Print Story Ubisoft vs. Language
By dark nowhere (Sat Nov 01, 2008 at 07:15:06 PM EST) (all tags)
Ubisoft has rescued its income lately by making a lot of casual games. Most of it is utter shovelware, but I like to think that the language learning titles are supposed to be something more.

The language titles for the DS are all named My $language Coach. I've tried a few of these: Spanish, Japanese and French. I am fine with French, can understand a bit of Spanish and I don't really know much at all of Japanese.

Each these titles will start off by introducing vocabulary and some grammatical concepts, but nothing in the way of sentence forming. After stacking on more and more vocabulary and grammatical concepts, eventually they get you into forming richer phrases and full sentences.

I'm getting the most out of the Japanese title, but it's mostly because I have almost no vocabulary or grammar down. It tries to teach writing kana, but while it has the means to test for it, it doesn't impart it in a way that I can pick up on. I haven't gotten to learn much grammar but it seems to be imparted gradually enough that  it should stick when I do start learning it.

The Spanish title held my attention for a while, but since the grammar is already somewhat familiar to me simply building vocabulary is really boring. If I could have started off at a higher level, I probably would have more interest in it but I've put it down now. The problem with the starting level is that it's based entirely on vocabulary, ascertained by a quick test when you first create your profile. Admittedly, it's pretty good for what it is--it doesn't waste much time and it doesn't feel difficult--two consecutive wrong answers quits the test.

I know French fairly well, and I'm way beyond the maximum starting level--level 11--where you'll still be learning simple sentences. This is frustrating because it means I have to go through the motions of the game for quite a while before it's any help at all--I was kind of hoping to use it to refamiliarize myself with the language since I haven't been speaking it lately... and I've just moved to Quebec recently.

These games seem to be best suited to people who have little or no understanding of the language. In that regard, they're designed fairly well as an introductory tool. The pace is slow enough that you don't get overwhelmed, but for this very reason it gets boring for people with intermediate or better understanding.

The learning in the games is done by a combination of short lessons and minigames. Some of these minigames are nearly useless (one is literally whack-a-mole with words) but most of them do help.  You can choose the kind of game you'd like to play, and they all count toward word mastery.

Unfortunately vocabulary is the sole currency of the game. Your level is based on it entirely. The rest of the language is imparted by the relationship of the vocabulary to the grammar--which actually works, but there seems to be some kind of sacrifice there.

These games have their niche. I would certainly recommend them to anyone about to learn a language, and if nothing else, they serve as a limited kind of dictionary and phrasebook with voice content--which, by the way, is excellent for auditory learners like myself. However, anyone learning from these games will certainly want to gather additional materials--more so than with most other learning methods. I've noticed quite a few things that were not completely described in Japanese and French games that a proper understanding of the language should really have.

That said, they seem to be an excellent beginning. A real hurdle for learning a language is the vocabulary vs. grammar issue, and these games give you a way to learn and apply the vocabulary without having to understand the grammar. That makes learning the grammar so much easier. (Strangely, I found that I learned the Japanese vocabulary much quicker than the Spanish.)

Overall, I think Ubisoft did a fairly good job of things. They've successfully provided a virtuous learning service of a sort. My major criticism comes from the fact that they don't quite go far enough with the games--they've got a course planned out, and that's it. These games would be so much better if they were also adapted for people starting with better understanding, had modes that would focus on learning new grammar without having a certain vocabulary level and generally were more general. The testing could be far more robust--in fact, there should be a rich testing mode wholly independent of the rest of the game.

As it is, they do border on shovelware, and the association with My Health Coach and My Fitness Coach technically lands them in that category. My Pony Mandarin Mermaid Coach Princess.

Beyond playing games.

