The Babbel Blog

language learning in the digital age

American slang – it’s a piece of cake

Posted on July 22, 2014 by

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american slangBabbel’s new course, American Slang, teaches you the most useful American expressions and phrases. It got us wondering: why is something that’s easy ‘a piece of cake’?

Here are some of the (possible) origins of some classic American expressions. Take them with a grain of salt!


broke – to have no money, or to be bankrupt

Many banks in post-Renaissance Europe gave their customers small porcelain tiles, with the person’s name, credit limit, and the bank written on them. Think credit cards, only heavier. The customer brought the tile with him when he wanted to borrow money, and if he was past the limit, the teller ‘broke’ it.


flirt – a person who behaves as though sexually attracted to someone, playfully

This is a very old word, and we can’t go past Samuel Johnson’s 1560 dictionary definition: “A pert young hussey”. Happily it can now be applied to both men and women.


a piece of cake – something that’s easily done

There are several cake- or pie-related sayings that mean something’s easy – ‘as easy as pie’, ‘a cake-walk’, ‘to take the cake’. Why? Well, it turns out cakes were often given as prizes in rural competitions in the slave states. At parties or gatherings, slaves or their free descendants would walk in pairs around a cake. The most graceful pair was awarded it as a prize.


my two cents’ worth – my opinion (often unsolicited or unwelcome)

Widely debated. Some people say it comes from betting in card games: in poker you have to make a small bet or ‘ante’ if you want to participate. It could be the American adaptation of ‘two bits’ (a reference to the real, the ‘Spanish dollar’ that was divided into eight ‘bits’), or of the English ‘two pennies’ worth’. Or maybe it’s just a reference to the cost of postage? Sending a letter in England used to cost two pennies.


to be hard as nails – to be tough

From the days when nails were large chunks of iron and difficult to bend. In the world of internet memes, this entry has been replaced by a picture of Chuck Norris.


the whole nine yards – the lot, the full extent

Did you know that no other phrase in the English language has caused so much speculation and debate? It came into popular use after WWII. Popular theories about its meaning include the amount of material it takes to make a three-piece suit, the capacity of a concrete truck (9 cubic yards), the length of a machine gun ammunition belt in WWII fighter planes, and the number of ‘yards’ holding up the sails on a sailing ship.

It appeared for the first time in 1907 in an article about baseball in an Indiana newspaper, and disappeared for almost half a century, only to pop up in a 1956 article on fishing in the Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground. But in an Agatha-Christie style twist, a 1921 headline in a South Carolina newspaper proclaimed “The Whole Six Yards of It.”

Sorry, language sleuths – most likely the number nine doesn’t refer to anything. It’s an example of phrase creep, how sayings grow bigger over time (Cloud Nine was originally Cloud Seven). But that won’t stop people speculating for years to come – what is ‘the whole six yards’?


Try Babbel’s American Slang course to discover more of the best American slang words and phrases.


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Russian stereotypes quiz

Posted on July 16, 2014 by

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russian stereotypes

To celebrate the release of Babbel‘s new Russian course we’ve compiled a quiz to test your knowledge of Russian stereotypes. We looked at what the numbers said, and we asked Larisa Bulanova from our Didactics department to give us an insider perspective on what Russians think.

So: is it true that Russians drink vodka like it’s going out of fashion? Is it actually that cold?  And if you go to Russia, should you watch out for bears?

Remember, they’re called stereotypes for a reason! Please don’t take them too seriously.

Test your knowledge of Russian stereotypes… click to begin the quiz.



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The link between dreaming and language learning

Posted on July 9, 2014 by

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dreaming and language learningEver wondered about the link between dreaming and language learning?

You’ve probably heard people talk about the moment when they started to dream in a foreign language. It’s often considered a sign of fluency. In the 1980s, Canadian psychologist Joseph De Koninck observed that students of French who spoke French in their dreams earlier made progress faster than other students.

But were they quicker because they dreamed, or did they dream because they were quicker?

Psychologists and neuroscientists have tried to investigate the link between dreaming and language learning, but it’s difficult to pin down what happens in dreams. Some people report speaking fluently in a dream in a language they can barely speak when awake. Dreamers are unreliable witnesses.

The subconscious mind is capable of amazing things, like with the coma patient who forgot her native language and woke up speaking German. Maybe while you’re learning a new language your brain is busily storing away all the information that your conscious mind cannot absorb and it all spills out when you’re asleep?

Or maybe not.

The point is, it’s tough to prove either way. Whether dreams have any real psychological or physiological purpose is still hotly debated. Common hypotheses for why we dream include as a way of solving problems, processing information, or getting rid of stuff the brain doesn’t need.


We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest


Partly because science struggles to explain dreams, they remain a glimpse into the numinous. They perform important culturally-specific functions: think of shamans using dreams to heal people or predict the future, and the continuing pull of New-Age mysticism.

