I failed my 11th grade French class in High School.
To be fair, I didn’t really apply myself and I missed a lot of school. It was just so boring. My secret ambition in life was to be a spy, so you’d think I’d be interested in languages. But all we ever did was spend days listening to Jean-Paul and Annette ask how each other how they were. I was living in San Diego, so I should have taken Spanish anyway–but French initially sounded very exotic. Anyway, it led to summer school for me to make up a credit (in another subject, of course).
A year later, when my Army recruiter told me he was going to send me for an exam to see how good I was at learning foreign languages (they had quotas for linguists at the time), I assured him that I was not good with languages. That was for other people. Smart people. I wanted to be a military police officer anyway (long story–and lucky escape).
I was given the DLAB (Defense Language Aptitude Battery) test which told them I was, in fact, very good with languages. In typical Army recruiter optimism, the recruiter told me he could make no promises but my score was good enough to give me my language choice of Russian. Perhaps, my score was too good because I was given Chinese Mandarin half-way through basic training.
Imagine someone sitting you down and telling you your future depended on learning Chinese Mandarin. All you really knew about it was that it was badly dubbed in Kung Fu movies. And then, they try to assure you that you will do fine (but there is no way they themselves could do it, they say).
I was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California for 1 year. Then I went to another school to learn more Chinese. Later, the Army sent me back to school to learn Vietnamese. Later in life, I’ve taken courses in Spanish and Hindi. This is not to mention the dozens of computer languages I’ve learned.
People now comment on how good I am with languages. Huh!
I think the biggest problem with learning a foreign language is convincing yourself that you can do it. Foreign languages seem so, well, foreign. You take the course or buy the book or listen to the CD, but you still have trouble thinking of yourself as being a foreign language speaker. I’ve been in China, speaking Chinese with heads of very large software companies, and still felt like a fraud.
It’s difficult to get past the first chapter of a “learn a foreign language” book. Again, it is so . . . boring! It needs to be made more fun.
Over the past few months, Overpass has been working on a series of games to help people learn foreign languages. We released the first game yesterday on Android (iOS soon to follow). I’m very interested in languages and think a game like “Hindi Bubble Bath” is a great way for people who want to learn a language can get started.
In the next few weeks, we’ll be releasing the Bubble Bath game for Chinese Mandarin and Cantonese. Later, we’re going to release versions for Arabic, Korean, and Vietnamese. Eventually, we’ll get versions for Spanish and French. However, I’ve spent so many years looking for good learning materials on Chinese and Vietnamese while loads of Spanish material cluttered the shelves, that I may have a bit of a chip on my shoulder–so Spanish can wait.
The games are highly flexible in design, so we can now quickly turn out different languages in different combinations. Not only will we have a version for an English speaker to learn Chinese, we will eventually have a version for a Chinese speaker to learn English. Or, even, a Chinese speaker to learn Hindi and vice-versa. I’m very excited in the future of this project.
It’s been a lot of fun putting this together. From starting out with graph paper and a ruler writing a spec to hiring voice actors to final testing– this has been a great experience. I’m very proud of the final result. Special thanks to Bhargav, Anoop, and Minesh for helping to bring this to reality.
If you want to have a look at the game, the Google Play page is here.
Also, let me wish you a great 2013. Between Overpass Apps and my work with RibbonFish, it’s going to be an exciting year.