Friday, May 30, 2014

Why We Both Love and Hate Google's Spell Up

As most of my web browsing starts from searching for something on the internet, setting Google as my homepage seemed like an ingenious idea. However, with a lot of stuff on the internet being little more than an aid to procrastination, has become a thorn in the side of my productivity.

This was particularly true yesterday, when I discovered Google Chrome's new experiment, Spell Up. Only after playing for thirty minutes did I see the promotional video explaining its purpose.

While not explicitly saying that the game is for those learning English as foreign language, it's quite clear that the benefits of playing this game will be clearer to somebody who does not speak English as their first language. Let's start with the reasons as to why we love the game:

The Good

More Language Video Games

I'm really fond of video games, in all shapes and forms, and while racing fast cars, killing terrorists, or embarking on a mystery quest are all my cup of tea, there are very few language games that I have actually enjoyed and wanted to continue playing.

A Focus on Spoken Language

The game's focus on speaking is an aspect that is often overlooked when learning to speak a language from a book, podcasts, CDs, or, if you can remember that far back, cassettes. Many language learning programs ignore this or add it as an afterthought in a way that means the learner never has their spoken language skills evaluated, and instead just speaks aloud to themselves in public like a lunatic.

A Sense of Achievement

Gameifying language learning is a fantastic way to encourage the continuation of your "quest" for a new tongue. With achievements, levels, power-ups, and bonuses, the player must actually do something. In a book, you can just keep reading whether you understand the concept or not.

The Bad

Understanding Native English Speakers

As a Geordie (a native of the northeastern English city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne), I certainly do not have the clearest and most easily-understood accent when speaking my mother tongue, and I can accept that. However, I do not accept when the phonemes I can pronounce well are misunderstood by a machine, forcing me to alter the way I speak just to play the game. This is even more annoying when you're spelling the last letter of discombobulate and the machine thinks I said "a" when I said "e" and have to go back to the start of the level.


It's very unnatural to spell words as slowly as the program requires and when it finally catches up it throws up a suggestion of what it thinks the combination of the four letters it couldn't hear could be if they were just one letter.

Aside from the obvious linguistic issues I have with the program, it is still a video game at the end of the day and it will be faced with the same scrutiny as I would judge any other game. It doesn't run well! The frame-rate is poor and jumpy.

Put simply, Spell Up is a good idea, poorly executed.

Have you played Spell Up? If so, tell us about your experience with it in the comments below and whether or not you're a native English speaker. We can't wait to hear from you!

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