On Grammar, Grandmothers, and Games

When I was studying French in Paris, my professor—call him Monsieur L.—would sometimes dolefully shake his head, stare out the window, and sigh, “Oh, grandmother.” I wasn’t sure why he appealed to his grandmother whenever the class struggled with a particularly difficult piece of grammar. I wasn’t even sure if he was petitioning his grandmother or grandmothers in general. I didn’t reflect on the matter at length; I was preoccupied learning conjugation tables.

Two months later, the class was struggling through the subjunctive. Monsieur L. shook his head, pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed, “Oh là là . . . la grammaire.” Oh. Right. “Grammaire,” not “grand-mère.” He’d been sighing about grammar all that time. That certainly made more sense. I was suddenly glad I hadn’t asked him what he had against grandmothers.

My mistake is representative of a common challenge in language learning. It can be difficult to distinguish between unfamiliar sounds or to learn sound distinctions that aren’t obvious in your native language. Sometimes a new language has sounds that don’t exist in a learner’s native tongue. The r/l distinction in English doesn’t exist in Japanese. In Chinese, the acoustic tone of a word can change its meaning. French has an œu that proves tricky for English speakers.

Ten years after I finished studying French, when the executive producer in charge of Rosetta Stone ReFLEX, our new product for English learners in Asia, came to me and said, “We need a game to help people hear the difference between pirate and pilot,” I thought about grammar and grandmothers. Super Bubble Mania was the result.

Super Bubble Mania Spanish

A screenshot from Super Bubble Mania being played in Spanish.

At its core, Super Bubble Mania is a speed-based bubble-popping game wrapped around a listening exercise. Each level has two to six words in play. Each color of bubble corresponds to one of the words shown in the tabs along the right-hand side of the screen. When the level starts, the learner hears a word. Clicking a matching bubble pops it and all adjacent matching bubbles. Clicking larger clusters results in more points. After a pop, more bubbles appear to replace the popped ones, and the player is given a new target sound. When the learner reaches the level’s target score, the next level begins. The game’s over when time runs out.

The core pedagogical activity challenges learners to distinguish between sounds they don’t need to tell apart in their native language. The core gameplay is doing so quickly and correctly. In other words, the better learners are at the language skill, the better they’ll do in the game. The timer and speedy gameplay serve pedagogical purposes. Learning unfamiliar distinctions between sounds requires a lot of repetition. It’s also something that becomes most useful when done automatically. The quickness of the game serves both purposes. It exposes learners to a lot of content quickly and rewards recognition that happens automatically.

Super Bubble Mania launched in Asia in February 2012 as part of our new ReFLEX product; we’ve already gathered data showing measurable improvement in the base skill of learners. In September, we also launched the game in Rosetta Stone TOTALe. It’s fun. It works. We’re proud of it.

Super Bubble Mania Irish

A screenshot from Super Bubble Mania being played in Irish.

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