Friday, November 19, 2010

A Closer Look at My French Coach for the Nintendo DS

Bonjour!  C’est moi, votre bon ami Stan!  Aujourd’hui, j’etudie Francais avec My French Coach pour le Nintendo DS.  Je sais déjà un peu Francais, mais je voudrais apprendre plus.  My French Coach est bon pour beaucoup des choses, mais pauvre pour plusieurs tres important choses que vous avez besoin de parler francais bien.

The above paragraph was made possible entirely by working with My French Coach for the Nintendo DS.  But don’t cash in those lottery tickets for a plane ride to Marseille just yet!  As I state above (for you non-francophones out there), the “game” is good for a great many things, but it comes up short in some very important areas that are fundamental to communication in a foreign language.  As you might have garnered (nothing gets past you!), today we’ll be taking a Closer Look at My French Coach and just how it fares as a poor(er) man’s Rosetta Stone.

Before we delve too deeply into the program itself, a short history is appropriate if we are to understand my perspective on this particular subject.  In the interest of full disclosure, I feel obligated to tell you that I already knew a pretty decent amount of French when I started playing this game.  I took two years of French in high school (mostly staring at Mrs. Wilborn our buxom French teacher, sorry Mrs. Wilborn, but its true…) and following that I tutored French in college for two years (tutoring mostly 19 year old ladies’ tennis and volleyball players, again a distracting experience).  In order to obtain my MA, I was forced (you heard me) to pass a French fluency exam that consisted of translating a body of text from French to English.  I failed…the first time. (naturally I blame women!) But the second time I passed it and believe me it took many hours of study to get it right.  So, you can see that going into this “game” I was armed with a fragmented understanding of the language.  I believe overall, that puts me in a good position to judge just how well My French Coach prepares the uninitiated for their first foray into a foreign language.
One additional brief caveat before we get our hands dirty. I’m not entire sure what to call this thing.  You may have noticed my attempt at neutral language in the preceding paragraphs.  I am hesitant to call this a “game” when it is more of a learning tool, but calling it a learning tool sort of de-emphasizes the approach that the program takes in order to teach the language.  Furthermore, to simply call it a program is rather vague and muddies the water conversationally.  Therefore, I think we are going to agree that this is still a video “game,” even though it a special kind of “game” that can be used as learning tool as part of its primary function.  So you’ll have to bear with me if the language is transitory during the following dissertation.

Now, if I recall correctly, this is supposed to be a Closer Look at a video game, so let’s get back to the task at hand.  My French Coach for the Nintendo DS is part of a line of video games aimed at teaching novices how to speak and otherwise navigate a foreign language.  To date, the line consists of games for Spanish, English, Japanese, and Chinese.  What is taking so long for Italian and German, I have no idea.  The line seems to have some momentum and perhaps for good reason.
My French Coach consists of a series of “lessons” designed to provide a basic introduction to the French language.  You are given an instructor as guide, and oh what a fine instructor she is, to the lessons and are able to select the lesson of your choice from a list; hence you can revisit old lessons to refresh as you need to.  When getting started, you will be asked to take a “placement” exam of sorts to determine where in the lesson plan you should begin.  This is basically just to see how familiar you are with the language to avoid time-wasting repetition of known material and also to keep rookies from getting in too deep too soon.  The game placed me at Lesson 9 based on my test results and while that may have been a little simpler than I feel I was knowledgeable of, it never hurts to refresh.

Once you get going, the game is divided into three sections: Learning, Games, and Reference.  The Learning section is basically the “main game” where you progress through the lessons opening new harder challenges upon earning a certain number of points that are meant to indicate mastery of the material.  There are 50 lessons in all and beyond that you may continue learning under what is called the “Open Plan.”  This area is basically vocabulary drills and games that build upon the fundamentals already covered.  You will not obtain any new grammar rules or sentence structure beyond this point.  The Games section let’s you play any of the learning games you have unlocked up to that point.  There are eight games in all and although two of the games are very similar there is enough variety to keep this section fun.  You’ll even be ranked by grade level (i.e. I am a “5th Grader” at the time of this writing) depending on how well you perform in the games overall.

The Reference section might very well be considered an entirely separate section of the game, even though you can certainly use it as part of your learning experience.  The Reference section contains a place to view your progress as well as all of the unlockables in the game and how you are doing with individual words and concepts.  There is a Dictionary which is basically an abridged “French/English translation consisting of all of the terms used in the Learning section. Finally perhaps the most useful section in the whole game is the Phrasebook.  A concise compilation of helpful phrases you may have need of should you find yourself on the Rue Biscarra and desperately need to know how to get to Le Maya on Rue Vernier or if you happen to run into someone from Fiji (Tu es des Fidji?) You know, because it happens.  The Phrasebook has a lot of useful phrases and will even speak them for you if you are too embarrassed to bust out with “Ils vont marcher jusqu’au parc” on your first go.  At the end of the day, the Reference Section may be the most valuable part of this whole game.

