Ciao, Ciao Rote Language Learning!

scientist-owlCan language learning be anything, but tedious rote learning? In my quest to find an application that did not take me to some surreal kingdom or adopt an avatar alias, I came across Duolingo–a language application that seemed to be all it was touted. So, what is different about this language application compared to all the other ones that are out there? Well, it has been in beta format for the last 3 months and the interesting thing is the creators have applied the wiki formula of aggregated data input to improve its acceleration and accuracy in development. This translates to (excuse the pun) to thousands of users creating content that is self-generating!  Now that it has been released to the public for German, Spanish, French, Italian and English, I tried it out to see if it was all it proclaimed. Guess what? It was and I had fun doing because of the learning game format.

It uses interactive activities that require you to select grammatically correct answers, input correct duolingo-lessonsspellings or words and verbally repeat pronunciations with voice recognition checks. You gain a heart for every 3 correct answers and lose a half a heart for every incorrect one which appeals to the stimulus-reward side of learners. After each level of learning activities, which build on the previous learning points, you receive immediate feedback, an overview of what you have just learned, charted progress reports, completion points and recognition via an animated diploma that pops up to acknowledge your progressive achievement.

I can see applying this as a collaborative activity by challenging teams or individual players to increase their skill level against the clock or monitor each other’s progress with combined or group scores. The elements of input, instant feedback and achievement markers will prompt participants to keep improving. The rote aspect is blended into the varied activities so you do not sense the repetitiveness, but just the incremental gains. It is an excellent approach to self-directed language learning!

“An independent study assessing the effectiveness of Duolingo as a language learning tool found that 34 hours of Duo lingo was as effective as 1 university term. In other words more productive based on output” (Vesselinov & Grego, 2012).

Who am IiTunes offers up an interesting application that is meant to initiate thinking about cultural diversity. It is part of the Race awareness Project (Baran, 2011) which was designed to bring art, technology and education together. Who am I, uses authentic photos of people to reveal learners’ own assumptions about race and nationality compared to how the people in the photos self-identify. It is meant to begin conversations with learners about human “physical diversity and racial identification”, but contains many components to consider “about the world in which they live, making them more knowledgeable, thoughtful, and empathetic” (Race Awareness Project, 2013). It is a free application that would serve as a wonderful icebreaker activity for a cultural diversity or intercultural communications course which although is intended for younger age groups, in my opinion, is also suitable for adults especially ESL learners who may have difficulties expressing these concepts in English.

I t begins with a new conversational tip at the start of each game to prompt critical thinking on concepts related to identification and race. For example: Is Caucasian or white considered Guess Race Gamea race? You begin by selecting a photo. Your opponent must solicit questions in order to eliminate other face photos from the screen display to arrive at the selected person. The phrasing of questions and word choice are the critical learning points that are meant to begin analytical discussions.

“Taking the time now to broach these conversations will not only inspire productive conversation today, but will also open up a space for sincere dialogue in the future” (Who am I, 2013).  Its sister application Guess My Race costs $9.99 and increases deeper critical thinking levels.

It “will open your eyes, not only to racial issues, but also to a critical thinking perspective on culture and hegemony more broadly” to “foster respect, understanding and empathy” (Baran, 2011).



Apple (2013). Who am I? Race awareness game.

Baran, M (2011). The race awareness project. Cambridge Diversity Consulting.

Vesselinov, R & Grego, J (2012). Duolingo Effectiveness.

Lewis, B. (2013). Fluent in 3 months.


A Case for Mentally Ground Breaking Learning

Schermafbeelding (9)                 Photo 1: VoiceThread (2012). [Screen Shot].

My internet travels have led me to a fascinating multimedia application that is highly effective from both a learner and educator perspective. Mental Case is a study application that is designed to make learning not only more efficient, but a multimedia experience. It uses your notes like flashcards that can take the form of text, visuals, video, audio clips and combines them into study presentations. You can create your own or download pre-made flashcards from sites like Flashcard exchange or Quizlet. 

Schermafbeelding (7)                   Photo 2:  Mental Case (2012). [Screen Shot].

