Why I won’t be using CatAcademy

Rob Ashby

Rob Ashby

The Spanish Obsessive

From the folks at Memrise comes a new Spanish learning app, Cat Academy. With the tagline “Helping humans to be less dumb”, Cat Academy uses the ever-popular cute cat meme to illustrate a range of Spanish phrases, using visual mnemonics to aid memorisation of vocabulary. I know it’s a bit of fun, but to me it perfectly illustrates a depressing slide to the lowest common denominator.

That’s not to say it’s not been a fantastic marketing and PR device, however. Cat Academy, through its ingenious embedding of popular culture into their app (aka “piggy-backing a trend”), have managed to garner links and features from top websites and publishers (for example, WiredInternational Business TimesMetroTech CrunchIndependent, the list goes on…).

I’ve joked before about using the cute cat meme to generate interest (and even been guilty of it myself), but I’m surprised at how much Cat Academy has taken off. To be fair to them, they do say that they are not targeting serious language learners, but casual users who might normally be sucked into playing Angry Birds. Why not learn a bit of a language while having fun? Here’s a few reasons why…

It reinforces negative stereotypes that language learning is dull

By taking the emphasis off the actual language learning process (you know, communication, comprehension, learning about other cultures, expanding your world-view) and saying “look at the kitty”, CatAcademy is effectively saying that languages in themselves are boring, and by adding pictures of cats they are spicing up an otherwise dull dish.

It paints a one-dimensional picture of language learning

While memorising phrases is actually a very useful activity, it’s one part of learning a language. By making language learning be about how many phrases and words you can memorise, they miss out on communication, linguistic creativity, comprehension, and a huge variety of other linguistic features which make a language a language, rather than a collection of words. Of all of those who have used the app, who actually finished with it and said “now I can speak Spanish”? What do language professionals (ie, teachers, linguists, and polyglots) make of it?

It’s shamelessly cashing in

I can imagine the marketing bods blue-skying it at their round table – “What’s popular? Cats? Cute cats? How can we use more cute cats? No, we need more kittens!”. This app is straight out of the click-bait textbook (Buzzfeed do this really well – Google “buzz feed cute cats” and you’ll see what I mean), which means that they generate maximum PR and exposure for minimum content. Is this part of a growing trend of “dumbification”? I plan on putting out patents for the following apps, cashing in on the popular meme of the moment:

  • “The Vietnam war, illustrated by the Harlem Shake”
  • “Twerk your way to fitness”
  • “Shakespeare’s sonnets: As read by these crazy goats that sound like humans”
  • “15 adorable pugs recount the First Testament”
  • “Epic Fail video compilation of life in Soviet Russia, lol!”

I prefer dogs

So, I’m putting a new app together:

I know, I’m taking this far too seriously. I think Memrise are doing great things with their main product, but with Cat Academy they’re cheaply piggy backing an eternally popular meme for publicity purposes. Feel free to disagree in the comments below!

8 Responses

  1. Nice post! But isn’t this similar to getting classroom students to write fake ‘Facebook’ messages to each other, or peppering a blog post with frequently searched terms? It’s just using what people like to get them to do something they’d otherwise be less keen on. I agree we may be seeing new heights here though, and that it all detracts from the inherent benefits (joys?) of learning and education. But maybe just maybe we’re all at it to some degree?

    1. Maybe…. Mind you, as a teacher I was never a big fan of getting students to write fake Facebook messages to each other. Guess I’m just a stick in the mud

  2. I agree with you Rob and the posts below. Language learning requires a serious commitment and attempting to make it more “fun” with cute little gimmicks is not the right path.

    1. Hi Jim
      There’s nothing wrong with it being fun, but it’s just a shame that it seems the only way to make it “fun” is by shoe-horning in a popular meme.

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