XKCD - Iambic Pentameter

(Thanks to XKCD for the comic!)

Language seems deceptively easy. Every day, we read thousands of words and have plenty of conversations without any trouble. But peruse an academic paper by a computational linguist (scientists who attempt to map out all the rules that govern how our speech and writing work) and you’ll quit taking these rather complex skills for granted!

Children soak up spoken language effortlessly and without much formal instruction – their gurgles become full sentences as quickly as their crawling becomes sprinting. By comparison, fluency in written language is regarded as a more hard-won (even unnatural) skill. Learning to read requires repeated, focused practice! We parents place great importance on our kids’ mastery of the written form at an early age, so it’s no wonder why there are so many products designed to help children learn to read (think Hooked On Phonics, LeapPad, Speak and Spell, etc).

Once they move beyond babbling, kids start saying words and observing how their parents react. They conjugate verbs to make longer phrases, at first incorrectly like “I runned over here” or “I goed to school”, then they learn which ones are irregular and get them all right. That explains why kids’ first knock-knock jokes are non-sensical - only later do they figure out what makes a real punchline.

Spoken and written language have a lot in common. In both, we assemble sequences of symbols to represent meaning. When we talk, these symbols are individual speech sounds – a.k.a. phonemes – that are the smallest level of granularity for speech (think of the ‘/k/’ sound in ‘cat’). Individual phonemes get sequenced into words, words are sequenced into utterances – and when we take turns with another person, conversations arise.

Learning to Read and Write

Written language is similar, but the smallest units are letters, which combine to form words, sentences, paragraphs, and larger documents like essays or books (or a blog post like this). The amazing thing is that when we’re reading or speaking, our brains do the assembly and coalescing of all these language bits into meaning automatically!

Refrigerator magnetsEarly in life, our experiences with written language involve physical items like alphabet blocks and refrigerator magnets that allow letters to be arranged and re-arranged with ease. In school kids get more practice with writing, and this (hopefully) gets reinforced at home. Reading is critical as a gateway to other subject areas. So much of humanity’s knowledge is written in books, academic papers and now, web pages, that literature gives us a lens through which to view culture more critically, and helps us place current events in the context of a tradition of ideas. And unless you’re a lighthouse operator, being a good communicator is a key factor in career (and social) success.

Even after we learn how to speak and write, language and language-play can remain a lifelong interest. Limericks and other rhymes, chants at sporting events, puns, and classic word games (e.g. Scrabble, Bananagrams, and crossword puzzles) are enjoyed by all ages. Some of the most popular online social games are based on word-and-language play. We refine and test our language abilities by competing in spelling bees, reading blogs about the nuances of language, and listening to features on the radio about language.

(There has been a lot of great research and writing by people trying to unravel precisely how we humans learn language, and I encourage you to read and watch further if you’re interested.)

Sifteo Cubes: More than Modern Day Alphabet Blocks

So, language is obviously a really important life skill. But how do we learn it? In a nutshell: by observation and trial and error.

Every spoken utterance is an experiment, and the reaction we get from the world is the result. Infants listen to their parents talking and reading to them, then they babble proto-language speech sounds. Parents LOVE this, and they reciprocate in baby talk (often the chagrin of any single non-parents nearby).

We believe that Sifteo’s Intelligent Play Platform has the unique capability of supporting language-based play. Kids and adults can learn by representing the elements of language via the Sifteo cubes, enabling them to easily arrange and re-arrange, and giving feedback as they go. The represented language elements may be words like in Mount Brainiac, letters like in Word Play, or even individual phonemes as you’ll see in an exciting game we’re working on now! I sometimes describe Sifteo cubes as “what alphabet blocks would be if they had been invented in the 21st century.”

In my presentation at TED in 2009, I demonstrated a simple word-making game that I compared to classic word-play games. The display on each cube showed a single letter and the challenge was to make as many words as the player could within a given period of time by arranging the cubes. This demonstration struck a chord, convincing Jeevan and I that our prototype was the seed of a really compelling product.

Sifteo cubes today can do a lot more than our early prototype, but the essence of what makes them potent is the same: a wireless, physical object with dynamic information display. They enable fast, trial-and-error experimentation with arrangements of letters or words, coupled with interactive audio and visual feedback – we think this combo provides key ingredients for effective language learning.

There are a lot of reasons why a good command of language is critical – even beyond charming strangers at a cocktail party. Storytelling has been humankind’s primary way to pass knowledge from person to person and across generations. Revolutions are manifestations of people’s ability to compellingly articulate the feelings of their group and to persuade change.

Sifteo has already created some compelling word-oriented games, and we have new language-oriented games in the works that I’m really fired up about. It’s rewarding for us to help kids and adults build and challenge their language skills in fun ways – so if you’re a language-learner-or-lover, stay tuned!