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reflecting on MLK’s dream through language interpretation

Interpreting the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into new languages allows us to reflect more deeply on their meaning. The “I have a dream” speech is so well known, and quickly evokes images of civil rights movement. White America has been criticized for elevating Rev. Martin Luther King to an iconic status while selecting speeches that feel safe, allowing us to focus on the dream as if we had achieved it, when in fact, we are tragically far from creating the society that he envisioned. Unfamiliar words challenge us to think about the meaning behind King’s words, through the lens of other languages and culture.

This year, Paul and Glen stitched together our crowdsourced interpretations so you can hear a portion of this famous speech in Spanish and French.

You can also explore individual phrase videos and see translations, as well as the country of origin. We elicited the help of people across the world to capture different dialects.

Marie Walburg Plouviez interpreted this historic speech in French:

Explore the french video phrase list and also hear the story behind her interpretation.

We hope that this exploration allows Dr. King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech to take on new dimensions for you. The effort of having people from around the world engage in interpreting a speech that holds such deep and profound truths has expanded the impact of its meaning for us. We invite you to explore and extend your connection to his words.

Designing for Fun

Earlier this year, I gave a talk at Altconf “Designing for Fun” that is now on video” We’ve been iterating on an iOS application that lets people from our community record phrases, and we aspire to make it a fun experience.

Mightyverse is a passion project for all of us who work on it. I do mostly solo coding on the website these days with occasional pair programming with friends from the Ruby community. Most of the code for the iOS app is by John Fox, and we asynchronously collaborate where I edit code and sometimes add features as I sharpen my iOS coding skills. Developing something that is fun and really works for a community takes more design than code, so most weekends Paul and I iterate on mock-ups, talk through use cases and whenever possible connect with language learners who are willing to experiment with our latest theories on social language learning.

In the talk I discuss some foundational research about fun and learning, and approaches to game design. One idea from game design that is very relevant to Mighytverse is the concept of the “epic win.” The epic win is an extraordinary outcome that you didn’t believe was even possible until you achieved it (via Jane McGonigal).

Mightyverse seeks an epic win on two levels. There is the epic win for an individual who becomes fluent in a new language. Being able to speak another language is like having a super power — you can reach people, experience other cultures and make things happen that you could not otherwise do.

Also, Mightyverse, as a company, seeks to save the world’s endangered languages. There are over 6000 languages in the world. The majority of them are spoken by a tiny fraction of the population, and almost 80% of us, speak only 83 languages. Almost 50% of the world’s languages are endangered and one goes extinct every 2-3 weeks. Our epic win would be to create a system that would be sustained (and paid for) by people learning the “big” languages, which would always be free for endangered languages, providing tools that help people connect with their heritage, teaching and learning through social connections. We believe that diversity of language enriches our world.

You can watch the video or read my notes.

If you want to join the community that is experimenting us, using our iOS and web app to learn and share language, drop us a line. Our current focus is on English, Spanish, Hupa and Japanese with some active exploration into Mandarin. We would love to hear from you whatever language you speak or are learning.

I have a dream in Spanish: Tengo un Sueño


Two years ago, we recorded part of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in English with multiple voices. With the help of various friends, we created Spanish subtitles for the speech. On Jan 20, 2013, President Obama’s second inauguration day, I wrote about sharing this part of American culture with English language learners. I was optimistic about race relations in America, yet felt that this speech helped us remember our past and share that painful reality with people learning about our country.

Last year, with french recordings of I have a dream, Marie Walburg Plouviez shared with us implications of interpreting and how to convey the meaning behind the words.

With this year’s recording of I have a Dream in Spanish, we captured voices from all over the world, crowdsourcing interpretations as well as recordings from old and new friends.

The interpretation of these words into another language causes me to hear the meaning in a fresh and powerful way. We didn’t use professional translators, but allowed the people recording the phrases to interpret them in their own words. Our friends M. E. Stevens, Tania Waisberg, and Enric Godes suggested some of the more poetic interpretations. Many thanks to everyone who participated (especially Enric and Bruno for organizing the artist voices at Vasava!).

This speech has become almost cliché in English, but when I hear it in new Spanish words, I hear the meaning reverberate in my mind with news from the past year. I hope that this project helps Americans who understand Spanish to reflect on our heritage, and that Spanish learners will be inspired to speak difficult truths.

