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.

Je rêve, J’ai fait un rêve, J’ai un rêve aujourd’hui


Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech poses a challenge when translating to other languages (video in original English). As with all powerful language, the act of translation causes us to interpret the words. Marie Walburg Plouviez interpreted and recorded this historic speech: “I have a dream” in French, and in doing so, shared with us some of the implications of a French interpretation.

In English, “I have a dream” in the present tense can only refer to a vision for the future (rather than the more common meaning of dream, “a series of thoughts, images, and sensations occurring in a person’s mind during sleep”). This phrase is often translated into french “J’ai fait un rêve” using the verb “faire,” which translates literally as “I make a dream” or “I am doing the dream.” Another approach is to use the present tense with the verb “rêver” (“to dream”). “Je rêve” literally “I dream.” Marie uses three different translations to reinforce different connotations. The third creates the feeling of immediacy with the translation “J’ai un rêve aujourd’hui” using the verb “avoir” (“to have”).

We are enthralled by beautiful language. Even more so when the language is rich in meaning and purpose. Part of what makes this speech powerful is the repetition of the word “dream” in multiple contexts. Martin Luther King starts by evoking “the American dream.” Then he repeats the phrase “I have a dream” and “I have a dream today.” These two phrases transform the vision from the almost fantasy of Mississippi as “an oasis of freedom and justice” to a call to action that we make this vision happen within our lifetime. He conveys urgency with a vision that his four little children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Few speeches have captivated the mind and the heart so completely as Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech, from August 28th, 1963. Last year we provided a Spanish translation with English recording, and this year we continue the tradition with French recording and translation of phrases from an excerpt of the speech.

In our interview with Marie, she refers to Le Monde’s interpretation.  Along with their 2013 article, you can watch the full video with French subtitles.

Our mission at Mightyverse is to provide a place where all languages are equal, yet we celebrate their differences and richness of expression. As is so often the case, the translation can take the language into directions not anticipated and through the effort of poetic interpretation can make the language come alive anew.

Being Hyperglot

011513_Hyperglots_largePeople who speak more than 5  languages are often called “hyperglots” (and sometimes “Hyperpolyglots”). Hyperglot seems like one of those transitional words that’s ill defined and not very precise. Nevertheless, it’s useful to mark an emerging phenomenon that appears to be on the rise.

I’ve been interested in hyperglots for awhile, especially as they relate to accelerating language learning. Do hyperglots have some extra cognitive capacity to hold all of that language in their brains, a capacity that us regular mortals don’t? Are there techniques we can learn from them that can be broadly applied in our own efforts?

There are rockstar hyperglots on the web like Timothy Doner, Lindie Botes and Benny the Hyperglot. Their appeal is immediate when you see them speaking in videos on YouTube, promising that humans are capable of much more language diversity than we commonly encounter.

While doing user research at language meetups for Mightyverse, I met a woman named Diana Gruber speaking with another person in flawless Spanish. When we introduced each other, her English was flawless as well, and later in the conversation I learned that also speaks French, Italian and Portuguese at a near native level, as well as quite passable German. She also taught at a language school in Texas and has her own ideas on the best way to start to learn a language and then polish your skills over time. One of her key ideas is that it’s important to gain an effect with your new language as soon as you can, learning phrases that you can put to immediate use (“Un cerveza por favor!” and the like).

I invited Diana to our studio where she graciously consented to a video interview about being a hyperglot (an interview that I hope to link to in a future post). She also recorded a series of Spanish Medical Phrases for Mightyverse.

While we had the camera set up and were on a roll,  we recorded Diana speaking in six languages and it took off on YouTube the day she posted it. Hyperglot Diana Gruber speaks six languages

Effective Learning is Social

It is intuitively true that a social element is essential for language learning.  The purpose of language is communication, which is an inherently social experience.  However, as we design learning experiences, it is helpful to reflect on broader research which illuminates the ways in which learning may be accelerated.

Rob Hutter at Learn Capital wrote about the boom in EdTech in 2012, which I believe is still true today:

The reason that social is so important for the edtech market is less about viral growth and network effects on a first order basis and much more about the simple fact that as humans, we’re wired to learn socially. We evolved that spectacularly complex piece of neuroanatomy called the neocortex to cooperate with each other and increase our propensity for survival, and it’s exquisitely sensitive to social phenomena. At the most basic level, social cues and social emphasis patterns drive the deployment of encoding energy in our brains…social software designs drive learning productivity, pure and simple.

