Anyone who has seen a toddler play with an iPad or iPhone can tell you that the learning curve is minimal; no longer wobbly and distractible, the small child soon displays a deft-handed focus reminiscent of a gaming teenager’s. While many parents don’t want their kids whiling away their early years playing Angry Birds, the intuitive quality of the touch-screen interface and an ever-growing number of excellent educational apps make these devices invaluable to those wishing to introduce a foreign language—in this case, French—into their household. Even monolingual parents can now offer their children interactive language-learning experiences.
For those starting from scratch, an app that delivers lots of bang for the buck—and one that many families already own—is the popular 123 Color, a talking paint-by-letters/numbers game. Just switch the language to French, and your child will learn son alphabet incidentally while playing. And unlike strictly learn-to-count apps, which often stop at 10, this one goes all the way to 30. A freeform option voices the names of 30 colors (granted, the profiles are occasionally off, as in the case of the olive-like jaune foncé).
A good next step is T’choupi joue avec les lettres, featuring a beloved cartoon character who looks to be part boy, part penguin. Although the instructions are voiced, the app is simple enough for non-French-speakers to use easily. The highlight is a tappable alphabet; each letter reveals a picture with various elements (A: arbre, âne, appareil photo, arrosoir) blanked out. The missing items, which appear at the bottom of the screen, must be inserted like puzzle pieces into their proper place, at which time the word is both voiced and displayed. When the picture is complete, it comes to life with a simple animation.
The much livelier (and addictive) Lola’s Alphabet Train—another app some might already be using in English—has everything a young child could ask for: In addition to Lola the panda, her steam engine and carnival music, there are toys to be purchased with points earned by, say, identifying letters correctly. Three levels allow kids to master the alphabet and go on to learn more than 100 words both orally and in written form. The simple instructions are voiced over and over, so the child can pick up some basic French syntax as well.
Other games are better suited to children whose parents speak some French and can help them understand the instructions. These include T’choupi joue avec les couleurs, which offers nine simple color-based activities—pouring bain moussant into T’choupi’s tub and then popping any pink bubbles that float up, or feeding T’choupi the brown pieces from a box of chocolates (your child may well prefer to give him the wrong ones just to hear him say, “Beurk!”).
The “Imagidoux” apps La ferme and Les transports allow children to learn the names of animals and vehicles by touching their pictures and then interact with a related scene—rubbing the screen to help the pig uncover apples in the mud or tilting the device to make the bicycle move. (On the Apple App Store, search for “Gründ,” the publisher of the books on which the apps are based; you’ll have to change the language setting on your device to play in French.) One big plus is the inclusion of articles to indicate the gender of the words, a frustrating omission in many other picture-dictionary apps.
For more advanced speakers, several Dora the Explorer apps—neither as pointedly educational nor as formulaic as the television series—include French versions, with (accented) English rather than Spanish as the secondary language. In addition, some Dora DVDs have a French soundtrack option, making it possible to switch from Swiper the fox and Boots the monkey to Chipeur le renard and Babouche le singe.
The apps in the “Apprends avec Poko” series—Les animaux!, Les saisons! and Additions!—each offer three levels of activities firmly grounded in the North American curriculum. (Readers may be familiar with the English versions, sold separately as the “i Learn With Poko” series.) For example, the child might be asked to identify an animal from a series of clues or choose pictures for a photo album based on the weather shown.
At the other end of the spectrum are the charmingly illustrated Stella et Sacha (Stella and Sam) apps. (Again, you’ll have to change your device’s language setting to access the French version.) Based on a popular Canadian book and television series about a girl and her little brother, they eschew the trappings of educational programming in favor of a more organic experience inspired by childhood wonder. Each full-screen animated “adventure” has three embedded games, such as connect-the-stars or building a pont magique out of flowers to allow ants to cross a stream. Most games have several variations, adding an element of surprise that keeps kids coming back. Although the apps are available only for the iPad, those who don’t own one (or would just like to save a few dollars) are in luck: The content is available online at disneyjunior.ca, minus the touch-screen interface, of course.
Finally, the offerings of Gallimard Jeunesse are truly outstanding (and available for sampling in free lite versions). La coccinelle and La forêt—the first two apps based on books from the well-known reference series “Mes premières découvertes”—are both beautiful and highly educational: Who among you can identify a toxic amanite tue-mouches mushroom? While the language may exceed the comprehension of some kids, the activities will keep them interested. In La coccinelle, they can put their finger on the screen and watch ladybugs circle around it, or help a ladybug gobble up aphids; in La forêt, they can find creatures hidden in the woods or make flowers sprout up by touching colored dots. Due out next is Les dinosaures, sure to be an easy sell to any child.
The company’s first two contes illustrés, 3 petits cochons and Cendrillon, are equally impressive. Voiced by children and set to lively music, they are like animated shorts packed with interactive features; unlike the Stella et Sacha apps, however, they include text. Kids can help the little pigs build their houses, only to assist the grand méchant loup in destroying them by blowing into the microphone; they can assemble Cinderella’s carriage, or switch the music at the ball from traditional to funky to North African and watch the dancers keep step. In terms of language learning, one of the best things about these apps is that the characters talk when tapped, allowing the user to hear idiomatic speech in context (Cinderella on the dance floor: “J’adore ce morceau!”) and also see it written in a speech bubble. As one little pig says at the end of her tale, “On s’amuse bien!”