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Tomasz P. Szynalski

Will the DFA be English-learner-friendly?

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Hey Double Fine!

Wanna be even more awesome? Make your new point-and-click adventure game English-learner-friendly!

I just wrote a blog post where I explain why adventure games work great for learning English. More importantly, I give a list of pretty simple things that adventure game developers like Double Fine can do to make life easier for people who speak English as a foreign language.

I'll paste the list below. Discussion and other ideas are welcome.

If you support this suggestion, please say so in this thread. Whether DF considers implementing this suggestion will depend on the number of backers who are interested.

- English voices and English subtitles should be available in all localized versions. Even if the user purchased a French or German version, they should be allowed to change their mind and decide to play the game in English later.

- It should be possible to pause the game at any time. While the game is paused, the current line of dialogue should be visible on the screen. This is important because learners may need to re-read a line several times, consult a dictionary etc. (This sounds obvious, but some games display a special “pause screen” that obscures all the in-game graphics and subtitles.)

- Ideally, in pause mode, the player should be able to not only read the current line of dialogue, but also hear it again (for example, by clicking a speaker button). This would have the added advantage of assisting the player in learning English pronunciation.

- The user should be able to choose between playing the game (1) in English, (2) in their local language, or (3) in English with on-demand translation (AKA “English learning mode”). In the “on-demand translation” mode, the game is played in English. The player can pause the game with the English dialogue text visible on the screen. (So far, this is just like playing in English.) The player can then press a Translate key/button to display the translation in their local language right below the English text.

The translation should not appear automatically upon pausing the game because the player should be encouraged to figure out the meaning of a troubling phrase just by re-reading it in English (if successful, this can be quite motivating). Consulting the translation should be treated as a last resort and the UI should reflect this.

If the user presses the Translate key/button to display the translation, it should not replace the English text. Rather, it should appear below the English text to allow the user to compare the English phrase with the local-language phrase and learn the meaning of previously unknown English phrases.

The Translate key/button can also be pressed at any time in the game that English text is displayed – for example, for dialogue choices, object labels, etc. This should have the effect of displaying the translation alongside the original English text.

Translations could be replaced with English explanations of difficult phrases, a la ESLnotes.com (for example: “I just took him out for you” could be explained like this: “In a violent context, to take out someone is to kill, injure or disable them.”). This would work for native speakers of all languages, not just those in which the game has been localized. Of course, it would require hiring someone to prepare these explanations.

What I think is a great benefit of this mode is that it would enable the user to play the game in its original English version while letting them fall back to their native language from time to time. The main idea here is to eliminate the all-or-nothing choice between “only English” (which is intimidating to many foreign players) and “only native language” (which produces zero educational effect).

- The user should be able to task-switch out of the game to use a dictionary. (Some games crash when you try to switch tasks. In others, task switching takes a very long time.)

- It would be nice if the user could browse previously seen/heard lines of dialogue (Grim Fandango had this feature). Some learners like to add sentences they’ve come across to spaced-repetition software like Anki or SuperMemo. This lets them review the phrases they’ve learned. This feature is not terribly important (you can always write interesting sentences down in a notebook as you play), but would make life easier for those learners, since you cannot easily go back to a particular place in the game the way you can in a movie (savegames cannot usually get you to the precise place you want).

Best,

Tomasz

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This looks like a really great effort, and it would be cool if DF considered doing this, doesn't really seem that hard to implement these features.

I'll probably think about this too when I make my own games :]

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As someone who learned English from LucasArts games and Cartoon Network (:P), and is very interested in accessibility-focused design: YES, PLEASE!

I don't think "on-demand translation" is indispensable, but the other suggested additions seem to be easy-to-implement accessibility features that, nevertheless, many games don't even think of testing.

Ease-of-use can make or break a game for many people, but with the attention to the GUI that adventure games imply, I expect the DFA team to do a good job with this.

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I also learned english from adventure games and also think its a great idea! aah the memories of trying to get through kings quest 6 as a ten year old and only understanding half the words! =)

Ive always thought there should be a market for adventure games with language learners as well.

but perhaps not worth it budget-wise for all these specific extras. the big important thing is, as you say, being able to pause the game with a line on screen. or even better; have an option to have to click for every new chunk of text. (so you dont have to pause all the time and there being less risk of missing to pause) that cant be too hard to implement, right? except perhaps you have to chop up the dialogue audio more than you would have. having a button to hear a line again would also be cool though.

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As someone who grew up in a non-native English speaking country, I wholeheartedly support this.

I grew up in the 1980s, and here in Denmark back then, the only company big enough to localize was Disney and they only did it for their cinematic features. So I grew up watching English animated shows, TV drama, movies etc. either in their original language with Danish subtitles or just as English without subs.

