The Italian "Speak and Spell": learning through anxiety

The Italian "Speak and Spell": learning through anxiety

I remember lying down on the floor of my parents’ home playing with toys in the 1980s when the electronic device “Grillo Parlante” (Talking Cricket), the Italian version of Texas Instruments’ “Speak and Spell,” started to appear in Italian homes. The Grillo Parlante was a strict instructor that, by establishing an authoritarian relationship with the user, reinforced patriarchal societal roles and expectations. Growing up in Italy, with an authoritarian father, I was taught that authority should be feared and respected. Looking back now, I can see clearly how this educational toy, that was supposed to teach children how to spell correctly, had in fact a much more troublesome job. Its mission — to buttress, assert and spread a patriarchal dogma of respect for a male authority — was whitewashed by its marketing and packaging.

In a TV commercial, a young boy plays on the fluffy white carpet of an Italian middle-class living room. He is holding the rectangular red toy with a big handle on the top, a vacuum fluorescent display, and a membrane keyboard. Following the prompt of a metallic voice, the boy carefully inputs, letter by letter, the word “aqua” (“water,” misspelled) and presses enter. The metallic voice responds that the spelling is not correct and encourages the boy to try again. After a moment of hesitation, the young actor correctly types out the spelling and celebrates with a wide-open smile and performs the stereotypical Italian gesture of victory — arms bent inward, his hands closed in a fist. The TV commercial closes with a male voiceover that praises the toy: “The Talking Cricket, an electronic voice for many intelligent games.”

Lying on my parent’s carpet, I don’t remember ever celebrating a victory. Not because I was not able to spell, but because the tone of my interaction with the toy was never lighthearted or rewarding. Before coming across the original version of “Speak and Spell,” it never occurred to me that the “Grillo Parlante” was, in fact, the authoritarian version of its much more friendly American cousin. Unlike the original toy, the Italian version featured the happy caricature of a cricket with a bow tie. This joyful creature emphasizes the contrast between the marketing and packaging of the object and the interaction that the machine itself creates. There is a discrepancy between the kind of discourse that is carried out by the television commercial — a domestic middle-class setting, learning as an act of victory, the colorful case featuring the happy caricature of a cricket — and the one carried out by the microcontroller and its synthesized voice. Memories of anxious interactions with the object haunt me and many other Italians still today, as the Talking Cricket proved to be impatient, rude, and passive-aggressive.

The American toy simply states that the spelling is “wrong” and encourages the user to try again, whereas the Italian version provides a more complex answer. First, it states that it has not received the answer, implying that a wrongly spelled word doesn’t even reach its “brain.” The machine is not even going to see the word if it is badly spelled. This is actually one of the technical limitations of the toy, which could not actually correct the spelling but only identify when the given word was misspelled. Then, as with the American version, it prompts the user to try again but with an important difference; Grillo Parlante demands that, before submitting, the user checks the spelling. This detail, although it might seem innocuous, places the machine closer in tone to a father figure than a microcontroller. Given that it is the job of the machine to check the spelling it seems odd that the machine demands the user to check before submitting. This kind of response seems to mimic an authoritarian figure to which, out of reverential fear, one would spare showing something that is not perfect and properly spelled.  

If the word is misspelled a second time, the difference between the American and Italian versions is even more apparent. While the American toy simply states that the word is not correctly spelled and offers the correct spelling, the Italian version reiterates that the word was not received by the machine. Interestingly, Grillo Parlante  makes a strange and striking remark by stating “I had asked” for the correct spelling. Now, this is a remarkable departure from the original toy; the Grillo Parlante expresses a subjectivity and a will that are absent from the American toy. This subjective statement implies that there was an expectation behind the request to spell that word, framing the machine as a sentient being. The phrase “I had asked” implies that there was a request, the request was not honored and that someone failed the expectation. Just like an authoritarian father figure would be disappointed, the Italian version of “Speak and Spell” expresses disdain and with an assertive voice makes that disappointment clear.

In the wider cultural frame of Catholic and patriarchal Italy, playing with this toy - and being scolded by it - reiterates the same oppressive structures of Italian culture. In this context, learning becomes a tool for the indoctrination of gender and power relations - it is not surprising that every advertisement of the toy features only boys. The “Grillo Parlante,” in its production of a mode of learning that generates self-doubt and undermines confidence, is just another instance of the education politics that still permeate a country where, it is believed, only if one is rational and able to reject their emotions, they can succeed. Individuals who want to learn and succeed but can’t give up their emotions, nor want to, finds themselves with only one option: learning through anxiety.

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