back to article Teaching people to speak English? You just need Chatroulette without the dick pics

The latest of the X-Prizes is an attempt to increase adult literacy through the power of the mobile phone. Given that our own Prime Minister has been known to think that LOL means “lots of love”, it might not be a bad idea to update digital literacy. However, that's not quite what they mean: they want to take those adults who …

  1. W Donelson

    Politicians want adult voters' literacy to be only enough to read but not dissect their lies.

    1. Gordon 10

      What makes you think the two are related? Illiterate <> stupid or naïve.

    2. Shady

      Politicians want adult voters' literacy to be only enough to be able to read the instruction manuals to operate the assembly lines that produce the robots that will eventually replace their jobs

  2. Zog_but_not_the_first

    'ello Mister Tim

    I think you very handsum man...

  3. BobRocket


    How about an app that awards micro prizes for completing reading/writing tasks, the prizes don't even have to be monetary, they could unlock levels of games or give out pics of fluffy kittens.

    This is how education works in the real world anyway but on a longer timescale (25 years of schooling gets the winners a Doctorate and hopefully a rewarding career).

    1. Tim Worstal

      Re: Prizes

      One thought that did occur is that this is all aimed at the US to begin with. And obviously the illiterate are going to be the poor in that society. So, microprizes, yes, say grocery coupons?

    2. chivo243 Silver badge

      Re: Prizes

      I'm learning a third language with an App called Duolingo and it does exactly what you ask. Once you pass some tests, the next levels\chapters are available. No fluffy kittens, just an illustration of an owl.

      1. BobRocket

        Re: Prizes

        The missus likes Duolingo, why not combine the kittens and the owl, throw in a pea green boat and we might have a winner :)

      2. Roland6 Silver badge

        Re: Prizes

        From some investigation I did nearly a year back, one (or more) of the language learning providers effectively offered the facility for learners to test their newly learnt language skills against native speakers.Obviously not quite so unstructured as chat-roulette.

        Also if you know your Neal Stephenson, you'll probably remember reading "The Diamond Age", published in 1995.

      3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Prizes

        I'm learning a third language with an App called Duolingo and it does exactly what you ask

        Duolingo is actually a "gamified" "crowd-sourcing" machine-translation assistant. See "Gaining Wisdom from Crowds", CACM 55.3 (March 2012).

        It was created by Carnegie Mellon's Luis von Ahn, who also created what became Google's photo-tagging game app, to get people to improve literal machine-generated translations by deciding what idiomatic translations are most plausible. So the language-learning aspect is already a secondary goal; the in-game rewards (like opening new tasks) are tertiary.

        This sort of "gamification" has been a major area of discussion in academia, industry, and organizations like the US military for quite a while - nearly a decade, I'd say. (That CACM article includes references back to 2008.) I'm afraid there's nothing novel about suggesting it be applied to promote literacy.

        Frankly, I think Tim's right about this one. It would be hard for a dedicated app to provide a better set of incentives than those already provided by basic communication and social media. And those have been hugely effective; multiple studies have shown that the latest generations of schoolchildren (in the US, from the Millennials on up) do far more writing than any previous generation.

        The vast majority of that writing is casual, of course, whether it's texting or IMs or social-media updates or flame-warring in online forums; and middle-brow intellectuals love to complain about its quality. But it's still writing, and other studies suggest that when encouraged to write more substantial and formal prose, those casual-writing skills transfer. They're by no means the complete set of required skills for substantial, sophisticated, appealing prose, but they help.

    3. LucreLout

      Re: Prizes

      25 years of schooling gets the winners a Doctorate and hopefully a rewarding career

      I've been wondering about that lately... Specific to computing, is there any real premium to having a doctorate over a masters? I had a look through Google but couldn't find anything stating salaries that I view as reflective of the world I work in.

      Any commentards out there that did a mid-career PhD? What happened to your earnings as a result? Anyone out there with a PhD in computing that feels confident they earn a premium over colleagues without one?

      1. BobRocket

        Re: Prizes - rewards and just desserts

        If it's money you want then start a business and buy in the talent, no need for either a Masters or a PHD.

