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April 23, 2011

The Young Linguists

Children and Learning in the Interactive World 

Someone once told me a story: a long time ago, imperialists had a lot of problems. Sure, they had weapons and knew a lot about mass suppression of local inhabitants, but what they often didn’t have was a way of talking to them, which posed a challenge when they wanted to do more than kill whoever they found. This happened a lot--destruction had fewer benefits than taking. If they destroyed in the process of taking, swell, but taking came first. Learning languages was not such an obstacle in large regions that only spoke one, slightly-relatable language, but in exotic parts of the world, the jungle terrain meant densely packed, segregated societies of natives with totally exotic dialects. Even if you conquered them, they wouldn’t know how to surrender efficiently. The solution to this problem was innovative, simple, and enlightening: drop a young child off with members of every expedition, and leave them with the locals. When they came back, they had a young translator. Boom. Done. 

Modern technology is today’s jungle. We aren’t oppressing a race any more, our interactive systems trade input and output. But that makes communication even more vital. There is so much innovation that we have had to use imaginary words to define them. It’s the first time in a long time that children are more adept at learning vital skills than their elders. Kids teach their elders how to do things with their computer that have become essential to life, advancement, and community.

What this means: Anyone working on an interactive system should approach their process of educating users as a toymaker might build a puzzle. If it can be fun and easy, if its output can grow in complexity in unison with the progress of its input—it will ultimately become a tool that benefits its user and the toolmaker as well.

 Make it fun, ramp it up gradually, and don’t be boring.

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