The myths around learning a foreign language

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How to learn a foreign language

We should slay the language myths

We firstly need to dispel some deeply ingrained myths about how to learn a foreign language. Research has shown the following myths to be untrue.

Myth 1: It is impossible to learn a foreign language after a certain age.

Untrue. Whatever your age, if you want to learn, you can learn. The best time to start learning is now…

Myth 2: Children are much better at learning foreign languages than adults

Untrue. Children and adults learn languages differently. Research has shown that given the right language resources and language input, adults can learn just as well as children and, furthermore, in some aspects of language learning, outperform children.

Myth 3: A child can only be taught a foreign language by a teacher or a native speaker.

Untrue. Children can learn from a parent who is not fluent. The important aspect is that the parent is available to learn alongside their child and interact. Fluency is not necessary.

Myth 4: Learning technical grammar is a pre-requisite to mastering a foreign language.

Untrue. Children have learned a language perfectly well without ever knowing the technical grammatical components of it. Some experts believe that excessive focus on grammar can actually impede learning.

Often people are put off learning a second language before they even start. They think that they are too old; don’t have a gift for languages; don’t have a fluent teacher; or that they will get stuck on grammar. Now we know we these are phantom problems, we can set about establishing the best, quickest and easiet ways to learn a language. More coming soon!

The key is to use the right tools – or in the case of language learning, the right MFL resources.

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Family Board Games are sooooo last century! Think again – we need them.

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Family Board Games and why they’re still important

Mum  : “How about a game of Monopoly or KLOO after dinner tonight?

Daughter: “But isn’t ‘X-Factor’ on the box at 8 pm?”

TV v Traditional Family Board Game – that’s a complete mismatch, right? It’s a David v Goliath struggle – that Goliath wins hands down in nearly every household. We have more channels that we can possibly watch. We have PVRs in case we miss something. There is video gaming too. Not to mention the Internet. And what about Smartphones?……

It seems that, without really noticing or understanding the implications, we have become neurally plugged into a virtual world that even Captain Kirk would have boggled at. And why not you might ask? It is fun. And what harm can it do? Ah…funny you should ask.

Before we complacently switch on the box – perhaps we should consider these truly horrific facts about screen time and its affect on our physical and mental health – especially in children. Here is the latest research. It should stop us in our tracks.

* 8 – 18 year olds watch on average 4 hours a day with a further two hours of screen time on computers and video games.
* Reading, playing and socialising are getting squeezed to the margins by screen time.
* Homework is losing out to screen time by 12 to 1 in terms of time allocation.
* Kids who watch at least four hours a day are more likely to be overweight.
* Kids who watch violence on TV and on video games are becoming desensitised to violent behaviour and lacking in empathy.
* Children spend more time in front of screens than they do in the classroom!

Screen time can be good for us. It can be educational, entertaining and diverting….but the sheer quantity of screen time that we are consuming is becoming a monstrous problem. Dr Aric Sigman, an American expert on the affect of TV on children says:

“There is a definite relationship between the amount of time kids spend watching screens per day and a range of physical, cognitive and educational problems later on. These include severe problems like ADHD and milder but still worrying damage to their ability to concentrate, their attention span and performance in school.”

And if you think he’s American and that these problems haven’t reached the UK yet – think again. The problem is here – and it is big.

“Kids with a TV in their bedroom are less likely to be able to read by the age of 6,” says Dr Sigman. “This is one reason Britain has such a poor literacy rate. Also, 37 per cent of British ten-year-olds play computer games for more than three hours a day – one of the highest rates in the world. This has a profound effect on their attention span, their ability to read and concentrate in school.”

It gets worse for UK children.

“Just because something is called children’s television, don’t assume it’s better for your kids,” says Dr Sigman. “These claims are made by the people who produce the programmes, not by scientists. In fact, a Carry On film is probably better for your child than a lot of CBBC shows, because they lack the fast editing and bright colours that do all the damage.”

The USA, which is usually ahead of us in addressing these issues, is wrestling with ways to deal with this monster in the room. They have even started a series of charitable websites to help parents combat excessive screen time. One organisation provides an arsenal of ideas on how to reduce and create alternative ways to have fun, entertain and occupy the family. Significant among them is “Game Night” where they encourage families to switch off the TV and instead play games, board games, card games, any game! Why? Because they help children in all the ways that screen entertainment don’t. They provide interactive play time. They help children build their social skills and can be educational. They anchor us in the real world!

