My Spanish Coach (DS)
“My Spanish Coach” is an educational game, created by Ubisoft for use on the Nintendo DS gaming system. It is a single player game designed to provide the player with a beginner’s lesson in Latin American Spanish. The player’s goal is to master the words of a given lesson, in order to progress to the next lesson and continue to learn and master the Spanish language.
At the start of the game the player is given a placement test, so that the game may place each player at an appropriate starting point given any prior knowledge of the language that the player may have. The player is, from this point forward, choosing primarily between ‘Learning’ (where the player takes the lessons) and ‘Games’ (which earn the player points towards advancing to the next lesson by playing mini-games).
The primary tool used to play this game is the DS touchpad, and can be the only way you interact if you so desire. While the buttons are (mostly) useable if the player desires them to be, they are not required as you can do every activity and progress through every menu using only the touchpad screen. Indeed, there are some menus where the ‘back’ option won’t function if you are trying to use the ‘B’ button to go backwards, and you are forced to use the touch screen. Small glitches such as that aside, the buttons are there to be used for players who prefer them over the touchpad.
Gameplay can be divided into two areas: those areas that specifically assist the player in moving forward to the next lesson, and those areas that do not have a lesson progression focus.
Graphics, Sound, Controls
The graphics for the game are good, but not great. The colors are vibrant, but not distracting, and the graphical flourishes are minimal. Mastering a word sets off miniature fireworks, and there are some nice pictures of Latin America, but nothing is going to ‘wow’ you.
The sounds are appropriate at fit the atmosphere of the game. There is some background music that is fairly lively and some background music that is more subdued—all with a Latin American theme. However, the background music is repetitive and you will probably grow tired of it quickly if you are playing the game for more than 10-15 minutes at a time. Thankfully, you can choose to lower the volume—or mute completely—the background music or any of the other sounds in the game (such as menu clicks and swishes).
The primary control is the touchpad, and is in actually the only control you will ever truly need. Though the buttons can be used for most menus, they cannot be used for all of the games. The one exception where you would actually need a button is to use the reset function within the mini-games. Barring that, the touchpad will get you through everything and is what you should be using to play the game.
In order to continue to move forward in the game, you must progress through each lesson, ‘mastering’ a certain number for words, and then move on to the next lesson. This is achieved by entering either ‘Learning’ or ‘Games’.
When you select ‘Learning’ you are entering the area where you take your lessons. A typical lesson is presented in the following manner: you are given some instruction on the upper screen by the female ‘teacher’, while on the bottom screen you are presented with vocabulary words. On the bottom screen, ‘Listen’ is selected by default, and below that the English words are listed in a left column. You press a button to hear the Spanish translation of each word—this also then shows the Spanish spelling of the word, in the right column.
While this is useful in learning what the Spanish word is, and how it sounds, there is also a very useful option to help you pronounce it yourself. By clicking the ‘Compare’ option at the top-right of the bottom screen, and then pressing the ‘translate’ button, you are taken to a new screen where you can hear the Spanish pronunciation of the word and also record your own voice as you try to pronounce it. You can overlap the two sounds—your pronunciation and the game’s pronunciation—in order to hear where your pronunciation may be off. You can also slow down the game’s pronunciation to help you pick up on small details that you might be having a hard time picking up on at full speed.
After progressing through the lesson, you are presented with an option to play a mini-game to practice what you have just learned. After the mini-game—or immediately, if you choose to skip the mini-game—you are then presented with a usage lesson on the vocabulary words you just learned (e.g. Es verde, for it is green). After the usage lesson you are again presented with the option to play a mini-game to practice your knew knowledge.
The other option to progress through the game is to enter the ‘Games’ section immediately. Though this option is probably best used after you have viewed the lesson at least one time, it allows you to enter the games without having to review the lesson each time you want to enter the mini-games.
How many mini-games are available depends entirely upon how far you have progressed through the lessons, and how many vocabulary words you have mastered. For example, as a ‘Baby’ ranked player, you have access to only the ‘Multiple Choice’ and ‘Hit-a-Word’ games. Once you reach ‘Toddler’ rank, you then have access to the ‘Word Search’ mini-game.
The games have varying difficulty levels which you can select: Easy, Medium, and Hard. What those settings mean depend upon the mini-game you are playing. For example, in the ‘Multiple Choice’ game, the various difficulties have different time limits which require you to play at a faster pace if you want to complete the game. While in the ‘Word Search’ mini-game, the various difficulties change the manner in which you can find words—‘Easy’ means they are only found horizontally, while ‘Hard’ means they can be found in any direction. Selecting a harder difficulty rewards the player with more points, which means faster progression to the next lesson.
The games are relatively fast paced affairs, designed to be quick and to force the player to recognize the correct word quickly. The ‘Hit-a-Word’ game, for example, will probably be frustrating to players at first because moles appear from, and disappear back into, their holes quite quickly. The word appears on a blank card in front of each hole, and if you aren’t fast in both reading the word and recognizing that is the word you are looking for, then you will miss hitting the mole. Making it slightly hard, is the fact that the word you have to look for is presented to you near the top of the top screen, and then you have to move your eyes back down to the bottom screen quickly as the game doesn’t hesitate to start. This is where the designer’s choice to utilize the touch screen shines through, as trying to navigate to a mole (or really to any selectable item in any mini-game) would take far too long, and you wouldn’t be able to have faster paced mini-games.