The effects of social situations on learning has long been a subject of research.  Lev Vygotsky, established this social connection in his research on childhood development in the early 20th century.  He isolated a specific social environment which is particularly effective in learning, where a child is collaborating with someone just above his or her level of skill or understanding. It is in this Zone of Proximal Development when the child learns best.  In his book, Mind in Society, he stated that “human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.” (p. 88)  He demonstrated through his research that this is true for children.  He went so far as to say that this social interaction is actually a requirement for specific kinds of learning in children:

learning awakens a variety of internal development processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers.  (p. 90)

What of adults?

We’ve all experienced, as adults, that it is possible to learn many skills on our own.  However, many of us have experienced accelerated learning in social situations.  Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger explore this in Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation.  They describe communities of practice where

apprentices gradually assemble a general idea of what constitutes the practice of the community… what other learners are doing; and what learners need to learn to become full practitioners. It includes an increasing understanding of how, when, and about what old-timers collaborate, collude, and collide, and what they enjoy, dislike, respect, and admire. (p. 95)

This context provides an effective learning environment, within which the novice may construct an individual learning path. Lave and Wegner argue that teaching is not central to learning, but that we learn when we actively participate in a community.  The learning path from novice to master is accelerated by social engagement, where observation is an important element, as well as the generative process of active learning.


How to Create Videos on YouTube with Subtitles

One afternoon I was prototyping various mobile designs for Mightyverse user experiences and as a non-technical person, I needed some simple ways to embed videos with subtitles into the UX ideas I was working on. Oddly enough, it seems that Apple disables subtitles when playing back videos embedded in iOS browsers and I was trying to find a work around.

We recently recorded some basic conversation phrases with Becky Z and so using the video for “No, I cannot speak English” in Chinese Mandarin, I created 3 .srt files using the free subtitle creation app called Jubler. Jubler has a relatively simple interface for creating subtitle phrases in a perplexing variety of formats. I chose to make .srt files with UTF-8 encoding. I then took the video into Handbrake and tried muxing the Jubler created .srt files with the video in order to make an MP4 file with subtitle tracks to play on my iPhone. No luck after an hour of playing around.
Then I thought to try adding subtitles to the video in YouTube. Five minutes later I had a linkable, embeddable video with 3 subtitle tracks applied!

The basic steps are:
1. Open Jubler and Choose “New File”
2. Open Jubler and then click the “Closed Eye” icon on the top right of the toolbar.
3. Navigate to your video in the resulting dialogue and select it.
4. Select the part of the waveform to subtitle in the resulting display, then type the corresponding text at the bottom of the frame in the gray area.
5. Save as “SubRip (.srt)” and “UTF-8”.
6. Upload your video to YouTube
7. In the Video Manager, choose the Captions tab for your video (top right of the options)
8. Click the “Upload Caption File or Transcript” button to the right of the video player
9. Choose your .srt file, name it and your done!

The resulting YouTube video still doesn’t show the closed captioning in Safari on my iPhone 5 (with the latest iOS update). It does however play with subtitles in the native Google YouTube app. It’s interesting what Apple feels is superfluous to their users, I wonder that it’s not been more widely criticized, especially for people with hearing impairments. I’d love to hear from people who have figured out a workaround to Apple’s limiting of closed captions on videos played in Safari.

You can see the “No, I cannot speak English” in Chinese Mandarin video on YouTube here.
And the original video on Mightyverse here.

Martin Luther King "I Have a Dream" Translation into Spanish

Martin Luther King

In honor of the great American hero and civil right’s activist, Martin Luther King, we have recorded an excerpt of his “I have a dream” speech delivered on August 28, 1963.

This was a MLK day project by a couple of the founders of Mightyverse to work through what it’s like to have multiple recordings of a single phrase available for a language learner. We recorded these MLK phrases by 9 speakers and they comprise the voices of this phraselist. With today’s inauguration, this project was especially meaningful.

We hope that by providing translations of these phrases, people for whom English is a second language can appreciate this important and inspiring historical event. After learning the vocabulary from the I have a dream phrases, you can watch a video of the full speech, the excerpt of the speech in the phrase list begins at minute 12:20.

Martin Luther King’s speeches are part of our American culture that we would like to share with people learning English or visiting America. What would be an analogous speech in Spanish, Mandarin or Farsi? If you would like to record phrases that are inspiring to you in your culture or language, let us know in the comments below or just email us.

Please check out the MLK I have a Dream Spanish Phrase List.

Many thanks to reviewers @abie, @randommood, @chipaca and @Jorge_MS.

Que resuene la libertad!