Board Games for Children

Board Games are the antithesis of the virtual world. They are social, fun, engrossing and stimulating. What is more (and here’s a little known fact) – today’s children love them! Teachers have written to tell me that their children are “going crazy” for KLOO Language games – they’re words not mine.

Best of British Board Games

KLOO makes learn French, Spanish or English board games. Just by playing you learn a language. In 2011 KLOO Games won the 2011 “Best of British Board Game” at the ToyTalk awards. So if you’re looking to buy a Great Family Board Game and Learn a language – try KLOO.

So I ask again – anyone for Spanish KLOO? What about Hide and Seek?

PS If you are looking for new games, try this board games blog. Good reviews by games enthusiasts.

MFL Resources: White Board v Game Board


MFL Resources for the classroom

People of a certain age (alas this includes me) are always impressed by the technology in today’s classrooms, especially the ubiquitous interactive white board. The nearest I came to hi-tech teacher resources in my day was an overhead projector! Are they used anymore?

As impressed as I am, I know a large group of important people who are not impressed……children. White boards are all they have ever known and when I asked my daughter (15) about it – she quite rightly pointed out that her phone probably has just as much technology in it – maybe more. For today’s generation, technology  is the norm and seems in no way extraordinary.  Short of turning a classroom into a 3-D, Avatar experience, it is hard to see what classroom resources will impress them.

If the answer is not hi-tech – then what? Actually the answer is perhaps surprising. Low Tech! And in this blog I am talking specifically talking about the humble board game. Nothing can get lower tech and yet I received this email last month from a French teacher at Worth School……

It would be great to find more decks of cards as my Y10 are getting crazy about it. My Y8 (who never played) discovered the game this Thursday. Not surprisingly they enjoyed it but   most of all they had 20-min of laughter….. Thank you, Kloo.”

Board Games are an important language resource

The fact is we all love games. We love competing and when we do all our senses become heightened. It means we feel more alive and yes, if the game is built around learning, we learn faster too.

We cannot replace the white board with games – but we can let games bring another dimension into the classroom: change the scene, re -energize students and make language fun. Teachers who have adopted KLOO MFL games have noticed a vast difference. Children come alive and animated and learn fast too. Who would think that in today’s world of technological wonders the game that is proving to be a great French and Spanish teacher resource and driving students crazy to learn a language isn’t an Xbox or Nintendo – but a board game….KLOO la la!

How to make a French sentence in seconds

KLOO has won 6 major awards including ToyTalk Best Board or Card Game 2011. Through careful design and working with language teachers, KLOO has balanced effective learning with making language learning fun. The ToyTalk judging panel said:

ToyTalk Reviewers’ comments: “Our children quickly started to pick up some French language skills when playing the game… Although the educational elements are obviously strong, this still feels like a game and the kids were happy to play it… The production values are very high, the game is a pleasure to play.”

Players find they learn a language at least 200% faster and have more fun too! The game was designed around important language learning principles. Why not for instance check out how easy it is to make a sentence in Spanish using KLOO cards in the video below:


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Best Way to Learn New Words in a Foreign Language

Education Landing Personal

How best to build our vocabulary in a foreign language

Dog is le chien in French

I am pretty sure that none of us had parents who, when we were very young, gave us lists of words to learn by next week. What generally happened is that we would point at something that we wanted to know the name of, such as a dog, and our parents said “Dog” and we repeated “Dog”. This is form of learning is called Discovery Learning  and it is the natural way we built our vocabulary when we were small.

Learning new words with Discovery Learning…Eureka!

Discovery Learning is when we discover what we want to know, when we want to know it. In these moments our minds are incredibly receptive to new information because they are actively seeking it. Some scientists call this the Eureka moment, or light bulb moment or Aha! moment. We have all felt it, perhaps when trying to crack a crossword problem or trying to recall someone’s name and it’s extremely powerful. But how can we harness it?

Learning foreign words with Discovery Learning

The power of Discovery Learning is widely accepted. The problem is that replicating Discovery Learning in the classroom is notoriously difficult. How do you hand over the initiative of learning to your students – so they learn what they want to learn – and it still coincides with what the teacher wants to teach them! It is tricky.

