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I Can Haz Spanish Lessons: Cat Pictures Now Have A Purpose

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It's no secret cats rule the Internet. Now, just flipping through cat pictures can be an educational experience. A new iOS app called Cat Spanish teaches 1,000 basic phrases by showing you flash cards of cute cats.

"It's the most ridiculously silly, but yet ruthlessly effective way of learning conversational Spanish," says Ed Cooke, founder of Cat Academy, the group behind Cat Spanish.

For example, when learning the phrase "I need help," the app shows a cat tangled in a tree. Users memorize the phrases through repeated tests.

"By contemplating the picture, you're really thinking about what needs help: You press the button, you pay attention because it's cute and then the connection happens between the word and the visual imagery," Cooke explains.

Cooke used to compete in memory contests, and he says linking information to a vivid image is a common tactic. His team founded Cat Academy on the belief that using cute and funny pictures as memory aids, along with repeated testing, makes for an effective learning tool. In fact, he says, a lot of people are already doing it.

Cooke is also the co-founder of Memrise, an online learning platform where users create flash cards for subjects ranging from Chinese to economics. Cooke and his team found that many Memrise users like using funny but relevant cat pictures as flash cards, which caught their attention. He tried Cat Spanish himself, then went to a wedding in Spain a week later. He hasn't finished all 1,000 phrases yet, but says just knowing the basics helped him at least understand what people were saying.

"It works precisely because it's ridiculous," Cooke says. "We learn with what amuses us and what interests us and what we pay attention to, and so it's completely natural that something as preposterous as learning a language from looking at pictures of cats is actually just a brilliant way of learning."

Cooke says this is backed by research. Stephen Schmidt, a psychology professor at Middle Tennessee State University, agrees. He studied why we remember something better if it's funny, and he says with Cat Spanish, it comes down to two things: humor and visual imagery.

"Day to day, most of our lives are not funny. Things that stand out are well remembered," Schmidt says. He adds that humor links different bits of information, and the pictures help, too. He refers to a picture to teach "quiero vomitar" — "I want to vomit."

"I'm thinking of that image I saw of the cat with its head in the toilet. What an interactive image that is! You can't help but see the connection between the cat and the toilet," Schmidt says.

Cooke isn't going to stop with Spanish. His team plans to add other languages to Cat Academy, and he hopes this idea of using funny and cute pictures can go beyond an app. Cooke says the team tested the app with dog lovers, and the cat pictures work for them, too.

"In time if we find images that are more powerful than cats, we will begin to put those in," Cooke says. "Cats are just the leading edge of a more general phenomenon."

Alan Yu is a Kroc Fellow at NPR.

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