After Years of Searching, Did I Finally Find A Way for My Children to Independently Enjoy Chinese Books?

 

Christine's 9-year-old reading a 15-min long 超级飞侠 (Super Wings) book with Luka while waiting at his younger brother's soccer practice

 

Luka, the picture book reading robot from China, or AI “reading companion”, claims to “read aloud books put in front of him, page by page, in any order”.  Luka claims to read over 30,000 Chinese and 6,000 English picture books (and counting!). 

We tested the Luka user experience for within 2 different types of families (one family with and one family without a native Chinese-speaking parent). 

We wanted to answer the following questions:   

  1. Is Luka a useful tool to increase Chinese exposure to our children?
  2. Is Luka capable of motivating and supporting a child who is learning to read Chinese independently? 
  3. For non-heritage families, we wanted to know whether or not Luka enables children without a native Chinese-speaking parent to naturally interact with Chinese picture books?    

Please watch my video review of Luka below to see both how Luka works magic by captivating our children and what it looks like when Luka makes mistakes. I also encourage you to read this in-depth written review for our more detailed findings about Luka. 

 

One of the biggest challenges for any parent struggling to raise a multilingual child is getting that child enough EXPOSURE to the target or minority language. Parents like me, who are not fluent in the target language (in my case Chinese),  particularly struggle with this issue. Parents who are fluent Chinese speakers are able to read to their children, but as their children start to read longer and longer books, they may struggle to find sufficient time to keep up with their child’s appetite for stories.  Because Chinese is not phonetic, it takes longer for a child to become an independent reader, so, this is especially true.   

I remember a few years ago, when my sons had very limited access to native Chinese speakers, I learned about the concept of a 点读笔 (diǎn dú bǐ, point-to-read pen), I searched high and low for a 点读笔 (diǎn dú bǐ) that could read all children’s picture books I ordered from the Internet, but there was no good option available. Every 点读笔 (diǎn dú bǐ) I found read only limited selection of books published by the same manufacturer.  

Unfortunately, that left me with videos and apps as the primary means of exposure for my kids since they still needed visual cues to help them follow stories and didn’t yet have the patience or comprehension to listen to an audiobook in Chinese. Like many parents of young children, I was ultra-cognizant of the amount of screen time my kids got and what effect it had on them, I felt like I was stuck between a rock and a hard place--wanting to give them Chinese, but not wanting to give them screen time.

The 点读笔 (diǎn dú bǐ, point-to-read pens) I found read only limited selection of books published by the same manufacturer. 

Then, one day last Spring, I was browsing a Chinese online bookstore and came across a product called Luka.  This AI reading “companion” first caught my attention because it was adorable! Unfortunately, I could not find much information about it besides the manufacturer’s marketing materials. There were no customer reviews and I hadn’t seen it mentioned on any of the blogs or Facebook groups I follow. 

Being the skeptic that I am, I figured it was too good to be true. I thought it seemed like the kind of thing that sounds good in theory, but would be so hard for a child to use in practice, that it would end up just being a big waste of money. That said, I was still curious to see one in real life, because, let’s be honest, I wanted to believe!

As Christine and I prepared for our trip to China this summer, I asked her to ask her friends who live there if any of them happened to own a Luka that we could play with while we were there.  Unfortunately, none of them did. Since her peers in China are pretty well-educated and knowledgeable about the best of what’s available for their kids, I took this as a bad sign. Although, on the product page of jd.com (京东, a Chinese e-commerce retailer) , Luka had 14,000+ reviews with 99% 好评度 (hǎo píng dù, positive review level), I had learned to be skeptical of the overly positive reviews on Chinese sites. Christine agreed, “look at how many useless Chinese gadgets I have bought over the years based on internet reviews in China!” 

But, still, I was curious. So, when we got to China, I went to every toy and bookstore in her hometown and asked if they had a Luka that we could play with. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t find one. Another bad sign, I thought. 

Our First Impressions

Then, in the airport on our way back to Sichuan from a trip to Beijing, we saw a sign with a floor to ceiling advertisement with an image of Luka on it. It said that Luka was for sale in a toy store which happened to be right next to our gate!

Luka was for sale in a toy store along with many other AI robots in Beijing Airport

Luka was for sale in a toy store, with a RMB 1299 ($186 ) price tag, along with other AI robots in Beijing Airport

In the store, we asked the sales lady to demonstrate Luka for us. She said that she didn’t have Luka connected to the internet or to her phone, so, the functionality would be limited(it turns out later, internet connection would be a key factor for Luka to recognize books). When we tried using Luka with the sample book, he took a while to start up and then he took more time to recognize the book. Then, he did not realize a couple of random books we picked up off the shelf. I thought my suspicions were confirmed. Luka was a good concept that didn’t work. It would not work for my kids. Too bad, I thought. It had the potential to be great.

Fast forward 4 months...one of Christine’s neighbors in the U.S.  received Luka as a family gift. Christine had loaned some picture books to this neighbor, so, when she went to pick them up, she saw it at her house. Christine asked her how Luka worked and if we could borrow it to test it on our kids. Since this neighbor did not have many Chinese children’s books of her own, she didn’t think that Luka was much use to her or her kids anyway. “ Luka only reads one or two books I have, not much help as a book reader.” The neighbor said, “ I mainly use Luka to remind my son to take a shower so far.” She gladly turned it over.

When Christine brought it over, her kids were still at school, so, she and I started testing it ourselves. We needed to download an App to activate and connect Luka to the wireless network. 

Because my iPhone language was set in English, the Luka App was automatically installed on my phone as a version with the main menu buttons in English.  Although I would prefer if the entire App was available in English, I am used to trying to navigate other kids' Chinese Apps without any English, so I was relieved that I could navigate relatively easily in the Luka App.

The Luka App with the main menu buttons in English 

Activation was no problem. For the limited test we did, despite some minor issues, we were pleasantly surprised that Luka actually worked much better than I had thought.  But we knew that, the real test would be how our kids would respond.      

What really counts….our kids’ impressions

In the first 5 days our kids played with Luka, we were shocked by the results. Our kids absolutely loved it and used it very naturally, with only a few moments of frustration.

After her kids had used Luka for just one weeknight and one weekday morning, Christine wrote me an email with the subject line “Luka is a star”. 

When they returned home from soccer practice in the evening, Christine’s kids were hungry for noodle soup. While her boys washed their hands, Christine put Luka and a few books on the kitchen table before getting started on dinner. Her two boys (age 4 and 8) were  immediately drawn to Luka and started reading with Luka with very little instruction. They read while she cooked, they read while they ate, and kept reading continuously for 1.5 hours before Christine finally made them get ready for bed (and they were one hour late for bed time!). 

The following morning, her 8-year old got on the bus early, but as soon as her 4 year old son got up, he asked: “Where is Luka?”. He read for an additional 40 minutes while eating breakfast. Again, only stopping because Christine made him go to preschool. Christine said that most of the time, it took Luka less than 30 seconds to recognize a book cover (Luka asked the kids to bear with him while he downloaded the book from his “mother planet”, and the kids waited patiently).  Once Luka recognized a book cover, he could read any random page the kids turned to instantly. There were not many moments of frustration. There were two times when Luka stopped reading in the middle of a book. On one of these occasions, Christine heard her 4-year-old son say: “Luka, come on! You read this book before! You know it!”  

Christine's Kids reading a Les P'tites Poules (不一样的卡梅拉)  book with Luka, a 25-min long read! (Unfortunately, it seems all of our boys struggle to keep their hands off their faces :0 !)

One of our biggest concerns was what would happen when Luka couldn’t recognize a book. We thought the experience would frustrate a young kid and Luka would be abandoned.  But, to Christine’s surprise, her boys were understanding and patient when Luka flashed his big yellow eyes and said: “Sorry, I do not know this book yet!” After the kids had played with Luka for a day, Christine called me:

“You got to let your kids try Luka. We are loving it!  What’s really powerful is to see my boys soaked in a physical book with Luka’s help. They are not paying attention to Luka when they read…they are completely in the zone engaging with the physical book as if they were reading it themselves!”      

Even though I was not planning to make the 2 hour round trip to Christine’s house that day, I changed my plans so that I could pick up Luka and test it with my (younger) kids over the weekend to see if it still worked for a 3 year old and a 5 year old.

As I started to prepare dinner, I briefly described to my kids how Luka could help them read books. In seconds, they were engaged. It wasn’t till 1 hour and 8 books later (I’m an inefficient chef), when I told them it was time to eat, that they stopped reading.  After dinner and before bed, for the first time, I was able to actually give them the option of choosing a Chinese book as their bedtime book. (In the past, especially before my 3 year old was able to recognize the difference between Chinese and English books, he would often bring a Chinese book to my husband or me to read. Since neither of us is a fluent reader of Chinese, we have to gently explain that we can’t read that one to him tonight, but that he can ask our au pair to read it to him the following day.)  My 5 year old picked a Chinese book and we sat and listened together (my 3 year old picked a Little Golden book about Superheroes that he is currently obsessed with).  

My 3-year old reading a 第一次发现丛书 (My First Discovery Series) book about  dinosaurs (Although the series is recommended for school age children, he loves some of the books, including the one about dinosaurs!) 

After the boys went to sleep, my husband and I both stayed up working past midnight, so, we were still pretty tired on Saturday morning when the boys got up. From my bed, I told my 5 year old, that he and his brother could use Luka to read some books if he wanted. That bought us 30 more glorious minutes of rest--though not sleep as I could hear what sounded like a third child speaking Chinese from my living room ;). Thus was born one of my few beefs with Luka--there does not seem to be a good way to use headphones with him.    

That said, Luka remained a useful “companion” throughout the rest of the weekend.  Basically anytime that we had downtime, the kids could get out Luka and “read” to their hearts’ content---or until he started sneezing to indicate that he needed to recharge. (The sneezing is also adorable, in case you were wondering) 

When the three year old was napping, the five year old played with Luka. When the five year old was building a fort, the three year old played with Luka by himself (question about younger children answered!). When I was cooking a meal, cleaning, or catching up on email, Luka was able to allow my children to choose their own adventure from our shelf of usually ignored (while Mom and Dad are home) Chinese children’s books. 

Both of my boys sharing a 黑猫警长 ( The Black Cat Police Chief, a classic Chinese original story) with Luka, a substantial story that is 20-mins long!

My kids were very disappointed to see Luka go, but, after such a successful weekend, it won’t be long before we welcome our own Luka into our home. 

So, to recap the questions we mentioned at the beginning of the post:

  1. Is Luka a useful tool to increase Chinese exposure? Yes...in addition to providing exposure by reading Chinese books, he also provides exposure by giving commands and explanations in Chinese. Since my kids' Chinese is better than mine, they know how to operate Luka in Chinese mode better than I do (very relevant language exposure).  And yes...Luka enables a child more reading time when busy parents or Chinese tutors are not able to read with them.    
  2. Is Luka capable of motivating and supporting a child who is learning to read Chinese independently? Yes. Luka offers a word-for-word reading of  almost every book he recognizes. This allows kids to follow along with the audio recording and gradually learn to recognize more characters.
  3. For non-heritage families, we wanted to know whether or not Luka enables children without a native Chinese-speaking parent to naturally interact with Chinese picture books? Yes.

In short, Luka comes as close as possible to answering the prayers of any parent who loves books, limits screen time, and wants to increase their child’s exposure to Mandarin Chinese. No, it’s not perfect. I would love for my kids to be able to use headphones with Luka, for him to be able to read 100% of our Chinese Children’s books, and for the English version of Luka to be a little more educated or consistent. But, as a Chinese learning resource for a non-Chinese speaking parent, and even for a native Chinese speaking parent (with competing demands for their time) like Christine, it is about as good as it gets--especially considering that, since the software is always being updated, Luka is getting smarter and learning to read more Chinese books every day. 

The Nitty Gritty

Ok, so, that was the story portion of the review, but, some of you probably care more about the specifics.

Most important to those of you who already have a sizable library of Chinese Children’s books… 

1. Does Luka really read most Chinese picture books on the market? Yes!   

 Here is the breakdown of the 70 Chinese books that we tested: 

Recognized & read well ( The right version. Word for word, the first time.)

