16 Dec 2013

How a Cat Could Help You Learn a New Language

Be more cat

“I am fond of pigs,” Winston Churchill once said. “Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”

The cat occupies a strange position in the hearts of animal lovers. It is a selfish, sneaky, cunning and manipulative animal that takes advantage of our good nature, the argument for cat-haters goes. A few years ago a poll of gardeners even named the humble moggy a “detestable” creature, second only to rats.

But love it or loathe it, it seems the cat might have an altogether altruistic virtue: helping people to learn a new language. It might all sound a bit daft, but when you read more about it, it starts to make lots of sense.

Meme and miaow

What is it with cats and the internet? Most web users will be familiar with the now near-ubiquitous cat meme – amusing pictures, gifs and videos of cats, often accompanied with funny captions. Examples include Keyboard Cat, Invisible Bike Cat and Happy Cat.

For some reason – and there’s lots of debate as to why – cats dominate the internet. Videos of them are regularly uploaded to YouTube. A bit of Friday-afternoon office email banter isn’t the same without a funny cat image. Brands use them in online marketing campaigns.

Now, London-based language learning start-up Memrise thinks it can tap into the popularity of the cat meme by using it for something a little more worthwhile than clogging up the web with trillions of frothy cat photos.

The firm’s new app, CatAcademy, is a language-learning game that uses cat images to aid memory function when learning languages. Take a look at some examples here to get an idea.

Memrise research found that pictures of cats are particularly effective in helping people retain information, so decided to make funny cat images the central part of its app.

The company came up with 1,000 phrases – including ‘Excuse me!’ and “I’m not feeling good” – and sourced accompanying images to illustrate the terms.

CatAcademy is structured to be used in short bursts and does not deluge users with a load of information.  The app involves tapping on cat photos and matching phrases to the corresponding photo, or choosing the correct word phrase from a multiple choice. The idea is that it’s fun, snappy and a bit like playing a game. In short, not like locking yourself away in a study for the day with a heavy textbook.

Importantly, CatAcademy is not really designed for people who are definitely committed to learning a new language – it’s for people who might have never even thought about it, or do want to do it but keep putting it off.

The use of funny cat pictures and the game structure makes it more familiar and palatable. It’s like learning a language by whiling away an hour or two on Facebook.

‘Genuinely accessible’

“Our aim is to make learning a language genuinely accessible to everyone,” Memrise’s chief operating officer Ben Whately told TechCrunch.

“Language learning needs to compete with other forms of procrastination. It’s not enough to just be accurate and be effective and efficient; it actually needs to be captivating.”

CatAcademy aims to take something that’s apparently frivolous and fun and turn it into something with real-world benefits.

“How can we use [people’s] internet obsession with cats?” Whately told the BBC.

“That’s what technology should be asking, and taking advantage of it to help people learn.”



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