This Language-Teaching Device Constantly Whispers Lessons In Your Ear

Mersiv is worn around a user’s neck, like a necklace, and features a silver dollar-sized pendant with an embedded camera and microphone. (Mersiv)

Mersiv is worn around a user’s neck, like a necklace, and features a silver dollar-sized pendant with an embedded camera and microphone. (Mersiv)

In the 90s, the commercial was inescapable: Muzzy, the fuzzy, green, foreign language-teaching beast, speaks in French. The scene cuts to a girl watching the BBC video course. “Je suis la jeune fille,” she says proudly pointing to her chest (translation: I am the young lady).

Since Muzzy, options for language learning videos and software have grown exponentially—Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, Fluenz, Rocket Languages, Anki and Babbel are just a few. In 2015, the language learning market worldwide reached $54.1 billion, according to a recent report from Ambient Insight, a market research firm for learning technology. Now a new conceptual device, Mersiv, is hoping to break into this booming field.

As proposed, the gadget is worn around a user’s neck, like a necklace, and features a silver dollar-sized pendant with an embedded camera and microphone. A small earbud accompanies the device, either tethered to the pendant’s neck strap or connected via bluetooth. The idea is that Mersiv captures the language-learner’s surroundings and chats with the user through the earpiece—kind of like having a language teacher constantly whispering lessons in your ear.

Joe Miller, an industrial designer at DCA Design International, dreamed up the device just a few months ago, after trying to learn Swedish using Duolingo—a website and free app intended to bring language learning to the masses. In a game-based set-up, users translate sentences from one language to another, gaining knowledge while helping to translate internet content.

“After six months of doing it, I was just starting to get frustrated,” he says. “I was getting to a level and plateauing and finding it hard to just keep progressing, to keep finding the time.”

Rudimentary understanding of easier-to-learn languages, such as French, Spanish and Swedish, requires roughly 480 hours of study. And the number goes up with language difficulty, requiring somewhere near 1,000 hours to achieve a similar level of proficiency in languages like Chinese or Japanese. Miller realized that if he only spent a half hour or less a day, it would take him years to learn his language of choice.

So the designer, who mainly works on consumer electronics and furniture, set out to design a device that could essentially immerse users in a foreign language to speed the learning process. He dubbed the project Mersiv.

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InnovationMaya Wei-Haas