Learn Spanish with ¡Dígame! card game

The Mightyverse card game for learning to speak Spanish:
¡Dígame! is now available on Amazon.

Six spots for the cards are laid out in a circle around a spot for the deck.

¡Dígame! gameboard has illustrations of gestures and phrases that help you play, as well as spots for the cards.

You may be asking yourself, “Why are the Mightyverse developers spending time on card games when they could be writing software?” or “Have they pivoted to become a board game company?” Good questions, that we’ve wrestled with ourselves. The answer lies in the fundamental goals of our company and our lean startup approach. The origin of the card game was a paper prototype for our mobile app.

To learn to speak a language, we must actually speak the language.  But how do you speak the language if you don’t already know it? Language learning research supports that people learn best in an immersive language learning environment, learning grammar and vocabulary by inferring patterns from the language we hear.  One of the biggest hurdles that we face as new language learners is to be brave enough to start speaking when we know very little and may feel uncertain about the true meaning of the words we speak. This is a huge barrier for most new language learners to overcome. ¡Dígame! came out of wrestling with that challenge for language learning gameplay. We realized that we could accomplish rapid iterations of the card game much faster than software and that would speed up our design process. Over the past year, we have held dozens of play test sessions with groups of friends, strangers, classrooms and families at all levels of learning, from near-fluent to people with no prior knowledge of the language.

Our overall goals for the games include:

  • validating the Mightyverse language learning model
  • understanding what’s needed to make language learning fun
  • developing a community of early adopters
  • driving awareness of the Mightyverse brand among teachers and language enthusiasts

We designed the game to reflect the language learning model that we believe is the most powerful and efficient way to learn a language. Each of the phrase cards in the game is linked to a Mightyverse phrase video with a QR code. We have analytics in place to see how and where those phrases are accessed.

With the first game complete after a considerable effort, it will be much simpler to create variations across different language pairings. We have InDesign templates with scripts to automate creation of the playing cards so that the production of the game can be scaled more easily across other languages.

We are quite far along on a Japanese learning game for English speakers and an English learning game for Japanese speakers that we have already started play testing. We’re also hard at work building our mobile app that allows native speakers to record phrases and share them with language learners. It is exciting to feel how our momentum has increased with everything we have learned over the past year, working with our growing community of speakers and learners.

We’ve had a lot of fun developing the game from it’s initial sketches to a full fledged product. It’s been extremely gratifying to see how much fun people have with it while learning languages.

Spanish Game Night @Ninefold

Last Thursday, we held a Game Night where we beta tested a complete version of our Spanish language learning game ¡Dígame!

It was held at the Ninefold San Francisco office, who hosts our web application and has a few Spanish learners who work there.

It was great fun. Here are a few photos from the group who played with the “starter” deck:

Andrew came up with a great way to show “This is an apple” by miming an archer shooting something on someone’s head! This William Tell reference was immediately understood by everyone.

Let us know if you would like to host a game night!

Free for Bloggers

We have met our fundraising goal for the ¡Dígame! campaign, which means we’ll be able to print a run of 250 cards. If we can print 1000 the cost goes down significantly, but more importantly, our real goal is to reach people who actually want to play the game and learn or teach Spanish or Japanese (and more languages in the future).

If you like this idea and have a blog or podcast or some substantive way of getting the word out, we want you to be part of our outreach team! And, of course, EVERYONE who is part of the team, gets a free deck.

If you blog about it or talk about it on your podcast or something like that, just send us a link and your address, and we’ll send you a deck once we do the full printing.

“¡Dígame!” Gets an “ándale” From Indiegogo

We just announced success in meeting our initial goal for the ¡Dígame! Indiegogo campaign to begin selling card games that help people learn Spanish.

The game helps English-speakers learn Spanish in a fun way. The players help each other speak Spanish, using only Spanish phrases and non-language sounds or gestures, except during game setup and intermissions.

Supporters of the Indiegogo campaign can vote to prioritize or wholly fund the next language, choosing from any of the 30 Mightyverse languages or any other language if they want to help translate. Through this innovative funding and customer collaboration technique, Japanese has been selected for the next release of the game.

You can still fund the campaign to help us record of the Japanese phrases or develop new versions of the game for the next language you want to learn!