Maybe dreaming in another language is an expression of our desire for linguistic and cultural ‘insiderness’, tapping into the sense of belonging that a new language can bring. Whether you consider it a linguistic milestone or not, it definitely indicates a strong awareness of and engagement with new language.


Extreme dreaming

dreaming and language learning

So could sleep-learning (hypnopaedia), when you listen to tapes while sleeping, be effective?

Although a recent study claims it could, the short answer is no. Research has largely discredited it. “Disturbing sleep patterns in this way requires the brain to remain alert to listen, preventing you from attaining the sort of deep sleep which is actually so important for the mind,” says Florence Cardinal of Canada’s National Sleep Foundation.

She recommends revising material before bed several times and letting the brain do its work while sleeping.

The average human sleeps 8 hours a night for 75 years. That’s 220,000 hours. What if you could actively use that time?

Welcome to the world of Lucid Dreaming, when you know you’re dreaming and you can control it.

This controversial claim was coined by Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden and has spawned an industry of people happy to help you “explore your dreamworld, fulfil any fantasy, and tap into your creative genius” – for a fee.

It does have some scientific credentials. British parapsychologist Keith Hearne demonstrated in the 1970s that someone in a lucid dreaming state could make deliberate eye movements, and further studies from Stanford’s Stephen LaBerge have shown that brain activity during a lucid dream is different from that of an ‘ordinary’ dream. Skeptics question whether lucid dreaming is actually sleeping, or more like a meditative state.

Lucid dreamers acknowledge that you can’t learn new information – like words you’ve never heard – in a dream. But you could, for example, make a conscious decision to revise vocabulary, practice verbs, or have a conversation with an imaginary person in their language.

Just think of it like having Babbel’s review manager handy while you sleep!

For added fun, why not drop by Jan Born’s office at the University of Tübingen? He’s found that running a small electric current through the heads of sleeping people increases their memory retention by 8%. Kids, don’t try this at home.

What languages do you dream in? Are you a lucid dreamer? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!


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Brazilian football language: English roots, native flowers

Posted on July 4, 2014 by

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Brazilian football language

With the World Cup in full swing, everybody is brushing up on their Brazilian football language and throwing around words like jogo bonito! and golaço!.

These words are part of every football fan’s vocabulary, testament to the vibrancy of Brazilian footballing culture and its impact on the world.

Yet we need only step back a century, to the birth of Brazilian football, and we have to acknowledge the influence of a small island nation that has only won one World Cup compared to Brazil’s five – England.

Two footballs, a pump and a rulebook

Brazilian football language

Two men in particular were instrumental in bringing football to Brazil.

Charles Miller (above left), son of a Scottish railway engineer and a Brazilian woman of English descent, was sent to study in Southampton, England. Here he learned how to play cricket and football, and returned to his native São Paulo with two footballs, a pump and a rulebook.

In his biography of Miller, author John Mills quotes a bemused São Paulo journalist, who wrote about how British sportsmen were getting together on weekends, “to kick something around that looked like an oxen’s bladder, which gave them great satisfaction and displeasure when this kind of yellowish bladder got into a rectangle formed by posts.”

Miller played a major role in setting up São Paulo Athletic Club. Naturally he installed himself as striker.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland, a young man called Oscar Alfredo Cox (above right) from a wealthy English-Brazilian family was also discovering the joy of football. Upon coming home he organized the first match in Rio de Janeiro, in September 1901. Word had spread of what Miller was doing in São Paulo, so Cox lead a group of friends south, and the two men finally met on the field of battle. They played twice: both matches were drawn. One year later Cox founded the Fluminense Football Club, at the age of 22.

The echoes of English can still be heard today in the language of Brazilian football. A centre-back is still sometimes called a beque. A really good player is a craque, a ‘crack’. You have to chutar (shoot) if you want to score a gol, and if you score enough of them, your time (team) will lift the troféu.

Life’s a pitch: How Brazilian football language dribbled into everyday life

Brazilian football language

By 1919, author David Goldblatt notes in The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, the local Rio derby was drawing 18,000 people with another 5,000 locked outside the stadium without tickets.

Why was football such a runaway success in Brazil?

Accessibility was certainly a factor. All you needed was a flat space (and not even that, sometimes) and a ball, without any special equipment. Yet this does not fully explain why it caught on to the extent that it did: just look at India and China, countries of comparable size which have not adopted football to the same extent. In Brazil, it became a religion, a philosophy, an identity – and a language.

In Brazil, the ball – bola, which is feminine as opposed to the masculine German Fußball – is something to be treasured and caressed. The worst thing you could do is pisar na bola, to stamp on the ball. You might as well pendurar as chuteiras, hang up your boots, and tirar o time de campo, give up because all hope is lost (forfeit). If it’s catastrophically bad you might even have suffered a maracanaço – a reference to Brazil’s loss to Uruguay in the Maracanã Stadium in the 1950 World Cup final, still a collective national trauma over half a century later.