51

73%

Recognized & read as "role play" ( We needed to switch to "original" reading in the App to get the word for word version)

4

6%

Couldn’t Recognize

12*

17%

Misrecognized & read a different version (either English version or a different book in the same series)

3

4%

Total tested

70

100%

 

Luka was able to  read 79% of all the books tested. We thought this was pretty good!  Of those, he read 73% of the books well (i.e. he recognized the book cover within 30 seconds, recognized each page, and read word for word without any assistance). He read 6% of the books in what Luka calls " role play" mode, an interpretation or story-telling mode. We were able to switch to "original" word for word mode in the App. 

*Two of these books (大河马 dà hé mǎ, Big Hippo and 小象散步 xiǎo xiàng sàn bù, Little Elephant Takes a Walk) were actually out of print, but are some of Christine’s kids’ favorites, so, we naturally tried them. If you remove these two, then the percentage that Luka could read goes up to 81%.   

2. What is the audio recording quality for Luka’s Chinese picture books?  Pretty good overall! 

  •       Some versions are not dynamic, certainly not as good as the popular audio story app 凯叔讲故事 (Uncle Kai's Story Time), but, in general, not bad.
  •       Some books have music and sound effects, some don't. 

3. Does Luka do as good of a job reading English books? No!

Luka’s English interface is not great at all. Luka’s English grammar is flawed and the pronunciation of words in some of the English story book recordings is all over the place. For example, in the book Dragons Love Tacos, the narrator pronounces the word “gigantic”as“jī-ˈjan-tik”--certainly not Oxford or standard American English. 

Here is the breakdown of the 16 English books that we tested: 


Recognized & read well (The right version, word for word, the first time)


3


19%

Recognized & read with some incorrect pronunciation

1

6%

Recognized, but read in Chinese instead of English

6

37.5%

Couldn’t recognize

6

37.5%

Total Tested

16

100%

  

Luka does not read many English books and confuses some English books with Chinese books ( i.e. The Story of Babar).

Though this may change, it seems that if there is an English and a Chinese version of the same book, Luka will default to the Chinese version. (In some cases, this may be beneficial for families who have large English libraries but want to increase listening exposure to Chinese. In general, however, we think of this as a negative user experience.) 

Technically, according to the manufacturer, we should be able to switch between the English and Chinese versions of a book inside the App. This was the case most of the time. However, for a couple of books, were were not able to switch between English and Chinese.

When it works, we should be able to switch between the English and Chinese versions of a book inside the App shown above, but for a couple of the books, the App has no switch options.

Additionally, when Luka is in English interface mode, some of the English phrases he uses are a little awkward.   

 4. Are Luka's other functions very useful? Yes and No

In general, we found Luka's other features less intuitive and less useful to our families than his ability to recognize and read Chinese books, we did find a few features we liked, and a couple things we think may be helpful to families with different aged children.   

Record a book yourself

We felt that this was one of Luka’s best “extra features”. For books that Luka does not recognize, he suggests that the child asks mom or dad to record it, so that he or she can listen to it next time. Christine recorded 艾玛认颜色 Elmer's Colors, and found experience a breeze. From Christine: "It was easy, straightforward and quick (5 mins) to record the book, and Luka then read the book right away." 

As I write this, I am kicking myself for not trying to record an English book for my kids or asking my au pair to have recorded one of our Chinese books that Luka didn’t recognize ( we’ll have our own Luka soon though, so, we will be able to do those things and update this post then!).  

For now, we can confidently say that, for native speakers (or anyone with access to native speakers in the form of tutors, grandparents, or au pairs), this is a really handy feature and is very easy to use!   

Interaction 

We were a little frustrated when we found that saying “Luka Luka” or touching Luka's belly-doesn’t work consistently. 

We found Luka understood simple Chinese commands, such as " 讲一个故事 '爷爷一定有办法' (Tell the story Grandpa Must Have a Way)”, but had trouble understanding comparable English commands.

Nevertheless, when prompted, our children enjoyed trying to play with Luka and make him laugh, respond, show his battery life (indicated by the amount of water a cute little duck is swimming in), and put him in slot machine mode by shaking him. To be perfectly honest, I am kind of glad that Luka’s game and interaction features aren’t so developed that they distract my kids from what I see will be his primary purpose in our house---reading Chinese books to them.  