7 Ways to Signal Meaning when Learning to Speak

One of the most exciting parts of learning a language is when you can actually communicate with someone else in that language. When you first start learning it can feel like a chicken-and-egg problem – you need to speak in order to learn to speak. Some people spend years in language classes, before they feel like they have enough vocabulary and grasp of the language to hold a conversation. However, time and again, we hear stories of people who successful interact with people in their new language within weeks (or even days!) of starting to learn.

Benny the Irish Polyglot suggests “You are always ready to speak a language, no matter what level you are at” and has some great tips for getting started.

The secret is to just dive in, and we’ve encoded some simple tricks in our ¡Dígame¡ language game that make that easier. You don’t have to even use our game to get started.

We’ve identified 7 phrases that can help you get your meaning across when you have very little vocabulary. You can practice with a language partner before you try with a stranger. In the game, we use these to help players communicate. The neat thing about these phrases, is that each has a corresponding gesture that usually works if you forget the phrase. When you practice using these gestures and simple phrases, you get better at making yourself understood and understanding others when you have very few words.

7 cards: on left "repite, por favor" and "¿Qué significa?" then in the middle "sí" "casi" and "no" then on the right "Yo lo sé" and "No sé. ¿Qué es?"

Understanding What You Heard

  • Repite, por favor (please repeat) or Otra vez (again / another time) This is essential when you ear is new to the language and you want to hear something again. Rotating your hand in a circle will help your listener understand what you mean even if you don’t quite pronoun the phrases correctly, though English-speakers will have a fairly easy time remembering “repite”
  • ¿Qué significa? (what does that mean?) You can use the same gesture as “Yo no sé” putting both hands palm up to invite someone to use different words or gestures to explain what they just told you. If you repeat the phrase or word that you don’t understand, then the other person can help you distinguish between not hearing correctly or not understanding.

Clarifying Meaning

These are three essential clarification words and phrases. You can start with “sí” and “no,” but if you can use the longer versions, it will be a little less abrupt and will feel more like a conversation.

  • (yes) or Asi es (that’s it) — You can use the ok sign forming a circle with your thumb and forefinger with your other fingers spread upward. Thumbs up also works well.
  • casi (almost) — this is really important, often you need to get them to say more to explain when you know that it’s not quite no or yes
  • No or Asi no es (that’s not it) — with your hand palm down, move it back and forth. This gesture is more polite than the thumbs down gesture, and will be understood by most Spanish speakers.

Getting it

It is important to be able affirm when you understand or that you still need help.

  • Yo lo sé (I know it) or Entiendo (I understand) — clapping your hands together with delight can be a rewarding affirmation for your language partner who has helped you.
  • Yo no sé. ¿Qué es? (I don’t know. What is it?) — not strictly necessary if you know the other phrases, but some variety can really help move the conversation along.

Go to the list of Mightyverse helper phrases for ¡Dígame! here:

Making a Game out of Learning a Language

I love learning languages. I love that spark of understanding when I get my point across in a new language. I love how my brain settles into unfamiliar patterns as I discover how to say something in a language different from my own. I even love the silly mistakes early on, when I’m brave enough to speak and someone else is not afraid to correct me. I’ve puzzled at the contradiction of how I can love learning a language, yet it still requires great discipline.

With Mightyverse, we wanted to capture that simple joy of mastery and make it easier to get to those good feelings more often. We set out to design a mobile, social experience that would make it so we actually want to practice vocabulary, since it feels like playing a game, rather than feeling like homework.

Cards with Japanese Kanji and Hiragana text and a drawing of a dog

Our first paper prototype was in Japanese.

After some gamification research, we designed our mobile software game, then before building it or creating a detailed visual design, we set out to create a “paper prototype.” This is a common software design practice where we actually construct the experience with drawings on paper and get people to look at and interact with a series of sketches, making it easy to get quick feedback on layout, wording, and a sequence of interactions. For our game, which relies heavily on the crowdsourced video phrases in Mightyverse, we realized we could substitute a native or fluent speaker of the language to create a real-world experience that mimics an online experience of interacting with our global language community.

We decided that we would not write a line of code until we could create a situation with our game where a group of people in real life had fun learning and speaking their learning language. We didn’t just want to add sparkles and unicorns to make it entertaining, we wanted to tap into the aspects of social learning that we believe will make the mobile game intrinsically fun.

