ACTFL Exhibits; That’s Not Cheese; a Sympathetic Human Face

About 10 years ago, my Tagalog class went to tour an artisan cheese factory in rural Wisconsin. The cheesemaster was tall and thoughtful and fit the bill of enlightened gentleman farmer. His tour was thorough and painstaking as he explained the processes and details of getting their curds to the absolute summit of delicate cheese quality.

At the end of the hour our teacher cheerfully asked, “which of your cheeses can keep well without refrigeration for 6 months to a year?”

We never told her that she had missed the point entirely; the point is that she was straight from Manila and did not have any cultural or historic experiences to tell her that great natural, artisan cheese requires refrigeration. Why would she know that, if she had been eating processed cheese her entire life?

There’s no cheese like that, he said. You could make something that fits your requirements, but it misses the point. That’s not cheese.

I was at the ACTFL Conference last week, and besides the scholarly presentations, there is also the exhibit hall, where language learning product vendors were hawking their wares, giving demonstrations, and trying to raise the profile of their gear.

Just a review: the five skills of language learning are listening, speaking, reading, writing, and culture. I endorse a product IF AND ONLY IF that product has you PHYSICALLY listening, speaking, reading, writing; all at the sentence level… and/or practicing cultural competency to some extent. I don’t endorse any memory recall training, and my stomach turns when I see unscrambling.

Here’s a few products I saw at the ACTFL 2012 Exhibition Hall:


I’ve talked about Skritter before; here’s their website. It’s that program that reviews Chinese character stroke order, and provides both audio and visual. I use Skritter myself, and require it in my classrooms. I choose to review the characters by writing them with a stylus on my iPad. So when I use it, I’m physically writing characters.

I know, I know; it doesn’t meet my criteria of PHYSICALLY practicing any of the five skills at the sentence level; I am physically writing, but for now it’s only at the word and phrase level. There’s an argument to be made that learning characters and knowing their stroke orders is cultural competence.

But the reason I’m sold on Skritter is that I heard from them directly that the next thing they are going to work on are making the sample sentences useful (right now, they’re they’re mostly level-inappropriate, randomly-drawn from a corpus). If and when they make those sample sentences level-specific, Skritter has the potential to be a powerful reading and writing review tool.

Chinese Cubes

Huge waste of energy. Your webcam watches as you assemble simple sentences from pre-fab word cubes; on the screen some text bubbles pop up telling you what the database holds in terms of definitions and how they interact with other cubes.

You’re not physically listening for meaning, nor are you speaking, nor are you reading other than the sentences you’ve assembled. There’s a module that shows you some stroke order, but I fail to see how it’s dependent on the webcam or blocks. And culture… no.

Here’s the website, on it you can watch some of the marketing videos to see what I’m talking about.

This product is a dog. My friend was a little giddy about the cool physical interface, but in the end we were both embarrassed that the task of the product was putting some blocks in an order the computer was programmed to like.

Products like these are fast and loose with the words “teach” and “learn.” By “teach” what they really mean is “show you the answer to a question you didn’t ask.” By “learn,” what they really mean is “quiz.”

Notice also, that with this method there is no hope of any future human interaction. With Skritter, I might use the knowledge I physically practiced to write someone a letter; with ChineseCubes, I’d have to imagine a scenario where I communication by block-assembly was somehow acceptable.

By making a language-learning product which does not physically practice any of the four skills, they have missed the point of a language-learning product. It misses the point. That’s not cheese.

But JP, doesn’t assembling blocks show you how to create a well-formed sentence?

Sure! You know what else shows you how to create a well-formed sentence? Talking to a person. Talking to a person also has the added bonus of actually being the task you’re trying to learn. Next.

You know, come to think of it, assembling blocks in a proper order can also be applied to learning history (put these historical events in sequence!) or math class, or cooking, or getting your drivers’ license; any complex task that requires knowledge of a sequence. Do you see people falling all over themselves to teach drivers’ ed by coded block assembly?

No. Because it’s a bad idea. Next, I said!


FluentU was known as FluentFlix a few days ago. Annotations have been around ever since languages had writing systems. What FluentU has managed to do is annotate video in a highly interactive way that’s intuitive and imminently helpful; yes original lessons, but mostly entertainment media meant for native speakers.

That sound you just heard was listening comprehension experts all simultaneously groaning in ecstasy. This product is basically ChinesePod, except remove the chatty linearity of the all-audio podcast, and add highly appropriate visual context… PLUS it’s real language media PLUS it’s ALREADY ENTERTAINMENT.

God help us, they’ve hit all the listening-comprehension buzzwords. And yes, listening comprehension input is still the major thing missing from language learning classrooms. Reading the highly interactive and customize-able subtitles translate to reading sentences in the real world. Listening to Chinese people talk to each other at real-world speed will translate to listening to Chinese people talk to each other in the real-world. Finally, somebody gets the point; they’re practicing the actual skills. They’re making cheese by actually making cheese.