But not impossible!

Auto-learning Language Game uses Discovery Learning to build vocabulary

As a games designer, I was frustrated with how slowly my own children were learning new words. All of the language resources I had bought for them were ineffective and, if I am

honest, they didn’t enjoy them anyway. So I looked to build an MFL Language Game concept that would allow them to build their vocabulary and make sentences without the need for a teacher to sit in on the game. In essence I wanted to create a game that generated hundreds of moments where they needed to learn foreign words to score points – and then discovered them through playing. We played around with different game concepts with scraps of paper around the kitchen table – but the light bulb switched on when we played our first game of KLOO.

Vocabulary Building Game

Learn Spanish words by labeling items

How effective is it? In a single game of 25 minutes a typical player (child or adult), will learn 15 – 30 words without ever feeling they are studying or working. It just comes naturally. Many teachers will tell you how challenging it is to motivate some students to learn 20 words by next week or even next month through usual vocabulary building techniques. So to be able to build vocabulary by hundreds of words, just by playing a game is increasingly valued by more and more MFL teachers..

What foreign words would I learn?

The vocabulary for KLOO games are high frequency words (HFW) chosen by teachers to meet the needs of the curriculum and are also deemed to be most useful. With one deck of KLOO cards you can make tens of thousands of sentences in French or Spanish. You’ll have a lot of fun too. Watch this two minute video to see how it all works!


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How a young man learned to speak 11 languages fluently

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Top tips for language learning from man who speaks 11 languages

Alex Rawlings speaks 11 languages fluently. He is an inspiration and a true marvel. In this very impressive video he gives just one tip. I wrote it down word for word:


The importance of putting words into context has been stressed here at Language Pie and I have been inspired by this young man to return to the theme. In the meantime here is the wonderful video on the BBC.


Award Winning Foreign Language Game automatically puts words into context

Make useful foreign sentences with French KLOO cards

With KLOO, players win points by learning new words and forming sentences. The longer the sentences, the higher the score. The unique aspect of KLOO is that even absolute beginners can play and instantly start making sentences up to 10 words long. No study, no grammar, no work – they’ll learn how to make thousands of sentences in seconds. It is one of the reasons that people learn faster (and have more fun) with KLOO.

KLOO games are available in French and Spanish. Watch how easy it is to make thousands of sentences in French with KLOO cards:


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The key to learning a language is context

Education Landing Personal

Context helps lock foreign words in the long term memory

I was struck by the recent news of a young man who is fluent in 11 languages. There is a lovely piece on him on the BBC where he does in fact speak in all 11 languages. It is significant that he said only one thing about what makes it easier for him to learn new languages and I wrote it down word for word. He stated:


This is something that I agree with and is in fact supported by research into language learning. It is all the more shocking therefore that this mode of learning is often ignored in favour of vocabulary lists (bottom of the class for performance).

So below I am re-posting a blog I wrote a year ago about this very point. Interestingly when I look back at my blog stats I can see that this post is one of my most popular. Maybe people have a sense of its importance.

Make It Meaningful – The Importance of Meaningfulness and Context in Learning  a Language

Research shows that words and phrases need to be learned in context in order to avoid the dreaded fate of “Systematic Forgetting”. At all costs, therefore,  you should avoid learning from random lists, phrase books, and vocabulary drills. It is a waste of time!

However if you learn words when you need them and then immediately place them in context with known words (i.e. make a sentence) YOU’LL LEARN FAST! By putting words into context you give your new vocabulary meaning. Meaningfulness is a central plank for getting words into your LONG TERM MEMORY.

Meaningful learning means connecting new information with information that is already known. This creates what is called a cognitive structure – in essence the new information is “hooked” in by the known information. And the more hooks there are, the more “anchored” the new information becomes.

