in whatever words you do know. If you come across a word that’s missing from your vocabulary, go look it up.


To practice reading: switch your phone/browser/computer to your target language; go to a used book store and pick up books to read (to start, try ones that you already know, comic books, or kids’ books. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to read at the same level as in your first language!); try any of these sources for reading material; try a bilingual puzzle; read comic books; or play 20 questions.


Don’t waste time trying to find the best or the perfect resource for language learning. It’s much better to find a decent source, and then just start using it. There will always be something better! If you find it, then switch, but don’t stop learning.

What are your favorite resources for learning the different language skills? For me, the real test for Spanish was when I went to Spain and discovered that I can indeed hold a phone conversation without stumbling! That was a great accomplishment. Even after that, though, I was still looking out for ways to improve my skills. This is an ongoing journey!




Language Learning Tools

A small selection of all the languages I’d like to learn… Source:


One of my goals (ignoring the obvious impracticality of doing so) is to learn ALL THE LANGUAGES. Right now I’m learning German and improving my Spanish. Also on my list is Thai, Russian, Portuguese, Swahili, Mandarin, Hindi, Scottish Gaelic, Arabic…the list goes on. If I want to learn all these, I’ll need to be very motivated and find the best tools that fit my learning style.

Two of those tools are Duolingo and Memrise. They’re great (free!) language learning sites that I’ve been using for the last year and a half to bring my Spanish skills from rudimentary to full fluency, and to begin learning German.


Duolingo has many languages available, and more in development: currently they have Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese, and are developing Dutch, Irish, Danish, Hungarian, Swedish, Turkish, Russian, Polish, and Romanian. As you make your way through a course, you learn individual lessons which introduce a number of new words. You get three “hearts” to spend on wrong answers in a lesson: if you run out of hearts, you have to start the lesson over. Sometimes it can be tedious – like when you’re on the last question and you lose your last heart – but it does drive home the lesson. People learn better when they fail, and even if it’s frustrating, it helps the words stick.

The course works well on its own, but it’s when I noticed it also tracked how many days in a row I’d practiced that I really started to commit. I wanted to see how long I could keep a streak going (59 days so far!), and that made it much harder to let excuses get in the way of practicing the language. Even if I only made a little progress each day, it was still progress, and better than nothing.

Recently I’ve been getting the people around me into the site too. You earn points by completing lessons, and this has spawned a small race each week to see who can get the most points. Yes, in the end they’re meaningless numbers, but if it works to inspire you to learn, that’s a good reason to me.


Memrise is a site I discovered a little later in my language learning process, when I decided I wanted to start really expanding my Spanish vocabulary. The idea of the site is to use spaced-repetition (reintroducing a new concept frequently at first, then at longer intervals as it becomes fixed in long-term memory) to help you learn. The courses are user-created and span a huge variety of topics: tons of languages (including less common ones like Cherokee, Slovak, and Klingon), standardized tests, astronomy, psychology, history…obviously, quality isn’t as consistent so you have to do a bit more work to find a good course, but there are lots to choose from. I’ve been learning the military spelling alphabet and Morse code in my spare time…


What are your favorite language learning tools? And what languages do you want to learn when using them?


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New Word Wednesday: zoon

Happy Wednesday, and here is your word for the day, courtesy of an online Scrabble dictionary:


zoon noun

  • an animal developed from a fertilized egg
one of the distinct individuals that join to form a compound of colonial animal; a zooid (such as coral)

From Greek ζώον (zòon) meaning animal or living being; plural ζώα (zòa) 




zoon intransitive verb
to fly with a humming or buzzing sound

Used mainly in the Southern U.S.

Example: “That mosquito zooned around my head all night; I didn’t sleep a bit!”


So, two forms of a word, with two different pronunciations, and very different origins. Definitions for this word were somewhat sparse online (not even in the OED!), but it still counts for Scrabble, and everyone knows that’s the important part. Go impress people with your obscure word knowledge!


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New Word Wednesday – homoeosemant

Happy Wednesday! Here’s your new word for the week, one which can be used to describe other words!


Homoeosemant noun

  • a word that has a similar meaning to another, but not quite. Also known as semi-synonyms.

Examples: consider the differences between askquestionprobeenquireinterview, and interrogate.

Origin: the prefix “homoe-” comes from the Ancient Greek ὅμοιος (homoios, “of like kind”, “similar”).


Compare this to synonyms (homosemants, maybe?), which have the same meaning to each other. This word covers the more subtle differences between words – the differences that won’t show up in a thesaurus. For a native speaker, these words have different meanings: you wouldn’t interrogate your mom on what time dinner will be, for example – but for someone not as familiar with a language, it can be easy to use the wrong term. Figuring out which homoeosemant should be used in which context is a matter of trial-and-error, study, and often talking to a native! Otherwise you’ll answer the phone in a Spanish speaking country and not know whether to say “Hola”, “Diga”, “Bueno”, “Oigo”, “Aló”…

Enjoy your new word!


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New Word Wednesday: fulgent and refulgent

Happy Wednesday! Here are your new words for the week. They’re close enough they could probably count as a single word, anyway…


fulgent adjective

  • shining brightly

“The project was a fulgent success.”


refulgent adjective

  • shining very brightly

“She looked at me with refulgent blue eyes.”


Origin: late 15th century, from Latin words fulgent- and refulgentfrom re- (expressing intensive force) with the verb fulgere (to shine).


Despite being somewhat ugly sounding words, fulgent and refulgent have pretty meanings. “Refulgent” sounds more like “repulsive” to me. However, since English has a habit of borrowing from whatever language they feel like using at the time, we have ended up with an interesting collection of words to choose from. Compliment someone on their refulgence today! And do let me know what faces they make in response 🙂


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New Word Wednesday: ravel vs unravel

Happy Wednesday! Here are your new words for the week:


ravel verb

  • untangle something

I finally finished raveling this yarn.

  • confuse or complicate (a question or situation)

I don’t want him to help. He’ll only ravel things further.

  • unravel; fray
    (as adjective ravelleda shirt with a raveled hem


unravel verb

  • undo (twisted, knitted, or woven threads)

If you pull that thread, it will unravel the whole sweater.

  • investigate and solve or explain (something complicated or puzzling)

They attempted to unravel the timeline of the evening.

  • become undone
    Part of the hem had unraveled.
    All his work setting up the event quickly unraveled.


Right. Well that couldn’t be much more confusing. Let’s try to unravel this situation!

  1. When you’re talking about an object, you first have to ravel the tangled yarn, then you can knit the sweater, being careful not to unravel the whole thing.

  2. When you’re talking about a complicated situation, raveling will make it worse, while unraveling will solve it.

  3. If you’re talking about a shirt hem or other piece of fabric, the two words pretty much mean the same thing. Either way, it’s frayed.

So how can these two words mean both the same and opposite things? The words came from the Dutch ravelen “to tangle, fray”, rafelen “to unweave”, and from rafel “frayed thread”. The word has roots in weaving and sewing: as threads become unwoven from the final product, they get tangled. So you can unravel a sweater and get a tangled ball of yarn, which you would then have to ravel.

The many languages English has borrowed from can make unraveling word origins a confusing exercise!


Enjoy your new words!