Earlier this month, Brian Powers posted an article about computer games that can help you with language learning (see “5 of the Best PC Games for Language Learning“. Most of the games he listed were regular games in which you could incorporate some learning aspects, like changing the language settings.
The last one he listed, however, was an actual game designed to help you learn vocabulary. Its name is “Influent” (see “Review of Influent: A Language Learning Game for PC), and it was created by Three Flip Studios with the help of a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money.
Kickstarter is a crowdfunding website which essentially allows people to accept money from people all over the world to create something. Projects are posted with descriptions, a financial goal, and a variety of rewards for people who donate certain amounts. It allows for the project owners to get the money they need while allowing others to feel they are part of something greater and getting something in return.
I occasionally look at Kickstarter to see what new projects for language learning people are trying to raise money for. After hearing about Influent, I thought I would share some of the active and completed proposals with you, as well as my thoughts on the projects.
The first project is Openwords, a promising app that uses “open data”, such as Wiktionary, to create courses for thousands of languages and be available for free on mobile devices.
There are two major factors the creators emphasize. First, they want materials available for the “underserved” languages of the world, noting that the top eight languages leave out half the world’s population. Without resources, people cannot learn those lesser studied languages. Openwords plans to provide a learning platform for all the world’s languages, large and small.
The other idea is to use completely open data. Not only will the app be free, but the database of words created for it will also be available online. They claim to have already collected data for over 1000 languages.
The language training comes in the form of basic flashcards, typing, multiple choice quizzes, phrase building, and audio. As far as I can tell, there are no actual lessons or grammar instructions planned.
For educators, there is an extra component. A “Teacher’s Module” could be a subscription based service which would allow a teacher to view their students’ progress.
This is a currently active campaign, with a goal of raising $10,000. As of this writing, they have been pledged only $4,500, with just 46 hours left.
My thoughts: Openwords sounds very ambitious, and creating a huge, open source database of vocabulary and phrases for over a thousand languages would certainly be useful. However, I am sceptical of a few things.
First, I believe anything that promises to teach people a language needs some kind of grammar aspect. Teaching people words is a major part of the process, but how those words interact and come together for communication is at least as important. It’s like having all the ingredients for a cake but not knowing how to combine them. From what I can see of the product, there is very little of that.
Second, there is a constant emphasizing about how good this project is because it is using “open data”. That, in itself, does not make any product better. One of the questions the creators ask, on the part of the possible backer, is “Why would a startup be able to help many languages when companies with big budgets or large investment cannot?”.
The answer they give to this is rather vague. It emphasises again that it is using open data and can mine data from pre-existing public data. It goes on to say that “Other companies would need to build this content themselves, but Openwords uses open data that already exists.”
This is misleading. Open data is open for everyone. A company can just as easily get the same data from the same sources, and there is nothing to say they don’t already do this. The single words of a language cannot be copyrighted, only the way they are presented (software, dictionaries, etc.). The open data sources they are taking from are only available because of this fact.
Lastly, the lesser studied and known languages also provide far less data, open or otherwise, for them to collect. You will be able to find far more words for French (for which Wiktionary has over 1 million) than you will for Basa Sunda (Wiktionary lists as having over 100 words for it). The only way to increase that number is to have native speakers contribute, creating new content, which is the same reason they gave for the big companies as failing – they have to create their own content.
Owner: Marc Bogonovich
Video gamers are going to love this one! Subverses Covert is an exploratory video game, using the backdrop of corporate espionage, to help a user learn a new language. It mixes the game elements with language acquisition by having the player interact with characters in the game and solving puzzles to advance.
The creators emphasize the requirement for immersion and situational context, both of which are easily done in a video game, and they have broken down the language components to form them into puzzles. Once a person completes a certain quest or task, they can be given a harder one, so they are advancing while playing.
This kind of game setup is the Holy Grail for many educators because it truly turns the learning process into a literal game. Why we don’t see more of these kinds of systems already available is because they require a very powerful gaming platform to begin with, something most people that are attempting to teach a language do not have the skills to build themselves.
The Subverses team succeeds in this because they have a mix of both experienced game designers and language educators working together. They seem to have found the right balance to make such a game work.
Their plan for getting it to users is that, once completed, people will be able to try the game by playing the first three levels for any of the languages, free of charge. After that, a user can subscribe to gain access to all available languages and their levels. It will be available for desktop, mobile, and tablet devices.
This is a completed campaign, with an original goal of $20,000 which they reached and passed by a small amount. The money goes towards paying the game developers and the language experts, most of which are in contract positions.
My thoughts: Brilliant! I like the idea and look of the game, and the learning components seem to be more advanced than flashcards. The “people” the player communicates are using the new language, so it is much more of an immersion environment. It is impossible to tell from the small amount of video whether there is an audio component as well, and I doubt there will be much actually teaching of grammar in a formal way, but that is built in with the contextual element.
I hope this is released in some form soon. According to their last update, they plan to start beta testing this month. You can sign up with them if you wish to be one of the testers.
While so many new language learning projects are aimed at computers and mobile apps, it is good to know that some people still like to work in the more mundane field of paper and pencils.
The Magicians project is actually something of a hybrid between the two. The concept of the game comes from two sources. The creator, Kyle Simons, first developed it after reading the fantasy novel “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman, in which a person’s grief and unhappiness are a source of power. He liked the idea and developed it into a roll playing game (RPG) in which players create characters and explore a world.
As the name suggests, the players can perform magic by casting spells. However, unlike with normal RPGs, in which dice are rolled to see the outcome, Kyle decided to make it more realistic by adding in the second part of his inspiration – having the person use a foreign language. How well they can pronounce their spell establishes how well it works.
For this, he uses a dictation app. He enters the spell he would like to cast, then has to record himself saying it. The app then shows if he was correct or not.
The initial version of the game is based around Korean, and while it is set in modern-day Seoul, it adds Korean folklore, superstition, and mythology into the mix to create a unique fantasy setting.
Some work has also been going into developing other versions of the game in other languages, like Japanese.
The original Kickstarter campaign was for $3,000, yet it received over $34,000 in pledges! That is something phenomenal in the world of crowdfunding, and shows how popular this idea is with people.
Part of the success can be attributed to how much has gone into the project and the rewards. A 180 page hardcover book, complete with specially commissioned artwork, has been created, and that is one of the rewards. Further rewards for donating include special t-shirts, beads, coins, and pouches. You can tell the team has really put in a lot of effort not just in the game but into the campaign as well.
My thoughts: As an avid RPG player when I was a teen, I think this is a great idea and I love the integration of a language. RPGs are already immersive environments, allowing players to do pretty much anything they want within the confines of the gaming universe.
I would like to see more of the actual creation of spells, however. There is not enough of an explanation of how a person can create their own spells when they do not speak a language.
If you are interested in this, the product has actually been produced and is available for sale here: http://samjoko.storenvy.com/products/12000681-magicians-print-pdf-combo.
Owner: Kyle Simons
Website: none that I could find
This next project is a language training app, which uses artificial characters to engage the user in conversations.
The two characters are a female, Zia, and a male, Zio. They appear on the screen in different situations and say to match. The learner can then respond back properly in the language and see if the answer is correct. As you complete more of the conversations and scenarios, you can advance in the adventure.
Players also earn points as they progress which can then grant them access to specialized topic areas. Essentially, you are using your phone to “travel” around the world, with Zia and Zio acting as your assistants.
This Kickstarter campaign was started just last month and has a goal of $148,868. As of this writing, it has just 2 backers, giving it under $30 with 18 days left.
Unlike the highly successful campaign for The Magicians, this project has little actual information beyond a cute animated video and a description with some (possible) screenshots. The rewards are not listed on the side where they normally would go, leaving someone with the idea that there are no rewards. They are listed below as a graphic, and consist of an email certificate, posting on a “Hall of Fame”, free points, and days using the app without ads.