Through several design iterations, we actually created two separate card games. The second one was much easier to play test since it required only one speaker of the learning language. We created the card game in three languages (Spanish, English and Japanese) with hand-written phrases and printouts pasted on index cards. We then went to the fabulous SFBabel Meetup, and asked random groups of strangers to play our game. It was exciting to see people having fun playing the game and we learned so much from their responses.

For our next iteration, with my friend Val, some kids and friends, we printed out our “helper” cards with instructions that were way too long and a little confusing…
Two of the kids look bored while another kid reads instructions and woman asks a question.
But once we started playing, it was fun. It was amazing to see the transition from bored skepticism to laughter and playful banter in Spanish! We played for hours, with longer and longer stretches where everyone only spoke Spanish.
Kid gestures, smiling, while mom guesses. In the foreground, cards with pictures of hands are on the table.

After many more sessions of playing the game, iterating on the rules and the cards, we have a system that really works. People have fun speaking Spanish, whether they start with little confidence and very few words or many years of Spanish classes.

We’ve designed a crowdfunding campaign as a way to reach language learners who can pre-purchase and play the card game. The next step will be to combine the approaches and make the game playable when there is no fluent speaker present using a mobile app, integrating our crowdsourced video phrases. If you’d like to review the deck, write us! We look forward to hearing from you.

Game Design and Gamification

As we set out to design the next phase of Mightyverse development, we want to add elements of gameplay.  We believe that, for many people, learning to speak a language is intrinsically fun; however even for those people, it can also require tremendous discipline, which is not fun.  We asked ourselves… could we make a game that applies what we know from our research on effective language learning as well as what we hear from Mightyverse users to make it so all aspects of language learning are fun?

To get our whole team up to speed on the latest gamification ideas and best practices, we watched a series of videos.  For other software developers, our future team members, and our visitors who are just curious about what we’re up to, I’m posting the links and some notes.

Meaningful Play: Getting Gamification Right by Sebastian Deterding

“We are all game designers, at least we were in childhood”

– connect to personal goals and passions
– connect to a meaningful community of interest
– wrap in a visually supported story
– beware of social context meanings

“Fun is just another word for learning” —Raph Koster
“Fun is just another word for learning under optimal conditions
– Goal + rules create interesting challenges
– Provide clear goals: scaffolded, paced, varied
– Provide juicy feedback
– Bewared of gaming the system

“A sense of freedom, the ability to curiously explore opportunity”
– play is a voluntary activity (Remember Tom Sawyer?)
– Beware of curbing autonomy
– Beware of devaluing your product

Words of wisdom
Think design process not features.
Know your users: you are not your target audience.
Create a paper prototype of the rule system: play test, and iterate.
Provide a story with meaning, a rule system they can master, a free space they can play in.

Stephanie Morgan: “Gamification Sucks”

a great primer along with tips on what not to do

Cooperation and Engagement: What can board games teach us? by Matt Leacock

The talk is really only 32 minutes, so don’t be freaked out by the length on YouTube (Q&A was not particularly insightful from my perspective, so you could skip that part)

I enjoyed the talk. For me it was a great review of game design principals (which are mostly applicable to design in general), and neat to think about the analogy of board game design to software design. Also, it provides a great framework for thinking about how to prototype a software game as a physical game.

One key point that I hadn’t ever heard expressed so well was about the importance of having a clear mental model.

– Find a spark
– Keep it simple
– Keep it raw
– Find the Core Game
– Iterate, but have a clear goal.

– Make it accessible. Reduce Friction. “You can’t have a great game, if people can’t play it”
– Embody the players: :Make it feel like you are in the game.”
– “As simple as possible, but no simpler” — Einstein

What is fun?
– Accessibility + Usability != Fun
– Fun = Learning

Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. — Raph Koster, A Theory of Fun

There are different kinds of fun: interpersonal communication, teamwork

Design for Extensibility
Example Apples for Apples… leave opportunity for people to invent things outside of the game that augments the game or replaces parts of the game, new boards, new roles, new cards

Play test your game
When validating your game with real players…

Shut up and sit in the corner and watch. See if people who play your game are having fun and playing the way you expect, and are able to learn the rules easily.

– 1 hour of observation = countless hours of meandering refinement
– Find a core and extend outward
– Tirelessly iterate toward a measurable goal
– Observe your users
– Make it accessible

Give them enough for their brain to lock on to it, and then add complexity over time.