The primary issue in learning a language, to me, is the nearly intractable problem of learning grammar and learning vocabulary. Learning both at once is overwhelming, learning grammar without having vocabulary is nearly impossible and learning vocabulary without having grammar is boring and therefor difficult and slow-going. The Language Coach series at least gives you vocabulary fairly quickly, and with a minimum of tedium. The biggest drawback is that there's so much vocabulary to learn that it gets boring after a while.

The grammar is really the heart of a language, and only a little of the peculiarities are evident in the vocabulary. Japanese, for example, has verb tenses that seem like they're taking on the roles of adjectives. Learning stuff like that also needs to be taken with care. It also has to be learned thoroughly. A friend of the family had taught English to various foreigners (he was a bit of a traveler) and he was on a Japanese student's (learning English) case for putting her verbs at the end. He criticized her by saying she was translating, which is the wrong way to speak a language. It's true, you'll never speak properly (even if you get your word order correct) if you're translating the whole time. But it still has to be reconciled with the way you think. The point is to translate the skill not its product.

In the future we'll somebow learn languages in our sleep, I'm sure. The subconscious picks up a lot of language, as I've noticed. When playing the various games, I'd sometimes be pointing the stylus at (correct) answers automatically before I could consciously summon the answers. That's good in a way, but sometimes it was while thinking, I can't answer this. That's an important aspect of learning language--it's not a conscious thing, until the language moves over from recorded knowledge to a skill, you never really know the language.

But it's more than just getting all that info into the subconscious memory. Memory is a fairly complex thing, and a lot depends on access. When there's not enough access, recall simply fails. When there's too much, confusion results and getting the right thing out is virtually impossible. It seems to me that learning a language involves not only learning but also creating the proper access structures, so that the right information is accessible in the proper contexts.

Of course, I take a lot of this from the story of the Czech student who woke up speaking English fluently after a traffic accident. As the shock and amnesia wore off, he lost his ability to speak English any better than he had before.

My interest in these games is partly because I have an interest in learning new languages, but mostly because I have an interest in language itself... not an analytical Chomskian interest, but an interest in language as a skill and its evolution through use and the overall sociology of it, for lack of a better term. Learning a new language is one of the few ways to experience the properties of language firsthand--the more foreign the language the better.

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Ubisoft vs. Language | 4 comments (4 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
Hmmm by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #1 Sun Nov 02, 2008 at 05:27:35 AM EST
I may have to pick the Japanese one up.  I've ben using Japanese the Manga Way, and it's strength is grammar, but it has no drill and little vocabulary.
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
gah by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #2 Sun Nov 02, 2008 at 05:33:36 AM EST
But apparently my strength is not English apostrophe rules.
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
[ Parent ]
Meh by HappyDude (4.00 / 1) #3 Sun Nov 02, 2008 at 08:03:56 PM EST
I've been working my way through the Chinese one.

I'm an intermediate student, so it's been pretty tedious working my way up to lessons that actually teach me something. So far I'm not terribly impressed. I think the dictionary and phrasebook are nice features. I'm seriously disappointed with the bulk of the learning games. One of them requires typing Chinese pinyin (romanization) with tone marks and a time limit. Not fun. The character tracing/writing game is quite good though, and I assume it's of equal quality for the Japanese version.

The writing by dark nowhere (2.00 / 0) #4 Sun Nov 02, 2008 at 09:22:45 PM EST
is pretty good. A simple change would make it quite a bit more effective. As it is now, it doesn't speak the name of the character until after you write it. I prefer to hear it first so I'll know what it is I'm writing when it's most novel.

What bugs me is that some of the verb conjugations are presented extremely briefly. That would be okay if proper testing followed, but I can't remember how which verbs conjugate, or even what sets the boundaries. I remember it being hard enough to learn various conjugations for French when I was in the classroom. They really need to pay attention to how they present it with all the disadvantages they've got in the software. (The I hope you understood that at the end of a shallow introduction really wasn't a welcome comment to me.)

Chill out, snowflake.

[ Parent ]
Ubisoft vs. Language | 4 comments (4 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback