Oh, the Skritter!

So the boys over at Skritter have asked me to say a few words. They’ve launched their new Skritter iOS app for learning/reviewing Chinese characters, so I imagine they’re in their offices now celebrating launch day. For those of you that don’t know, “celebrating launch day” means a marathon of chasing down bugs that didn’t come up in beta, and writing cheerful apologies to the community. Oh yes, celebrating all the hard work; that too. Hopefully subscription money will start rolling in….

If you don’t know what Skritter is yet, watch this video, and you’ll get an idea. Full disclosure: I’m a professional Mandarin language teacher with a Master’s degree in Foreign Language Pedagogy. Next year in my classes, Skritter practice (skractice?) is going to be part of the homework requirement. Also in the interest of full disclosure, I have a mild, mostly harmless, and entirely professional crush on Skritter Jake, who I consider to be one of the Language Learning Jedi.

I’ve been using the iOS version for a few weeks (download it here!), and what can I say… I use it on my new iPad (that’s another story) with a stylus. The new iOS version is sexy, exactly in the way that iOS versions are supposed to be sexy… it’s fast, it’s clean… You can pick a light theme and a dark theme. The light theme is a bamboo workshop, and when you write your character, the “ink” seeps into the “paper,” which makes your whole experience seem authentic and expensive. Hot. When you use the dark theme, there are carving noises, and you etch the characters onto a metal plate using some kind of magic lightsaber/pen. The strokes come out on the screen looking rich and inky. Unlike the online, web-based version, you can use the iOS version offline; in otherwords, you can have this clean, fast, sexy experience whether or not you’re connected to the web.

So do I recommend it? Yes, yes I do.

Now it’s at this point that the freaking Flashcard Mafia is going to drag their sorry, recall-worshipping asses over to my comments section to gloat about learning style and “what works for them.”

So before I go any further I will explain something to the normal people: Flashcards train visual recall. Language acquisition is NOT visual recall. So as an experienced language learner and professional teacher I urge you to put your damn flashcards in the recycling, and to grab the nearest flashcard mafioso and shake him by the shoulders. Just shake him. Don’t hurt him, just shake him, to wake him up. You won’t be able to convince him to give up his flashcards, but he could probably use the human contact. You might choose to hug it out.

Here’s the thing: this current build of Skritter is totally geared toward the flashcard mafia; it has the SRS, the textbook vocab lists ready to go, it gives you English, pinyin, and a mnemonic hint… everything you need for a good flashcard, plus the kinesthetic bonus. Hooray, say the flashcard mafia! If you look at all the marketing, they’re pretty explicit: flashcards are good, and Skritter = flashcards 2.0 + kinesthetics.

The Skritter boys (… the “skroys?”) absolutely have to gear their first programs to the Flashcard Mafia. For some reason, western learners of Chinese (and Japanese, for that matter) cannot live without their flashcards; they get mad at me when I mention on my own blog that I hate flashcards. They come after me.

So anyway, it makes sense that Skritter’s marketing and initial iOS design is so flashcardy. Their customer base is flashcardy. Good for them; they should make some money. I don’t care about that aspect.

What I like about Skritter is the potential. They’ve already got the character writing/recognition skill down, and they’ve managed to do it with a kinesthetic twist. And on top of that, the iOS app is sexy.

Don’t underestimate the importance of sexy interface in language learning. People use language to communicate and be entertained, it makes sense that our language learning materials should be communicative, entertaining, and yes: sexy. There are some people that preach a bad news “no pain, no gain!” gospel of language learning, which I think is stupid and unnecessary. Language learning is FASTER if it’s enjoyable. Yah, I said it.

What’s the potential of Skritter? Someday, and I hope it’s someday soon, they might figure out how to do character writing in context, i.e., in sentences. When that happens, Skritter users (skritterers?) will be practicing the language skill that we professional language teachers call “Writing.” It’s not there yet, but you can see how close they are.

Even more exciting: sample sentences (I just drooled a little). Right now there’s no sample sentences, because the Flashcard Mafia don’t give a shit about context. But when the boys at Skritter get their act together with the sample sentences, you’ll be looking at skrittered characters in context… that’s a little something of a skill we language teachers call “Reading.”

