At a recent Jelly, the weekly forum for local tech folks to share ideas, Thornton Media founder and president Don Thornton went right for the jugular.
“The problem is this: Languages are very difficult to learn,” he said, pointing out that not much innovation has occurred in the language-learning realm since Rosetta Stone was introduced in the early ’90s. Classroom models work, but proficiency takes years. And who has the resources to spend months abroad learning how to ask for beer and the bathroom?
Thornton’s solution is Talking Games, a 3D video-game platform for learning any language through virtual immersion. At the Jelly, he and his wife/VP, Kara, showed a video pitch that has since been posted on Kickstarter. The goal is $350,000 to finish development of two eight-level interactive games that use automatic speech recognition to teach Cherokee and Spanish in richly imagined digital worlds full of quirky characters (the prototype’s talking coyote farts after eating too much government cheese).
Cherokee, because it’s Don’s ancestral language, and he’s been working since 1994 to create custom learning tools for the endangered languages of more than 130 American Indian tribes and Canadian First Nations. And he says that more than 50 percent of Americans who want to learn a foreign language pick Spanish. The ultimate plan is to build games for all major languages, from German to Chinese, as well as those spoken by small populations. Someday, there might even be Klingon and Elvish editions.
Don explained that they’ve been working with a contractor who builds language games for the U.S. military. Studies of their effectiveness to teach everything from Urdu to Pashto have shown that the same level of acquisition can happen in 40 hours of play versus 400 hours of class. Talking Games would be the first tool of its kind available to the consumer market, and kicked-up storylines and graphics mean the added incentives of alien abduction, zombie bites or a punch from Bigfoot to nail the right words and verb tenses. “You learn the language in context, in the moment,” Don said, “and part of your brain forgets you’re playing a game.”
That’s especially powerful for people who get bored using more formal software or intimidated in traditional classrooms. “Making mistakes is okay—no worries, no teasing,” Kara said. “That’s what enables real learning to take place.” And at $99 (compared to $499 for Rosetta Stone), that real learning is also within reach.