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An Owl, with vowels: New app teaches Hebrew with games

Gus is an owl who’s on the go, flying around the world while teaching the languages he knows to the children of the world.

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Gus is an owl who's on the go, flying around the world while teaching the languages he knows to the children of the world. This is the premise for an adorable new app, "Gus on the Go," created by Israeli-born programmer Yonatan Mittlefehldt, now of Houston, and Chicago-based marketing expert Alice Zhao. Chicago's own Galit Greenfield, a native Hebrew speaker, provides the voice that pronounces the words in the Hebrew version.

As the children play the app's six intuitive games, they learn some 90 words in the given language. Only the language being taught is used, and native speakers provide the audio pronunciations. Subjects range from concrete concepts like animals, foods, and clothes to more abstract ones, like colors, shapes, and numbers. "We also limited the app to 8-11 words per lesson," Zhao said, "as we had consulted with teachers who informed us that that was the optimal amount of vocabulary words to teach at a time." 

The game features lots of color, sound, movement, and re-enforcement. "We felt that there were plenty of flash-card apps, but none that were complete with interactive lessons, reviews, and games," Zhao said. "We purposefully created an intuitive interface that would not require instruction. This helps give it a feeling of language immersion. We also found that young kids are fearless with the iPad- they dive right in and never ask about the rules!"

The various games levels are presented on a map- of Israel, in the Hebrew version- and learners progress from Tel Aviv to Eilat to Be'ersheva, ultimately arriving in Jerusalem. The harder levels can only be "unlocked" once the easier ones have been sufficiently mastered. The games also grow progressively more challenging as the harder levels integrate the words the children have mastered at the easier ones. There also is a "trophy room" to track progress and skill levels. 

Niqqudot, the "dots and dashes" that indicate vowels sounds in Hebrew, are included, as the app is intended for children. And when it came to choosing the word for "airplane," the current "matos" won out over the dated "aviron." 

The app's creators began with Spanish and English; today, Gus also teaches German, Russian, and five Asian languages. Their next phase includes French and four Indian languages.

"We also wanted to be able to create it for languages that were important to us personally- Hebrew for "Yono" and Cantonese for me- as there were just not as many apps out there in those languages," Zhao said. "Yonatan was born in Be'er Sheva, so without a question, we knew we had to create a Hebrew version of "Gus on the Go." In fact, the other product of their company, too juice, is an app that teaches Hebrew verb conjugation.

The project was an almost inevitable outgrowth of Zhao's life. "Yonatan and I are longtime friends. [We] decided to work together on this project because of our deep and mutual interest in languages and creating the tools necessary to introduce our own children to those languages. I have two young children and Yonatan and his wife are expecting their first child at the end of the year." Zhao said. "He and I both have software backgrounds, but he is our resident software genius, and I am the business development/marketing director. He and I also work on graphics together. Galit is a close friend of mine and she naturally came to mind as we began developing for 'Gus on the Go: Hebrew.'" 

An owl was chosen as the mascot because "we wanted a character to represent international travel and learning… they fly and they're wise!" And Zhao selected its name. "The name Gus is personal to me. It's the nickname I gave my son while I was pregnant with him."

Zhao welcomes feedback. "We would love to see where "Gus on the Go" takes us and would be thrilled to create new levels based on user response. The beauty of the app world is that we can submit updates post-release."

"Gus on the Go: Hebrew" is $4.99 and is available at the App Store, and at It can be played on iPhones, iPads; Windows, and Android versions will arrive in the spring.


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