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Parlez-vous games?

Language learning in games

James Simpson
Jul 19, 2013 · 4 min read

Learning a language is one of the hardest things I have ever done. The amount of time and effort it takes to pick up Japanese has left me able to converse but lacking motivation to keep studying now I have hit that plateau of intelligibility.

I recently found myself asking: why aren’t games developers taking greater advantage of this by making games specifically designed for language learners?

The answer? Some are.

Death By Flashcards

I should qualify what I mean by “games”, because by some definitions there are thousands of language learning games around. I have iOS games that test my vocabulary knowledge in various forms, some of which conform to puzzle game dynamics. Examples of these (for Japanese learners) are Kanji Solitaire, KanjiPop, and apps like Cerego’s iKnow Japanese Core series. These are not fun for me by any definition of the word: they teach and reinforce vocabulary interactively, but I still get the distinct impression I am not enjoying myself when I use them.

So, I don’t want a flashcard-based game or one based on simply getting you to read texts, instead I am talking about a game with a story, a setting, characters, and interaction taking place in our target language. A game like…

Japanese-English:Summer Story

Square Enix’s Summer Story (2011) for iOS platforms attempted to mix language learning and visual novels.

Square Enix certainly wins my support for trying to pull off a game that can help Japanese people learn English. Using texts from NHK’s English team, they put together a story of female exchange students coming to Japan and you — their host — have to look after them. You can both listen to the native English speakers and speak to them through speech recognition software.

Summer Story features Japanese subtitles for you to follow along with.

While I haven’t played the game, it is exactly the sort of set-up that I want to see for learners of Japanese. The emphasis on colloquial language among peers in the context of an everyday plot means you can get good practice for your vocabulary, pronunciation, sentence-building and listening comprehension.

Make Out with Japanese has an… interesting cast of characters

The closest thing we have for Japanese learners is this: Make Out with Japanese. The game itself is a pretty good analogue with the premise behind Summer Story — learning colloquial language through listening, reading and speaking. It’s fun to talk into your phone and elicit a reaction from the characters based on your speech, but it’s shallow and hollow at the core, not to mention that it is undoubtedly less appealing to female learners.

English-French: Immersia

Learn French with adventure browser-based game Immersia

Immersia popped onto my radar yesterday. It seems that in 5 days time, this web-based point-and-click adventure game for learning French will release as a demo with a game to follow a month later.

Communication with the NPCs is handled by speech recognition and gets progressively more difficult as you proceed, using cognates to ease you in. The full game will apparently be the equivalent of a textbook course.

The idea is great. The additional story elements will hopefully help draw students in, and it seems (at least for the moment) that there will be fewer subtitles for you to rely on.

As the name suggests, this game looks to be designed around immersing the player in their target language. I really hope to see this picking up in the future.

The Future

Developers with language-learning experience could find a small but eager market for games that place gamers in a sink-or-swim situation from the safety of their own desk or sofa. Particularly games that encourage language production rather than vocabulary building.

Language offers such a rich palette to play with. Imagine adventure games where the notes you pick up are written in your target language or RPGs with characters with poor foreign language skills who you are encouraged to help by picking up their language. At the moment we have the technology, we are just waiting for people with the creativity, resources and willingness to make such games. I don’t know about you, but I relish the idea, but I know it would take a lot of time and energy.

For the time being I would equally be happy with visual novel-style games like Summer Story being made for English speakers which might put fun back into language study.

    James Simpson

    Written by

    Ruby on Rails dev. Former contributor to War is Boring & Jane's Defence Weekly. Gamer. Kawasaki resident.

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    A collection of reviews and features on video games by regular gamers juggling regular lives. (Image by @naosukeii)

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