And I have to say it helped my language skills tremendously - because before I could read properly, I'd pester my parents to tell me what was happening and then when I could read for myself, I was just hooked on trying to make sense of the English dialogue. It's a huge part of how I learned to speak English naturally at a very young age, and now with full localization everywhere we see that many people simply don't have that exposure to English.

So there you go, half a life story in support of 'Learning Mode' - hope you guys at DF consider it :)

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Some of the features you are suggesting actually serve a multipurpose functionality:

-Having little time to spare I like to play my games while multitasking on my pc, watching news, videos and such, so having the possibility to alt+tab would be one of my priorities for a good user interface;

-Being able to change the language both of text and subtitles is definitely something I'd like as well, since I may want to see how a particular joke is in the original language, etc.;

-Having the possibility to read previous text is also suggested since I may have missed some text while being distracted for any reason.

Some others, though, may add unneeded complications to the GUI. The "hear it again" function and the "double language" text one could pose some problem, especially since the game seems to be designed having mobile platforms in mind (hence preferrably not having small buttons onscreen for niche functionalities), so, while I'd not oppose to them, I see this to be more unlikely to be implemented. In general, I'd still prefer the game to be English-learner friendly without having to set a specific option for it.

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I'm another example of someone who learned English from computer games. Thanks to Monkey Island I knew "scurvy" before "noun". It's funny how many share the same experience...

I guess some of the features Tomasz is talking about are not crucial but most of them are not complicated to implement, so why not do it. In fact it is rather a question of reminding the devs there is a need from a non-English-speaking world to access the text and the sound on different terms than a serious programming task.

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I remember Day of the Tentacle being 'pausable' — the SCUMM system had a very nice framework for playing. Although some suggestions of Tomasz are new, these would be really great improvements, as — and most probably not much of a surprise here — I'm also one of the ones getting closer to English via adventure games (and yes, Cartoon Network as well) :)

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I'm another example of someone who learned English from computer games. Thanks to Monkey Island I knew "scurvy" before "noun". It's funny how many share the same experience...

I learned the word "gnomon" from playing Trinity in the late eighties, though I have to admit that I have yet to find any real use for that particular knowledge. I also still haven't decided if the game is brilliant or just plain weird, but it certainly gets my vote for having one of the most striking pieces of cover art I've seen. LucasArts fans may recognize the name of the author, Brian Moriarty, since he would later go on to write Loom; another unusual game.

I remember thinking at the time that these games could be really useful in schools, because when they were good (unfortunately far from all of them) they really did motivate you to understand what you were reading.

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- It should be possible to pause the game at any time. While the game is paused, the current line of dialogue should be visible on the screen. This is important because learners may need to re-read a line several times, consult a dictionary etc. (This sounds obvious, but some games display a special “pause screen” that obscures all the in-game graphics and subtitles.)

It's funny that you mentioned that. Grim Fandango had a text transcript menu when paused. You could use it to view all the previous dialog within a certain point. Since DFA is already being made to support many common languages, I'd imagine it'd be easy to just use that exact same system in DFA. To further help English learners, you could even allow the transcript to switch between English and another language. I can't imagine it being too hard at all to implement.

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I'm a native English speaker and I think all these features are cool. I hate mishearing a line of dialogue and having to look it up on youtube. Though the translation one could cost some significant money that might be better spent on the game itself.

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I'm a native English speaker and I think all these features are cool. I hate mishearing a line of dialogue and having to look it up on youtube. Though the translation one could cost some significant money that might be better spent on the game itself.

Thanks. The game is going to be translated into a few European languages anyway (French, Italian, German, Spanish) -- I was thinking about those.

Tomasz

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This is a really awesome concept... as a native English speaker, I had no idea that games were useful to teach English in this way! I mean, other than the games that were *made* to teach English. And I've played some of those for other languages... and I find them extra confusing <.<;;

Maybe I should go back through my old games and play them on different language settings. :)

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This is a really awesome concept... as a native English speaker, I had no idea that games were useful to teach English in this way! I mean, other than the games that were *made* to teach English. And I've played some of those for other languages... and I find them extra confusing <.<;;

Do you know any (good) games designed to teach English or other languages? I'd be interested in having a look.

Maybe I should go back through my old games and play them on different language settings. :)

I played the German version of Curse of Monkey Island -- awesome way to learn German, especially if you have some basic knowledge of the language. The fact that I had already played through the game in English made it a lot easier to figure out what was going on.

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I think the language learning part in games happens just like when a kid learns to speak mother tongue — without the specific pressure to 'learn' anything, the player is faced with situations where actions and dialogues are in pairs. This way, interpreting the situation, the player is able to fill the dialogue with meaning even without understanding most of the words. Have you ever been in a scenario when you knew what to say, but did not know why? :)

It should be noted though that ultimately this is a very slow process. It might happen that a game gives only one or two new terms or phrases in context, so the player will have to move on to new games to broaden his or her knowledge. Adventure games are perhaps a bit better in this aspect due to the large amount of dialogue they have.

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Actually adventure games taught me to type faster and Police Quest 1 taught me to type while driving which is exactly what I'm doing right now.

Ooh, gotta go, the car reached the end of town.

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This is a really awesome concept... as a native English speaker, I had no idea that games were useful to teach English in this way! I mean, other than the games that were *made* to teach English. And I've played some of those for other languages... and I find them extra confusing <.<;;

Do you know any (good) games designed to teach English or other languages? I'd be interested in having a look.

I actually used Pokemon Yellow / Pokemon Gold to learn some Japanese. My brother was taking Japanese at the time, so he pointed out the basics and I figured out a handful on my own. But they weren't designed to teach me Japanese. I know the DS has a handful of other games that are actually designed to teach languages, and some of my friend's little siblings have used them to actually learn Japanese. I'm not sure which ones they've played though.

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I'm a native English speaker and I think all these features are cool. I hate mishearing a line of dialogue and having to look it up on youtube. Though the translation one could cost some significant money that might be better spent on the game itself.

Thanks. The game is going to be translated into a few European languages anyway (French, Italian, German, Spanish) -- I was thinking about those.

Tomasz

yeah but are those translations going to be exactly word-for-word? what if there's a pun that doesn't make sense in german, so they make it a different pun that is funny in that language? would showing that translation be helpful or just confusing in that case?

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As a kid I learned English from adventure games like Discworld, Sam & Max Hit the Road and DoTT.

Listening to the dialogue and reading the subtitles were extremely helpful in learning how to write and pronounce English, plus examining different items etc. increased my vocabulary. Already on the third grade when they started teaching us English in school I was the best of my class thanks to this. It's a great and fun way to learn.

The OP's idea sounds good, especially as not all players can have the game dubbed or subtitled to their native language.

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yeah but are those translations going to be exactly word-for-word? what if there's a pun that doesn't make sense in german, so they make it a different pun that is funny in that language? would showing that translation be helpful or just confusing in that case?

Good point. I think it's not a big problem. People understand that there are untranslatable puns. Also, this would only affect a small proportion of the dialogue.

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yeah but are those translations going to be exactly word-for-word? what if there's a pun that doesn't make sense in german, so they make it a different pun that is funny in that language? would showing that translation be helpful or just confusing in that case?

Good point. I think it's not a big problem. People understand that there are untranslatable puns. Also, this would only affect a small proportion of the dialogue.

I mean, we shouldn't expect games to actually prioritise the teaching of language (well, apart from games for children I suppose, or uh games specifically intended to help learn a language, which I guess would be a really good idea, but anyway I'm rambling here), so I think the easiest and fastest way to implement this sort of thing is just to let you set the language of text and speech independently, and let the player work out the rough gist of the translation.

Edit: good work on the Orz picture, Lokik.

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Edit: good work on the Orz picture, Lokik.

(Sorry for going off-topic in this post)

Heh, thanks but the credit for the picture goes to the talented people working on Project 6014, a fan-made sequel to Star Control II.

Perhaps I should make a topic about this in the appropriate part of the forums, in case there are some old SC fans in here.

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I would love to have a dialogue transcript with an option to hear the lines spoken again!

I used to read the Grim Fandango transcript all the time.

I would also re-watch the cutscenes (just like watching a good movie!), so an option like that in DFA would be great too.

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so I think the easiest and fastest way to implement this sort of thing is just to let you set the language of text and speech independently, and let the player work out the rough gist of the translation.

Seeing two different subtitles -- English and localized -- at the same time allows the player to compare the two at his own pace. If you just have the English speech and translation, it's a bit of a missed opportunity in terms of learning, as the speech will often be hard to understand for a non-native (moreso than text).

Furthermore, it is not always necessary to see the translated text -- in fact, in most cases, just reading the English text will be enough to clear up any confusion. The translation is more of a last resort.

If it was possible to set the text language in-game using some hotkey -- that would also work, but would be a bit less usable than seeing both languages at the same time.

Tomasz

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so I think the easiest and fastest way to implement this sort of thing is just to let you set the language of text and speech independently, and let the player work out the rough gist of the translation.

Seeing two different subtitles -- English and localized -- at the same time allows the player to compare the two at his own pace. If you just have the English speech and translation, it's a bit of a missed opportunity in terms of learning, as the speech will often be hard to understand for a non-native (moreso than text).

Hey, sure man, I don't deny it, I only said that to answer the common objection that feature x will take too much effort. It was a minimum concession, I tells ya, minimummmmmm!

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