Learning Mandarin with Pimsleur

I’ve been interviewing Mandarin Chinese learners (and learning a lot about Mandarin) since it is our most popular language on Mightyverse. While I learned a few phrases of Cantonese many years ago from friends, I had never spoken Mandarin before last week. I spent a couple of hours with my friend Antun who has been learning Mandarin for the last year and a half. I enjoyed his stories of how he approached independent language learning and was drawn in by his enthusiasm.

When he offered to lend me his introductory Pimsleur CDs, I was skeptical that I could learn this challenging tonal language without some heroic act of will. However, out of three people I have interviewed who tried the Pimsleur method, all three have said it was very effective, so I thought I would try it out.

After 5 days and 4 lessons (one lesson took me two days), I felt confident enough to say something to my Mandarin-speaking friend. “I can speak a little Mandarin.” 我会说普通话. Her reply was too fast for me to understand, but then she told me (in English) that I had a Beijing accent! I later did some reading about the Pimsleur method and learned a bit more about different accents and dialects. From what I’ve learned, the Beijing accent is considered standard Chinese, so that is what Pimsleur (and most language schools) teach. The problem is that if you go to Shanghai or try to speak with Mandarin speakers in the US, it can be really hard to understand what they are saying. I really enjoyed Benny Lewis’ critique that the popular audio course should be named “Pimsleur-for-married-businessmen.”

We’ve been working to add multiple speakers for more phrases (male and female and various accents) and creating phrase lists around specific themes, so perhaps, Mightyverse could be a nice complement for people who are learning with the Pimsleur method

Everyday Coding in the Cloud

As we were getting ready to implement a set of improvements to our process that allows bulk-uploading of phrase videos and translations from our desktop app, I noticed that our language team frequently used Google docs to collaborate on the creation of phrase lists and review of translations with other language experts. Since Google docs has an API, I proposed that we formalize that as part of our workflow:

  1. Record phrase videos in our desktop application
  2. Copy the spreadsheet to Google Docs
  3. Import from the web app (including a preview step before the data is committed)

I was pleased to find a well-worn path to integrate with our Rails web app and was able to use the google-spreadsheet-ruby gem to write the import code.

Last week, the new import workflow allowed us to fix a large number of errors with the Italian recordings and their English translations. Paul and Iku copied 9 spreadsheets that included 1503 phrases to Google docs and, as expected, were able to easily review and edit the text using the fabulously efficient browser-based editing features implemented by the Google team.

While I could implement such a web app, I wouldn’t have devoted the engineering time to build such powerful editing features for a simple import form. However, the fact that collaborative editing was so easy, dramatically reduced the effort required.

An unexpected consequence of using the powerful Google spreadsheet UI for the fairly mundane import task is that we automatically had additional automated editing features for free. The first example of this was when we discovered that a lot of the Italian phrases had been entered in all caps, and Paul asked if we could automatically make them lower-case on import or if they should edit them by hand. Then, inspiration hit! “Let me show you,” I said, “and demonstrated as a created a new column and typed “=LOWER(” then selected the column with the upper case text. As if by magic, the lower case text appeared. Then, I dramatically selected the cell with the new formula and dragged the corner all the way to the bottom to repeat the action for every row in the spreadsheet.

I could have written the code to lower-case on import and deployed it in 20 minutes, but with Google docs, I could teach my “non-technical” co-founder how to do it himself in less than a minute. Even better, I then taught him how to figure out his next request with very little help from me, and he is well on his way to addressing these kinds of issues in the future without any special-case software development in our web app.

His next challenge was to set just the first character to be upper-case. He found the PROPPER formula, but sadly that was not precisely what he wanted. (PROPPER makes the first letter of every word upper case.) I showed him the formula reference and taught him how to combine formulas and he figured it out. The only technique he really struggled with was how to remove quotation marks, where the character had to be escaped. It is really hard to look for info on special characters like ” in google search. I knew the concept to search for and all the coder synonyms and was able to find it for him. With a spreadsheet he could test out each part of the formula in its own column:

In summary, here are the formulas that Paul found to be useful:

Make Lower Case:

Remove quotation marks:

Capitalize the first letter (substitute A2 for the cell with the text):


where software meets language

I’ve often said that creating the software for Mightyverse is the smallest part of our challenge. We are seeking to express the diversity of language to help people to communicate what they want to say. More important than the software, are the people who will help us make this happen.

I’d like to tell the story of our latest Mightyverse Hero, Christo Dimitrov, who sent us this feedback several months ago:

This website is certainly useful for many people. Personally, I used it to translate some phrases from English to Bulgarian.
But since my mother tongue is French, I have checked all the 529 phrases translated from English to French. I am sorry to inform you that I have found many wrong translations and, above all, countless (more than a hundred) spelling mistakes. In particular, numerous accents and hyphens are missing. As you certainly know, the absence of accents or hyphens is, in French writing, a major mistake.
If it could of some use for you, I can send you, by e-mail, the list of the 529 phrases with all needed corrections.