        If you get a buzz from high end particle physics and you can't afford your own hardon collider then a PHD is going to make things easier.

        It all depends on your personal definition of 'rewarding'.

        I like playing with embedded devices, I don't have a PHD but I manage to pay the rent and raise four kids, that is reward enough for me.

  4. David Knapman

    Chatroulette without the dick pics?

    Wouldn't that just be an empty screen where nothing ever happens?

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Chatroulette without the dick pics?

      I'll defer to your greater knowledge. And Tim's.

    2. Peter Simpson 1

      Re: Chatroulette without the dick pics?

      I thought we'd all agreed that dick pics are appreciated by *no one*?

      // especially, women

      // maybe the word hasn't got out?

      1. chivo243 Silver badge

        Re: Chatroulette without the dick pics?

        Oh, dick pictures! Not Dick's Picks, kind of a desert island discs for fans of the Grateful Dead.

        You all had me going for a while...

  5. Turtle

    No True Statement...

    "Thus the increase in literacy is going to come about as a result of the existence of Facebook..."

    No true statement could possibly be more depressing.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: No True Statement...

      More likely the Facebook result will be a pidgin English - which after a few generations may become a creole.

      English people often understand each other when the speak a foreign language like French - yet the native speakers find them incomprehensible.

      Sometimes on-line comments appear to use English but do not to make sense in any recognised manner. Yet others reply with the same apparent mish-mash of grammar and vocabulary without any problem.

      People will only learn "good" English by being forced to communicate in that form. If it is everyone tutoring everyone else, in a medium that encourages abbreviation and typos, then the result will not be literacy in the anticipated form.

      1. Turtle

        @Anonymous Coward Re: No True Statement...

        "English people often understand each other when the speak a foreign language like French - yet the native speakers find them incomprehensible."

        There's a very simple reason for this: people will learn the vocabulary of a foreign language but not its grammar and syntax. So someone might speak, as in your example, French words with English sentence constructions, or, for a native French speaker, English words with French sentence structures.

        It's interesting to note that, once you have a very basic familiarity with a given language, you can begin to understand the reasons for some of the mistakes that native speakers of that language make when learning your own native language.

        1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

          Re: @Anonymous Coward No True Statement...

          Conversely, my own experience learning French and German was that I became more idiomatic in the target language if I attempted a direct translation of some Inspector Clouseau-like stereotype.

          Sometimes, I am wondering if one can use these mistakes actually as a tool of teaching. ;)

    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: No True Statement...

      And the whinging from people who can't be bothered to look at the research begins.

      How many of those commentards bitching about the quality of online prose have taught composition or other writing courses? I have, and in my experience, it's easier to turn a frequent but casual writer into a good writer, than it is to turn an infrequent writer into any sort of writer at all.

      And the research backs me up.

  6. Doctor Syntax Silver badge


    If the scope extends to pre-schoolers the old Ladybird Peter & Jane books have a lot going for them. Back in the day they got my son reading within weeks aged about 4. The content may need updating (autre temps, autre mores). The crucial aspect of it was that learning involved three elements, the child, the material & a parent (or other reader) providing one-to-one support. The books provided well-paced material so that the parent didn't have to have skills in teaching reading.

    1. dogged

      Re: Ladybird or maybe ChatRoulette WITH the, er....

      Why do small children learn to read from Ladybird books and the Gruffalo and other such exercises?

      Because literacy is a tool and they are given the power to use that tool to gain a reward - the story, the rhyme, the next page, the pretty pictures. What is required is incentive and this is why Tim's comment regarding Facebook et al is so depressingly accurate.

      In order to incentivize adults further, you're going to need something that appeals to adults even more than Facebook and Twitter, specifically something that requires literacy in order to make it work.

      So there's shopping, celebrity gossip, sports, beer, gambling and porn.

      Maybe the app in question is simply a version of ChatRoulette where you have to ask nicely?

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: Ladybird or maybe ChatRoulette WITH the, er....

        How about the CompuTeach from Hitch Hikers' Guide? "Now you may press the button" Then you just need to invent some sort of orgasmatron that can be built into a mobile phone.

    2. Shadow Systems

      @Doctor Syntax, Re: Ladybird.

