Reviewed: December 22, 2007
Released: November 6, 2007
Nintendo has really opened up a whole new audience for "games" of a certain sort, which I will conveniently label as "edutainment". Edutainment is a genre of game that seeks to educate as well as entertain. When Nintendo put out the extremely popular Brain Age for Nintendo DS, they probably had no idea that the flood gates to a brand new audience for their handheld would have opened as wide as it did. Brain Age went on to sell nearly 10 million copies worldwide counting all the various versions by territory (which are slightly different but still similar), and has definitely been a "system seller" for the DS hardware as well.
Enter Ubisoft, a big player in games of all sorts for all platforms. Ubisoft has had moderate success on the Nintendo DS platform, but now they are starting to get serious about educational entertainment and using the NDS as an excellent and highly appropriate tool for learning. They have two new foreign language games out now for the US market, My Spanish Coach and My French Coach. Each of these games strives to act as a beginner-to-intermediate electronic tutor for learning the languages of Spanish and French respectively.
Now, let me just say, that I am almost a complete novice in Spanish. Furthermore, I have very little training in Spanish apart from a high school class long forgotten, and I have little experience with other learning-a-language software. So if you're looking for a review comparing this product to other tools available on the market, I am afraid I cannot help you. What I am, however, is a gamer, and I can tell you how a gamer unfamiliar with the language felt about spending a few weeks with this educational game.
The first thing that happens when you turn on My Spanish Coach is that you are given a little placement quiz to determine how well you know Spanish already. I was able to place at the 3rd lesson just because I knew how to count to 10 in Spanish and could pretty much figure out most of the basic colors. You are only given a maximum of 3 minutes to finish the test, so it is not very exhaustive, but if you miss two questions in a row that also stops the test. The purpose of this placement quiz is to let you skip boring early lessons if you already know them, assuming you already have some knowledge of the language.
Also, the game keeps track of up to 3 profiles on one cartridge. So, if you want to share one with a family member or two so that you can learn together, that is supported, and you each get your own profile and scores. Your profile also lets you keep track of statistics so that the game can chart your progress over time.
The “gameplay” of My Spanish Coach is to go through increasingly difficult lessons where you’ll be introduced to a handful of related words and concepts at a time. You are blocked from jumping up to lesson 20 if you have not already successfully placed out of or completed lessons 1-19. In order to move on to the next lesson, you must also achieve “word mastery” over every new word that was introduced in the lesson you just completed. How do you master words? Well, quite simply you play mini-games and every time you get a question right related to that word you get points for that word, and you need several points to reach mastery.
The default setting for the mini-games is Easy, which I found to be too easy and I found that I was not really actually learning the words that I had supposedly “mastered”. When I bumped the difficulty up to Hard that helped, but I still felt like I wasn’t master of the words yet, even though I was eager to move on to learn new words. The Easy, Medium, and Hard settings on the different mini-games will alter how they work to some extent. On some it may just mean you have a stricter time limit, on others it may throw more previously mastered words at you or actually change the mechanics of the mini-game some.
These games are designed to be played for about 20 minutes per day, but they do not restrict you from continuing on to new lessons if you want to. What I really found was that I could easily get through most of the mini-games without too much problem to get to the next lesson, but a few hours later when the DS was off, if I tried to remember those words, I could not recall all of them. I suspect that you will need to put in a great deal more practice in memorization than what the game provides if you want to achieve actual fluency in Spanish.
During the lessons one of the really nice features is to switch to “compare” mode on the screen that shows you your new words, which will then let you listen to the instructor say the word or phrase in Spanish, and then let you record yourself repeating it, and then play them back so you can compare how your voice sounds to the voice of the instructor. I found this to be a very interesting and handy feature, but since it isn’t mandatory for acing the mini-games, in practice I didn’t use it very often.
I think this feature actually betrays a flaw in these games, in that while it may help you be able to learn to read and even understand spoken Spanish, it will take a great deal of extra effort and learning on your own to actually learn how to pronounce the language correctly, and this software has no way to test you for that to judge if you are saying it correctly or not. That’s likely a limitation in voice recognition software technology in general, much less something that could fit on a Nintendo DS cartridge. But the “compare” screen definitely is a step in this direction that helps.
But what about the mini-games? Well, the simplest one you’ll do is a straight up multiple-choice question quiz. It shows you the word or phrase in English and you have to choose the correct word or phrase in Spanish. Or sometimes it’s in reverse. Other mini-games include:
Graphics really aren’t that important of a factor for an edutainment game, except that they be recognizable enough not to interfere with the learning process or distract too much. As such, the graphics in My Spanish Coach do their job just fairly well. The graphics, for the most part, are simple, yet efficient, which is exactly what you need for a game of this type.
The only problem I found was that some of the text in a few of the fast-paced mini-games was too small for rapid recognition, and a lot of my mistakes were made simply due to font similarity rather than misunderstanding the concepts. But that is a minor quibble, really, since most of the words are recognizable enough most of the time.
Could there have been more? Well sure, if cartridge memory was of no concern, they could have provided cute little animations for each of the words and maybe even had another mini-game where you are only shown the animation and have to guess the word it belongs to or something along those lines. But would that really make the game a better learning tool?
Some cheesy sound effects and sleep inducing elevator music will accompany your journey through Mexico as you learn your language of choice. It’s not too distracting to the learning is the only nice thing I can say about it. The really good news here is that these games do include a lot of voice work, and every word or phrase you are required for learning on the mini-game tests is spoken. For the most part I could understand and distinguish the words, but a higher quality of recording and crisper sound might have helped a little on a few similar-sounding words.
One minor nit about the sound is that during the various numbered lessons there may be some written Spanish phrases given that are never spoken in voice, and it would have not only been more interesting but also help you learn more if there was full voice for all of the lessons.
You’re going to have to spend a lot of hours on this game and practicing on your own to master a new language, but this game offers some additional features to get more for your money than just replaying the same mini-games over and over. One nice feature you get is a handy dictionary of words and phrases where you can look up words or phrases in either English or Spanish to see their meanings and listen to how they are pronounced. You can browse this or you can key in a word and search based on it.
Find yourself in Cozumel and need to know how to ask, “Where is the toilet?” Just go to the phrase search feature from the options menu and key in “toil” and hit the enter button for a list of phrases that match that search criteria. You may find it under “bath room” as well. Unfortunately if someone cusses you out in Spanish, this family-oriented software won’t help you find what they said or how to respond in kind.
Overall, My Spanish Coach seems to be a pretty good tool for at least getting started learning Spanish for English speakers. Not only will you learn how to read the words in Spanish, but you will also learn how they are pronounced and learn how to hear it spoken and understand what is being said. This is, of course, absolutely critical to understanding a foreign language. The one downfall of the software is that it has no way of testing you if you know how to pronounce the words and phrases correctly or not, but at least it does provide that voice record / compare tool which helps you learn that on your own a bit.
In addition to many different lessons and the mini-games, this tool also provides a very handy and portable English-to-Spanish dictionary and phrase book, complete with pronunciation so that you can actually look up what you want to say while traveling and hopefully not sound like a complete idiot. My Spanish Coach probably will not be your only tool you use on the road to complete Spanish fluency, but it is certainly a good starting point and one of the best educational uses for the Nintendo DS on the market. Anyone who has an interest in learning a foreign language, which should be nearly anyone, can get something out of this.