The only criticism I have is that they are fast and loose with the word “learn;” they’d easily earn a lot of respect from the professional teaching community if they used that word less sloppily. Words like “practice, recall, review, interact with, master…” those go a lot farther among teachers than a claim that you can “learn business Chinese” with this product. You can definitely study business Chinese with this product as the main resource, but “learn” implies a level of mastery that will require the other skills, and a lot of practice, more than this product can provide.

In any case, the potential for FluentU is huge; they’ve already got 900 videos ready to study; we referred to them as an “ocean” of videos. If they and when they become successful it will be because they have kept improving the experience and got the marketing ball rolling. And I want to see them succeed. FluentU has great potential to help people actually improve their listening, reading, and vocabulary. Huge potential.

I told them for the marketing side, and for the user experience, their product still needs a human face. An ocean of 900 videos is daunting; people will latch on to the DJ or curator, or teacher, or whatever metaphor… anyone that can guide them through that ocean.

That’s probably the best advice I’ve ever given someone for free (not that they asked for it). There’s a fallacy among language learners, especially Chinese learners for some reason, that they need to study without humans until they’re good enough not to make fools of themselves; a fear-filled hypothesis. That’s totally wrong; they need sympathetic humans at every step.

7 thoughts on “ACTFL Exhibits; That’s Not Cheese; a Sympathetic Human Face

  1. Hey JP, 感恩节快乐! Nice reviews. Wish I could have made it to ACTFL too. Before I comment, I need to be clear that I’ve used and love both Skritter and FluentU. I’ve thought about investing a lot more time (and money) in both. But I’m still skeptical. Despite their ability to motivate one to learn, I can’t get over that Skritter = flashcards and FluentU = translation.

    Why not just get a language partner, blog on Lang-8 to get feedback on typed text, keep a paper diary, read with Pera Pera Kun, consult the AllSet Chinese Grammar Wiki and watch authentic videos on your own so that you can discover meaning instead of being feed translations?

    I know a lot of people swear by Skritter; it looks like FluentU might gain the same kind of following. But I don’t think either is making cheese yet. But if you’re telling me they work anyway, that’s a pretty solid endorsement and I might finally drop the $ on Skritter.

    Call me old-fashioned, but I’d still like to think that the power of the internet is that you can communicate with real people.


    • Matt Sikora, you just became my new best friend. I love that you are a bigger hard-ass than I am on these companies! I totally know what you mean when you say Skritter = flashcards and FluentU = translation.

      Skritter = flashcards. Yes! and I hate flashcards, right? because they train memory recall based on visual stimulus, not language. However, Skritter gets a pass in my book because… wait for it… because when I use Skritter, my hand is physically doing language. I bought a stylus pen, and my hand is physically writing. I’m training muscle memory, and let’s face it, despite all the classes I took on language learning and second language learning, I know precious little about literacy and learning to write. However, I have a hunch that writing benefits from constant repetitive practice.

      When I was first adapting Skritter for myself (and my classes) I told SkritterGeorge that doing Skritter won’t teach my students and I how to write, that we’d still have to follow quickly with a step that involves a real writing utensil and some communication. To my surprise, George AGREED. They were also very receptive to my requests that they a) fix the sample sentences and b) be able to toggle OFF the English translations, which gave me hope that they were listening to me as an educator (which right there is more than I can say for ChinesePod). To me, there’s hope for Skritter.

      As for FluentU, I turn off the English translation, and only toggle it on every once in a while as a vocabulary rescue. I also only do the minimovies; I haven’t warmed up to the micro-clip game. So for me it’s reading comprehension with optional immediate vocabulary support, visual context, native speed, and real entertainment.

      Also, I got the inside scoop from Jason, that they are producing new videos with actors; not dumbing down the language, but being very obvious; the point being that lower level students might be able to turn the English off all together and acquiring some level-appropriate situation phrases using brain power. For instance, the actor doesn’t just say 买单, she flags down the waiter, reaches for her purse, etc.

      I haven’t yet looked at those new original lessons since I got back from the conference, I’m going to write Jason right now and find out where they are.

      And then I will get ready for Thanksgiving. Hey 祝你火鸡节快乐!


  2. Good to read your reply! I’m not sure if I’m a hard-ass or just a cheapskate. Either way, I’ve shied away from dropping the money on Skritter so far; now I’m at my tipping point. I’ve had similar thoughts as you: learning the mechanics of writing characters falls a little outside of my procrustean requirements for language learning, so I feel as if it might be justified.

    But JP, I just need to hear it from you, man. Does it work? Do your students learn characters better with Skritter than they would otherwise and does this act of “not making cheese” transfer to making cheese?


    • Matt, I like skritter, and I require it of my students. They are not yet making cheese, but I have faith that they will soon be, with the next big revision (sample sentences). For now, it’s an easy-to-measure automated first-step that can introduce the new characters in the lesson before I get to them. So now, when I say ok, take out a piece of practice paper, let’s take a look at 在-zi, you have heng-shu-pie, heng-shu-hung, skritter has already showed them those strokes. We already know, they say. Which gets me through the list faster.

      They also have better confidence and have more consistent practice. For the highly motivated learners, yes, that translates to them learning. For the less motivated, it’s not learning, but as long as they’re required to do the skritter, my job of connecting the dot is easier.


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