I decided to prioritize building the part of our web application which would let Christo, plus other staff and volunteers, do bulk editing of the phrase text in Mightyverse. Meanwhile, I asked: what led him to find Mightyverse and what was useful about it?

I found Mightyverse when searching on the net the translation in Bulgarian of the French phrase “Plus on est de fous, plus on rit”, the equivalent in French of the English “The more, the merrier”. Mightyverse gave me the right translation which is : ” “Колкото повече хора, толкова по-весело.”.

It was very helpful for me in spite of the fact that :
– I have Bulgarian origins (as my name let it guess) but being born in France where I always lived, I have a rather passive knowledge of the Bulgarian language.
– I have got several French-Bulgarian dictionaries but none of them gave me the answer.

The advantage of Mightyverse is to offer the translation and pronunciation of many phrases useful in everyday life and which are not easily found in ordinary dictionaries. A drawback is the absence of search tool avoiding to have to go through all the phrases to find whether the one you are interested in is in the list or not.

And I was very curious… who was this person who would volunteer to help strangers on the Internet with our wild and crazy mission?

I was a student of the “Ecole Polytechnique” in Paris and then I was a civil engineer and a civil servant (in French : Ingénieur des Ponts et Chaussées). I retired at the end of 2007.

Christo Dmitrov I have a deep interest in languages : French and various foreign languages. At school, I learned English (7 years), Spanish (5 years) and German (2 years) and, more recently, at the Paris University, Bulgarian (2 years).

Moreover, I have tried to acquire basic knowledge in numerous other languages, for instance : Italian, Greek, Turkish, Japanese, Russian, Portuguese and others.

I used to live in Paris but since my retirement, I live at Entrecasteaux, a small village of Provence, in the South of France.

For the next month, Christo and I iterated on a simple spellchecker interface with him finding bugs and me fixing them, until he was able to easily edit the whole list of phrases. We even ran into to some interesting language challenges:

I was unable to understand some colloquial phrases so I have not change the existing translation.

Could you give me a clue to the exact meaning of the following phrases :
– “Cat’s got your tongue”( I think the right translation could be “Vous donnez votre langue au chat” but I am not quite sure of it).
-” Is it a cavity ?” (I guess it relates to teeth but is it really the case )
– “Try calling around” (What is the exact meaning of “around” in that case)
– “What birds plunge through is not the intimate space in which you see all forms intensified” (It is all Dutch to me ! – in French : Pour moi, c’est du chinois !)

It was actually quite exciting to me to hear these questions. We think that every phrase has a story, and someday we’ll be able to put in the database, but meanwhile, here are the stories for these phrases:

“Cat’s got your tongue” is said when someone is quiet and you want to get them to talk, often said to a shy child. Not clear what the origin is, maybe just a silly thing you say and make the kid laugh… my mom used to say it to me sometimes. Occasionally adults will say it to each other. It is not a very common expression, but I would guess that most people know it anyhow. The full expression would be “‘has the cat got your tongue?”

In French, “Tu as perdu ta langue ?” literally means “Have you lost your tongue?” which you could, of course, also say in English.

“Is it a cavity?” refers to a hole in your tooth from tooth decay that a dentist would drill and fill with whatever they put in teeth. “Est-ce une carie?” in French.

“Try calling around” means call a few people (on the phone). “Essaie de passer quelques coups de fil”

“What birds plunge through is not the intimate space in which you see all forms intensified” (Christo writes “is all Dutch to me!” – in French : “Pour moi, c’est du chinois!”) Wow — someone must have translated this german poem into English and French:

Rainer Maria Rilke: Durch den sich Vögel werfen (1924)

Durch den sich Vögel werfen, ist nicht der
vertraute Raum, der die Gestalt dir steigert.

Christo found the French version which reads:

“L’espace dans lequel s’engouffrent les oiseaux où s’accroît ta stature”

Here is the complete poem in English.

Along the way, we added a new editing interface to create alternate, better translations of a phrase, and just this weekend, Christo verified all 764 phrases in French! We applaud his heroic accomplishment.

We’re still working out some of the details of the editing software, but we’ll be looking for volunteers who can help us check spelling, grammar and correct transcriptions for other languages too. If you are reading this, are interested in the project and want to help, please leave a comment and we would be delighted to have you join us! It would be particularly exciting to connect with a Bulgarian speaker who could help Christo become more fluent in the language of his origins.