Unfairly Early Review of Lingotopia: A Language Learning Game

When I was in college, I was part of a student club called the League of Linguistics Students (LOLS). Naturally, we all spoke different languages to varying degrees of fluency. Each of us always had languages we were comfortable in, languages we were working on, and languages we wanted to work on.

This presented something of a problem. If we asked each other, "How many languages do you speak?" (every linguist's favourite question), how could we decide which languages should count? If you can say "bonjour" and "voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir", you don't really speak French. But what if you've invested a few months in a language and you're comfortable in controlled situations (like a classroom), but you can't really say you speak that language, kinda, not really...

The benchmark we used was this: "if you were dropped over a region speaking that language with just a parachute, could you survive?" (Of course, you could be nitpicky and argue for nonlinguistic communication, or you could be some kind of solo survivalist and avoid the problem of talking altogether — but don't be that guy and just play along with the question, okay?)

That's similar to the scenario that the game Lingotopia places you in. You're dropped in a city where everyone speaks a foreign language. To add to the sense of displacement, you're a human in a city of talking animals.

Lingotopia is still in development. The version I played was a very, very early version, and I expect the gameplay to mature as the game evolves. The storyline isn't anywhere near complete, and yes, there are bugs. All right? Let's go.

Warning: spoilers ahead!

Okay? Okay. Here we go...

Lingotopia 01 Language Selection.png

For a game that's still early in development, Lingotopia has an impressive number of languages set up. Not all languages have all the material translated, and only a few languages have sound clips, but I assume these are things that will come with time.

I tried this game three times: first in Indonesian, then in Spanish, and finally in Swedish. I wanted to choose a language that I was unfamiliar with, in order to feel as lost as possible, but I also wanted to play in a language that wasn't handicapped by a lack of material.

The game, as it currently exists, is not kind to you if you have zero knowledge of the language you are playing in. I expect there will be some kind of placement system in the future, where you can be directed to the level that most suits your current abilities in the language, but for this super early version you're going to have to guesstimate.

I thought I was doing okay playing in Indonesian, and learning lots of new words (air mancur! pohon! gadis!), but after getting "stuck" and restarting the game in Spanish, I discovered just how little I'd understood. There were also some awkward or incorrect translations in the Spanish, but given that the translations are crowdsourced, that's understandable — the quality of the translations will improve as more eyes cross-check them.

The screenshots in this post are from my third run, where I played in Swedish.

Okay, enough blabbering.

Lingotopia 02 Starting Screen.png

This is what you see when you first start the game: a sort of blocky architecture with an old European town feel. Occasionally animals pass by with speech bubbles above their heads. If you're a gamer, you'll know to pay attention to these; they give you hints of where to go, but they also disappear pretty quickly. You don't need to understand what the animals say at this point, though — you'll still be able to learn by exploring.

The little yellow cube above a character indicates that you can talk to them. This took me a full twenty minutes in my Indonesian game to figure out, because I'm blind. I expect in future versions, the yellow cube will spin or bounce or glow to draw your attention to it.

I go over to the talking bird, and it asks me:

Lingotopia 03 Conversation Screen.png

I have no idea what the bird is saying, but I'm supposed to figure out what fågel means. To help me along, I'm informed that it flies, and it is an animal of some kind. I have two guesses, as indicated by the two blue lightbulbs in the corner. I can ask for a third clue, but that means I lose one guess.

In this case, it's not necessary, seeing as I am talking to a bird. (You may not be able to tell at once, though — some of the animal shapes are obvious, while others require a considerable amount of inspection and imagination…)

I really like the way the game uses the juxtaposition of images to convey meaning. It gives you work to do to figure out what the word means, it helps with retention, and there's a much bigger sense of satisfaction when you get it right. It's certainly better than just having a picture of a bird and telling you it's a fägel and asking you to recall fägel later, which is what a lot of language learning systems do.

Don't get me wrong — spaced repetition works. I've used it, and I don't use flashcard apps that don't have it. But spaced repetition isn't fun. Lingotopia's system is fun.