The study presentations are based on your preferred learning selections: Q& A, multiple choice, reversible note, simple note, or translation which make learning far from rote! It expands these presentations with related lesson and feedback activities that allow you to assess your own learning process.  You can also set the learning pace to meet your needs and preferred learning style with options that vary from long-term, target deadlines, short-term cramming, intermittent or unscheduled study. For ESL learning applications, there are amazing self-directed learning possibilities.

The flashcard is no longer just a visual cue reference. It allows you to imbed image files to accompany the new word or grammar prompt or audio files for pronunciation.  You can even incorporate video clips for enhanced learning references like the socio-cultural aspects of language learning rendering the flashcard a more complete learning activity. This functionality sets it apart as one of the most innovative of learning apps. The easy drag and drop tool for image files, built-in features like iSight camera and screenshots provide rich learning experiences. It really has thought through the learning methodology as TÚAW (2013) remarks that “education is deeply imbued in the Apple DNA”.

mentalcasestats                             Photo 3: VoiceThread (2013).[ Screen Shot].

Are there are any drawbacks? If you are not a Mac fan or owner, well then this is app is not for you.  It is specifically designed as a Mac app that can sync between iPhone, iPad, iTouch and desktop for 29.99 US at the Mac store or free with iTunes. What that includes is free access to the massive Flashcard Exchange libraries which normally require paid access outside this app.  Thus, it is another score for Mac and intriguing way to extend the learning curve for the ipad generation. “Mental Case is a well-designed application that would definitely benefit many who need to learn heaps of new information” (Bennet, 2012).


Since we are on the Mac bandwagon, I would be negligent if I did not talk about all the rage surrounding VoiceThread as an educational tool. Digital storytelling is becoming a standard part of the 21st century skill set for educators and students.  It requires learners to consider the message they wish to convey through all digital narrative creative components and process: meaningful audio soundtrack, image quality, economy of detail, grammar and language use, video and additional multimedia elements relative the intended goal (University of Houston, 2013). In addition to digital and information literacy skills, the power of this form of storytelling is its ability to inspire learners to share, be accountable and engage in meaningful dialogue about their work and the contribution of others.

Presence                                           Photo 4: VoiceThread (2012).[ Screen Shot].

Mac’s highly touted digital storytelling application is Voice Thread (VT). This is a simple way to introduce learners to the value and art of learning through exchanging our narratives about the world we live in. It allows the learner to incorporate image or video files directly from your mobile device or library as narrative input or annotative feedback. The difference is that learners can engage with the content through thumbnail size video clips of the speaker and others in a continuous conversation and feedback process providing a multisensory learning experience. “VoiceThread takes your conversations to the next level, capturing your presence, not just your comments… and invites others to learn and contribute to the conversation via their iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac or PC” (University of Houston, 2013) wherever they have access to the internet.

The possibilities for ESL or intercultural communication include a more interactive experience that taps into varied learning styles by capturing the gestures, tone and inflection of voice attached to real people.  Learners and educators can engage in real conversations that extend across countries and cultures. Open each thumbnail comment as they are added to hear and see what participants are saying in a more complete communication exchange.

The basic limited account is free and it may be enough to get you started with simple video creation and commenting. The possibility for analytics feedback is also available, but you will need to upgrade to an institutional or business license which will cost you depending on the type of support and user needs.  “More than 25% of the top Universities in the U.S. use VoiceThread to connect and communicate around digital media” (VoiceThread, 2013).

analytics                          Photo 5: VoiceThread (2013). [Screen Shot].



Bennet, H., (2012). Appstorm: Study More Efficiently with Mental Case.

Bush, L (2009). Viva VoiceThread: Integrating a Web 2.0 Tool in the Additional Language Classroom. In I. Gibson et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2009. (pp. 3247-3250).

Mental Case (2012). Mental Case, The study app [Photo 1,2 & 3].

The Unoffical Apple Weblog (2013). Mental Case reinvents the flashcard.

Voice Thread (2013). iTunes preview.