Oculus Quest 2 : Screenshot of a street in Rome in the Wander app

Oculus Quest 2 : Virtual Language Hopping

You can bend almost anything to language learning. And this week, I’ve been using that excuse to justify numerous hours of VR gaming.

I recently gave in to my curiosity and plumped for an Oculus Quest 2 headset. Admittedly, it’s not my first foray into virtual reality. The technology has been edging into the mainstream for a couple of years now, and I got an early shot at it when a colleague – way ahead of me on the curve – brought his gear into the Linguascope office at the end of last year.

It blew my mind.

There’s something inspiringly sea change about it. I was in awe – you pop on that headset, and it just feels like the future. To put that into perspective, I grew up watching the likes of Back to the Future Part II, with its crazy holographic shark heads, and Tron, which placed players in the game. Those childhood fantasies were finally here.

That said, while playing it in the office, it wasn’t the footloose and fancy-free dash into the virtual sunlit uplands just yet. The tech seemed nascent, rather than ready. I was put off by the clunkiness, the wired nature of the headset, the need for a separate computer to run it.

Oculus Quest changed all of that.

It’s not only light, portable and powerful. It has some fantastic draws for language learning aficionados.

Oculus Quest 2 : Wander

Of course, VR has incredible potential to transform language learning directly through purpose-made applications. Mondly were the first to develop a language app for the Oculus platform, with an immersive conversation simulator. Sadly it remains available only for the older Rift headset.

In fact, the winning hook on the Quest 2 isn’t a language app, or even a regular, run-of-the-mill game in a foreign language. Rather, it’s the immersive Google Street View experience, Wander, that has me billing and cooing (in various languages).

The idea is incredibly simple: place the user within a 3D, virtual rendering of Google’s vast, extensive VR mapping of the world. The winning feature for us language bods is the fact that signage is everywhere, particularly in the cities. Wherever people gather, there is a wealth of material to read and decipher.

Japanese signage in Tokyo seen on Google Street View

Japanese signage in Tokyo seen on Google Street View

I must say that the virtual escape is hugely welcome in the year of the lockdown. Forget cheap getaways – how about no getaways? Wander had me exploring all of my old favourites. Berlin, Oslo, Reykjavik – the nostalgia was soaring, and the language was, comfortingly, all over the place. Street signs, shop windows, billboards – it had me feeling that language learner travel buzz all over again.

But it doesn’t stop at the familiarly far-flung. A particularly fun feature is ‘Random’, redubbed ‘Guess the Language’ (by me). Click it to be transported to anywhere in the world. Your mission? Find a signpost or billboard, and try to guess from the text where you are. My favourite so far has to be Kalaallisut (it almost stumped me, it did).

Hours of fun, my friends.

Gaming Proper

Gaming, of course, has long been open to a blend with language learning through conventional play options. Notably, Apple Arcade is bursting with goodies for linguists. Likewise, Oculus Quest has copious titles available to play in multiple languages. Spice and Wolf is an immersive experience available in Chinese (both varieties) and Japanese. Or if you prefer a bit of action, bestseller POPULATION: ONE allows you to play in French, German, Japanese, Korean or Spanish. Fire up those dictionaries!

As for me, I’m off to play a bit more BeatSaber just now. And if get any further into those BTS tunes, I’m going to be ordering Colloquial Korean at some point soon.

Gaming for language learners: Cat Quest II for the iPad on Apple Arcade

Gaming to fluency – language immersion in the Apple Arcade

Nothing like a bit of fun and games, is there? Of course, for most of us, language learning is the fun and games. But what if we could turbocharge that a little? I’d been mulling over the idea of getting back into gaming as a way to unwind of late. As if right on cue, Apple’s email invite to its new mobile games subscription, Apple Arcade, popped up in my inbox.

I used to love gaming as a kid, from my early VIC-20 days to my beloved Commodore 64. But for one reason or another – maybe with the disillusioning burden of real, adult life – I let that fun fall by the wayside. Nowadays, I’m more likely to be making games than playing them. Time was ripe to turn the tables.

Naturally, everything in my life has to involve language learning in some form or other. So it’s handy that many contemporary apps and games adhere to localisation standards which provide multiple translations. There is a crossover world out there just waiting for people like us!