Once you've learnt a word, it gets added to your dictionary. We'll take a look at your dictionary later.

From the pedagogical point of view, these types of questions are about adding to your vocabulary. You don't need to understand the rest of the dialogue to answer the question, as the clues themselves will tell you all you need to know. I'm guessing that if you can understand the rest of the dialogue, you don't need the clues to figure out what the word means, but for a low-level learner I think it's still a good way to see the word used in context (even if the context is "have you never met a talking bird before?")

I wondered how the game dealt with agglutinative languages, so I started a Finnish game. In the Finnish version of the game, only the relevant morpheme is highlighted. I'm guessing that eventually the game will have to deal with grammatical elements like conjugation, tense, mood, aspect, declension… so I'm curious to see how it handles those.

Lingotopia 04 MCQ.png

Some of the questions are multiple choice. Even after just a few interactions, I noticed that I'd built up a small vocabulary and I could begin to guess these answers by elimination, encouraging recall of words I'd already learnt in the process. From a gaming point of view, I enjoyed the puzzle-solving aspect of this.

Pedagogically, though, I'm not sure I like multiple-choice questions. It's just too easy to go out on a limb and guess, and there isn't much incentive to retain something you've guessed, since you don't necessarily have to go through a process of figuring out why the answer is what it is. I didn't think much of multiple-choice questions both as a student and as a teacher.

Does this matter? At the moment, I'm inclined to say no; I don't think it's that kind of game. I'll discuss this a bit more later.

The bird is telling me something about the marknaden. Okay, I don't know what he's telling me, but going to the marknaden doesn't seem like a bad idea.

Lingotopia 06 Roger Rabbit.png

Look what I found at the market: a rabbit named Roger!

Okay. So I can figure out that he's saying his name is Roger, but I don't know what he says after that. I can make a good guess, but only because träffas looks like a cognate of German treffen, "to meet" — nice to meet you. If I didn't know this, I'd be even more lost than I already am.

Roger says something about trying to get me home, but in this early development version… nothing happens. He's all talk and no action!

Lingotopia 08 Tree.png

Oh well. Time to explore the city a bit, I guess.

Clicking on various objects brings up the relevant word in the target language. I've just learnt that a träd is a tree. I've also learnt that a tak is a roof, a staket is a fence, and a båt is a boat.

Not all objects are named in all languages yet. At the moment, the lexicon is largest in the Indonesian game. I found a number of words in the Indonesian game that I wasn't able to trigger in other versions.

Lingotopia 10 Dictionary.png

All the words you learn in a level get added to your dictionary, and eventually you'll be able to click on the speakers to hear the words as well.

Words already in your dictionary appear in purple when they occur in dialogue, and you can mouseover the purple words to see their meaning.

I could see this dictionary feature being a lot of fun, with thematic vocabulary based on different types of cities. A port city could supply lots of vocabulary relating to the sea. An industrial city could do the same for factories. A farm town could be the setting for learning about plants, fruits and animals. A university town… a ski resort… a national park… maybe quests or achievements for adding x number of words to your dictionary… there's a lot of potential here.

Lingotopia 11 Think.png

I still have no idea what the animals were trying to tell me. I think I was talking to a deer here.

(Okay, I do know what they're trying to say, but only because I played this once through in Spanish. Otherwise I'd be completely lost.)

Questions like these can be problematic. When the word concerns an abstract idea, there aren't really consistent ways to represent them pictorially. The first clue is pretty straightforward — there's a person asking a question. I couldn't make out the second clue: my first thought was that it was something like stars, or maybe lights or fireworks. Well, uh — a man contemplating sidereal time, perhaps?

In the end, I used one lightbulb to reveal the third clue, which made the answer really obvious: tänka means "think".

I think the second picture is supposed to represent two gears meshed with one another.

Lingotopia 12 Yes No Qs.png

I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. I haven't understood anything. Well, except du, kunna, tänka and krokodil, but I can't really string this into a coherent thought.

