When I read MindSnacks’ funding announcement last week, I thought it’d be fun to download one of their apps and play the games myself. MindSnacks is the award-winning company that creates educational quick-play learning games for foreign languages and SAT prep. I searched “MindSnacks” on the App store and found a handful of apps with MindSnacks’ signature icon, a mustachioed green little worm. (I knew immediately I’d like the game when I noticed the worm changes costumes for each corresponding language — he dons a beret and curlicued mustache for the French language app, bushy eyebrows and mustache for the Italian language app, round glasses for the SAT vocab app, a thick mustache and a Bavarian hat for the German language app, etc.)
I love foreign languages and have always wanted to learn French, so I enlisted the beret-clad green little worm’s help to teach me some francais. I started playing level one, which teaches numbers zero to twenty in French, and immediately became immersed. The adorable illustrations and surprisingly tricky games kept my attention for a solid half-hour as I absorbed the French numéros, and as I sat and played I was reminded of another time when I learned to count to twenty in a foreign language the old-fashioned way, before the days of apps and smartphones…
When my little sister and I were in elementary school,we took a drive with our grandparents to visit our cousins who were a couple hours away by car. In an effort to keep my sister and me occupied (and who am I kidding, to distract us from beating on each other), my Italian nonna informed us that we were going to spend the car trip learning how to count to twenty in Italian. Within minutes, my sister and I were soon absorbed in the little game my grandma had created — a retired elementary school teacher, Nonna was quite skilled at enticing children to do her bidding as she possessed that perfect blend of no-nonsense authority, kindness, and a mysterious (and creative) ability to engage kids even in the most seemingly mundane activities.
“Ripetete,” my grandma instructed, and my sister and I obediently repeated her pronunciation as she went through the numbers in Italian. We stumbled over the strange new sounds. “Uno, due, tre…”
To Nonna’s delight, by the end of the car ride my sister and I had mastered the numbers. Ever the schoolteacher, my grandmother quizzed us both together and individually until we could both count to twenty in sparkling Italian. My sister and I were satisfied, feeling like a million bucks as we showed off our new language skills for weeks to any family member who’d lend an ear.
My grandma knew what she was doing when she taught us to count in Italian — by guiding us in mastering new words, she opened up the language for us. My sister and I quickly realized that if we could learn twenty words, we could probably learn more. So we started asking her what other words meant over the years, and soon we had a little collection of Italian words that were a secret language all of our own, a code we could whisper in front of our older brother (who wasn’t in on our privileged knowledge) to annoy him. In ever-so-sneakily making language learning a game, Nonna instilled in us a love of the Italian language and culture that resulted in both of us studying the language in high school and college.
My own Nonna taught me that it’s important to expose children to foreign languages at a young age, so I strongly support what MindSnacks is doing. This company is creating games that engage children (or adult poseurs like myself) quickly and make language learning fun. Each MindSnacks’ language app teaches 1400 vocabulary words over 50 levels. Levels teach the new words through games such as Fish Tank, which gives players a limited time to match the foreign words to their English translations, or Word Birds, which times players as they unscramble jumbled words into their correct spelling. Kids must master different games on each level in order to unlock a new game. The colorful, cartoony pictures and fun sound effects grab kids’ attention, the game play gets them hooked, and before they know it, they’re able to count to twenty in a foreign language they didn’t know a half hour earlier. It worked for me — I’m now a pro at counting to twenty in French (un, deux, trois...) and am already moving to the next levels so I can expand my brand new French vocabulary.
The MindSnacks creators are brilliant in the way my grandmother was brilliant — they’ve created fun games that keep kids hooked. Little language learners can absorb a large vocabulary in the variety of language apps MindSnacks offers, which include French, German, Italian, Chinese, Portugese, and Spanish. MindSnacks isn’t just for English speakers either — there are different apps for Spanish, French, Italian, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese language speakers who want to learn English. It’s no wonder MindSnacks was voted one of the best education apps of the year by Apple in 2011.
Learning is most effective when kids are too busy having fun to be aware they’re learning. My sneaky nonna knew this when she made a game out of teaching us those numbers, and the MindSnacks creators knew this when they created their product. Obviously, no game can replace the experience of learning a language from a family member or beloved teacher. But for kids who don’t have an Italian nonna or a French grand-mére or a Spanish abuela to distract them on long car rides, MindSnacks’ games are wonderful tools that expose children to “secret languages” they’ll hopefully retain and want to expand the rest of their lives.