      Couple those styles of books with a Siri style Talking Assistant.

      The TA shows a picture of something, there's the spelling below it, & the TA slowly highlights each letter as it's spelled aloud.

      Then the TA asks you to spell the word, highlighting the letters again as you do so, then asks for you to read the whole word, & gives a bright green check mark "Good Job!" graphic/audio, or has you repeat the lesson until you get it right.

      It can start with simple ABC's & 123's, progress to three letter words, & once you've correctly read/spelled all the ones in it's database, "Achievement Unlocked! Your Reading Skills have gained a Level!" at which point it goes to four, then five, then six, & seven letter words in obvious steps.

      By the time the "Player" is up to eight letter words, they're effectively fluent to all intents & purposes.

      You can make each word correctly completed worth a Ten Cents/Pence coupon good at their local grocery store on things a Family might need, or just a generic "Good on any purchase of One (Dollar|Pound) or more" kind of thing.

      If the Player saves up their coupons until each level is passed, then the combined coupon might be worth even more than the sum of it's parts.

      If they save all the coupons from all the levels & combine them into a single script at the very end, maybe it's worth a free"Family Meal Deal" from the deli (chicken|beef|pork, mashed potatos, salad, drink, & a dessert?), or a bag of groceries (valued at ???), or the like. Something that's an obvious reward they can look forward to earning, winning, & redeeming.

      Get it sponsored by your local grocer, advertised on said grocer's website, and into as many hands as possible (Android, Apple, & Windows phones at the very least, Apple, Linux, & Windows desktop clients if possible as well).

      Imagine the fun of talking to your phone all day & actually Learning & Earning something from it for a change!


      1. Tim Worstal

        Re: @Doctor Syntax, Ladybird.

        That's all spookily like what I was thinking about.

  7. Grikath

    why english?

    The smart ones are betting on chinese...

    1. John Sager

      Re: why english?

      Despite being spoken by a large population, Mandarin is going to struggle against English as a global language. The written language is hard to learn, the spoken language is tonal and the semantics leave a lot to context - no tenses as such. Those last two may not be a killer barrier but IMHO the first one is. The simplicity of alphabets or the syllables in syllabic languages gives them a major advantage in learning, especially as an adult.

      English as a global lingua franca is where it is because of history and the barrier to entry now of any other language is high, probably requiring global conquest and dictatorial imposition. At least for now.

      1. damworker

        Re: why english?

        Agreed with the reply.

        And China has two main languages plus lots of others though Mandarin is maybe 90% of native speakers. There's a lack of available teachers in most countries outside western Europe.

        Content: Wikipedia, for example, has 3 times more pages in English than any other language and I'm sure the WWWs page ratio is even greater.

        In many countries, English is seen as cool (music, Hollywood, Facebook etc as article) and don't forget all those English phrases entering other languages (Le Weekend).

        English is already a multinational language and unlike e.g. French, English's "standards body", the OED, is already global and welcomes foreign words into English (Lingua Franca?).

        One might make a better case for Spanish - it is already a global language - but many of the same issues exist. However, why we (in UK) default to learning French in School is beyond me.

        All those nasty American spellings and sports phrases seem a small price to pay for being a native speaker of the World language.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: why english?

          Because French was the language of diplomacy so taught The private schools that the grammar schools were modelled on.

        2. Ken Hagan Gold badge

          Re: why english?

          "However, why we (in UK) default to learning French in School is beyond me."

          The other reply is probably why we started with French. Why we persist is probably more due to the over-supply of French teachers compared to other languages. Remember, for the *main* foreign language being taught in a school, you need *lots* of teachers who are comfortable in the language.

          We could change to Spanish. (One could make a case for other major languages like Arabic, but I think you'd struggle to put even one Arabic language teacher in every secondary school, let alone the numbers you'd need.) However, it would require a big push from high-up, probably ministerial level, and that would doubtless offend the French Ambassador more than it pleased the Argentinian one.

          Also, if everyone is going to speak English, then teaching *any* foreign language in UK schools is more of a cultural aspiration than a business one. The choice of language is therefore not motivated purely by the number of business opportunities it opens up.