I don't think this is a problem in itself, but it does point to an existential question for the game: is the objective of the game to improve your command of a language, or is the objective of the game to explore this foreign city? These two objectives have some overlap, but they're not necessarily complementary.

Consider this: should demonstrating mastery of some aspect of the language be required for the player to complete the game?

If the objective is language learning, obviously there would need to be some kind of test of understanding you'd need to pass. Traditional pedagogical techniques would come into play: appropriate pitching and language grading, checks for understanding, and the like. That would essentially make Lingotopia a fancier Duolingo: a set of progressive exercises that just happens to be set in a virtual city with talking animals.

I hope that's not the road that Lingotopia goes down, to be honest. I really enjoyed the exploratory aspect of the game, and it's what makes the game unique. We don't need Yet Another Language Learning App. I could see myself really becoming immersed in this Lingotopia world, completing little quests, levelling up in some way, and absorbing the target language by osmosis somehow. If the absorption doesn't happen, then the challenge is in understanding what needs to be done without fully understanding the language. But going down this route also means being comfortable with the idea that someone can complete these quests and finish the game without understanding more than a fraction of the dialogue.

Anyway: in this early build of the game, answering "Yes" or "No" doesn't seem to do anything. There's a right answer and a wrong answer, but your answer won't add words to the dictionary or affect the plotline. I imagine this will change in the future.

Lingotopia 13 Charming View.png

Tristan Dahl, the developer, bills Lingotopia as "a language learning game about the feeling of being lost in a city where you don't speak the language." The game certainly captures the feeling of displacement very well, the feeling of being in a place that's recognisable but foreign, and of learning to become comfortable with a new city and a new language, street by street and word by word.

All in all, I must say I'm pretty excited to see where Lingotopia goes. The build I played was limited and buggy, but it was fun, and fun is difficult to achieve in a game (especially an educational game — come on, they're often really cheesy and boring). I can't wait to see where Tristan Dahl takes the game from here. I want to spend more time in Lingotopia.

How Kaohsiung Got Its Name

I went on a family holiday to Taiwan recently, and we visited Taiwan’s two largest metro areas, Taipei and Kaohsiung. Many of Taiwan’s major cities have names with relatively transparent etymologies. Taipei 臺北 táiběi, for example, means simply “Northern Taiwan”, and if I tell you that zhōng/chung 中 means “centre", nán 南 means “south” and dōng/tung 東 means “east”, then you can easily figure out that Taichung 臺中 táizhōng is in Central Taiwan, Tainan 臺南 táinán is in Southern Taiwan and Taitung 臺東 táidōng is on the eastern coast of Taiwan. The municipality surrounding Taipei proper is called Xinbei 新北 xīnběi, and if I tell you that xīn 新 means “new”, you will not be surprised to discover that its name in English is “New Taipei City”. Taoyuan 桃園 táoyuán, part of the Taipei metro area and the city that hosts northern Taiwan’s main airport, means “peach garden”. It’s pretty obvious how all of these cities got their names.

And then there’s Kaohsiung 高雄 gāoxióng, a name that means “tall and mighty”.

Naturally, I had to find out how the city of Kaohsiung got its name — and it turns out that the history of Kaohsiung’s name is a linguistic playground. Let’s go.

Beating the dog

The city known today as Kaohsiung enters the historical record sometime in the 16th century, when Hoklo immigrants from Fujian in southern China settled in the area. These immigrants referred to the area as “Takao”, a name of uncertain origin. One hypothesis is that the name comes from Siraya, the language spoken by the aboriginal Siraya people who inhabited the greater region around modern-day Kaohsiung. In this hypothesis, the name “Takao” means “bamboo forest”.

An alternate theory is that the name “Takao” comes from the name of the Makatao tribe, who were concentrated around the area of Takao itself (as opposed to the Siraya, who mostly inhabited the neighbouring regions to the east). Under this hypothesis, the name “Takao” comes from a metathesis of the word “Makatao”.


