"Mine is on. I'm a lion!" A boy living in a remote village in Ethiopia said this in his native language after he figured out how to turn on a tablet. Eight months later he was writing the word "LION" in English on a drawing app. Here's the extraordinary part: no one taught him how to do that. He learned on his own, with the help of a language app developed by a team of researchers led by Cynthia Breazeal, who directs the MIT Media Lab's Personal Robots group.
Breazeal and her team chose Ethiopa for an innovating language learning project because it is a country in which "English is an aspirational language and there is a lot of social value in learning English." The children they gave tablets to had never seen digital technology of any kind before. That is one of the reasons Breazeal describes her project as a "convergence of big ideas in science, mobile technology and social."
Thanks to the spread of cellular technology, there is a proliferation of content now available to children. We have a better understanding of how the "reading circuit" of the brain works, so researchers can develop a curriculum to guide language learning. Also, we understand that children will form "learning circles" to teach each other. That is how cognitive science, mobile technology and our understanding of social groups have converged.
Breazeal, who unveiled this project at The Nantucket Project, said it was necessary to operate outside of her discipline, and indeed her comfort zone, in order to tackle this problem.
So can children learn to read on their own? In the video below, Breazeal describes "an idea in its formation," and how her team is taking risks to trying to understand it.
Cynthia Breazeal is an Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she founded and directs the Personal Robots Group at the Media Lab. She is a pioneer of socialrobotics and Human Robot Interaction. Dr. Breazeal is a recipient of the National Academy of Engineering's Gilbreth Lecture Award, Technology Review's TR35 Award, and TIME magazine's Best Inventions of 2008.