    2. Shannon Jacobs

      Re: why english?

      Good question. I was actually thinking about submitting a suggestion for a kind of vocabulary-based reading game with some derivative ideas from a Japanese game known as shiritori. The design of this game is actually quite flexible, allowing it to be used for any language learners, from children learning their first language to L2 adults to wannabe language teachers, and for any language... Well, any language that has some news-related websites and some level-sorted vocabulary lists.

      Turned out it that it's a lottery. You have to pay $500 for a ticket.

      Neo-GOP "charity" in action. We can't notice you unless you have $500. Poor peasants need not apply.

      I'd say something rude, but I'm not rich enough to throw $500 just to get Dubya's attention.

  8. chris swain

    Why not just use random (ish) video clips & speech recognition?

    The googs would love it - get people hooked on YouTube and show off their backend AI capabilities (also possibly throw in a little Google translate for comparison to the native tongue in the case of foreign language speakers)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why not just use random (ish) video clips & speech recognition?

      "[...] also possibly throw in a little Google translate for comparison to the native tongue in the case of foreign language speakers"

      Google Translate is amazing for what it achieves - but it often gives an incomprehensible translation. Fairly obvious words get mistranslated - or a phrase is reduced to a literal translation of a few of its words.

      I regularly use it to translate Facebook, Youtube, and custom web page items in several languages for dissemination to a wider audience - with English as the lingua franca. Sometimes I can correct a mistranslation - but often it is a jumble of English words for which the meaning, even in the narrow context of the subject is not recognisable.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Vodafone are already doing this

    They might call it "customer support" - but now I've read this article, I've seen through their ruse.

  10. Gordon 10

    Txt Message Synonym-iser

    Just suggest alternatives to txt-speak and slang.

  11. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

    Use the Force

    This app will require the phone to be plugged in. And you'll have to use our special handsets, a modified 'Droid of some sort probably.

    Then it will show you a picture. Or a video of someothing happening. You get text underneath, which you have to say out loud. If the speech recognition doesn't like it, then you get nice little electric shock through the phone casing.

    Make more mistakes, the voltage goes up.

    All stick and no carrot you say? Hmmm. You could be right there. How's about then that if you're good, and get all your lessons right, then you get access to other people failing, via the webcam - then you can press the button to shock some other poor hapless learner.

    In fact, this can save us the hassle of having to write / pay for a speech recognition engine.

    1. Lyndon Hills 1

      Re: Use the Force

      While the rest is rather cruel (and funny), this part does seem to make some sort of sense

      In fact, this can save us the hassle of having to write / pay for a speech recognition engine.

      especially given the other comments on the shortcomings of translation engines. My favourite, from a long time ago, was translating "out of sight out of mind", into "invisible idiot". There would be a need for quality control if we did this, to prevent one illiterate educating another.

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Use the Force

      "then you can press the button to shock some other poor hapless learner."

      ...and as a worldwide app the results would end up like Eurovision voting :-)

  12. Swarthy
    Paris Hilton

    Incentives and pre-school inspiration

    As Doctor Syntax stated above, a good place to start would be looking at how small children learn to read, and perhaps update the content for adults; combined with BobRocket's suggestion for prizes, or gamification. I think an excellent place to stealseek inspiration from would be Both of my kids have used that site to begin their path towards literacy and to supplement what is taught in formal education. It's a flash-based (I know, but our theoretical one could be HTML5) site that takes them through varied lessons (puzzles, sing-a-longs, games, listening to/reading a story) and for each lesson they get a number of tickets. They can then spend the tickets on in-game outfits, pets, pet accessories, classroom furniture, and classroom decorations.

    So maybe one could try building an adult-themed version, with more "mature" subject matter (celebrity gossip, pro athletes, popular TV shows, etc) and issue tickets to furnish a second-life style digital abode, or maybe partner up with King and get vouchers for extra lives in Candy Crush.

  13. Terry 6 Silver badge

    Method versus marketting

    Sadly, the same forces would apply here as does in the world of education.

    Since teaching literacy is complicated, messy and potentially expensive the market will identify sub-skills that appear to underlie literacy, and can be achieved by inexpensive mechanical teach and test methods.

