An article by Margaret Wertheim in today’s NY Times describes a program for teaching soldiers to speak Arabic by playing a video game, an excellent idea:
In a dusty valley in southern Lebanon, “Sgt. John Smith” of the Special Forces scans the scene in front of him. Ahead is a village known as Talle. His immediate mission: to find out who the local headman is and make his way to that house.
All discussions with the villagers will have to be conducted in Arabic, and Sergeant Smith must comport himself with the utmost awareness of local customs so as not to arouse hostility. If successful, he will be paving the way for the rest of his unit to begin reconstruction work in the village.
Sergeant Smith is not a real soldier, but the leading character in a video game being developed at the University of Southern California’s School of Engineering as a tool for teaching soldiers to speak Arabic. Both the game’s environment and the characters who populate it have a high degree of realism, in an effort to simulate the kinds of situations troops will face in the Middle East.
It sounds like an excellent idea, and the article does a good job of describing the system (and some of the issues that come up: “Dr. Johnson noted that one of the first things many users have to learn is simply to say thank you. ‘Most video gamers are not used to saying thank you in the context of a game,’ he said”). But a couple of things struck me, one by its strangeness and the other by its [semi-]idiocy. The sentence after the introduction quoted above reads: “Talle is modeled on an actual Lebanese village, while the game’s characters are driven by artificial-intelligence software that enables them to behave autonomously and react realistically to Sergeant Smith.” A Lebanese village? As the article later says, “Arabic dialects differ considerably by region,” and the Arabic of Lebanon is very different from that of Iraq, which would presumably be of more use in the, um, current situation.
After describing the basics of the program, the article cautiously continues: “No one is going to be able to read Omar Khayyam after this training…” Now, I can’t be quite as scathing as I’d like to be, because Omar did, in fact, write many of his works on mathematics and physics in Arabic.
But you know and I know that Ms Wertheim wasn’t thinking of those works, of whose existence I’ll bet a nickel she’s blissfully unaware. To the English-speaking world, Omar Khayyam is the author of the Rubaiyat, and those poems are written in Persian. So no, no one is going to be able to read Omar Khayyam after this training, no matter how good it is. [A commenter points out that Ms Wertheim has written books on mathematics and physics and thus is probably in fact aware, whether blissfully or not, that Omar wrote in Arabic. Fair point. But it's still dumb to use his name in this context, because hardly anyone who reads the article will associate him with anything but the poetry. Hmph.]