Experts say that the best way to teach children a new language is to plop them in a place where they will hear it spoken all around them—allowing their flexible brains to quickly wire themselves to understand the new sounds and syntax. But not all of us have the luxury of relocating to another country for months at a time.
A startup called FabuLingua wants to re-create the immersion experience with an app designed for kids between the ages of two and 10. The app, which launched in 2020, allows the child to enter a virtual Spanish-speaking world where they can read stories and play games, and an English-speaking guide offers occasional spoken cues that helps them make sense of what they are taking in. This replicates the experience a child would have if they were living in a foreign country. FabuLingua’s founders claim that this method allows children to learn a foreign language faster and more profoundly than competing products, and for that reason, it’s the winner of the “On the Rise” category in the 2021 Innovation by Design Awards. The company is now working to make the app available in other languages.
Leslie Begert, who co-founded the company with her husband Mark, had grown up speaking Spanish, and wanted to teach the language to her kids. She developed the app in her quest to help her own kids pick up the language. As she searched the market, she found that many language-learning tools were either focused on adults or only gave children a very superficial exposure to language, by teaching them a few words. These products tended to be grammar-based, focusing on rote memorization. Begert was more interested in helping her kids develop an ear for Spanish and understand the overall gist of a Spanish story.
In a previous life, she had worked as a translator, so she would read her children Spanish books. After each page, she would offer an English translation that briefly explained what was going on in the story. “The minute I did that, they were super into these children’s stories that they would otherwise not be able to understand,” she recalls. “I was impressed that given my level of investment, reading to them a few hours a week, I was getting a massive return in terms of their learning. Their Spanish teachers at school assumed that we spoke Spanish at home, which we don’t.”
As Begert explored the academic literature about language-learning, she realized that her approach squared with studies about how kids learn language. Studies have shown that in early childhood, people’s brains are set up to learn and process language unconsciously: They are able to quickly identify patterns in speech and accurately mimic sounds. It is only when people get older that they lose these skills and must begin to learn language consciously, by memorizing vocabulary and grammar.
All of this research made Begert even more confident that immersing kids in storytelling was a better approach than trying to teach them words and sentences. As she read to her children in Spanish–then translating it verbally in English–her children were not actually focused on translating each word from Spanish to English. Instead, they were subconsciously trying to understand the overall meaning of the text. “The important thing in terms of the science of language-learning is that the child understands the general gist of the page,” she says. “They don’t have to remember it perfectly, but so long as they generally comprehend it, that input begins to wire their brain to that language. Eventually, their brains will unearth patterns in that language; it is something that the human brain is uniquely designed to do.”
This approach led Begert to develop the concept of “Magical Translations” which is the cornerstone of the FabuLingua app. Children see Spanish text as they explore the FabuLingua world, but they hear the narrator’s shift between Spanish and English translation, allowing them to follow the story. As they progress, they can begin trying to speak this new language by recording themselves imitating the Spanish-speaking narrator. (“Children’s ears are so sensitive, they can immediately tell if they are mispronouncing a word,” Begert says.) Eventually, when a child understands the story, they can turn off the English translator, so they hear the story entirely in Spanish. As they develop expertise, they eventually get to the point where they will be able to read and understand the stories by themselves. (Of course, this only works when a child is old enough to read, at around five or six.)
Begert and FabuLingua’s team of developers have focused on gamifying the entire app, to give children incentives to keep moving forward. As you enter the app, you find yourself on a purple path and as you go down, you get to hear stories that get increasingly harder and more complicated. Even within a story, there are fun surprises: As you progress through the pages, you can explore the characters, who might come alive, telling jokes or singing songs. And children can also win magic stickers when they get through a particular level, which they can collect in their virtual sticker book.
In February this year, a panel of judges who are experts in linguistics and learning second languages assessed the FabuLingua app as part of a Shark Tank-style competition organized by LaunchPad, a tech company. FabuLingua won the top prize, which gave the company access to experts in the field and publicity. This will help FabuLingua as it markets itself more widely to families and teachers around the country. Next up, Begert is working to apply the same methodology to other languages, starting with Mandarin. “We built the app with the idea of new languages in mind,” Begert says. “The vast majority of the work comes when we first develop the story–adapting it into new languages is a much lighter process.”
The FabuLingua app is available on iOS and Android. Subscriptions cost $3.99 a month or $31.99 annually.
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