Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on EDUKWEST.
2011 was a banner year for San Francisco-based mobile learning startup and EDUKWEST favorite, MindSnacks. Among many exciting accomplishments, their addictive language learning applications were named among the best iPhone education apps of the year in Apple’s App Store Rewind. I recently paid the company’s studio a visit, as I was eager to find out what MindSnacks has in store for 2012.
Just in time for the Chinese Year of the Dragon (4710, beginning on January 23, 2012), the latest release from MindSnacks teaches over 1400 words and phrases in Mandarin Chinese, including greetings, numbers, and days of the week. The app has 50 levels of content, and is appropriate for a wide range of language learners, from novice to intermediate. If you are less familiar with Chinese characters, you can start in pinyin (phonetic) mode – which is very helpful to learn basic pronunciation. For those of you practicing your reading skills (like myself, a somewhat lapsed native Mandarin speaker), the six mini games can also display simplified characters.
Mandarin was the first language tackled by MindSnacks that did not use the Roman alphabet (other apps available include Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, and ESL – available for seven languages). Another characteristic of Mandarin that makes it particularly challenging for second language learners is that it is tonal. In a tonal language (other examples include Thai and Vietnamese), syllables with the exact same pronunciation (e.g., ma) may have entirely different meanings based on their pitch. In Mandarin Chinese, there are four tones (as well as “neutral”). In order to address this fundamental aspect of Mandarin language learning, the MindSnacks team did extensive research in the development of their new gesture based mini game, Galactic, as detailed on their official blog. I won’t go into much detail here, as the company has already described their process eloquently. I highly recommend reading their post!
I agree that a gesture-based game is ideal for learning tones, as these exact gestures have been familiar to me throughout my schooling in Mandarin Chinese from childhood throughout my university years. As I discussed with co-founder and CEO Jesse Pickard, gesture has been shown to enhance word and concept learning in general. Moreover, I can attest anecdotally that I rely on gesture when trying to remember how to write a Chinese character (and have also seen others do the same), which also supports the idea that learning and memory of Mandarin also has a spatial component. From a developer’s standpoint, I think that Galactic truly takes advantage of the touchscreen in a unique game mechanic. The space theme is also visually and auditorily appealing, creating an all around fun (and educational!) multisensory experience.
From a learning science perspective, I appreciate that fundamentals of memory are taken into account in the development of all of MindSnacks apps. As you advance through the levels, you may notice that words and phrases from previous lessons reappear throughout the game. This concept is referred to as “spacing” or “spaced testing” in the memory literature, which has been consistently shown to aid long-term retention of new words and concepts.
All in all, I think that 2012 has a lot of great things in store for MindSnacks. The company looks forward to introducing apps in exciting new content areas, as well as adding more social features to their games. I will also be returning to the MindSnacks studio in the not-too-distant future to give EDUKWEST readers a tour and a chance to meet the team in a sneak peek into life at a startup.