But let’s stay positive. The word golaço is not reserved for spectacular goals: it can be used for any remarkable feat, like wowing a client with your dazzling powerpoint presentation. It’s important to make a good impression when you vestir a camisa (wear the jersey), when you’re representing your company, so well done you.

And if you end up stealing that client and starting your own company, well, we all need to be a bit selfish – to take the corner kick and head it yourself, bater o escanteio e cabecear a bola – from time to time. After all it’s a pontapé inícial (kick-off), a new beginning.

Extra time

You don’t want your team to be ‘in the lantern position’, estar na lanterna – last in the table.

Everyone wants to ‘eat the ball’, comer a bola – to play excellently.

No goalkeeper wants to ‘get roostered’ – levar um peru – to make a terrible mistake.

Now that you’re down with the lingo, try our Brazilian football sayings quiz!


Photo 1: ‘World Cup football – Soccer ball with flags of different countries’ © / andresr

Photo 2: Charles Miller & Oscar Alfredo Cox | CC0 1.0

Photo 3 ‘Maracana Stadium’ © / CelsoDiniz


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Why are people really learning languages?

Posted on June 18, 2014 by

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If you’re learning a language at the moment, take a second to consider this question: why?

Recently, the question has been framed in economic terms. Freakonomics began it with a podcast that questioned the financial benefits of language learning. Over at the Economist’s Prospero blog, Robert Lane Greene argued that the numbers were higher than had been estimated and varied greatly depending on language.

It’s a debate worth having – albeit a bit sad that we reduce the beauty (and unquantifiable benefits) of learning a new language to an economic return on investment.

But how decisive is this factor? For which age groups and nationalities? What are the main reasons that make people want to learn a language?

These are questions we are constantly grappling with, so earlier this year we asked our users.

The results of the Babbel user survey are now in. Over 5,000 people took part in six countries: France, Germany, the UK, Spain, Italy and the USA. We asked them about their motivation to learn a language and their learning patterns, and analysed the results by age and country.


Travel, language interest – and brain training

When answering why they chose to learn a language, respondents were able to select up to three reasons. The two most common responses, ‘to communicate better when travelling’ (26%) and ‘out of interest in the language’ (22%), were not a surprise.

But the third most popular, ‘to keep mentally fit’ (17%), shows how rapidly the perception of language learning is changing.

Ongoing technological advances in the field of neuroscience have lead to a plethora of good-news studies about language learning, showing how it increases cognitive function, slows brain aging and delays dementia. This in turn meant that ‘brain training’ companies like Lumosity and Fit Brains sprung up, extolling the health benefits of language learning and brain training.

Language learning is increasingly viewed as a direct tool of cognitive self-improvement.

Age, naturally, is a crucial variable here: over 30% of people over 70 saw language learning as a way to keep mentally fit, while only 5% of people under 18 felt that way.


French discipline, German laissez-faire

Contrary to most stereotypes of German efficiency and French laziness, 60% of French users ‘learn according to a fixed rhythm’, in comparison to 38% of German users. French people also lead the charge when it comes to learning every day (23%).

The French school system, with its emphasis on strict discipline and regular lessons, might account for this. This theory is supported by some rather sweet anecdotal evidence – the number of French learners who write to us to apologise for their lack of recent study.


Show me the money

So, how many people are in fact motivated to learn a language for the (perhaps indirect) financial benefits?

Those who say they learn ‘for my job search’ arguably do. If we were generous we could also include those who do so ‘for my job’, thereby increasing chances of promotion or new positions.

If we combine those two factors, Italian users are highest on the list (18%), followed by German users (12%) and French users (10%). US users were least likely to choose these reasons, with only 5%.

It’s worth noting that among Babbel users, ‘to communicate better when travelling’, ‘out of interest in the language’ and ‘to keep mentally fit’ are all far more common motivation factors.



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Quiz: Brazilian football sayings

Posted on June 6, 2014 by

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Are you a connoisseur of football formations? Can you differentiate between half-backs and wing-backs? Do you know how Hungary revolutionised tactics in the 1950s?

Us neither. 

Take our quiz to discover some colourful Brazilian football sayings – and dazzle your friends during the World Cup with your amazing street slang.


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How to memorise vocabulary: User tips

Posted on June 4, 2014 by

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How to memorise vocabulary

We asked you for your favourite ways to memorise vocabulary, and the tips were great. Some are old classics and some are slightly more off-the-wall. Which ones do you use, and what would you add? Tell us in the comments!


1. Exercise while saying the words – Joseph

This has been proven to be effective. A study in 2010 tested subjects who bicycled while learning vocabulary, and found “that simultaneous physical activity during vocabulary learning facilitates memorization of new items”.