Gaming genres for learners

The trick to learning through playing is to find gaming genres that contain copious amounts of text. You might instinctively start searching for word puzzle games, but they tend to lack more complex, sentence level material.

It turns out that quest-style role-playing games (RPGs), where you explore worlds and interact with characters, are ideal. The language is often in the form of colloquial dialogues with everyday, natural speech. Many of them are also full of fun, fantasy vocabulary, which goes down a treat if you enjoy foreign language Harry Potter books and the like.

And luckily, Apple Arcade features a lot of them.

Many of the platform’s quest games are available in more than ten languages, including the ‘biggies’, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean and Spanish. There is one caveat: usually, only the text is available in translation, rather than the full spoken audio dialogue. This makes gaming language practice more of a reading comprehension activity than anything else. But that’s incredibly useful in its own right, akin to watching Netflix in English with foreign language subtitles. You can always turn the English dialogue sound down too, if it distracts.

So what have I been playing this week?

CAT QUEST II

For my first outing into lingua-gaming, I plumped for the comic-style Cat Quest II by Singaporean indie outfit The Gentlebros. Love cats and dogs? No problem, as you can play as both in this cutesy RPG. The eye-catching graphics reminded me a lot of the bold, brash worlds I used to explore in arcade games like Pac-Land as a kid, making this title hard to resist. Download, boot up and switch to German: I’m ready to play.

Kudos to the developers for the delightful German translation. It avoids being the Google Translate hatchet job you might expect from a studio with less cash to splash than one of the behemoth firms. A heap of care and attention has gone into it, including cute, native play-on-words and puns for the character names. Even the quirky place names on the maps have been translated!

Gaming for language learners: Cat Quest II for the iPad on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Cat Quest II on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Cat Quest II for the iPad on Apple Arcade

A spot of shopping in German: Cat Quest II on Apple Arcade

YAGA

What grabbed me most about Yaga is its basis in Slavic folklore. It has an authentic-sounding, haunting soundtrack to match. Not only that, but – rather appropriately – it is also one of the few games available in Polish.

You play the hapless, one-armed blacksmith Ivan, desperate to change his luck. The point-and-click, adaptive dialogue is a fun and immersive way to practise any one of an impressive fifteen languages.

Gaming for language learners: Yaga for iPad on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Yaga on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Yaga for iPad on Apple Arcade

Another friendly chat in Yaga on Apple Arcade

MOSAIC

For lovers of dystopian noir, Mosaic is a bit of a treat. Dark, moody and more than a little bit trippy, it is also one of the few games offering a Norwegian Bokmål translation.

The game story takes place in a rich point-and-click environment where you play our beleaguered everyday anti-hero. But perhaps more uniquely, the exploration of his world also makes use of several self-contained games-within-a-game. Understanding the target language instructions is key to getting anywhere with these.

Gaming for language learners: Mosaic for iPad on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Mosaic on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Mosaic for iPad on Apple Arcade

In-game puzzing på norsk within Mosaic on Apple Arcade

Gaming for All

After playing my way through a few of these, one thing strikes me: it’s so easy to get started. Perhaps one of the best things about mobile gaming as a learning tool is this accessibility. Devices are so ubiquitous that there is no need to fork out for a console as well.

Device-based gaming also works out pretty cheaply, especially with platforms like Apple Arcade being subscription-based. For a flat monthly fee, you get access to unlimited games. Not only that, but Apple are pushing new games to users all the time, keeping things nice and fresh. And although I’m a shameless Apple boy myself (could you tell?), Android users can enjoy similar features with Google Play Pass.

Admittedly, you do need a certain level of competence in the language already in order to get the most out of it. Quest-based games seem a good fit for upper beginner / intermediate learners, as well as maintainers. That said, the slower pace of some of these types of game means that you have time to pause and look up unfamiliar material.

All in all, for mindful escapism with a dash of language practice, mobile gaming is proving hard to beat. It’s another very welcome way to unwind, capturing a bit of that youthful gaming fun I lost and flexing my lingua-muscles at the same time.

Are you a language learning mobile gamer? Do you have any recommendations for top titles? Please share them in the comments!