Also of note, you have the option of selecting whether you want the game to choose words from an ‘Open’ word set or from a ‘Mastered’ word set. Selecting ‘Mastered’ forces the game to use words that you’ve already conquered, and is a good way to review them and keep the player sharp. Another handy feature is pressing the ‘Select’ button during a game resets it—gives you a new timer, and also a new word set to work with. This allows you try again immediately without having to go back to the games menu and reselecting the game and difficulty settings.
What may come a surprise to many players is that the game contains useful areas that, while not focused on helping the player progress to the next lesson, are still very useful and quite helpful to them in their pursuit of Spanish language knowledge.
The game features a ‘Reference’ section that can be quite useful to the player. The first option within this section is ‘Player Status’. In this subsection the player can view their game status: how many words in the current lesson they’ve mastered, how many ‘Unlockables’ they’ve managed to unlock, and look at charts that plot their performances in each of the mini-games.
There is also a ‘Dictionary’ which has three subsections: ‘List’, ‘Search’, and ‘Mastered Words’. As one could guess, ‘Mastered Words’ features only those words the player has mastered, allowing them to review each word. ‘Search’ is handy as you can search in either English or Spanish—for example, although the typewriter interface pronounces each letter in Spanish as you type, if you type in ‘hello’ then the dictionary brings up the entry that shows hello in English and Spanish. Using the ‘List’ option may be a bit daunting to those who are new to the language, as the dictionary contains a total of 10,000 words. Important to note is that every word in the dictionary, no matter which method you use to find it, is pronounceable by the game—meaning even those new to Spanish won’t be left wondering on the specifics of pronouncing a word they’re unfamiliar with.
An extremely useful ‘Phrasebook’ is included in this game, which can be used as either an emergency translator, or as a learning tool. When entering the phrasebook, you can select ‘Category’, ‘List’, ‘Search’, and ‘Favorites’. List and search work as one would expect them to, and as they do within the ‘Dictionary’ section. Entering ‘Category’ allows you to search phrases given specific situations, such as dining, and then hear the phrases one might need in a given situation (such as asking a waiter for a bottle of something). In a pinch, you could have the DS say these phrases for you, or if you are trying to learn them, you can listen to them and repeat them, or use the same ‘Compare’ option that is available to you during the lessons. This is very handy as you can slow down the phrases to pick up each nuance and then hear yourself speak them, learning where to place your accents and perfecting your timing. Having the compare feature available within the phrases is a fantastic feature and one that allows you to go beyond the word-for-word type of translation you might perform on your own by just translating several words in order. Further, by placing your favorite phrases into the ‘Favorites’ section, you have all the phrases you would need readily available and easily playable—something very handy if you are travelling before having mastered the language.
A sketchpad may sound like an odd addition to a language based game, but it fits in well if you are taking the DS with you into an area where the language you are learning is going to be spoken. There could be a time when you want to say something, yet you do not know how and you cannot find—or don’t have the time to find—the correct phrase within the phrasebook. Simply open the sketchpad and draw a simple picture of what it is you need or are trying to say—often a picture can communicate your concept better than stumbling over words you may not be familiar with. Also, the sketchpad could allow you to play your own game of Pictionary with other players who are learning the language. Regardless of how you use it, having it available is certainly a nice feature.
Being designed specifically as an educational game, “My Spanish Coach” is a game that can fit well into the curriculum of a Spanish class. Though the game has a large dictionary and is capable of helping a player learn vocabulary, some sentence structure, and the correct tenses of some words (male vs. female, etc.) it will undoubtedly fall short of the full classroom experience that one can only get in person from a professional teacher. The aspects of this game which would be most effectively used in classrooms are:
- Building a deep vocabulary
- Learning correct word form based on gender
- Learning correct article use based on gender (e.g., ‘el’ and ‘los’, or ‘la’ and ‘las’)
- Learning very basic grammar
This game would best be used within a Spanish class setting, where the teacher is available to give answers to nuanced questions that the game either doesn’t cover, or doesn’t cover very well—such as detailed grammar rules and usage. The game would be a very valuable tool to help students gain a deep vocabulary and to begin to understand how to use that vocabulary—saving the teacher from unnecessary and potentially frustrating ‘drill and kill’ methods of learning vocabulary in a classroom. A professional teacher could then assist the student in understanding how best to use the vocabulary that they’ve gained.
Though hard data on current in-classroom use is hard to come by, teachers have been noted for using software such as this game—specifically the Nintendo Wii version of the game—to help their students learn in a motivated way.
Potential Stereotype Issue
Regardless of the choices you make when setting up your save file (male or female, age, etc) you are presented with only one ‘teacher’ in the game. A female which some may consider stereotypical—based upon hair color and style, bosom size, and hair accessory (she’s wearing a bandana). There appears to be no other teacher available to select, and you don’t appear to unlock one as you progress through the game. This may be something a teacher would bring up before introducing students to the game if they feel the image is, or could be, offensive.