Learning a second language can be tedious, but the Third Ear series avoids that by taking an informal route. Third Ear Publishing founder Chris Lonsdale developed the programs for learning new languages based on his experiences as a senior corporate leadership coach and an expatriate learning Putonghua on the mainland. The series is available for English, Japanese, Korean and Spanish speakers.
Kungfu English, first released as a CD and now available as an iPhone/iPad app, promises to help anyone attain semi-fluency in six months by stressing the importance of communication rather being able to grasp more formal aspects such as grammar.
The first section, Rhythmic Learning, is a collection of nursery rhymes, with simple, everyday phrases ('How are you?', 'Please take me here'), repeated in Putonghua and English, as lyrics. Lonsdale says background music can enhance memory because it fires up both the left and right sides of the brain.
The second section focuses on proper pronunciation. By combining video clips of someone slowly mouthing words with cartoon visual cues, the app stimulates both visually and aurally - essentially how babies learn to speak.
The third section, titled Content Interaction, is more unconventional. Here, learners work through stories for which text and audio are repeated three times - in Chinese, English and then Chinese again.
Lonsdale reckons that learning a language in 'chunks' or phrases is more effective than by picking up individual words. The idea is by having first read through a passage in Chinese, learners can better understand and absorb the English passage, even if they may not know the exact meaning of each word.
'Language is a skill, not knowledge,' he says. 'It's like kung fu in the sense that you have to build the foundation by interacting with it.'
Created with in-house developers, Lonsdale's app for learning English covers 8,000 words, broken into separate lexical chunks. By spending an hour with the program each day a person without any ability can achieve high-school level fluency and be able to get by in everyday conversation, he claims.
Kungfu English became iTunes' fourth-highest-grossing app on the mainland in 2010 and is being used by corporations such as Coca-Cola and Ericsson to help their Chinese staff pick up the language.
Verdict: The approach is more fun than traditional rote methods, and the app is easy to navigate and mostly bug-free. However, it is designed primarily for the mainland market, as evident from the simplified Chinese characters and Putonghua sound clips. And it carries a hefty price tag.
Kungfu English, by Third Ear Publishing; US$899 from iTunes app store