‘Appuyer sur la touché START’

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 (I’ve no idea how I scraped through Standard Grade because I honestly don’t remember much of it); 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.
  • LangoLAB.com — (updated) I’ve only just found this site, but it looks really useful.  You should check Jennifer’s comment below for a detailed explanation; but briefly, 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 (again see the comments below), 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 Amazon.fr now, but ironically, very uncomfortable when it comes to 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 Horsessi 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, demonstration, and progression.  So the real problem then, is how you present it in the context of the game.

Since I’m learning French, I’m going to continue to use languages as the basis for this article and the examples I’m going to look at.  But with a bit of thought and imagination it should be possible to apply these ideas to other areas of interest, such as learning music (provided it’s not done in an arbitrary manner), or perhaps even as an introduction to something like Shakespeare.  Bear with me, I know it sounds grotesque  on paper, but I genuinely could see something like Macbeth or Hamlet working as video games (if the material was handled with a LOT of care and sensitivity).  Or put another way,  when I was 15, I might have engaged the material more had I already been familiar with it from a more accessible and ‘friendly’ source.  It doesn’t have to be dumbed down — certainly games like Final Fantasy X, Deus Ex, Silent Hill2, Grim Fandango and Max Payne aren’t,  so why not use games as a platform for heavyweight drama?  It might even give the industry more credibility (as unlikely as that sounds).  Again, the key here is how you present the material in the context of the game.

Okay, I’m digressing.  If that still sounds too much like sacrilege to you, then feel free to stick with languages.

The next part* 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 My Coach and Sony TalkMan.  For the final part, I hope to take some of the ideas I’ve discussed, and see how they work in practise.  A bit of empirical research, if you will.

*I wrote the whole article months ago, I’m just splitting this up to make it more readable, easier to proof read/polish, and to shamelessly boost my blog’s stats.

© 2009 Jonathan Hallier.  All rights reserved.

9 thoughts on “‘Appuyer sur la touché START’

  1. Hi there, Jon,

    I really enjoyed reading your post! You have a great list of language learning resources for the self-motivated learner. I thought I’d leave a comment to tell you about another website you might find interesting.

    My website, LangoLAB.com, takes really entertaining YouTube clips in the language you’re studying, and adds tools to help you understand what you’re watching. We have one-click dictionary look-up, dual captioning, flashcard sets and grammar notes. It’s basically like watching a subtitled movie, but you have the ability to interact with it.

    I thought I’d leave you with a few of my favorite clips from the site (I’m also trying to brush up on my French):
    (This one is better for beginners/pre-intermediate) –
    (This one is more advanced) – http://french.langolab.com/video/1519/co2-dacd

    We’re working on social networking features where you’ll be able to converse or play games with a native speaker of French. If you’d like, please check us out! We’d love to hear your thoughts.


  2. Hi Jennifer,

    Thanks for your comment, your website looks like a fantastic resource! I’ve already signed up, and I’m looking forward to checking it out in more detail. I’ll add it to my post above, as well.

    Thanks again,


  3. Salut Jonathan!

    Thanks for checking out LangoLAB! I’m really happy to hear that you like it. I’m not sure if you noticed, but please also feel free to check out our video request. If there’s a French video that you see on YouTube that seems interesting, just send it to us and we’ll get it captioned and put up on the site for you.

    Also, any other thoughts or suggestions you might have are appreciated! Stay tuned for more cool developments.

    A bien tot!


  4. Salut Jen!

    Thanks, I’ll definitely check out the video request feature — there’s a number of videos I wouldn’t mind seeing captioned (mostly music related). I’ll send them next week.

    Thanks again for showing interest in my blog — I hope you’ll stay tuned for the next parts. What I’m leading up to proposing next week (which I hope to illustrate with a videogame called Morrowind), is something that I think will fall in line with the immersive approach you’re promoting with LangoLAB. I’d be really interested to hear your views on it!

    All the best,


  5. Bonjour Jonathan,

    I will most definitely stay tuned! I’m very excited to read what you have to say about Morrowind and to give you my own thoughts on it. I’ll keep checking back.

    I’m getting into French music a lot lately myself and wouldn’t mind seeing more up on the site. There’s this addictive Indie song up there now (maybe you saw it, it’s at http://langolab.com/video/1646/april-march-caribou ). I catch myself singing in my head “Il est perdu les temps deja…” Not a bad way to pick French back up… A lot of the French I learned in high school is buried under the Russian I studied in college.

    Anyway, enjoy your day!


  6. Hi Jonathan!

    I saw that you requested a video from LangoLAB. I uploaded it this afternoon for you (sang along while doing it). We’re also rolling out a new site design tonight – take a look tomorrow when it’s up!


  7. Hi Jen,

    Sorry I didn’t get back to you earlier. I had to travel down to England for a family wedding last week, and well, I’m still recovering. :) Also I just discovered that this article has been featured on a major games industry publication (gamasutra.com), so I’m quite thrilled about that — I’ll try and get part two finished and posted over the weekend.

    Thanks for the link! I must look April March up on Last.fm sometime. And yes, I noticed you’ve translated Magic Spirit for me — that’s fantastic, thanks so much! As you can probably guess, I’m huge fan of Paris Combo and Belle du Berry (http://www.myspace.com/belleduberry). That song is actually from a new album that’s coming out next month — I’m really looking forward to it. Unfortunately, hardly any of their music can be found on youtube.

    Another French singer I’ve been listening to recently is Amélie-les-crayons (http://www.amelielescrayons.com/indexb.htm). She’s completely unlike anyone else I’ve heard before: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvSrc4Urmsk <-I guarantee you'll be singing/whistling along to that for the rest of the day. ;)

    All the best,


  8. Forgot to mention, I just checked out the new look LangoLAB. It’s looking good — definitely more colourful and easier to use. I’m still a little fuzzy on what flashcards are though…

  9. Hi Jonathan!

    Thanks for the complements on the new look of LangoLAB. We’ve been working so hard on it! The new look is really only the beginning. We’re going to be doing some fantastic things in the future to give LangoLAB users not only exposure to native speaker-generated media, but also more real-life, real-time interaction with native speakers. I’m really excited about it! We’re brainstorming how to best make this happen, and also how to improve our existing features. If you have any suggestions, we’d really value your input.

    I’m so happy to hear that the article was featured on gamasutra.com! Congratulations! Can’t wait to read the rest of it. I’ll check back again soon :)

    Take care,

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