In linguistics, metathesis refers to the switching of two sounds within a word. As a kid, I pronounced “cavalry” as “calvary” a lot. In Singapore, one also often hears “film” and “phelgm” pronounced as /flɪm/ and /flɛm/ (correction: it's "phlegm", of course, and /flɛm/ is indeed how it's pronounced!). The often-mocked pronunciation “nucular” /nukjulɚ/ is a metathetic form of “nuclear” /nukliɚ/.

Although metathesis is often considered a speech error, it is a linguistic phenomenon that sometimes become a canonical part of languages. Spanish, for example, displays long-distance metathesis in many words involving /l/ and /ɾ/:

  • Latin parabola, Spanish palabra, “word”
  • Latin miraculum, Spanish milagro, “miracle”
  • Arabic al-Jazā’ir, Spanish Argelia, “Algeria”

Whatever the origin of the name “Takao”, what we know for sure is that the Hoklo immigrants wrote it in the Chinese writing system as 打狗, pronounced /tɑ̃gaʊ/ in Hokkien (tone indications not given — I’m at the limit of my personal expertise here. If you know, though, drop me a comment below!)

In Hokkien and Mandarin, 打狗 happens to mean “beating the dog”.

The Chinese Writing System

Think about the Latin alphabet for a second. The individual letters generally suggest a pronunciation. In English, we expect <k> to be pronounced /k/, <n> to be pronounced /n/ or /ŋ/, and <a> to be pronounced /a/, /æ/, or /e/. The letters by themselves, however, do not necessarily mean anything. The letters “c”, “o” and “w” do not mean anything in isolation. Only when we put them into the word “cow” do we get something meaningful, and not because the letters "cow" are inherently meaningful, but because they signify a set of sounds that in turn signifies the idea of the animal. Individual characters in the Latin writing system may carry a phonetic or phonological value, but not a semantic value.

The Chinese writing system works differently. Each written character carries both a pronunciation or a phonetic value (sometimes more than one), as well as a meaning or a semantic value. It just so happens that the two characters used to convey the pronunciation of /tɑ̃gaʊ/ also convey the meaning of “beating the dog”.

寶貝, 你在哪里?
Baby, where are you?

Beating the dog.

The Japanese Arrive

In 1895, the Chinese were forced to cede the island of Taiwan to Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War, and so began 50 years of Japanese rule in Taiwan.

The Japanese have three main writing systems: kanji, katakana and hiragana. We don’t have to go into the details of katakana and hiragana here; the system we’re interested in here is kanji. Kanji, 漢字, literally means “Han words”, which reflects its origin: the Japanese adopted the Chinese writing system to write the Japanese in.

Remember that I mentioned that Chinese characters carry both a phonetic and a semantic value? When Japanese speakers use kanji to write Japanese, they can use kanji for its phonetic value or for its semantic value.

For example, the character 高 gāo is pronounced /kaʊ/ in modern Mandarin, meaning “high” or “tall”. In Japanese, it can be pronounced /ko/, which is a borrowing based on sound, or it can be pronounced /taka/, which is a borrowing based on meaning. If it helps, imagine the Japanese thinking, “We have this word ‘taka’, which means ‘tall’ or ‘high’, but we don’t have any way to write it down. I know, let’s write it 高, like the Chinese do!”

Because of the way kanji works, many (most?) kanji in Japanese have multiple pronunciations, only one of which might resemble the corresponding Mandarin (or, in this case, Hokkien) pronunciation. In this case, the Japanese took the Hokkien pronunciation of the name 打狗 /tɑ̃gaʊ/, and noted its resemblance to a scenic area near Kyoto, which is also called “Takao” and pronounced /takao̞/. As a result, the Japanese kept the name Takao, but wrote it the Japanese way: 高雄.

Taiwan is returned to Chinese sovereignty

After World War II, Japan was made to give up its imperial possessions, and the island of Taiwan was returned to the Republic of China. This time, the Chinese kept the written form of the city’s name, 高雄, but instead pronounced it the Mandarin way /kauɕjʊŋ/, gāoxióng in Pinyin romanisation or Kaohsiung in Wade-Giles romanisation.

