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"Appuyer sur la touché START" [part 1]

Can games be used to help teach something meaningful, like learning a new language? Can we still make them as exciting, entertaining, and marketable as AAA games? As a game designer and someone trying to learn French, I wanted to find out first hand.

It's something of a journalistic cliché (or faux pas) to use inappropriate/broken/wrong French words and phrases while writing an article on languages, so from this point on, I'm going to try my best to refrain from that. :)

Recently, I've been really getting into French cinema and music; and as some of my friends are from France (their English is excellent) it occurred to me that perhaps I should seriously try to learn the language.  In fact, when I was at university, one of my lecturers, Jim TerKeurst, suggested we do just that (learn either French or Japanese), and I'm now kicking myself for not taking up the offer.

So, for the last year or so,  I’ve been trying to learn French on my own.  Now, I wasn’t especially good at French in school, but I figured that I’m old enough and ugly enough to get my head around this time -- nasal vowels n' all.

The problem is that I can’t afford lessons right now, so what have I been using instead?

  • French Dictionary – a relic from high school (barely used, of course).  The one I have (published by Collins) has a fantastic grammar section, which is arguably more useful than the dictionary part.  Essential.
  • Music – I’m trying to translate the lyrics to improve my vocabulary and written comprehension.  Because it’s audio,  I’m starting to pick up on the pronunciation of words.  Pop music works surprisingly well, I guess because the choruses are so damn catchy.
  • Films/TV – same as music: to improve listening and comprehension.  It's easy to fall back on subtitles, but every now and then I pick up on what they're actually saying, which sometimes varies considerably from what the subtitles translate.
  • Literature -- Well okay, I'm not talking about Victor Hugo here, but Hergé.  I grew up with Tintin, and the idea of re-reading the books in their original language is very appealing.
  • French Steps / BBC languages pageThis is a terrific resource from the BBC (barely justifying my tv license), with plenty of online material to go through, and several structured courses at various levels.
  • BBC Bitesize and Open University programmes – during exam season, the BBC shows various language programmes for school and university.  Handy.
  • French Pod Class -- This is what I started with, and they're fantastic – Sebastian has made almost one hundred episodes (usually between 20-40 minutes), and each one comes with a detailed review sheet and exercises.  Episodes are typically divided into 2-3 easily digestible chunks, covering phrases, vocabulary, and grammar, often linked by a common theme (travelling, shopping, pets, etc).  Best of all, he breaks these sections up with brief introductions to  French culture, including popular films, music, and literature.
  • -- I've only just found this site, but it looks really useful.  The site presents you with Youtube videos (such as cartoons and adverts) in the language you're studying, and provides an on-the-fly translation via subtitles.  The best part is that you can pause the video and look up specific words and phrases with an in-built dictionary.  It's also got various other tools to help you, but I've not had time to try them out yet.  It's a great idea -- I really hope  it takes off.
  • Le hall de la chanson – Not really a languages site, but this is a terrific online museum dedicated to French musicians, singers, and songwriters.  The site is massive, and has tons of content to explore.
  • Radio FR Solo – An excellent little application that lets you listen to several hundred French radio stations.  I don’t know how effective learning by osmosis really is, but it can’t hurt, right?
  • Video games – Ah ha.  You can probably guess where this article is going, but I’ll expand on this in a minute.  To begin with Ubisoft have released an excellent series of language games for the DS, including My French Coach (they also have Spanish, Japanese, and several other titles).

Now I fully admit that none of these are an ideal substitute to actual lessons. In fact, as I understand it, by far the most effective way to learn a new language is to actually move to the country in question and force yourself to learn it.  Nothing speeds up the learning process as effectively as when your day-to-day survival depends on it.  However, as appealing as it might sound to hitch-hike across the channel and busk in the Latin Quarter of Paris, I can't see it working out for me.  So for now, I’ve had to make do with what I’ve got.

After one year of on and off studying, I’d say my comprehension of written and spoken French is improving steadily, but I’ve probably not had enough time/discipline to practise spoken and written French yet (this is where a course would help).  As an example, I'm perfectly happy to order something from now, but ironically, very uncomfortable when it comes to actually writing seller feedback.

However, what I’ve come to like about learning a new language is that it's inherently rewarding.  I'm not talking about the ego factor here -- we all know someone who likes to show off because they know a few phrases (I would hate to turn into Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses -- si danke schon, bonjour anyone?).  What I mean is that not only does it unlock doors to new cultures and people, but it’s incredibly challenging -- and very satisfying when you finally make some progress.

As a game designer, I find this intriguing.  In game terms, translating the lyrics of a song, or a piece of literature, for example, can feel like code breaking or solving a riddle/puzzle: – at the start you have only the corner pieces to grab on to (i.e. basic vocabulary & grammar), but little by little you begin to piece together the meaning (by looking words up), until you get the complete picture.  As your ability improves and you build upon what you've already learnt, the process becomes faster and you can then go back and discover subtle nuances in the text, which may lead to a greater understanding (like discovering hidden secrets in a game).  Mastery occurs when the process becomes automatic, and you don't have to stop and 'think' about what's being said anymore.

In essence, what I’m getting at is that learning a new language can be played and enjoyed like a game.  The structure is in many ways similar -- you start as a beginner, learn the basic rules of the game, which you then practise and are eventually tested on.  As you progress, you refine those skills and develop complementary ones, until you achieve mastery of the game.  (Or you hit a bump in the road, get frustrated, and eventually give up).  They're similar because this is the basic pattern of skill-based learning -- it could just as easily be applied to a subject like maths or physics.

For me though, this is a further illustration of what Raph Koster discusses in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design – that learning is synonymous with fun.  I don’t want to get bogged down with the discussion about what’s fun for me (learning a new language) isn’t the same as what’s fun for you (carving people up with chainsaw in Gears of War); Raph Koster covers that pretty extensively, if I remember correctly, so it’s probably best that you just read his book if you haven't already.  What I think is important here, is that the challenges or obstacles aren’t obscure puzzles, logical exercises, or tests of dexterity/reflexes; but are actually teaching you something practical and usefulthat can be used outside of the game.

The psychology behind learning is something that fascinates me, as our capacity to learn, adapt, and pass that information on to a new generation is one of the main things that separates us from other creatures that inhabit the world.  So as a result, I’m very much interested to explore how video games can be used as a practical teaching aid – for real world/life skills, and not just rocket jumping or wave-dashing.  As I understand it, active learning (i.e. practising tasks, doing exercises, understanding the material, etc, not just reading about them and memorising by rote) is by far the most effective method of learning, and this is why video games have so much potential.  Their mere structure has conditioned gamers to intuitively accept a routine of instruction, practise, testing, and progression.  So the real problem then, is how you present it in the context of the game.

Part two will look at how video games currently incorporate foreign languages into them -- both real and fictional.  I'm also going to briefly look at one or two 'edutainment' titles, like UbiSoft's excellent My Coach series and Sony's not so excellent TalkMan.  For the final part, I hope to take some of the ideas I've discussed, and, using Bethesda Softworks' Morrowind, see how they work in practise.  A bit of empirical research, if you will.


© 2009 Jonathan Hallier.  All rights reserved.  First published on

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