25 Jul 2013

Interview with the Creator of Lingo – a New Language Learning App for iPad

Tom Humphrey, an ex-student at Eton College, has recently launched a new iPad app called “Lingo – Tangible Translation”, designed to help language learners by combining the speed of online translation services with the learning experience of dictionaries and a built in notebook.

The application is available for French, Spanish and Italian translations and is specifically designed with language students in mind. It combines the speed of modern translation tools, with dictionary style definitions, a convenient wordlist feature and a built in notebook.

It works very simply. All you need to do it enter or copy the text you’re working on into the app and let Lingo get to work. Tap the words you don’t know and watch as the dictionary style definitions instantly appear, creating a personalised wordlist (you’ll need internet connection for this). With the vocabulary on display you can focus on translating each sentence allowing you to progress through your text quickly.

If you want to write some notes or a rough translation simply slide your text across to reveal the notes panel and start typing. Your notes and wordlist will be saved together with the text. Once you’re done you can email them separately or together to an address of your choice.

What you do with that email is up to you. Print off the wordlist if it makes it easier to learn, or print your notes and text to be filed away for future reference. For each language, all your wordlists will combine to create an up-to-date master wordlist. The master wordlist is then neatly organised to help your future learning, placing the words that you’ve looked up most at the top of the list.

The app has become a hit on the iTunes Store, racking up hundreds of downloads and achieving an average customer rating of 4.5 out of 5.

We spoke to Tom to ask him some questions about his idea and how he went about turning it into a functioning application.

TranslateMedia : How did you come up with the idea for the app?

Tom: A year ago I read a book called The Dumbest Generation which detailed the damaging effects of technology on education. I had a year previously decided that the tech sector was where I wanted to build a career so naturally Mark Bauerlein’s work induced strong feelings. I started looking for possible openings in the crossover area between education and tech where I could potentially make a difference and stumbled across the O2 Think Big / Golden Gekko Appskool competition. A friend and I entered and won the competition (he dropped out shortly after we had won) with a ‘kitchen sink’ of an idea. After a few weeks last summer of trying to purify and simplify this larger idea, we realised that it simply was not feasible with our budget.

So having won the competition I went back to square one and came up with a new idea for a languages app. I had done Spanish GCSE and was aware of the negative effects Google Translate was having on learning in the classroom; there is always going to be a tendency among students to leave things to the last minute, at which point instant translation looks a lot more attractive than a dictionary. Separately I also noticed that the students who wrote their own personal lists of vocabulary did much better in tests. Lingo was based on both of these pieces of information as it attempts to bridge the gap between dictionary and machine translation, producing personal wordlists at the same time.

TranslateMedia : What made you decide to develop the app for the iPad?

Tom: I made the choice early on to build it for one platform, so that more money could be allocated to development work. The screens on phablets and phones were too small for what we needed, and of the tablet producers we went with Apple because of their strong education credentials.

TranslateMedia : What were the biggest challenges you faced turning your idea into a fully functioning application?

Tom: At the time I was studying four A-levels (Maths, Physics, Latin, History) so trying to split my time between those and the app was obviously a challenge. There were of course all the usual cliches such as not getting bogged down in the detail, learning when to let things in my vision slide and when to push back on the developers and say that a feature was a deal-breaker.

But what I found was the most interesting challenge was selling it (it’s free by the way) to my friends as a tool. Because there are tools like Google Translate that will do it all for the student instantly, more and more I found myself becoming a Jamie-Oliver-like figure who was trying to take away my friends turkey twizzlers and replace them with healthier food. The current trend in tech is very much about speed, and my generation whether consciously or sub-consciously has come to take Moore’s law for granted. I certainly got the feeling when showing friends the app, that slowing down the process of translation so that the users mind could actually do some learning en route to the answer was very much going against the grain, although there are some parallels if you look at Maths A-level and the calculator restrictions that have been imposed there over the last 20 years.

Going forward the challenge for us will continue to be the balancing act between adding features that attract users whilst not adding features that diminish learning.

TranslateMedia : Where were the developers or engineers of the app located and did this present any challenges?

Tom: The developers were mostly in Cambodia, so the app was built through email conversations. Quite early on I realised that there was going to be a lot of wireframe drawing and scanning at my end simply because a paragraph of text leaves too much room for misunderstanding. I tried to specify as much as I could and the suggestions that came from the developers were more than up to the task of filling in bits I had left unspecified.

TranslateMedia : How did you go about testing the app?

Tom: Golden Gekko did all of the functionality testing, which was brilliant as it allowed me to focus on the design/user experience.

TranslateMedia : How well has the app been received by users (students/teachers)?

Tom: We had a 1000 downloads in the first week, naturally this has tailed off a bit now schools are wrapping up for the summer. But hopefully as students head back we’ll see a boost in the number of downloads again.

TranslateMedia : How happy are you with the results?

Tom: For me getting the app out and working was a big milestone, and I was extremely happy with v1. That said I don’t think you can really be in this sector and be completely happy with a product, you have to keep improving it.

What do you think could be improved?

Tom: Lots.

TranslateMedia : Thanks Tom. I’m sure you’ll get there.

Watch this space!

If you’d like to download and try Lingo, it’s available free on the Apple iTunes Store.

Or watch a video of Lingo in action.



Sign up to our newsletter

Get our blog articles straight to your inbox.