Dr Brown says that this theory “provides a strong theoretical basis for the rejection of conditioning models of practice and repetition in language teaching. In a meaningful process like second language learning, mindless repetition, imitation and other rote practices in the language classroom have no place.” He goes on to expand the point: “Too many languages are filled with rote and practice that centres on surface forms. Most cognitive psychologists agree that the frequency of stimuli and the number of times spent practicing a form are not highly important in learning an item. What is important is meaningfulness. It appears that contextualized, appropriate, meaningful communication in the second language seems to be:


So there yo have it. Have a meaningful relationship with words and they’ll love you and stay with you. KLOO is a language game that places new words in sentences to make sense. It is not surprising, therefore, that tests show people learn words 200% faster with KLOO – and often even faster than that.

Dr H. Douglas Brown is a professor of MA-TESOL at San Francisco State University and has written many books, articles and textbooks on language teaching.

Here is a lovely video that makes the same point – with animations!


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Foreign Languages – more than a subject – a Super Subject!


Second Languages – Broccoli of the academic world

257 on Explore 12/05/06

I have been tweeting about languages for about two months…scouring the web for trends and research behind language learning. There is an enormous amount of data out there but when you pull it all together, language emerges as a very special subject. It feeds into your life and delivers a host of unexpected benefits. Such are the benefits, we can call it a super subject – in the same way that some foods like broccoli are super foods. Check out the list of benefits below. Can any other subject do all this? I suspect that Mathematics will push it close…but this list of benefits outside the classroom is hard to beat.

Having a second language improves career prospects

Language students are paid more

Foreign languages will improve a child’s lifestyle

Why languages are essential for a child’s career, lifestyle and even income Great Sunday Express Article about languages and how they impact all areas of a child’s life

Foreign languages brings mental benefits in creativity, memory and critical thinking

Learning a second language “increases listening ability, memory, creativity and critical thinking”

Learning a language helps you multi-task

More performance benefits: Bilingual children switch tasks faster

Learning a Language brings health benefits and fights dementia

Health benefits! Learning another language ‘could protect against dementia’ – Telegraph

Learning a Language gives you a Brain Boost

More than just a language – a brain boost. Research points to benefits

Language is the easiest way to get a holiday upgrade

There is cheap and simple way to get a holiday upgrade.

Learning a language is good for you – very good for you!As good as Broccoli – but maybe more fun!

A language game that makes learning a language fast, easy and fun

Eating Broccoli isn’t much fun (for most people) when its served cold with no seasoning or sauce – and actually the same might be said for learning a language. However adding Broccoli to a Thai Beef curry, for instance, makes it much more exciting and tasty. KLOO Language games do the same for learning French and Spanish MFL languages – they spice up language learning and make it fun. With KLOO you make sentences in French and Spanish to score points. The longer your sentences and the faster you learn words the more you score – and the faster you can power your racing cars in a Race to Paris or Madrid. The games are easy to play, lots of fun and players learn at least 200% faster.

Watch the video below and see how within one minute you can learn how to make thousands of sentences in French and Spanish in under a minute – even if you’re a beginner.

Making sentences in French and Spanish is easy with KLOO


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Does too much ICT silence our foreign language voice?


ICT v human interaction in language learning – humans should be more.

starshipWhen I walk into my daughters classroom it’s like the bridge on the Starship Enterprise. Screens all around, laptops, interactive white board. “Our co-ordinates please, Mr Zulu?”

And language learning has adopted ICT, bringing many marvelous programs to students. Point at this word and you hear the pronunciation. Multiple choice – instantly marked. Spellings corrected – as you write. You can even just ask your computer to translate from virtually any language – to any language.

At home we have some expensive language software and Muzzy and audio CDs. We have the internet of course. There are great little apps you can play with on your smartphone….you can listen to foreign TV and radio too.

And yet … and yet – I think there may be too much. Too much what? Well screens, mice, images, virtual stuff.

Language is the art of communication with another human being. 

Language is communication – being understood by and understanding another human. Call me old fashioned – but we benefit more when we practice language speaking with each other – rather than clicking a mouse or speaking to a computer and watching waves tell us if we pronounce correctly. There is plenty of research to corroborate that interaction with people is the best way to learn a language. What is more, the other person we are interacting doesn’t have to be fluent – just someone willing to learn too.

The Bilingual Edge: what language resources really work?

