Behind the Scenes: Creating The Language Blocks You Love
There are over 6,000 languages in the world today. But your Uncle Goose only makes blocks in 27 different languages.
That’s still a lot. These 27 languages reflect the interests and cultures of around 70% of the world population.
Recently, we’ve been getting an outrageous number of emails. Customers are requesting that we add even more languages.
While this isn’t out of the question, we’re not going to add any more language blocks any time soon. We’re flattered for the interest. But creating more language blocks isn’t in the cards for 2022.
There’s a lot more to designing a set of Uncle Goose language blocks than you might think! Let’s unpack a little bit of our design process for creating our language learning blocks.
Back in the 1980’s, Uncle Goose started making Classic ABC Blocks in our native tongue of English. This is the most popular language in the world today. As you might expect, our Classic ABC blocks sell quite well.
Buoyed by this success, we started making blocks in other languages. This is a slow and thoughtful process. We research how we present the letters, numbers, images, and colors.
Over time, we refined each block set in our language portfolio. Our language blocks of today look different that the ones we made 35 years ago.
And 35 years from now, we suspect they’ll look different yet again. We keep an eye on educational research and cultural changes. This inspires new designs, approaches, and packaging.
Each language presents its own set of challenges. It’s a bit of a puzzle. Of course, we need to research and test each language for accuracy and consistency. This means we need to collaborate with translators and educators.
And we also need to make sure the letters and images on each block will support language learning goals. This means we pay attention to concepts like object permanence, cognitive load, and working memory. A sound instructional design can improve learning outcomes for children.
After all, Uncle Goose designs blocks with a child’s learning level in mind. We don't do adult-centered instructional design on blocks meant for children.
We also research the culture of each language we choose to make. Most customers wouldn’t know this, because few customers buy every set of our language blocks.
If they did, they’d notice the filigree we use on each block set differs. That’s because each filigree carries cultural meaning. For example, our German Blocks feature embossed oak boughs & acorn filigree. Our French Blocks sport a fleur-de-lis filigree.
The Dutch Blocks? A tulip filigree. For the Norwegian Blocks, we found a classic knitting pattern for the snowflake filigree. The filigree on the Swedish Blocks is inspired by a pattern on a Swedish plate. You'll see a Portuguese tile pattern on the Portuguese Blocks.
On sets where we didn't use filigrees, we found meaningful patterns for that particular culture. For the Korean Blocks, we designed a hibiscus pattern inspired by shapes we saw on an 18th century temple door. On the Japanese Blocks you'll see a traditional field of chrysanthemums; but they get a modern update with a geometric design.
These are all subtle but significant differences. You might not notice it: but we pay attention to visual design details as well as instructional design details.
We’re also deliberate about our color choices for each block set. The color palette of our Ukranian Blocks is inspired by the traditional mosaics and frescoes of Kiev.
It’s a vastly different palette than our Russian Blocks. This set uses the strong color palette of Moscow architecture.
The Hindi Blocks and Arabic Blocks both feature vibrant colors: while the Swahili Blocks and Māori Blocks use earth tones. We made these choices based on traditional images and patterns we found from each culture.
Also, some languages proved to be far more challenging than others for packaging. Let’s look at Russia, for example. The Russian alphabet has 33 letters. How do we make our packaging work for 33 letters, when our language packaging is set up for 32 blocks?
Our solution was to put two of the Russian letters on one block. Is it ideal? Maybe. Maybe not.
But customers love our Russian block set. If they want an extra letter so they can lay out a complete alphabet, they’re usually happy to supplement their set by purchasing the extra block through our replacement program.
By contrast, our Vietnamese Blocks include an extra N, H, and C. These are the most popular letters in the Vietnamese alphabet. Our 32 block packaging limit gave us the space to provide a few more letters.
And to add more complexity to the block-making puzzle, we have to figure out which languages might sell well. And we need to assess which we want to research and design.
For example, we don’t make blocks in some of the most popular world languages. Bengali, Indonesian, and Urdu are three of the most popular languages in the world today. We don’t feel we can do these language justice with regard to the scope of research and the limits of our packaging.
Conversely, we went out of our way to make some languages that few people speak. For example, we created Cherokee Blocks. These feature the Cherokee syllabary as developed by Cherokee silversmith Sequoyah in 1821.
Is the Cherokee language block set a top seller? No. Not even close.
After all, fewer than 22,000 people speak Cherokee. But researching and producing this set was a meaningful and worthwhile pursuit for us.
And believe it or not, our Cherokee Blocks are routinely more popular than our Danish Blocks and Thai Blocks. Who knew? Far more people speak Danish and Thai, yet there’s more interest in Cherokee Blocks.
Go figure. Just because a language is popular, it doesn't mean that the blocks will sell well. And sometimes, language blocks are popular because the language itself carries cultural and historic importance.
For us, making blocks is a labor of love. We’re a small, 11-person ensemble of creative collaborators. We take time and care to design toys we enjoy making, and that other people like well enough to buy.
We're not going to make more language blocks any time soon! It's an enormous undertaking. We already have a lot going on in 2022.
Remember, your Uncle Goose creates far more than language blocks. Look for other fine design and educational offerings from us in the years to come!