How do you teach your kids another language? If you’re Ben Morrison, you write an iPhone app.
Ben, a web developer at a marketing company, explains:
My wife and I adopted our daughter, Violet, from Taiwan. We want Violet to be fluent in both English and Mandarin. We do our best to expose her to many different channels of learning the language, like Mandarin immersion preschool, Chinese picture books, even bootleg “Dora the Explorer” translated into Chinese. And, like many kids, one of her favorite activities is playing with my iPhone. So I decided to make an app for that.
Langu was recently approved and is now available from the App Store for $4.99, in both Mandarin and Spanish flavors. I was given a download code to try out the program, and it’s been a hit with my kids. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m raising my kids to be bilingual and I always appreciate ways to expose them to the language (other than scolding them in Chinese, a method which is cheap and portable but probably not quite as enjoyable for anyone involved). Check out the video demo to see the app in action.
I found Langu to be a pretty slick program: the interface is quite simple, starting with a list of categories (Animals, Colors, Body, Shapes, and so on). Tapping one brings up what looks like a flashcard: a single photo on a bright, solid-color background, with the text underneath in Chinese. Sliding the photo down reveals the text in English, and sliding left and right switches between different cards in a category.
There are three modes: Learning, Pronunciation Practice, and Quiz. In Learning mode, the word is automatically pronounced whenever you switch between flashcards or languages, and also when you tap the screen. Pronunciation Practice is similar, but only pronounces the word when you tap the screen. Quiz mode hides the text, and then reveals the text and pronounces the word after you tap. The Chinese version also has options for displaying in Pinyin, Simplified characters, or Traditional characters.
It was important for Ben to have native speakers pronouncing the words, so he had his wife read the English words and then searched online for voice talent, looking for standard-accent speakers. He also had “friends that were essentially ‘cultural sponsors’ for the each language, to make sure that the word and image choices were consistent and relevant.” I can vouch for the Mandarin speakers at least: the words are well-enunciated and pitch-perfect. I’m not a native speaker of Spanish, but those sounded accurate to me as well.
The photos, found using Creative Commons searches on Flickr, are excellent, and the bright backgrounds are a nice touch. (My only complaint about the photos was the one for “head,” which looks a little focused on an eye.) The program is pretty intuitive: both my five-year-old and my three-year-old picked up on it quickly. Ben said he wanted “to create a ‘toy’ rather than an app, something that is fun just to play with in a tactile way, and let the learning happen naturally.” I think it turned out really well.
One minor gripe about the interface: occasionally when I meant to slide up and down to switch between languages, instead the app thought I was sliding left and right to switch cards. That may be my own clumsy fingers, but it did seem like the left/right sliding was a little easier to initiate. Other than that, Langu is certainly a good idea well-executed.
As for my own kids, they’ve been enjoying the program, and even the three-year-old automatically started repeating the words to herself without prompting from me. While this won’t replace conversations and books, it will make for a really great supplement. And, as Ben pointed out, kids like iPhones—you certainly won’t have to force them to play with Langu.
So, what’s next for Ben?
I’ve been kicking around some ideas for other iPhone apps, most of them center around something I want Violet to learn… probably reading or math next. And of course, if Langu’s well received, I’d like to make more versions… I’d want to tackle Arabic or Hindi next—I like typography, and am easily excited by non-Latin characters.