There is also no real justification for such a high cost of production. If the people with Subverses Covert can create a full video game system for just $20K, what are the Zia & Zio planners going to do with seven times that amount?
My thoughts: I like the idea. I was playing with a similar idea several years ago, using some 3D images of people to “talk” and allow the user to select an answer to give back to them. The problem with this project seems to me to be more with the campaign itself. Unlike the others, it also has no webpage or Facebook page that I could find.
The thing that got me questioning it the most is the video that was created for it. While the animation is very cute, I was disturbed by the voices of the characters. They seemed to be completely synthetic. This might be fine for any other application, but if a person is supposed to be learning a new language, they had better be hearing native speakers, not computerized interpretations.
Owner: Isamia Group
The last project in my list is Lingual. This app is perhaps the most exciting, both in its appearance and in its goals.
It is a game which sets out to not only help you learn a new language through “travelling” to different spots in the world and involving you in cool vocabulary games, but also to teach you about the cultures around the languages.
The video of a mockup version of the game looks stunning, as do the multiple screen shots. The creators have also worked hard to produce some beautiful rewards, such as flash cards, cheat sheets, posters, and even a glass art print.
A decent amount of work has also gone into making a good Facebook page and website. They even created a full body costume for the bunny like avatar they use as a logo.
The campaign completed and they got a little over their $5,000 goal.
The problem? That campaign was in October of 2012. The last update from them on the Kickstarter page, in the comments section, was that they were planning to release it by December of that year. All the press information on their page is only for 2012, with nothing since.
Furthermore, while there is both a Facebook page and Twitter account, they have become dormant. The last tweet came out in July 2014, and the last tweet that seemed to have any bearing on the project was from June 2013.
The last Facebook post is dated February 2014, and while a few people have asked when the app will be released, both on the Facebook page and the Kickstarter page, no reply has been given.
Lastly, I found two questionable things on the Kickstarter campaign. First was in the rewards. If you pledge $5, Lingual “will send 2 antagonistic tweets to 2 people of your choice (or both to 1)”. Is this really a suitable reward, promising that you will send a message to someone of your choosing with the intent to upset them?
Secondly, I mentioned that costume they made. It is used in a few videos, in which the character presents a person with a picture of an animal, and when the person guesses the proper name incorrectly, the character becomes violent. In one video, it slams the persons lunch into a wall, and in another, it starts towards them menacingly.
I understand these videos are meant to be funny, and I am sure that some people will find them hilarious, but when you combine them with the “antagonistic tweets” reward and the sudden lack of communication about the status of the project, you have to wonder if there was ever really an intention to complete it.
My thoughts: For me, Lingual represents one of the biggest problems with crowdfunding. I am uncomfortable with the whole idea of asking people for money so that you can produce something. I still think that people should pay for a finished product, not a promise of one, especially when there is no assurance that any given project will be completed. They money people give is non-refundable, so it is not a “don’t like it, get your money back” proposition. If the campaign reaches its goal, the money is dedicated. Only if it fails to reach the amount asked does anyone hope to get a refund.
Now, I do not know if Tiny Company, the people behind Lingual, deliberately failed to bring it to completion or if they just ran into too many problems. Since they did not respond to any questions about the progress and have completely stopped even with their social media outlets, we may never know.
Owner: Tiny Factory
I have presented you here with a handful of Kickstarter projects for language learning. Three of the campaigns were completed successfully while the other two are still running with little hope of reaching their goals. Of the three that completed, one project has been released and is available for sale, one is entering beta testing this month, and the third is nowhere to be seen.
There are always new projects like these being proposed on Kickstarter, as well as other crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo. Even if the proposed projects fail, the ideas might still be quite good and you could figure out a way to incorporate some of it into your own learning process.
Who knows? You might even have an idea for your own Kickstarter language project!