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.