Other Audio 

Pressing the button on Luka's left wing brings up a few other functions, including audio books and songs.

Audio books

The pro of the audio books feature is that:

  • If, like my family, your family’s selection of physical Chinese books is not as big as your selection of English books, you can still expose your child to more stories and language by using the audiobooks.  Additionally, there are some “bridge” books that Luka does not read page-by-page yet, but he does have audiobook versions of. The first example of this that we found was the series 米小圈 (Mǐ Xiǎo Quān).  When we were in China this summer, almost every Chinese grade schooler we spoke with credited 米小圈 (Mǐ Xiǎo Quān) with helping them become fluent readers, so, I bought a set for my 5 year old with the goal that he could begin reading it next summer as he prepares to enter 1st grade. Even though I would prefer if Luka could read 米小圈 (Mǐ Xiǎo Quān) the same way he reads other books, I am at least comforted to know that, my son will be able to listen to them first.  

The cons of the audio books feature: 

  • Luka's audiobook collection is entirely different than the physical book collection that Luka can "look at" and "read." We were disappointed that we won't be able to play the audio companion of the same physical book without the presence of the particular physical book.  Playing the audio version of the same book in the car and on the go would have helped to create the important multi-modal learning environment for a young language learner, as Dr. Lance Knowles defined in his RHR brain-based language learning theory.
  • The audiobook selection we tested seemed to have inconsistent production quality. Sometimes audiobooks were word-for-word readings of the physical books, but other times, they were abridged or interpreted versions. 
  • We had to use the App to navigate and select an audiobook to play. There isn't an intuitive way to select audiobooks directly from Luka without a phone.
  • The audio book section in the app is not easily navigable for anyone, but, is nearly impossible for someone who doesn't read Chinese. We would love if they would add the ability to rank by popularity or filter by age or gender. [ October 2019 Update: The audio book navigation has improved since we published this post! You can now easily filter by age.]

    Songs

    We were not impressed by the song selection or the interface for playing music. When we played songs on Luka, they were simple nursery rhymes. Since both my kids and Christine's kids are used to requesting whatever song they want from Alexa, I don't think that they will have the patience for Luka's "baby music".  That said, if you have a baby or toddler and you want to have Chinese music playing in the background while your child plays or if you want to teach them Chinese nursery rhymes, maybe it would be useful to you.

    Chinese 成语 (Idiom) Games

    According to Christine, these are too complicated for beginner Chinese learners, but, may be a fun party game for a group of heritage or advanced Chinese speakers.  

    Good to Know

    • In the App, you can choose to set Luka to interact verbally in Mandarin Chinese or English. Out of the box, Luka speaks Chinese. The English version of Luka might be more user friendly for a dominantly English speaking family (but our family used the Chinese version since the English version's grammar is a little awkward). 

    • In the App, you can choose for Luka to read the same book in "Luka Original"(word-for-word) or "Role Play" (story-telling with Luka’s own interpretation) mode. Most books are defaulted to read the original version, but some of them could come out as role play. If you notice this, you can switch to "Luka Original" in the app. 
    • In the App, you are suppose to be able to choose for Luka to read the same book in English or Chinese. However, couple of the times we tested it, this function didn’t work. (i.e. even though we were holding an English version of a book, Luka could only read it in Chinese or vice versa)      
    • Luka will probably be much smarter by the time you read this post. Luka is the flagship product of a 3 year old company Ling headquartered in Beijing.  Their founder and CEO, Mr. Jiawei Gu, was an recolonized designer and entrepreneur. The company is growing quickly and spending more resources on global expansion. We found that Luka’s primary strength was his ability to recognize and read Children’s books, and, specifically, Chinese children’s books. Our guess is that that feature was  the primary focus of the developers and it shows. That said, because Luka is an internet enabled device, I’m sure its software is constantly being updated. In addition, as more users buy and provide feedback to Luka, other functions will improve too.  

