School programs to teach foreign languages are under threat of being cut in the United States, in secondary schools and in universities; in the U.K., a stark “plunge” in the number of those earning degrees in European languages has occurred at a time when more than a third of U.K. universities are no longer offering modern European language degrees.
Cats to the rescue!
Software developer Memrise has created an app, CatAcademy, that uses photos of cats displaying their full range of expression such as we’ve come to sneak the indulgent peak at, courtesy of memes like lolcats and icanhascheezburger (which gets some 49 million hits a month). Instead of quips like “Dis look nuffin like me,” the cat photos are paired with such phrases as “estoy muy bien” and “basta!”
Memrise has been making language learning software for three years and claims that more than a million people have learned new language skills thanks to its products. These earlier progrms used some images of cats to teach languages and, as Memrise co-founder Ed Cooke tells the BBC, the company realized that the most popular images on its site were those with the cat images. “We put this down to the internet’s obsession with them but what we found is that a cat’s cuteness means you really pay attention,” says Cooke.
Or as Ben Whately, chief operating officer at Memrise, puts it, images of cats are just the sort of “visual mnemonics” that are “most effective at helping people to learn fast.”
Needing to find cat images for 1,000 phrases, Memrise listed them all on Tumblr and asked people to upload “their funniest photos.” As you may imagine, they ended up with plenty of choices.
But can cute cat photos really help us learn foreign languages? Memrise cites a 2012 PLoS One study in which Japanese researchers found that looking at “kawaii” (cute) images resulted in participants performing some fine motor and visual tasks better and focusing their attention more.
cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need … and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can’t lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire.
In particular, researchers distinguish cuteness from beauty. In someone or something that is considered cute, “rounded” is emphasized over “sculptured” and “soft over refined, clumsy over quick.” Cuteness simply “demand[s] a lap.”
On a more unscientific note, Memrise chief executive Ben Huh says that “for the past 10,000 years we’ve been biologically engineering cats to be weapons of mass cuteness.” Cats, he adds, “are more complex and expressive than dogs, so they have remained the king of the internet.”
Having taught Ancient Greek and Latin for nearly two decades at small universities in the Midwest and New Jersey — and quite aware of how intimidating students can find the study of foreign languages — I’m just hoping that Memrise might consider expanding CatAcademy to include other languages. I have sensed a slight flurry of interest in students when I’ve veered away from our textbook’s vocabulary of abstract and military terms and used animal words (cuniculus means rabbit in Latin; feles, cat; mus, mouse; porcellus, little pig) to make sentences.
After all, as this photo shows, cats do know how to speak the oldest language.
Photo from Thinkstock