Reading and writing are two of the five skills that professional educators and researchers talk about when they get serious about language study (the other skills are listening, speaking, and culture). Notice that I’m making the distinction about professional educators and researchers… The internet and new media language learning self-styled experts usually don’t address the five skills, because that’s too hard for them; most would rather just make their money with fancy electronic flashcards.

Here’s my rule of thumb: if you’re not actively practicing the five skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing, culture) then you’re probably not learning. I’m happy to endorse Skritter because it has you learning about characters by actually writing characters, which is a step in the right direction. It won’t be a home run, however, until you write those characters in actual real life communication.

I had this conversation with Skritter George over email; he agreed with me that Skritter is not a one-stop shop for character learning. This is actually the moment that sold me on Skritter: he wasn’t trying to snow his customer, the way my previous employers had. (If you listen to all of SpanishPod, the strongest claim I ever make is that it will help you improve your listening comprehension, which it will, since you’re actually listening. I refused to make the buffoonish claims that you could learn all of Spanish with SpanishPod, as my employers would have liked).

So look at these guys, Skritter George, Nick, Jake and the rest… they’re by all accounts not evil, and they’re making a product that both the Flashcard Mafia AND the Language Jedis can get behind.

Note: this is not the last of my Skritter-related posts.

15 thoughts on “Oh, the Skritter!

  1. JP, you’re totally right about the sentences being the next step forward. We are going to make something great with this, but it may take us a while–we don’t want to just throw something together. We’ve got the ambitious plan.

    Here’s a question for you: what’s the missing tool for teaching/learning speaking?

    • Skritter Nick, ladies and gentlemen…

      Well Nick, the best thing is always real communication, and this is a lesson that monolinguals have to learn the hard way; i.e., immersion.

      Skritter is a good writing tool because it gets people writing. If you want a good listening tool, you’d have to get people listening, and to do that you have to be things like entertaining (as opposed to boring), informative (as opposed to lame), etc. We did a good job with SpanishPod in terms of listening comprehension; after six months of listening our users reported improvements in ways they weren’t prepared for. ChinesePod did the same in Chinese, but unfortunately I know some of those people personally, and I found them… let’s say, less than ‘entertaining’ and ‘informative.’

      A tool for getting someone speaking? That’s going to take some work. In my experience American language students are willing to do ANYTHING to get out of speaking practice; they’ll throw their money at a bad product before saying hello to their neighbor.

      I do have some ideas for the “missing tools” but truthfully, the next “killer app” for listening/speaking will depend more on personality and media than digital wizardry.

      Finally, I want to say that I’m looking forward to the ambitious plans you’ve got, I really am a Skritter fan (actual writing! not evil!). In the mean time, I will be writing level-appropriate, intuition-oriented sample sentences for my students… if you’re interested in seeing those I can see about selling you a subscription ;)

    • I would like to see that ambitious plan being example sentences that get their vocabulary from the words skritterer have already learned with Skritter.

      • Sara, getting skritter to create personal sample sentences based on what it knows you know; that would be amazing. Someday, I’m sure they could do that.

        I wonder, though, if it would make more sense for them to just have somebody write sentences for the lowest HSK levels, with the intention that the sentences be either lower than or equal to the HSK level of the word in question.

        For example “朋友“ (friend) is a super easy word, HSK level 1, I’m sure. Here’s the sample sentence skritter uses, mined from a digital corpus by an algorhythm:

        我把他当作朋友看待. (I regard him as a friend).

        If I’m a beginning student, and I don’t even know the word 朋友, who is the asshole who is going to explain it to me using a 把 sentence?

        It doesn’t take a lot to make a better, more helpful sentence. A sample sentence should give away the meaning of the vocab word, even if the learner is seeing it for the first time.

        Gayle 是 Oprah 的好朋友。

        When the student reaches/reports a higher level, then you can use higher level sentences. You’ll probably still not use “我把他当作朋友看待,” because it doesn’t give you any information or hint about what the meaning is.