    As I alluded to before, even though Luka is not perfect, it is the best thing Christine and I have found to solve a problem that we have been struggling with for a while---enabling our children to read more books in Chinese more frequently. Despite it's flaws, we both decided to personally purchase a Luka for each of our homes.

    Because we believe that Luka could make life easier for other families like ours, we have also reached out to Luka's manufacturer to see if we can act as a distributor for them in the U.S. and make it easier for families to buy here. 

    If you have had an experience with Luka or any other similar product that has been helpful for increasing your child's exposure to and excitement about Chinese books, please comment below to let us know about it. (You email address will not be published) We would love to hear from you! 

    October 2019 Updates, a month after the initial review

    Shortly after our 5-day test of Luka, both of our families welcomed Luka to our homes by troubling one of Christine's friend's parents to carry them in their carry-on luggage from China (Luka's batteries prevent you from packing him in checked luggage)!

    Here are our updates: 

    • Our kids still love to read with Luka, although they are not spending as many hours as when they first met Luka, and when Luka was a borrowed friend. Each kid on average is spending 15 to 40 minutes a day with Luka to read 1 to 4 books. Some of our books that Luka reads are quite substantial-- about 25 minutes a book. Our boys actually sit through the whole thing!
    • Our kids are completely used to operating Luka on their own! Christine and I regularly share stories with each other about how great we feel when we see our boys go pick a book and fire Luka up all by themselves. Without our having to say a word, point a finger, or go sit down with them, our kids are reading Chinese books!    
    • Luka reads offline! Although I have not taken our Luka outside our home yet, Christine has started taking her Luka to the car or soccer field with a few of her kids' favorite books which have already downloaded onto Luka's Shelf. To download the audio companion of a book onto Luka, you just need to push the right wing button to let Luka recognize the cover of the physical book. It usually takes less than 30 seconds when he says: "Let me read the book for you." Plus all the books Luka read previously are already downloaded onto the Shelf. From Christine : "The one drawback to bringing Luka on the road was that, its tail, also the on-and-off button, gets easily pushed in the bag and turns Luka on and off randomly. You might all of a sudden hear Luka talking inside your bag!" 

    Luka can read offline any books already on the App's shelf.

    • Luka needs a sizable simplified Chinese library to use its star power.  Yes, you need books for your house. The more you have, the better chance that your kids will find books your child genuinely likes and will read without parents' prompting! Also, Luka doesn't read a lot of traditional Chinese books yet, although, we've learned that Luka's manufacturer Ling Technology has begun collaborating with publishers from Taiwan and Hong Kong for Luka to read  traditional Chinese books the future. 
    • We have since worked out a partnership with Ling Technology to distribute Luka in the U.S.! Since our families had such positive experiences with Luka, we worked out the details and necessary support with Ling Technology, including language packages, warranty, repair and security so that our readers and customers can conveniently welcome Luka to your homes as well!  Order Luka here.   
    • We have also since found a number of bestselling Chinese books sets that Luka reads, and that our kids love, to help any family start building their own Luka-friendly Chinese library. Even if you decide not to buy Luka, we dare you to check to see if there isn't a set you know your child would love.
    • We have upgraded our JoJo Subscription Box to work with Luka. The new generation of JoJo Monthly Subscription Box includes 2 world-class picture books, thoughtfully curated around a theme. These boxes helping children continue to build up the excitement for reading while creating a collection of the most-coveted Chinese children's books available. Audio companion of each book will still be available through a separate free App for those who decide not to get Luka. 

    We are eager to hear from you about whether you will find the Luka solution as compelling and helpful as we do!

    Raising kids who speak Chinese in a predominately English-speaking country can feel daunting and lonely. If you enjoyed this post or found anything about it helpful, please share the learning with others by liking, commenting, or posting to your social media feeds using the buttons below. 

    Thanks for reading!

    Happy learning,

    Caelyn

     

    Since I wrote this review, Betty Choi of CHALK Academy has also written a great review of Luka titled Luka Reading Robot is a Game Changer for Bilingual Chinese-English Speaking Families. In her review, Betty covers a few interactions with Luka that I did not cover here. If you are not yet familiar with CHALK Academy, and you are raising bilingual children, you should definitely check it out!

     

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