Today, the city’s official name is Kaohsiung 高雄, but signs and company names with Takao and 打狗 can still be seen around the city — sometimes simply as historical remnants (see: The British Consulate at Takow, Takao Railway Museum), and sometimes as markers of civic pride.

Photo credit: polanyi on flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0 (click through for original picture on flickr)

Photo credit: polanyi on flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0 (click through for original picture on flickr)

Photo credit: billy1125 on flickr, CC-BY 2.0 (click through for original picture on flickr)

Photo credit: billy1125 on flickr, CC-BY 2.0 (click through for original picture on flickr)

One of the most amazing things that language and writing let us do is connect to the past, and the history of Kaohsiung’s name is a particularly salient example of this.

Linguistics — it’s amazing, yo. That's the message we're trying to spread at Language Rush. Hope you enjoyed this read. Leave me any comments or questions you have!

tl;dr, if you're too lazy to read the whole thing.

tl;dr, if you're too lazy to read the whole thing.

Articulatory Phonetics 101: Diphthongs

This is Part 11 of a series covering the basics of articulatory phonetics, the study of how humans physically produce speech sounds. For the full list of posts, see the Articulatory Phonetics 101 Index.

When we last left off, we had just covered the basics of vowel production. We’re almost — almost — done with the basics of articulatory phonetics, but we have one last thing to cover, real quick:

What’s the vowel in “hi”?

If you remember what we discussed in the vowel basics article, you’ll remember that from the articulatory point of view, a vowel is defined by the position of the highest point of the tongue — specifically, how high and how far back it is. What you’ll find, though, is that when you say “hi”, your tongue moves from one position to another, creating a change in the vowel quality. In this case, the vowel begins as /a/, a low central vowel, and ends as /ɪ/, a high front lax vowel. This vowel is a diphthong, a vowel with two (Greek di-) different vowel qualities (Greek phthongos, “tone”).

Phonologically, diphthongs are considered one vowel, rather than two. If we want to indicate for clarity that /haɪ/ contains a diphthong, we can draw a tie bar over it: /ha͡ɪ/. Alternatively, we can write the diacritic ̯ under /ɪ/ to indicate that /ɪ/ is not a syllable: /haɪ̯/. (If you want to be really particular about their use, they can be used to specify slightly different things, but we won’t get into that here.)

If you ever need to indicate that two adjacent vowels are separate syllables instead of a diphthong, you can insert a syllable break . to indicate that the two vowels do not form a diphthong: /a.ɪ/.

Diphthongs of English

Depending on what variety of English you speak, you may have different numbers of diphthongs. General American has five diphthongs, and Received Pronunciation has eight diphthongs.

General American diphthongs:

  • /aɪ/ as in “hi
  • /aʊ/ as in “how
  • /ɔɪ/ as in “boy
  • /eɪ/ as in “hay
  • /oʊ/ as in “hoe” (the gardening implement — minds out of gutters, please)

Received Pronunciation (or the Queen’s English, or BBC English — take your pick) diphthongs:

  • /aɪ/ as in “hi
  • /aʊ/ as in “how
  • /ɔɪ/ as in “boy
  • /eɪ/ as in “hay
  • /əʊ/ as in “hoe” (General American /oʊ/)
  • /ɪə/ as in “here” (General American /ɪɹ/)
  • /ɛə/ as in “hair” (General American /ɛɹ/)
  • /aə/ as in “hire” (General American /aɪɹ/)

/aɪ/, /aʊ/ and /aə/ begin with the low central vowel /a/, which otherwise does not appear in English.

/eɪ/ and /oʊ/ are of particular note here, because in General American and Received Pronunciation, /e/ and /o/ always appear as diphthongs. In broad transcription, it’s up to you whether you want to write out the full diphthongs /eɪ/ and /oʊ/, or if you want to leave them as /e/ and /o/.


That’s all I’ve got for you today. I’ll have a round-up post next week that quickly revisits all the most important concepts in articulatory phonetics, like a cheat sheet. See you all next week!