The Babbel Blog

Online Language Learning

“Cell phone learning can make a difference” – Matthew Kam on a game-based approach for English learning in India

Posted on February 27, 2009 by

mobgame1Matthew Kam, an Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, speaks about his recent doctoral dissertation research in Indian communities and designing E-Learning games for children from other cultural backgrounds. His MILLEE (Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies) project was funded by the National Science Foundation and has won several awards, including one from the MacArthur Foundation.

Babbel Blog: Why do you think E-Learning games on cell phones can provide a learning benefit?

MK: The case for games for education has been made from two very different angles. One would be the theoretical angle, the other the empirical angle. From the theoretical point of view, educational researchers like James Paul Gee argued that games could incorporate very good educational principles. There have been studies on the empirical level which support this claim. The most useful study that we found was done by a team of MIT economists who studied a group of children from the urban slums in India – more than 10,000 slum children were involved in that experiment carried out over more than two years. They found that kids playing mathematical E-Learning games two times per week improved their scores on math tests. That was by far the strongest evidence so far that games have an impact for education. We thought, when mathematical games can make a difference, you should be able to achieve the same kind of benefits with language-learning games too. That is the whole motivation behind our game-based approach.

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Let the machine guide you: Touring with your ears

Posted on February 17, 2009 by

wheretoTo know the world,  just listen to it – these words from writer Amin Maalouf are the motto of Zevisit.  The website offers free audio guides to a number of destinations, mostly in France, but also to other places around the world, such as tours to Istanbul or the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. The number of available guides depends on the language you use. Most are in French, though many can be found in English and there are a few in Spanish and German. Besides using the Google Maps to visualize the tours, you can download information to Google Earth, browse a Wiki or watch some video guides (via Fremdsprachen und Neue Medien).

When visiting these places, a translator could definitely come in handy. There is a new iPhone app which could have been a wonderful solution, but it comes with a catch: The iSpeak application ($2 for each language) offers translation from English to Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Polish, Swedish and vise versa – you type in a sentence, and it translates it and “speaks” the translation out for you. The only problem is that iSpeak relies on the Google translation engine – meaning you have to be connected to the internet. Which you may not be as a tourist without a contract with a local provider (or without wireless/WLAN, near the Victoria Falls for example).

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Magic, “mumblecore”, and not exactly talkin’ bout my generation: Interview at the Berlinale with Andrew Bujalski

Posted on February 11, 2009 by


One film the Babbel Bloggers caught during the Berlinale (February 5-15) was “Beeswax”. This is American auteur Andrew Bujalski’s third feature, which premiered on Monday, Feb. 9th. His genre, if it can even be classified as such, has been coined as “mumblecore”. But as a talk with him made clear, in his work and in the film world in general, often the last thing words do is clarify. You can still catch a screening of Beeswax in Berlin tonight or on Friday.

Babbel Blog: When I saw “Beeswax”, I was thinking about how I could connect it with issues of language. One thing that stood out to me in the movie was how you have this divide – or conflict – between personal and business language. “Are we business partners or friends?” “Am I your boyfriend or your lawyer?” That sort of thing.

Andrew Bujalski: Whenever I have to sign contracts it always produces a great anxiety in me, because I read the language of the document and it’s never language that I’ve written, or language I would necessarily subscribe to, though you’re not given the option to line-edit every contract you sign. But what’s frightening about them is that they are written in a language which doesn’t resemble the personal language you would use to suss out if you and someone you’re working with are working toward the same goal.

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“An interesting and intelligent teacher”

Posted on February 9, 2009 by

Not such a bad idea to broaden your target group by teaching them the language you are broadcasting in, right? The British Broadcasting Company – BBC – offers several services to learn and improve your English. Besides the  “The Teacher” videos – who is in his own words “a very interesting and intelligent man” explaining idioms on a whiteboard -  there are episodes of “The Flatmates“, among other things. This programme offers you a new dialogue to listen to every week (mp3) along with background information on some terms related to the show’s subject, e.g. the economic crisis. You can take part in a quiz or vote for what happens next.

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Library to go: Google books go cellular

Posted on February 6, 2009 by

mobil_oldWhile I have long since forgone interactions in the physical world in favor of their counterparts/improvements online — listening to the radio, going to the videodrome, banking, learning German, just to give a few examples — one thing I can’t bring myself to throw into the dustbin of materiality is a good book.

But also as a bibliophile who’s packed up and crossed oceans for good more than once, I can attest to one of books’ major detriments: weight. So my interest was piqued to hear yesterday that Google has just made 1.5 million ebooks from Google Book Search available on mobile devices.

Now, as of now these are only books in the public domain, meaning pretty old stuff; I can’t say that I often have the urge on a train ride to work to peruse say, Beowulf. Also the transfer of older scanned books to text for easier reading on a cellphone can often result in a bit of a verbal mishmash, as the LA Times notes.  But it seems that is also on the case. They announced simultaneously that they are now working on making contemporary and out-of-print titles that are already digitized for the Kindle e-reader for access on mobile phones as well.

In the meanwhile,  for those too impatient to wait to read the latest airport novel without all the fuss of pages, Amazon is scheduled to unveil the latest version of Kindle on Monday.

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Learning with the heardrum

Posted on February 3, 2009 by

eardrum“Neural tissue required to learn and understand a new language will develop automatically from simple exposure to the language” – that’s Paul Sulzburger’s main argument . The PhD graduate of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, taught Russian for several years to Kiwi students and watched them consistently drop out. What makes it so hard to learn words in foreign languages when we learn new ones in our own language every day? Sulzbeger wondered. His answer is: “When we are trying to learn new foreign words we are faced with sounds for which we may have absolutely no neural representation. A student trying to learn a foreign language may have few pre-existing neural structures to build on in order to remember the words.”

The Victoria University press office speaks of Sulzberger’s work as a “revolutionary approach” – but isn’t being exposed a language and learning it bit by bit the most well known way to learn a language anyhow?

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