Bottom line: Topical Spanish lessons delivered through interactive visits to locations in an animated city. The individual components are a fun way to introduce core vocabulary to kids aged 7-14 but there are some inconsistencies throughout the package.
If you would like your kids to brush up on their Spanish before your next trip to Cozumel, you can download Learn Basic Latin American Spanish with Doki (Free, iPad and iPhone with in-apps for additional content) using these Smart Apps for Niños links:
I examined Eazyspeak's Learn Basic Latin American Spanish with Doki HD as both a Spanish teacher and an Hispanic father to two small boys. As a teacher, I badly want technology and conversation integrated into the classroom. As a papá who speaks only in Spanish to his own children, I have a frank need for animations and software to back up my efforts.
Doki's home page shows a map of a city with locations like a bank, restaurant, grocery store, hospital and travel agency. Two areas are part of the free download and additional places are available through in-app purchases of $1.99 for a set of three places or $7.99 for the key to the city's 17 establishments. Instruction on how to use the app is available in multiple languages in addition to English. The app includes a version for kids 7-14 and a separate version for more mature users. Parents should be aware the app carries a 12+ rating for some questionable crude humor I'll explain below.
The positives about this program are numerous. It has a zippy, distinctive, visual style that features well-drawn, cartoonish characters and simple, captivating, purposeful animations. Its sound effects increase believability, as the "office" sounds like an office, and the "restaurant" sounds like a restaurant (imagine ambient conversation and the clinking of glasses, for example. Users are exposed to over 400 words necessary to successfully navigate a Spanish speaking city. The focus is Spanish for tourists rather than real fluency as no grammar instruction is included. Similar apps by Eazyspeak are available for instruction in French, English and German.
At each location the animated conversational "partner" pretends to point at the "customer," write, and tap his fingers while waiting for an answer. Also, gestures at times reinforce the lesson such as when the hotel clerk points at the clock while asking about time. Layering new spoken language with either written word or props/gestures can be most beneficial. Introducing vocabulary through these real world interactions is much more engaging than rotely memorizing uno dos tres.
I have several criticisms, but even with these, the diligent parent or teacher can quickly identify individual exercises that promote interest and meet objectives. My own younger child (5), with whom I speak Spanish every day, actively clicked through the various modules and repeated them after a first pass. However, if you as the parent are not specifically knowledgeable about Spanish, you'll likely need more guidance than the software provides when it covers topics whose situations are more rigorous than the alphabet or saying hello.
My biggest criticism of Doki is what feels like a lack of discipline regarding what the goal is, at times. A fundamental concept for today's educator is the concept of "backward design," or that a lesson gets made based on the final outcome desired. I wanted Doki to be much more explicit about what each module could teach, and then scaffold to that in exercises that built on each other. Although the format for that is there (each module starts simply and gets more complex via around four steps per module), since users are free to roam the city at will, there is no opportunity for lessons to build upon one another. There are numerous examples of this. To begin, two early exercises in one module introduce the student to certain pronouns, but then those pronouns are not needed in the final exercise of that part of the app. In another section the program uses interrogatives (question words like "who/what/when"), but as these words were not introduced at a simpler level in the prior exercises, I'm afraid that a new learner might hear these as gibberish.
The ultimate test for me of this idea was watching my kindergartner with the app. He inquisitively tried various aspects of it, thrilling me. Teaching a child in an English-speaking country to want to speak Spanish is tough, and Doki helped me for those few minutes as my son tapped away. However, I was saddened to discover that even after he had seen all of the initial exercises, he could not answer questions correctly at the assessments at the next level of the module. Granted, he is younger than the recommended age for the app, but he couldn't identify pronouns like "he," "she," "we," etc. via the cartoon representations even though I use those words with him every day.
Another piece of feedback I would offer is that some of the thematic choices that Doki makes are questionable for younger children. In one scenario, a man in bed kisses his wife good night, but he is shown thinking of another woman. This is in poor taste for an elementary-aged child and at worst will simply be misunderstood or create confusion. The fourth, most advanced, section of the greetings module, narrates a basic sequence between Tarzan, Jane, and chimpanzees. I find this example odd, as students and travelers will never need to participate in this type conversation.
My final criticism is that this "Latin American Spanish" application appears a re-working of the "Spain" version rather than an original product built from scratch as the Latin American Spanish is not consistent. When the developers try to include a non-Iberian way of speaking, meaning with a non-Castillian accent, they still leave the original actor's voice in for words without "c" and "z," creating a patchy hodgepodge of spoken words. For those new to Spanish, "c" and "z" in parts of Spain are pronounced like "th" in English, whereas on the American continent they almost always are pronounced like "s."
Worse is that Doki is inconsistent in how it portrays characters. It is clear in the Hotel lesson, for example, that the student's character is still from Spain, and thus says things that will sound to us like "theenco" (cinco) instead of "seenco." Why not let the customer/student also be from Latin America, and thus hear more Spanish in that accent? When the "professional" Hispanic (the waiter, clerk, worker) is from Latin America, the Spanish is often patched together as described earlier. In other cases, the developers just plain missed edits. The Hotel concierge speaks with a Spanish pronunciation ("habitathión" for "habitación,"), even though she is supposedly Latin American. If a teacher uses this app to try to instruct about various accents, this will lead to frustration.
To close, I want this software to leverage each new lesson on those concepts taught in the last. However, the final exercise should mimic or role-play something that the child will actually want to do in Spanish or any of the other languages offered in apps by Eazyspeak. Then, the designer can work backwards from there to ensure that the earlier exercises, sound files, and examples truly build to that desired outcome. I would ask that they rework the spoken portions to be consistent throughout and representative of the Spanish they wish to teach, with content designed for the age of those who will use it.
Greg Sanchez is a retired Spanish teacher and former IT dude. He thinks that both of those tasks were pretty simple when compared to rearing two small boys while trying to maintain a clean kitchen. Jill Goodman contributed to this review. smartappsforkids.com was paid a priority-review fee to complete this review in an expedited manner.