An article by Margaret Wertheim in today’s NY Times describes a program for teaching soldiers to speak Arabic by playing a video game:

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.]


  1. I’ll take that nickel. She’s written two books on the historical development of mathematics and physics.

  2. Oops. Good thing I didn’t make it a bag of gold.
    Now, where you want that nickel sent?
    *reminds self to google author’s name next time*

  3. It reminds me of when I read “Shogun” as a boy. As the Englishman is accommodating himself to Japanese culture, he learns Japanese. Any halfway attentive reader learns at least polite Japane seterms at the same time. It always struck me since that someone could write a book–or better, use a foreign work already translated into English–and interleave the two languages so that the beginning of the book is all English and the end of the book is mostly the foreign language. Add in some frontmatter, footnotes for harder definitions and other explanatory material, and then maybe you’ve got something.

  4. Michael Farris says

    The book that got me interested in German was a non-traditional text that simply began with a reading passage. A small print translation appeared under each word the first time it appeared. The text was _very_ simple, but also very effective. I forget what this book did with grammar and I couldn’t get a copy to use myself and so I started with more traditional textbooks, which weren’t anywhere near as much fun.
    I like the idea of something like that for reading practice.
    BOT: Yeah, using Lebanese seems really dumb for soldiers in Iraq, maybe the government has plans for Syria though … (IIRC Lebanese and Syrian don’t differ in any important ways).

  5. Excellent point, one I should have thought of. Lebanese and Syrian are basically identical, and yes, it looks like Syria’s high up on the list of future liberatees.

  6. Hmmm, I dunno, LH – and M.Farris- it seems a bit outdated to teach soldiers to say ‘thank you’ in Iraq dialect of Arabic, after more than a year of their deployment there, no?
    Things like that remind me of, excuse me,”Kurka, yaiki, mleko” of the Wermacht(sp?)field linguists in 1943… “Chewing gum” learned by local population from Americans in Paris c.1945 has somehow more appeal to me.
    And in regards to Lebanese and Syrian liberation: don’t you think they need variety, after the failed French model?

  7. The U.S. military may still have a way to go; aside from their programs for linguists, of which I don’t know much. As to the other branches, my experience may tell:
    When we were sent to Kuwait in preparation for the liberation/invasion of Iraq, we were give little flashcard books in colored construction paper, with expressions and words on in both Arabic and Romanized phonetics. As our stay in Iraq lengthened, I became aware that the expressions mostly in the Kuwaiti Gulf dialect, were quite different from the Iraqi.
    The situation for the traveller who wishes to get a little introduction from books and tapes available at most large bookstores, is not much better. Much of the Arabic is mixed Gulf, Egyptian, and Levantine. For instance,from Inflight Arabic in what dialect is “Araqal aheq’l” for “see you later!” “Ajel” for “Yes,” “Kellah” for “no?” (I understand the Standard Arabic usual expressions for departure are”Ma’a salaamah” and “Feh man Allah”(the latter for the one who is leaving, meaning “I leave you with Allah.” In Standard Arabic, “yes” is “na’am” and “no” is “Laa.”)
    Of course, you probably get what you pay for. Lately, I’ve seen on the shelves of one of the big name booksellers, a rather large volume of “Iraqi Arabic.” But still no tapes or CDs. If I lived closer to city, where I could either take a Berlitz course or sign up at a university, I might avail myself of a better choice. Then again, the cost of Berlitz seems prohibitive now.
    So can anyone post for us novices, in what dialect are the above expressions, please? Mun fudlikum?

  8. Um, well, the nickel is fine, but if you have any links to Romanian etymological sites… ?

  9. I wish there were more out there, but all I can find is a comparison of Slavic and Romance etymologies (for 34 words) at http://moldova.go. ro/fd/limba/latinismfd.htm. (I’ve put in a space before “ro” because my MT Blacklist won’t accept it otherwise — apparently there are several “go ro” sites on the blacklist. Hoist by my own list!) There’s supposed to be an online glossary here, but all I get is “There is a problem with the page you are trying to reach and it cannot be displayed.” I have a lot of Romanian etymologies in a book at home, though, so if you’re interested in particular words, drop me a line and I’ll look them up for you.

  10. Doug Sundseth says

    I might point out this bit from the NYT story:
    “In its current version, the game teaches Lebanese Arabic. The U.S.C. team is also working on an Iraqi Arabic version.”
    I suspect that the designers were more comfortable with Lebanese Arabic (for whatever reason) than with Iraqi Arabic, so started with that version.
    The thing I found most interesting, though, was, “…in addition to basic vocabulary soldiers in foreign countries also need to understand basic cultural and gestural cues.” A need that the game seems to try to fulfill.

  11. Exactly — that’s why I thought the video-game idea was such a good one. Good catch on the forthcoming Iraqi version.

  12. As a PhD student actually working on the project at USC/ISI, I can fill you in on some of the details:
    We actually picked Levantine Arabic before this whole “ummm, current situation” started, because there were plenty of resources available in the Los Angeles area for us to pull from. Our aim was to picked a dialect that was not completely uncommon, but at the same time more obscure than Modern Standard or Egyptian (so that it could be a proof-of-concept and force us to generate our own content). (and apologies to the conspiracy-theorists: AFAIK Syria didn’t play a part in the decision to focus on Lebanon.)
    Of course, these articles don’t get into the real fun of developing a project like this: For me, that’s been modelling second language learner speech, to aid in the otherwise impossible tasks of speech recognition and pedagogical correction. There’s nothing like trying to model Americans and our bad pronunciation/grammar!
    (if interested, you can read a bit more on the subject here).

  13. Thanks!
    *removes tinfoil hat*

  14. Using the right dialect for a project is a huge problem for any program. I am working on a distance learning Arabic program for the Department of State. The department heads want to send this program to foreign service officers staffing the new Embassy in Baghdad, yet the course was designed to teach Levantine Arabic, which I understand is quite different from Iraqi Arabic.
    Flaws aside, the Tactical Language Project sounds amazing. Wish the project I am doing was that cool!

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