        When I was working for the 101s, a sentence came up in Chinese:

        item: 侏儒
        Sample sentence: 他是一個侏儒。

        We pissed ourselves laughing at that stupid, inappropriate vocab word, and at the stupid, useless sentence they came up with. It was so funny to us that we saved it in a shared Google doc called “Ridiculous Shit We Find In Lessons.” Needless to say, there weren’t a lot of language professionals in that company.

        侏儒, of course, means “dwarf, midget,” and I don’t know what the hell it was doing in a list of vocab for beginners.

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  3. Wow, I’m loving the app so far. Thank goodness for this, it got me back on Skritter after a couple of years of not using it. I support your suggestion to have writing sample sentences a feature! Although i wonder if I can learn written Chinese on Skritter too, so that I can write important sounding emails to some important sounding people faster.

    • crisgee, it’s pretty cool, right? you can’t underestimate the importance of making language learning joyful. Of course you know that, Kalyespeak is the most joyful language learning podcast around. When are you guys going to hire me? I have some skills…

  4. I agree on your sentiments when it comes to flashcards. They need to be situated within a balanced approach to learning vocabulary.

    I’m busy doing my Master’s Degree in Hypermedia for Language Learning focusing on spaced repetition systems and Chinese orthography. Within this week I actually read a paper on deliberate learning of vocabulary by Elgort (“Deliberate Learning and Vocabulary Acquisition in a Second Language”, 2011) that found that words that are deliberately learned out-of-context using word cards are stored in the same way L1 and L2 lexical items are stored. There are quite a few more studies on how explicit instruction on vocabulary are both efficient and effective. Not got write a whole paper here :)

    However, in saying this, both Elgort and Nation (“The Four Strands”, 2007) agree that learning vocabulary in a deliberate manner is only one part of learning a language, especially learning vocabulary. Context and further deep processing, like learning syntagmatic and pragmatic relationships, need to occur to fully establish the full lexical knowledge.

    So flashcard programs, although a bit unpopular in today’s communicative language teaching methods, serve a function in learning words.

    • Hi Niel, thanks for reading! I’ll try to catch up with Elgort and Nation when I get a chance!

      Flash cards do serve a function in learning words, no question. But so does getting into arguments, reading a book, singing karaoke, falling in love. I don’t hate them, what I hate is being treated like a heretic when I say I don’t think they’re that important. I’m leery of people who need “efficient” ways of language learning,w hen we have this tremendous human instinct for acquiring for communication *through* communication, it’s sad to me that some people want to spend so much time on such a non communicative activity.

      I guess I don’t so much want to jihad agains the flash cards as I want to spread the good news about communication an instinct.

      As a linguist in the American tradition I believe dogmatically that every language is equally acquireable. This belief of June doesn’t square with the way that westerners specifically, want to learn characters, specifically. You just don’t see French learners walking around with stacks of flash cards. For that matter, you don’t see pre-literate Chinese kids with stacks of flascards either.

      Context, processing, syntagmatic/pragmatic relationships… That’s what we’re all after. Flashcards to me seem like an unlikely way to get there.

      Anyway, welcome to my blog! I hope I can keep up with you in these discussions!thanks again for reading! Blame typos on iPad…

  5. I don’t get your frustration regarding flashcards. It’s fine if it doesn’t suit you, but to say like it’s a fact that they are useless is wrong. First of all, it’s not about visual recognition, I use flashcards to study chemistry too. Most of what my study for German was based on flashcards until I got to the point where I could read books with relative ease. I worked my way reading books and doing flashcards. I had “spoken” maybe about 20-30 hours in total before I went to work in Germany and was totally functional there, speaking German even with the French teachers. It’s true that context is important and that Japanese is more complicated in regarded to the written/spoken speech relationship, but you’ve got to realize that it’s just as possible to start learning rough equivalents and only later on to start putting everything in context. Even though at first sight, it might seem too demotivating, I actually prefer to understand more and more words until I can guess the meaning from a sentence first as opposed to mastering a few basic words, but easily being put off by anything using words I never came across. That being said, free alternatives to Skritter exist and I don’t believe the fanciness of the graphics really is worth it. Although the stroke correction (how it falls into place after every stroke) is neat.

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