2. Singing the words I’ve learned (translated from French) – David (also Charlie)

Singing is a great way to learn vocabulary, and is extremely helpful for language learning generally – check out Benny Lewis’s post on the subject, complete with karaoke. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that adults who sang foreign words or phrases were twice as good at speaking them later.


3. Write the words down on small cards and work with the cards wherever possible – Stefan (also Milène)

Using vocabulary cards is a tried and tested technique. Some people like flashcards with a picture on one side and a word on the other, while others prefer to write short descriptions or translations on the back. One advantage is the sheer number of games you can play with them – memory games, mixing and matching, sorting them into categories, combining them to create sentences, and lots more.


4. Using the word in a sentence or mock conversation (yes, I have conversations with myself in foreign languages) – Chris (also Zelu)

Don’t be embarrassed! One of Babbel’s resident polyglots, Matthew Youlden, uses this technique as well.


5. I always watch movies in mother tongue with subtitles in mother tongue; when I find a word that I don’t know, I write it down on a sheet and look for meaning. Then I watch the movie again with all translated words. It works – Claudio

A great one for movie buffs. Time-consuming, but if you love languages and movies, what could be more satisfying than enjoying Almodóvar or Bergman in the original language?


6. Playing video games in the language I’m learning (translated from French) – Julius

Absolutely. Video games constantly reuse and recycle vocabulary. In fact, it’s surprising how little focus there is on the power of video games as a language learning tool: with the birth of online multiplayer games and the ability to change the region settings, it’s about time this was taken seriously. Games often create authentic situations that require real and immediate action – there’s no time to reach for a dictionary when an army of orcs are bearing down on you.


Finally, a hat-tip to Lavinia, Iyes and Nicole, whose favourite way to memorise new vocabulary is… to use Babbel! Thanks to everyone who contributed via Facebook. Please leave your own tips in the comments below.


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Why grammar (and broccoli) are good for you

Posted on May 27, 2014 by

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This month Babbel focuses on grammar, with a range of healthy new courses. There are also new pronunciation courses, in-depth Italian, and false friends.


Poor old broccoli, pariah of the vegetable world. Despite the fact that it’s extremely good for you and US President Obama has declared that it’s his favourite food, broccoli is still reviled by children all around the world – and a fair few adults.

A bit like grammar. Years of being forced to conjugate verbs or grapple with textbooks the size of telephone books have left many of us bruised, battered, and wondering if it’s all worth it.

But grammar doesn’t have to be intimidating. The trick is to prepare it properly.

In small, digestible portions grammar can be a wonderful thing. It tells you what works and what doesn’t. It gives you the building blocks you need to speak and write. Ultimately grammar not only gives you the tools to understand and create language, but provides an insight into how people in a different culture think and behave – such as how people who speak ‘futureless’ languages like Chinese are more likely to save money.

This month, Babbel’s smorgasboard of new courses includes plenty of healthy grammar and pronunciation, with some false friends for dessert.


English-speaking users: Danish and Dutch pronunciation (consonants), Polish and Norwegian grammar, more French grammar, Italian In-depth course 1

German-speaking users: Danish and Dutch pronunciation (consonants), Polish and Norwegian grammar, more Turkish and French grammar, Italian In-depth course 1

French-speaking users: Dutch pronunciation (consonants), Polish Beginners course 1, Italian In-depth course 1

Italian-speaking users: French grammar, French false friends

Spanish-speaking users: French grammar, Polish Beginners course 1, Italian In-depth course 1

Portuguese-speaking users: Spanish In-depth course 1

Swedish-speaking users: Spanish In-depth course 1


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7 Reasons Why We Love Listicles But They’re Killing Our Brains

Posted on May 22, 2014 by

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We like lists because we don’t want to die.

- Umberto Eco, The Infinity of Lists


What’s a listicle? It’s an article written in the form of a list. You know, the ones you see with titles like ‘11 Things to Never Say to a Man Whose Head Has Been Sheared Off by a Sheet of Glass’ or ‘25 Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber’ (wait! come back!).

Depending on your taste they can make you laugh or simply confirm that humanity is a lost cause. Websites like Buzzfeed and Listverse grew famous for them, newspapers embraced them, and people, inevitably, started to hate them.

They are the purest textual expression of a distracted, modern mind. So it’s probably worth asking: what are they doing to our brains?

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Roll on: the story of the Babbel bikes

Posted on May 14, 2014 by

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Gregory Simon in his natural habitat – Photo by James Lane for

One sunny Wednesday morning in March, Gregory Simon was getting ready for work. He showered, dressed, threw back a cup of coffee and left.

A couple of hours later he arrived in the office, looking rather frazzled.

“My bike just got nicked!”


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