Linguistics Professors Kendall King and Alison Mackey of Georgetown University state in their excellent book The Bilingual Edge (Collins Living) that for language learning to be effective it:“must be with a real human being, and not a DVD, television program, computer game or talking toy. These edutainment devices, while extremely well marketed and popular, cannot substitute for a real human being and real interaction”

I urge you to read the book – it a revelation and not at all based on conjecture – but on solid research. They say that CDs, DVDs, software programs, educational toys make promises “that end in disappointment – in part because these products and programs are unfortunately not based on what science tells us about how children actually learn languages.”

Of course technology has its place – but I wonder if it should be the back up to human interaction rather than the default. Interestingly, children often adore real language games with human interaction. Our  foreign language game KLOO rewards children for making sentences and learning words. They can race to Paris or Madrid and the longer their sentences and the more French or Spanish words they learn en route – the faster they get there. The reaction of children, reported by teachers, is astounding. They report fast learning, renewed enthusiasm and fun. It seems that the kids want to break away from screens too.

The value of the humble board and card game

Learn French GameClass can’t be all hands on fun and games – but many teachers are reporting that the IT pendulum is jammed to the ICT end of the spectrum and when they bring it back to the middle – mixing ICT with games and human interaction – wonderful things happen.

I have no idea how much can be spent on IT for language learning. Many thousands of pounds I imagine. Our humble card and board game has won 6 major awards including the ToyTalk Best Board and Card Game 2011 and Runners Up as Language Product of the Year (to an on-line computer software program!).

Worth breaking open a pack of cards I think. Hands up if you can make a sentence 7 cards long and win 7 points?

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What’s the best age to learn a language?

Education Landing Personal

When should we learn a second language?

On one level there is a simple answer to this frequently asked question and the answer is – now. That’s because learning a language bestows on the learner so many benefits – mental, social and even career – that it just makes a lot of sense whatever your age. So if you are reading this article and wondering whether it is worth learning a language or whether it is too late for you. The answer is yes – do learn a second language and, no – it’s not too late.

Do children learn a language better?

Many believe that the optimum time to learn a language is as a child – ideally under 7 and certainly before the teenage years. You often hear of parents of saying they have the missed the boat by not introducing a second language to their child at an early age. If we dig a bit deeper though, all is not as it first seems and they should not be despondent.

Children learning a language at home

When we compare child and adult language learning – we are often not comparing like with like. Let’s take a child in a bilingual home…well of course you would expect a child to become bilingual. They have been completely immersed in both languages. However, this language ability is not exclusive to children. Adults can do this too – no problem. So this does not really indicate a special ability on the part of a child….it’s just an environment that is good for language learning – whatever your age.

Families learning a language abroad

Sometimes we see a difference of performance when a family moves abroad. The kids pick up the language like magnets and the parents struggle. But if we dig a little deeper, we see that they are in completely different environments. The children often go to local schools

and are again immersed. The adults on the other hand are often leading a very different lifestyle. They go to classes for sure but otherwise are leading an essentially monolingual life. They can and do speak their first language at home; they mix with expats and friends from their own country; and, at work, if they are English speakers, they discover that everyone switches to English when they walk in a room. So we are comparing a child who is immersed for hours and hours every day with parents who go to lessons twice a week. The difference in performance is entirely predictable.

What if you lift the children out of the local school and put them into an English speaking school: is there then a difference between the language performance between the children and parents? Here I can talk from first hand experience. I was from the age of 6 to 9 brought up in Germany but I went to an English-speaking school. Result? My mother was the best German speaker – she had to do the shopping and made more of an effort. I learned German swear words but not an awful lot more. I can say all my little friends from that school were no better at German. All in all, a picture is emerging as to what actually is important in language learning – and it’s not necessarily age.

The next statement might surprise you (and hopefully inspire you)

You can learn a second language just as well as a child.

This is not wishful thinking – it is well researched and actually self evidently true.

What are the important factors in language learning?

Professors of Language, Kendall King, Ph.D and Alison Mackey, Ph.D in their excellent book – The Bilingual Edge (Collins Living), site that the environment has much more influence over the success (or otherwise) of second language learning than age. Many researchers believe that other factors such as motivation and anxiety levels as well as the amount of exposure have a bigger impact on your success than your age. Children will think nothing of trying another language (if they have to) and won’t mind getting things wrong. Adults will often avoid social interaction for fear of being seen as foolish. When they do this they reduce their exposure and performance naturally drops.