The main section, however, is probably why most people buy this game.  Chances are good if you are considering purchasing My French Coach you have at least a passing interest in learning, or relearning like me!, French.  Thus most of your time is going to be initially spent in the Learning section.  The big question is, just how much can you expect to learn from the lessons to be found in this game?  The answer is mixed.  As I said in the intro: “My French Coach est bon pour beaucoup des choses, mais pauvre pour plusieurs tres important choses que vous avez besoin de parler francais bien.”  Translation:  The game is very good at many things, but comes up short in some vital areas if you hope to speak French proficiently.

The lessons start off with elementary vocabulary and phrases and progress to incorporate slightly compound sentence building and expanding word sets.  These things the game gets right 99% of the time.  There are some things it teaches that are odd or on the rare occasion outright incorrect, but for the most part the elementary education is solid.  You’ll learn basic noun-verb agreement and simple and inverted sentence structure.  You’ll pick up the fundamentals and by the time you get to the 50th and final real lesson, you should have a pretty good handle on elementary French.  Unfortunately, that is where the game will leave you.  After the 50th lesson, you will be shuffled off to what is called “Open Plan” which is basically just a series of vocabulary drills that add new terms to your inner dictionary.  You’ll not pick up any more grammar rules or be introduced to any new concepts, but you will be deluged with new words to learn.  Not that increasing your vocabulary isn’t valuable, but you’ll hit this wall pretty fast if you are ambitious and get into the game, and that can be a buzzkill for the hungry student.

Your best bet once the “Open Plan” is unlocked is to back out of the “Learning” section of the game and moving to “Games.”  You’ll still accrue points and unlock new levels and new vocabulary, but you’ll be free of the structure of the “Learning” section, which becomes a list of words followed by a random game, each and every time.  Under the Games section you’ll be able to set the parameters for each game and you’ll be able to include all of the material you have learned thus far as well as mix in the new stuff.  This will help you avoid the inevitable, repetitious conjugation game that can occur when playing the Random Game in the Learning section.  Plus, you’ll probably get more of a challenge out of playing the Games with expanded parameters and the inclusion of the all the material you had learned.  If you want a real challenge, try tackling “Spelltastic” with Open and Hard settings. Wow!
It's Whack-a-French-Mole-Word-Thing-Game...

The only real let down with My French Coach is the early and limited ceiling of what you will learn with the game.  While the game does a good job giving you a foundation for the language, it leaves out some really important stuff, like how to form a negative phrase.  Unless you plan to go to France and have everything happen just right, chances are good you are going to want to say something in the negative.  Thus, it would be nice to be able to negate something, but you’ll not get that lesson from My French Coach. (If you look back, you will see I did not use a single negative in that opening passage) You’ll also not be introduced to more than a couple of irregular verbs, and trust me, in French, some of the best verbs are irregular.  The game even plays dirty with you by introducing you to semi-irregular verbs and asking you to conjugate them in the Open Plan levels (verbs like “distraire”).  The game takes you only so far, and for me, it simply isn’t far enough.  In addition to negation, where are the reflexive verbs, where are the past and future tenses?  These things are still basics of the language and would be extremely useful for someone trying to be functional with it.  I’m not suggesting that the game make you fluent in fifty easy steps, but I do think that it could have gone a little deeper than it did. Beyond that, the game executes pretty well. Despite a few odd glitches in a few of the games (nothing major, just a few mechanics that get stuck here and there), you’ll be off and learning French in no time.
Oh my dear lord. I promise I will learn whatever this foxy little tomato is teaching...

Final Look:
My French Coach for the Nintendo DS is a pretty good French primer and will serve you well as an introduction to the French language.  It is not, nor should it ever be confused with, a replacement for the fine language learning tool known as Rosetta Stone (the makers of which may feel free to send me a free discretionary copy at their leisure).  My French Coach is fun and it helps getting into a foreign language accessible, but know going in that it is only going to take you so far, and depending on how far you want to go, that may or may not be enough.  For serious students and those who really get into learning French, you can certainly have a good time with My French Coach, but ultimately you are going to want a lot more than this game is going to offer. For those with a more casual interest in foreign languages, this game and its companions are a fun way to play around and maybe pick up a few things along the way.

Next time
I honestly have no idea, the holidays are coming up and I'm stupid busy, but I promise I'll take a look at something between now and then. I just picked up Quest 64 and I've been playing a lot of video game golf...


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