for National Geographic News
Researchers have developed an interactive computer system that uses artificial intelligence and gaming techniques to teach Arabic to U.S. soldiers.
Soldier-students equipped with microphones navigate through an Arabic-speaking environment on a computer screen. If they successfully phrase questions and understand the answers, they can move on to the next level of the game.
But this is more than just a language lab.
The system emphasizes nonverbal behavior. Users are taught to adopt local customs such as putting their right hand over their heart when meeting someone for the first time.
The characters that users face in the game, meanwhile, are animated by artificial intelligence. They may nod in approval or cross their arms with skeptical hostility in response to the users' actions.
It's all part of an effort to create the most believable experience that soldiers can expect to face in a foreign environment, says Hannes Högni Vilhjálmsson, the designer of the computer engine behind the games, which is called Social Puppet.
"Language without any context is hard to learn," said Vilhjálmsson, a research scientist with the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
"But if you put it into the context of face-to-face communication, allowing for gestures and other non-verbal behavior, it becomes easier [to learn]."
All the games in the Tactical Language and Culture series use the Social Puppet software and are designed to help train soldiers.
The first game, called Levantine, taught soldiers the Levantine dialects of Arabic spoken in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine.
The second program, Tactical Iraqi, has been used by hundreds of soldiers now stationed in Iraq.
Today Vilhjálmsson presented a research prototype for his latest training game, Tactical Pashto, for teaching the Pashto language to soldiers headed to Afghanistan (See an interactive map of Afghanistan.)
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