Learning From the Little Guy

Vegas company uses video games to transform language learning

cherokee.pngHow do you say, “David and Goliath” in Cherokee?

Ask Las Vegas entrepreneur Don Thornton. He built his company, Thornton Media, on smart toys, handheld translators and other technologies for native North American languages. At times, he worked with companies that already had similar products for major languages, such as Spanish and French. They didn’t see him as a threat.

“They wouldn’t do a language with less than 50 million speakers,” Thornton says. “So we did the ones with only a few thousand speakers, the tiny languages.”

Over its 17-year lifespan, Thornton Media evolved to create video games for Nintendo, then apps for Apple and Android, always focusing on indigenous languages in need of preservation. Now, the tiny language company is taking on the big guys—in terms of both players in foreign language education and the languages themselves.

During his recent Green Jelly presentation, Thornton called out language-teaching behemoth Rosetta Stone, saying his new product could allow students to become proficient in as little as one-tenth the time. That product is Talking Games, a program based on Thornton’s Cherokee-learning game, Rez World.

Thornton wants to expand on the single-level Rez World to build an eight-level, 3D video game. The plan is to start with Cherokee—his mother’s first language—and Spanish, and eventually expand to Chinese, French, German, Italian and Japanese.

But how does a small-business man with a passion for preserving his ancestors’ rare tongue think he can compete in the big leagues? Thornton says his game will eliminate the great barrier to all language learning, digital or otherwise: boredom. In the game environment, players will forget they’re learning and be completely immersed in the action. And since the will require players to speak to move through the game, it will be a true immersion experience.

As Thornton adapts the program for major languages, he’s found some helpful efficiencies: Existing databases of words and phrases can be plugged straight into his automatic speech recognition tool, so he doesn’t have to build them from scratch as he had to with the Cherokee program. And that frees up more resources for the fun part: artificial intelligence, human-computer interactions and intelligent tutoring. David’s slingshot has gone high-tech.

“In some ways this will be easier,” Thornton says, “because we’re not so emotionally involved.”

Think you could pick up Cherokee? Try repeating some of the phrases below.

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