Arabic-Teaching Videogame Ships Out to Iraq-Bound Soldiers

January 28, 2005

A University of Southern California videogame designed to teach soldiers Arabic quickly is now going into the hands of Iraq- bound troops.

Four soldiers from three military units participated January 27 and 28 in an intensive workshop at USC's Information Sciences Institute in Marina del Rey, which developed the "Tactical Iraqi" system.

The four will return to their home units with copies of a "beta" (advanced testing) version of the software that they will introduce to their fellow troops, including some awaiting deployment to Iraq.

Approximately 100 troops will go through the training in the next three months, estimated Dr. Lewis Johnson, director of the Center for Advanced Research in Technology for Education (CARTE) and leader of the project.

"If the system proves effective we expect much larger numbers in following months," he said, adding that the experience of large numbers of users would be crucial in helping his team to improve Tactical Iraqi. The package provided includes a system for recording training sessions, which will be sent back to CARTE for analysis.

The four soldiers who will be introducing the system to comrades-in-arms were enthusiastic after the training. "I would have loved to have had this before I went to Iraq," said Sgt. Gabriel Whetsel, who returned from a tour of duty in the country to serve as a trainer in an airborne battalion. "We probably could have gotten along a lot better."

Tactical Iraqi builds upon a popular existing PC-based computer game called "Unreal Tournament," in which a player moves a game figure representing him or herself through a landscape filled with buildings and characters.

The Tactical Iraqi game arena reproduces the environment of Iraq, geographically and architecturally. Most important, the characters are recognizably Iraqi, speaking Iraqi Arabic and using gestures and other non-verbal cues characteristic of the nation.

Using a headphone and microphone system, Tactical Iraqi trainees communicate with these characters in Arabic, using appropriate body gestures, to perform typical war-theater tasks: entering a town and locating a head man, check documents at a road crossing, and other civil administration tasks.

"We also provide general training in 'command language' vocabulary, vocabulary that soldiers find useful in military missions," said Johnson, adding that training for additional military tasks is currently being designed and will be included in the near future.

Voice recognition and artificial intelligence software gives the characters the ability to understand and respond appropriately to the Iraqi dialect of Arabic - if it is pronounced understandably.

"I was on a mission exactly like the one in the software, finding a headman in a village," said Whetsel, who had no foreign language training of any kind before joining the service, and knew no Arabic when he went to Iraq. "Not being able to speak the language at all made it very hard."




Mission to Arabic: Using a headphone and speaking into a microphone, a soldier-trainee operates a figure representing himself (left) in an Iraqi environment. The other characters, animated by artificial intelligence and voice recognition software, can understand what he says - if it is in understandable Arabic - and respond appropriately. If he is insulting or rude, either in word or gesture, they will react to that as well. Icon figures around the image link to resources that the student can call on. The red down-arrow over the AI-animated Iraqi character on the right indicates that he is expecting the student to say something. (Click on image for larger view)


The software is in two parts. A "Skill Builder" introduces words and vocabulary, in a format somewhat similar to that used in the familiar language laboratory.

However, the Skill Builder also includes "pedagogical agent software" that tailors lessons to each learner, keeping track of mistakes. The agent looks for learning patterns and adjusts the pace and the mix of material to individual student strengths and weaknesses. It moves on when an idea is mastered, and comes back to places with problems.

It also instructs users in cultural cues and gestures: the traditional respectful hand-on-heart greeting, for example. After learning basics, the trainee then applies the new vocabulary, grammar and cultural information in the Mission exercises, using the game format.

"I know we can pick up more in a week using this system than we could any other way," said Specialist Aaron McCurdy, from the same unit as Whetsel, and equally without experience or - by his admission - particular inclination or aptitude for languages.

Sgt. Amy Perkins, an Arabic-speaking linguist from a cavalry unit, spoke from frustrating classroom experience when she said that the software would greatly facilitate her work trying to teach fellow soldiers: "It's a much better way for them to learn a language they really don't want to learn."

"I think this is the right thing to do," said Maj. Rodney Choi, who will be introducing the system at the Marine Corps Expeditionary Warfare School in Quantico VA, calling it "a tool that might save lives."

Dr. Ralph E. Chatham of the Defense Advanced Resarch Projects Agency, which joined with the Office of Naval Research to fund the research effort, noted that the system represents a break from earlier military language training - which traditionally has been given only to a relatively few soldiers, in standard classroom form. "This, we believe, can deliver some degree of language, gesture and cultural knowledge to everyone."

He cautioned that it still under development. "Teaching some language for everyone is a new idea and we have not yet proven that our new approaches will achieve this new goal. Our initial trials have proven very encouraging, but we will have a much better idea of how close we are to that goal when we get done with this round of testing."


Troops at the 7th Army Training Center training area in Hohenfels, Germany learn to use the Tactical Iraqi system.

Not Your Father's Language Lab Earlier ISI News story