20040706_LANG_GRAPHIC.jpgU.S. Special Forces have a new way of learning Arabic -- by playing a video game.Arabic is one of those languages that are particularly hard to master in a classroom. There's a whole new alphabet to learn. A lot of the syllables seem the same to American ears. Unlike French or Spanish, there aren't a whole bunch of words in common with English. And there are a zillion dialects that sound a whole lot different from the Arabic taught in school.The idea behind the new simulator is to give G.I.s a more realistic learning environment -- one in which they only have to learn the limited, "tactical" vocabulary they need to operate on the street.This "Tactical Language Project" -- co-developed by the University of Southern California and Darpa, the Pentagon's mad science division -- first teaches a soldier the basics of spoken Arabic. The grunt then tries out what he's learned in a pixilated Lebanese village. Wearing a headset, the player talks to the game's Arabic-speaking characters. Using artificial intelligence and speech recognition software, these digitized Lebanese guide the G.I. through the linguistic labyrinth of their native tongue.The game teaches nonverbal cues, too. "For example," the New York Times notes, "when [game protagonist] Sergeant Smith starts or finishes a conversation with an important person, he can cross his right hand over his heart and bow slightly, a common gesture of respect in the Arab world."Check out footage of the game here.

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