    These will become the approved methods

    And since these methods will determine the success criteria, because they test what they teach rather than what we need them to achieve, they will be able to claim the cash.

    And who knows, they might even prove to be useful as well.

    [In schools they teach "phonics". Which means sounding out words. It's one of those "it stands to reason dunnit" judgements that have very little basis in fact, because that's not how we actually read even though we think we do. But it has lots of support from politicians, who want easy answers that sound obvious and from various publishers and commercial organisations that can make pots of money from a very simple inexpensive product.]

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How we read is complicated

    People can often appear to read words in a foreign language when there is a predictable small subset of words in use. Helping a Japanese colleague with Windows problems I learned to recognise particular menu items in Japanese. The symbols were effectively acting as icons. Introducing a subtle variation that changed the meaning and it caused mistakes.

    That's probably how many people treat mobile displays. I can usually recognise the Russian airline's name Aeroflot because it is obviously in Cyrillic and appears on a plane's fuselage. I couldn't write the word though - or differentiate a similar looking word.

    In English we recognise words from their shape and context - rather than sounding it as phonetics. You know you are getting better at a foreign language when you can break a word down into its probable components. We learn that an "uncle" is not a negative "cle" - and a "unit" is not a negative "it". In Swedish I can usually spot the negative prefix "o" - but in Hebrew the several modifier prefixes usually defeat me when trying to identify the basic word to look up in a dictionary.

    1. Terry 6 Silver badge

      Re: How we read is complicated

      I agree. I wish world+dog understood that. Eye tracking studies alone show that we don't read by decoding the words letter by letter.

      Oh. By the way.

      The trick with Hebrew is to be able to identify the 3 letter root. That will give you a sense of the meaning, when you look it up. But not the actual meaning. The prefixes and suffixes ( and unprinted vowels) are grammatical structures that modify that meaning substantially. But luckily if you omit the pronoun prefixes you will usually find the word.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Long ago ..

    .. we did our own thing for literacy by recompiling an FTP daemon to accept the word 'miscellaneous' as password for anonymous logins. After all, everyone could already spell 'anonymous' :-)

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I hope this is going to teach people (including Americans) real, proper English.

    Don't forget that there's no such thing as American English: there's English, and there are mistakes.

    1. Captain DaFt

      Gyse! ðu ácweðan, efenheafodling!

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Is this a (bad) joke or are you just a silly stupid Brit?

      1. Diogenes

        Don't you speak "anglish" (as in anglo saxon). Actually getting rid of the "borrowed" french, latin & greek would make english a lot more sane

  17. This post has been deleted by its author

  18. Mark 85

    I have my doubts....

    My basic thought is that mobile phones, messaging apps and all that have hugely increased the value to people of being literate, even if only vaguely so

    From what I've seen here in the States, the literacy level is dropping. I'm seeing more and more emails from management using "textspeak"... They even think (or so it seems) that email is like Twitter and you're only allowed 140 characters. I can't begin to total up how many times I've had to call the writer and ask for a translation and what are they trying to say. So.. good luck with raising the literacy rate to a new level.

    1. Swarthy

      Re: I have my doubts....

      Sadly, I can feel your pain. I'm not sure which is worse, the "txtspeek"/twitter-mails, or the 20 paragraph, buzzword compliant, admixture of literary diarrhea and legalese.

      On the bright side, whilst those who should be more literate seem to be falling into decline, the people that this program is intended to help are rising, I think the median literacy rate in the US will soon hover around txtspeek, and the standard deviations will be smaller.

      All Hail the meteoric rise of mediocrity.

  19. J.G.Harston Silver badge

    You don't teach literacy in this way by making it a chore that you get rewards for. You make it something that you need to obtain so that you can access something you desire. "If I learn to read English I can read Heat Magazine and find out what Haley Mills is doing and chat with all my friends about it" not "If I learn to read English I'll get a voucher that lets me buy a copy of Heat Magazine".

  20. scrubber

    Good use of public money?

    I want evidence that advances in adult literacy (above current rates) increase the health, wealth or happiness of the public at large before soem high-minded Oxbridge oik goes about spending my money on their what they think is good for the great unwashed.

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