Can adults learn a language just as well as children?

Yes – given the same opportunities and motivation.

If age is not as important as many think, then what are the keys to your success in language learning?

1. Make time

2. Be motivated and not be afraid to make mistakes

3. Seek chances to trial your language with real people

4. Use the right language resources.

The last point is especially important. The same authors talk of the perils of learning with the wrong language resources. Many edutainment devices, DVDs, television programs, computer games and talking toys are, they say, close to useless.

On the other hand, they recommend language games, reading together and interacting with a real person (who does not have to be fluent in the second language).

foreign language game that uses language principles

KLOO is a multi-award winning language game that lets you make sentences and learn words as you play and interact with other learners. Players find they learn a language at least 200% faster and have more fun too! The game was designed around important language learning principles. Why not for instance check out how easy it is to make a sentence in Spanish using KLOO cards in the video below:


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What’s the best way to teach children a language?


How to teach kids a second language?

This is an important question. Numerous studies have shown that command of a foreign language can have a dramatic affect on so many aspects of your child’s life. Perhaps it is obvious that a child with a second language enjoys a different cultural perspective and can expect more enjoyable holidays. But did you know that children with proficiency in a second language can expect to earn more, have more career options, be more creative and even enjoy mental health benefits?  It is easy to see how a second language offers so much more than just another subject to notch up on the cv.

A second language is an asset that stays with you for life.

So the question really is: How best to acquire a second language for my child?

Language Acquisition for Kids

At the risk of sounding trite and stating the obvious – the first rules for language learning for kids is to make it fun. If learning is a miserable experience, you and your child won’t get far.

However, right here we need a big NEON WARNING SIGN because it is at this precise point that many aspiring parents make their first mistake and reach for the nearest and most fun looking resource for kids – without looking under the bonnet and seeing if it actually works. The fact is it is easy to be suckered by slickly marketed bilingual toys and materials that look like fun. They make some carefully worded claims. However if they do not embed proven language principles then they may provide fun – but will fall short of meaningfully teaching a language.

Language Resources for kids to avoid

Fortunately there is in fact a large amount of research on language learning for children to inform us what does and does not work. This unbiased information is often crowded out by all the noise around many slickly marketed products. To help us through the noise, Language Professors Kendall Mackey, Ph. D and Alison Mackey, Ph.D in their excellent book, The Bilingual Edge,  look through all the data and warn of the many resources that simply do not work. They are especially dismissive of:

  • Foreign TV
  • Language DVDs
  • Talking Toys
  • Many software programs

The fact is that that these and many other language products, in their words, make

“many promises that end in disappointment – in part because these products and programs are unfortunately not based on what science tells us about how children actually learn languages”

If these types of language resources are to be avoided, what does work?

Language Resources for kids that do work

Fortunately our language professors are equally clear about what characteristics language resources for children should have. We have already stated one: Fun!  The other key ingredient is Human Interaction. The human does not have to be a teacher or fluent in the second language – just someone who wants to support the learner…a helping parent is perfect.

Equipped with that knowledge we can now look for tools which will incorporate those qualities. Specifically our professors recommend:

  • Real Language Games (as opposed to virtual ones)
  • Reading stories with your child and working on the words together
  • Active Speaking – role playing – as opposed to point and click, repetition, TV or audio.
  • Incorporating language into everyday routines: naming food by their foreign name, singing silly songs together, exchanging pleasantries in the foreign language….
Please see at the end of this blog links to other posts with top tips to learn a language at home.

A foreign language game that ticks the boxes

We have created KLOO, a real world language game that incorporates all of the scientific language principles above. Players make sentences and learn words to score points and power little motor cars in a race to Paris, Madrid or London. It is fast, furious and fun – and learners are usually amazed at how quickly they pick up the language. KLOO has won 6 major awards – more than any other language game ever. In 2011 it won the Toytalk Best Board and Card Game. Many schools have started using the game to enthuse children and make it more fun.

The board game version comes with four decks each focusing on an important aspect of the language: ‘People’, ‘Food & Drink’, ‘Places’ and ‘Everyday Objects’. Currently you can learn French, Spanish or English as a foreign language with KLOO.

Check out how easy it is to learn how to make thousands of sentences with each deck of KLOO cards. Have fun!


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