Bilingualism, iPads and the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Being in the language (translation and localization industry), we at Bodeux International also strongly support bilingualism and language learning in general. Eve recently met a dynamic woman named Vicky Wu Davis who is a mom, entrepreneur and whip smart. She has long experience in the video game industry and is currently raising funds for a venture to create a sophisticated language learning iPad app for young children. To learn more about her project, read Eve’s interview with her below and to support Vicky’s venture, check out her page at Kickstarter before December 17!

Vicky, what inspired you to create an app for tablets/iPad that enhances bilingual learning?

Benefits of Bilingualism
I’m the mother of two young boys, aged 4-1/2 and 2.  I want to raise them to be bilingual for several reasons: (1) there are cognitive benefits for bilingualism in young children; (2) as we as a nation become more linguistically and culturally diverse, being bi/multilingual will be beneficial, and (3) my kids are half Chinese, so maintaining the mother-tongue will be a link to their heritage.

Early Exposure is Key
The younger kids are when they are exposed to multiple languages, the easier it is for them to absorb and retain them.  When my older son Aidan was a toddler, I looked for Chinese language programs and activities, but couldn’t find anything for kids younger than Pre-K.  Most classes and interactive language-learning resources were geared for kids in 1st grade and upwards.  I kept thinking that this was a lost opportunity since the best time to learn another language is before children reach the 1st grade, but I didn’t really do much about it till my son Aidan was 3, other than speak to him in Mandarin (I’m conversationally fluent. When he was 3 year, one day declared that he didn’t want to speak Chinese anymore.  He had decided that Chinese wasn’t cool, or hip, or relevant to anything he was interested in.  I again searched for programs to enroll him in, bought countless DVDs , CDs and apps to encourage him.  Not being able to find anything that would inspire and engage him for any length of time, I realized that if I couldn’t buy it, then I had to make it.

Supplemental Interaction
I created an “in-person” interactive program that has been very successful, and the other parents involved in the program started asking for a tablet-based app that they could use at home for reinforcement.  I’ve spent the past 12 years in the video game industry, and am also married to a game industry veteran too).  The non-native speakers wanted an app that didn’t require a native speaker to help, but still provided enough Chinese content to make the learning useful.  I teamed up with two other moms to create Peach Ice Cream Adventures (PICA), a tablet-based second-language learning tool that immerses kids in another language (there’s English support).

As word got around to other parents about our initiative, excitement about getting involved in this project increased because other parents wanted it for their kids.  Then other moms from other ethnicities started telling me about how they struggle with the same issue trying to get their kids to continue speaking their mother-tongue in a predominately English-speaking environment.  Since PICA is built off an existing technology platform, it allows us to swap in other languages, such as French, Spanish, and German.  As interest in bilingualism continues to rise, even monolingual parents are looking for tools to help them teach their kids. I realized that, by leveraging this technology, we could create a truly engaging language immersion tool for parents all over the globe looking to either have their kids learn another language, or maintain a mother-tongue.

Tablet-Based Technology
We focused on a tablet-based learning tool for several reasons:  (1) our kids are of a generation that is digitally-native…they learn how to use tablets before they even can speak.  It’s a very appealing medium to young kids, (2) tablets allow for interactivity.  Passive activities (such as watching DVDs) have been shown to be less effective, (3) tablets provide a very rich and engaging learning experience.  The audio component so crucial to language learning is inherent in the tablet platform. In addition, it has the images needed for visual learners, and provides the touch aspect which helps the kinesthetic learner. Children at the target age learn better when the learning is tied to physical gestures and movement.  Tablets also allow us to add content so that different learning objects can be swapped in (instead of a bumblebee, you can have a butterfly in a game). This allows an expanded vocabulary of words to learn within the game as well or allow for easily adapting to cultural specific images when needed.

What makes your app different than those already on the market? 

The Challenge
When I was first approached by another mom with the idea of making a tablet-based app, we sat over coffee talking about how between the two of us, we’ve probably purchased literally every app available that was even remotely geared towards younger kids for teaching Chinese.  The problem we found with the ones on the market included: (1) there’s no contextual relevance provided when learning new words.  The apps are basically glorified flashcards.  (2) if there is context provided, then there’s usually not enough of the language provided.  (3) the production values are not very high. The end result is that our kids won’t use the apps for longer than a minute or two.  Without truly encouraging engagement, the app is useless.  We’ve spent a lot of money because with each new app we discover, we download it with high hopes.  Unfortunately, we haven’t found any that really work.  Other parents have given us similar feedback about what is currently on the market for language learning.

Sophisticated Game Design
Coming from the videogame industry, our definition of gamification isn’t just about adding animation and sound effects to essentially drills and worksheets.  Kids are smarter than that.  There may be a novelty factor to ambulance sirens going off when you press a picture of an ambulance, then hearing the word in the target language.  But after a while, the novelty wears off.  Kids don’t play it, and the learning doesn’t happen. The kids will, instead, choose a game that is actually fun and entertaining.  There is quite a lot behind making a game, including the storyline, the user interaction, having the right reward mechanism built into the game to encourage kids to continue (ensuring the age-appropriateness of those mechanisms as well), etc. Game design is a lot more than pictures and sound.

 Could you tell us a bit about your long-term goals for your son’s bilingual development? 

My initial struggle was finding language relevance (or utility) in his world as related to Chinese, his second language.  Through the live enrichment program I created for him, it has inspired him to find both relevance and a sense of “coolness” in the language.  This has sparked an interest in him to speak Chinese at home in many other contexts.  Peach Ice Cream Adventures (and other future games we develop) will be additional inspiration.  I think at every age, there will be different “inspiration points.”  I’ve seen and heard stories of kids who started off bilingual (being born to a bilingual home), and over time at different stages/ages of their youth, start to drop the language that’s not the predominant one within their social life or context of their world.  I plan to continue leveraging a variety of experiences to complement my son’s learning.  And, of course, I don’t think any one method is the be-all-end-all solution for teaching/maintaining a second language.  A combination of traditional Chinese school, speaking Chinese with him at home, and finding engaging ways to make the language relevant to my kids will be key.  At the early education age, “fun” is what’s relevant.  As they get older, engaging is still key when retaining information, but that may or may not be in the form of games. However, contextual relevance (to their ever-changing world) is a constant at any age.  If traditional schooling is about drills and rote memorization, then my job will be to make sure my son’s learning at school is more than just acquiring knowledge content, but also how it may tie into something relevant in his life at any given age: how knowledge can stimulate my kids to become  engaged in that content, asking the right questions, and self-perpetuating the intrinsic motivation to learn.  Even content that requires rote memorization (like multiplication tables) can be recognized as a contextually relevant piece of knowledge in the grand scheme of things.

To support Vicky’s venture, check out her page at Kickstarter before December 17!

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