"Our partnership is a mutual partnership where Tollgate Primary School can involve children in the product creation process and we at the universities get valuable feedback on how to develop the game further"
Maria Sipilä, Director, Commercialization of Language Learning at Aalto University and CCO of Pop2Talk.
Pop2Talk is an English learning game for children that uses cutting edge speech technology developed at Aalto University and pedagogical expertise from The University of Helsinki. The vision is to build a world where language communication skills enable better economies and societies overall. Pop2Talk recently worked with Tollgate Primary School in the UK to test the game.
British Council Finland spoke to Maria Sipilä, Director, Commercialization of Language Learning at Aalto University and CCO of Pop2Talk, and Emma O’Connor and Iclal Lawrence, Head Teacher and Assistant Headteacher at Tollgate about the game and working together.
Maria, why did Pop2Talk come to be launched and by whom?
Pop2Talk was born when researchers at the Aalto University and The University of Helsinki realized that it is difficult to engage and motivate children to learn a language. The attention span for children can be short. This was validated in the brain research conducted by the University of Helsinki. A game was born to engage children and prepare them for language learning and a computational scoring system for pronunciation attempts was developed to ensure that the game could be motivating. As a team, we realised that there were not many ‘fun’ language learning games for children that could be both motivating and give accurate feedback for pronunciation.
Can you describe what it is?
In the game children get to teach English to space animals who are preparing to land to earth. Children can choose which space animal they want to join this wild ride around the whole universe. They get to pop the stones, learn to pronounce English and then get feedback for their pronunciation. The game includes amusing space animal characters that encourage children during their playing.
Who exactly is it aimed at, what age and why these users and this age group?
The game is best suited for 5 to 8-year-old children who are early learners of English. We got feedback for the age group from the British Council and the age group has been defined based on our tests with children of different ages. We also think that sound formation in this age group is ideal for this kind of innovation when we need to analyse the speech data of children. However, in our tests we have noticed that 9-year olds also enjoy the game. So there is no strict age limit.
How does it work?
While children are popping stones, and getting points for collecting them too, they listen to words. Then they start to pronounce and get stars for their pronunciation.
Is there a lot of research and scientific or psychological thinking that goes into making this app?
The game is based on years of research in the areas of machine learning, speech technology, educational sciences and brain research. Finland is a world leader in education and, because of Nokia and the large gaming sector including Angry Birds, we have very high technical competences in game development and mobile technologies in general.
Why did you want to link up with a school in the UK?
We realized that there is a large English as a Second Language (ESL) market in the UK and children have some difficulties in keeping up with their studies due to poor language skills. The UK and especially London is also an excellent testing bed for innovations because of its diversity and large private school market. It’s also a much larger market than Finland. As we had done a lot of testing already in Finland, we wanted to expand our testing abroad. We also wanted to get feedback for our game concept, including the naming and user experience, from native English speaking children.
Maria, Emma and Iclal, how does the relationship with Tollgate Primary School tend to work?
Maria: Our partnership is a mutual partnership where Tollgate Primary School can involve children in the product creation process and we at the universities get valuable feedback on how to develop the game further in terms of technology and user experience.
Tollgate: Most Tollgate Primary School pupils are multilingual and they are open to collaboration due to being a school with an International School Award (ISA) from the British Council (since 2004). Nearly 60 Year 3 pupils have taken part in this project and shown great openness about this new way of testing the new language software. It is well known that technology is now an integral part of learning in schools as they use iPads and smart boards, as well as Virtual Reality, to deepen their understanding and knowledge during lessons. As native speakers of English, pupils were very keen and honest when they gave valuable feedback about the game and the characters used in the game to teach English. The comments from parents were positive and constructive about the research project with Finland. As a school, we are looking forward to working with Finland and finding out more about the impact of this research project.
Emma and Iclal, is the partnership mutually beneficial for British children and Finnish children?
It was beneficial to British pupils as they have seen what is like to work in collaboration with another country. They were also very curious about Finland and found out more about the country. They have practised many Finnish words with the Finnish researchers, and understood that languages do matter.
Maria, Emma and Iclal, do you have any testimonials from children who enjoy using it?
Maria: Yes, we have received plenty of positive feedback. Children like to hear their speech and practice pronunciation. Of course, popping the stones is a fun exercise.
Tollgate: Pupils and parents were very positive about this research with the Finnish universities. They wanted to know more about the game and the project. All pupils were enthusiastic and engaged with the game: they have completed all the activities with the Finnish teachers by paying attention and involving themselves further by offering their own thoughts about the game. Due to this partnership, pupils have asked if we could work with a primary school in Finland to develop their understanding of the Finnish language as well as the Finnish culture.
Maria, will this idea roll out to other languages, not just English?
Yes, there are no limits in terms of languages we can add to this!