An okay tool with several drawbacks
Having university training and real-life experience in teaching not only foreign language but also second language acquisition classes, I can say that Influent can work well as an additional teaching tool to the ones learners already have, provided the players know what they’re doing and are aware that Influent is not actually teaching them how to speak the target language; It merely trains them in recognizing words from that language. Given that, Influent is fairly okay at achieving what it’s supposed to do and I can see it helping certain learner types, although at the same time, it is likely to be just a waste of money to a lot of people, especially as there are products out there that are much better at helping people learn foreign languages. The major drawback being that Influent does not teach grammatical articles (grammatical gender) for European languages. More about that further down.
Primary Issues of the software
Influent (2016) was developed by the US American game designer Rob Howland and published with the help of his alma mater, the University of Tsukuba (筑波大学), and Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (文部科学省【MEXT / 文科省】). Sadly, despite the academic support behind this project, its issues are clearly visible right away and it is very obvious that Howland does not have a linguistic background. The protagonist in the game simply translates nouns or adjective-adverbs from English into the target language and it is limited to objects inside the virtual apartment.
To highlight what I mean, we can briefly look at the impressively handy, elaborate, yet slim Langenscheidt’s picture dictionaries, which contain words, transliterations, pictures (and if you own the TING pen even audio clips of proper pronunciation) of local foods, instruments, sports, holidays, animals, tools, jobs, lab & hospital equipment, body parts, family members, ethnic groups in the target culture, climate zones, and so on and so on and it even includes the necessary vocabulary for any occasion reaching from birthdays to funerals or visits to the barber shop or the postal office. And it is merely twice the price of Influent‘s base game despite offering that much more. Not only that, the roughly 300 page book can even be brought with you, so if you don’t know a word, you can show it to people.
Influent on the other hand is limited to objects inside the virtual apartment (as can be seen on the store page’s screenshots) and the vocabulary is very narrow, albeit very useful. It can even be argued that one could simply use a normal dictionary and a language tandem to probably achieve equivalent if not superior results.
The player can move the protagonist around a virtual apartment, click on objects, listen to how they’re pronounced and look at how they’re spelled in the target script or how they’re transliterated into Romaji, Romaja, or Hànyǔ Pīnyīn (depending on the language pack). Additionally, the player can create vocabulary lists and make his / her own quizzes. The game will then show and say a term and the player will have to click on the correct item in the room. You can pretty much achieve the same effect by pasting post-its around your actual apartment and by having a smartphone dictionary app pronounce certain terms for you, in case you forget how to say them.
You could say that doing that in the game would be less work for you, but writing down new vocabulary, having to use / activate different areas of your brain (to write it down and to read the word) leaves a much bigger, better imprint of the target word in your memory than merely reading it and having the computer program pronounce it for you.
Critique and conclusion
There are multiple issues when it comes to Influent, first of all, there are products out on the market that are much better than Influent and cost about the same, so I suggest going out to bookstores and checking them out before buying this. Of course it’s definitely possible that they don’t have any better alternatives in your area, in which case Influent might be good. Secondly, when learning a language, you usually learn four basic fields: Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking. Influent can only provide the two “passive” skills, reading and listening, you still need a training partner or a formal education to learn (or at the very least have someone correct) the writing and speaking parts. If you cannot find a partner in your area, there are multiple online forums and websites that focus on connecting people for specifically that purpose alone. Influent will also not teach you anything about sentence structures, tenses, clauses or (in-)formal language, in fact, it will not teach you anything beyond the available vocabulary.
When it comes to European languages with grammatical gender, Influent will also not provide you with the necessary grammatical articles (Der, Die, Das in German, for example). Let’s say you click on the bed, Influent will merely play an audio clip saying “Bett” while showing the correct spelling, but it won’t say “Das Bett”, which would definitely have been the better choice. Grammatical gender is essential for many European languages, omitting that means that learners will lack crucial communication skills.
I can see Influent work as something you use besides the learning tools you already have (like school- and exercise books as well as audio tapes or movies), especially when trying to learn gender neutral languages, but it definitely isn’t enough to learn a language with. I like the digital / game approach to learning languages, however the execution isn’t perfected yet and still needs some work.
The language tool is a 6 vocabulary trainers out of 10
Where to get
Influent is available on Steam as digital download and costs $9.99 USD or your local equivalent with additional costs for other language packs.
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All screenshots taken by me during my playthrough and recorded using the Steam Overlay feature.