If there’s one thing that 2009 proved, it’s that there’s nothing like an addictive game to keep people coming back to your service for more. Over the last year, we’ve seen Foursquare and Gowalla tap into this with their colorful badges, and Zynga is making a killing off games like Farmville. But what if you could turn that habit into something that might actually be helpful to school or your career? That’s the premise behind Lingt, a new startup that’s looking to leverage gameplay elements to help with the mother of all repetitive tasks: learning a new language.
The Y Combinator funded company is launching today in public beta, offering a suite of matching games to help English speakers learn Chinese. Using the app is quite straightforward. First, you choose a set of words that you need to learn. You can use a one of Lingt’s suggested lists, a list of vocabulary words drawn from one of thirty US/Chinese textbooks, or you can manually enter your own words. From there, the site will quiz you on the meaning of the words. You can either input your answers via text, by saying them aloud, or as a matching game (click on one of five choices).
The site uses well established learning principles to make sure that the words stick. The name of the game here is repetition: every time you take a quiz, Lingt will keep track of which words give you the most difficulty, and will present them to more frequently than the words you know well. The site works best when you check in on a near-daily basis, but if you have to you can switch to ‘Cram’ mode, which lets you tailor quizzes to suit your needs. As you progress through your vocab sets, you earn badges and achievements similar to those seen on Xbox Live and Foursquare.
At this point Lingt is still pretty early in development. It only has support for Chinese, but founder Justin Cannon says that it will soon support other languages including Spanish and French. The service was built to make adding a new language very easy — the site just needs to add a new dictionary. But there are a few other things that will take longer to add. At this point, everything in Lingt is based on vocabulary, so this won’t be very helpful for learning grammar rules. This is something that the company also plans to implement (along with cultural information as well).
Perhaps most important though, I think Lingt needs to do more to expand its reward system. The site doesn’t currently have a way to actually share any rewards with friends, so there isn’t as much of an incentive to earn badges. Basic sharing to services like Facebook is coming soon, Cannon says. In the longer term, the site plans to offer features like class leaderboards, so a teacher could invite students to face off against each other.