Bottom line: An excellent series of games designed to reinforce basic English words for ESL learners. Its high production values and imaginative use of the iPad make it a perfect example of stress-free learning through play. An ambitious app which we just loved.
**Since this review was written, Babble Planet has revised its price from $4.99 to $2.99 with in-app purchases. The initial purchase price includes India only, extra 'countries' are $2.99 each as in-app purchases.**
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Babble Planet: Learn to Speak English the Fun Way, developed by a French development team of the same name, is fantastic. If you have an English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) learner between the ages of 6-11 or perhaps a special needs child having difficulty learning to speak using traditional methods, you won't regret the money spent. Babble Planet is a reinforcing tool (it anticipates that a basic level of understanding is already achieved) that lets kids practice English pronunciation skills and demonstrate comprehension. It uses a speech recognition engine in many of the games to judge proper enunciation.
The interface is exceptionally user friendly and everything is beautifully set out with clear visuals and minimal text. These developers really excel at what they do and have put a lot of time and effort into getting this app right. The graphics are simply gorgeous and will appeal to all. The music is unobtrusive and doesn't play during the gameplay so as not to detract from the key point - to listen and speak. There is gentle background sound during the games which is appropriate to the scene - in the marketplace, you can hear people chatting and even a baby crying. But, once again, it doesn't distract from the gameplay, rather filling a space that the player would find lacking if there was no sound at all.
There are currently two levels available to play, India and Mexico, with Japan Coming Soon. India includes six minigames, three that practice speaking skills and three which focus on listening comprehension. Everything within these games has Indian themes from the Brahman cow in the matching game to the tuk tuk vehicles in the colour recognition game. Each game has a short animated story that gives instructions. As the aim of the app is to learn English, all the instructions are given verbally in English. Even if the user doesn't entirely understand the instructions, the object of each minigame will be quickly comprehended because the interface is so kid/user-friendly.
The minigames in India offer great variety:
Say the numbers - This game features an Indian grocer and his old-fashioned scales. His assistant is sadly ill and he needs help with the weighing. A package of fruit and veg drops down onto the scale and a number appears. The user then needs to speak the number and the speech recognition system determines whether he/she is correct. If so, there's a little ding and the next package drops down. If not, there's a little dong and a verbal prompt is played. If the player is really struggling, a new package appears after a short delay. Each game is timed and continues until the timer is up (this really reduces the potential for boredom). A results card then pops up showing a score and a progress bar. There is then the option to pop into the 'babble book' and retry some of the numbers that were missed by listening to them again and re-recording them. This option pops up at the end of each game so each time there is the potential for extra practice styled towards the responses of the player.
Food recognition - This scene involves tapping the correct ingredient from the selections that are continually sliding off the shelves. The chef says an item (e.g., tea) and the player taps it. This is a simple concept but it may take a few goes to get the hang of it if the player is unfamiliar with some of the foods. However, as many foods as you like can be tapped (wrong is marked with a cross) and you'll eventually hit upon the correct one. The chef will keep repeating the item until you get it right.
Colour recognition - Here you need to recognise and pronounce the colour of each car (or tuk tuk). Once again, the speech recognition system comes into play. I found the speech recognition to be around about 85% correct. My ipad is starting to suffer from a couple of years of small child use and the microphone is dodgy, so I played this game with headphones with a built-in microphone which gave better speech recognition accuracy. My Australian accent may also be the culprit if base speech samples were taken from an American speaker.
Dress the Bollywood star - This is a listening activity and the player needs to drag and drop the correct clothes onto the actors. When they're correctly (and very snappily) dressed, another appears needing a different outfit. Even though she's not the target audience of ESL learner, my 3 year old enjoyed this particular game immensely.
Weather forecast - Here you look at the television and say what you see, in a weather-forecaster news setting. This requires some general knowledge of weather-type icons, though I'm sure the user will quickly be able to interpret any that he/she doesn't know after a couple of tries.
Matching memory game - This is a memory game with a nice little twist. There are two different types of cards, orange with an eye on it (picture of an animal) and purple with a sound icon (says the animal name). The player needs to match the correct picture with the correct verbal.
Mexico also has three speaking and three listening games with a total of 92 opportunities to gain proficiency in English. It reinforces vocabulary learned in India and adds new topics like sports and body parts. The settings include looking at Aztec ruins and visiting a puppet-maker. Everything is again authentically themed and well thought out. This addition and another promised as free updates make this app an incredible value.
Once you have played a game once, it skips the instructions and goes straight into the game. The instructions are still available if needed in the menu that pops up when you pause the game. I just love that there's no feeling of failure as there are well-timed prompts that pop up at just the right time. After all, the point of the game is to keep going and keep practising, so this is just the right feel.
On the menu page there is a parent's section with some basic info on the modus operandi of Babble Planet. There is also the option to subscribe to get your child's progress report sent weekly by email. A social aspect is planned for future integration which promises to provide a secure online opportunity for children to play multiplayer games and communicate within the app. I'm looking forward to seeing this and if it is anything like the quality of the rest of the app, it will be a real treat.
The one little criticism I had was that the 7 used in the numbers game is the continental 7 (with a slash through it) and I'd like an option to switch it for users who are not familiar with this form. But as this app is aimed at 6-11 year olds and not younger children who are just starting out learning their numbers, they're certainly going to be able to quickly pick up that this is just a different way of writing the number 7.
I don't have an ESL learner in the house to try this out on (though I have worked with many in the classroom), I let my 3 year old daughter loose on Babble Planet. She enjoyed playing with the listening games, but the voice recognition feature failed to interpret her cute lisp. Her inability to create proper diphthongs also let her down. But she tried really really hard to get it right and took extra care when forming each word (which she doesn't bother to do when I correct her), and she just loved the novelty of the speech recognition feature. Even without this feature working for her, she was still learning because of the clear visuals and the vocal prompts. She would repeat the number, colour, and weather words out aloud after the prompt. So, I daresay that this app will have value for young native English speakers and possibly special education students as well.
**Since this review was originally written and published, the speech recognition system has had a major update and now works really well for the tot and myself. Though it's still not quite 100%, it's very very good.**
Eleanor Holland discovered that as a native English speaker her enunciation is exceedingly sloppy. She blames modern culture and lack of sleep. Jill Goodman contributed to this review. Ron Engel contributed to this review. smartappsforkids.com was paid a priority-review fee to complete this review in an expedited manner.