App stores are chock-a-block with apps for language learning. Most of them boast colorful flashcards and cute characters for kids, and others are translators that help travelers with phrases, vocabulary, and pronunciation. The big names are in the mix: Rosetta Stone has apps for both Android and iPhones/iPads, but they're mobile companions to the expensive software packets that contain the main course. Berlitz sells apps to help you brush up on your vocabulary and phrases before you travel.
But a few new language learning apps are moving in on the "gamification" trend in education, making a game out of learning phrases and words. For young students accustomed to playing games during their off-hours from school, or for adults who have a few minutes to kill on the bus, these game apps are meant to help with casual, conversational language learning in languages like Spanish, Italian, French, German, Mandarin, and Portuguese.
One of the biggest players in the language-learning game app realm is MindSnacks, and as Mindy Eve Myers, Director of Education explains it, the point of the app is not necessarily to teach the language to the point of fluency, but to keep players engaged with something more productive than killing pigs.
"The reason that we wanted the games to look they way they did and to be able to be played in short bursts of time is that we wanted them to fit into those awkward moments of the day where you've got a couple of minutes to kill," Myers said. "So, instead of playing Angry Birds, you can practice your Spanish vocabulary."
Here's how it works: You have to match the English word with the Spanish word, for example, "nine" and "nueve," before the fish tank empties. The water drains faster and faster as numbers are thrown at you.
Another game on the menu: meteors falling to earth, with numbers or vocabulary to match before the meteor crashes into houses. Or your spelling is checked by tapping on parachutes falling to the ground. See an incorrect spelling? Tap it, and it explodes. Correct spelling? Let the parachute land, and a rhino walks off into the bush. There are prep tutorials, with audio recordings to tell you how to say vocabulary or phrases. These can then be incorporated into the games. And, just in case anyone thought this would be really simple, there are fifty levels, so you can keep playing for quite a while.
Mandarin Madness and Spanish Smash by Native Tongue, which are both new to the app scene, work on the same premise, where learners play in an arcade-style game and must get past obstacles to get to the next, progressively more difficult levels.
"The idea is that if they're fun and addicting and engaging, then you'll want to keep playing and therefore you'll be more likely to continue learning that language and continue working with the words, more so than you would have if everyone has flash cards, and after a while, it just becomes a bit of a bore," Myers said.
The MindSnacks algorithm is based on linguist Dr. Paul Pimsleur's research surrounding language and memory. Pimsleur's methods grew into a self-study language series, and became the basis for "Speak Spanish With Dora and Diego," the popular children's series on Nickelodeon's Nick Jr. MindSnack’s founders also created the original curriculum in conjunction with University of Pennsylvania professors.
MindSnacks plans to release grade-level vocabulary and geography apps, and they hope, one for Japanese.