1. Lingua Prima VR
Early versions of what would become Lingua Prima VR simply applied existing paradigms of commercially available language learning software to a VR system. That is, a combination of flash cards, example sentences, game-like drills, and live conversation partners were projected onto the screens of a virtual reality headset. These were financially successful enough to convince software developers that this was a niche worth investing in.
Of the handful of companies investing in the next generation of VR language learning software, an Italian firm, Spedizione Software, was the first to bring on a team of academics, led by language learning theorist Geo F. Jensen from the University of Nottingham, from planning stage. As had been demonstrated by previous generations of Rosetta Stone and other applications, the visible involvement of linguists (although which particular linguists mattered less) was highly marketable, and the resulting higher retail price sometimes justified itself as a Veblen good among high-status customers, customers who Spedizione correctly predicted were also more likely to own VR headsets.
The only official direction given by the company to Jensen and his staff was that the product would be promoted as letting users “understand the language just like a native”. Obviously in retrospect, the directive, which may have had the hyperbolic, winking intention of something like “World’s Best Coffee”, had unique gravity (perhaps amplified by irritation at being treated as mere catch copy) to a team of academic linguists. The first day working on their own, they decided unanimously to completely scrap any and all nods toward “gamification” of the language learning process: levels, puzzle-solving, and indeed discrete language items of any kind, from single words to isolated grammar points, absent as these are in the learning process of almost all “native” speakers of any language worldwide. They then set about two main tasks: One, planning a route of exposure to authentic learning situations; and two, defining the “native” whose speech would serve as a target for users.
One task requiring much more focus than Spedizione intended was defining the “native” – in real rather than abstract terms. After four all-day meetings establishing criteria for nativeness, and (on Spedizione’s insistence) some accommodation towards marketability, the team settled on the idea of using a speaker from a major city in the American Midwest. Two of the American team members flew to Lincoln, Nebraska with the intention of finding candidates, and were fortunate enough to find an appropriate selection on the first day of interviews. That person, and the English speaker who eventually served as a model for about 95.4 million later users of Lingua Prima VR, was Nhi Nguyen, a student at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (who would appear in promotional materials as “Tina Nielson”).
The necessity of a VR reenactment of her life product came about from a frustrating finding from neurolinguistics, that instantiation in the brain of language varies to such a degree from person to person that no Matrix-like shortcut of getting linguistic knowledge into every human brain was ever going to be feasible. Thus, the only route available for technology to reliably facilitate language ability in a varying group of people was to go the relatively old-fashioned route of through the eyes and ears.
As for the reasons that a real English speaker to serve as a model was required, the development team had determined that the only realistic means by which users might achieve the native proficiency level demanded by Spedizione was a virtual reality experience of a native speaker’s life, from early childhood to adolescence. That is, users would experience language input sufficient to produce native-like understanding exactly as Nguyen had experienced in producing her native understanding. Nguyen’s life would serve as the guide for the kind and variety of input necessary to produce a native speaker. To that end, a virtual reality experience was constructed based on a combination of interviews, memory recall through hypnosis, and thorough reconstruction of her childhood home, school, and the Gateway Mall in Lincoln. Efforts at anonymizing Nhi’s memories focused on changing her family’s appearance in the virtual world to match the image that consumers across the world would likely have of the American Midwest, as well as changes in verbalizations of her name to a user-supplied pseudonym.
Nhi Nguyen didn’t have regular contact with consumers of the product her life had been a model for until she took her junior year to study abroad in Guangzhou, China. There, she was confronted with the full spectrum of exposure to her own life – people who were curiously knowledgeable about Nebraska’s weather, people who remembered the feel of the wood grain of her desk next the class cockatiel in Mrs. Wong’s 2nd grade class (and what had been etched into it by its occupant the previous year), and people whose memories of a particular softball practice in July drove them into a 2-hour sullen silence. She learned to moderate her normally jaunty personality to brace for these impacts of unexpected familiarity, which were somehow far more alienating than the culture shock she was also experiencing.
So when Nhi joined her History of Communication seminar the first day of the new semester at the University of Guangzhou, she tried to see in her classmates’ faces how much of her life they had experienced firsthand. From just walking around town and getting to know her neighbors, she knew the signs of a VR returnee (someone who lived their entire adolescence in a reconstruction of her childhood) – ostentatiously Chinese fashion choices coupled with eyes that always seemed to be scanning and verifying their surroundings. This was because Guangzhou was almost as foreign to them as it was to her (all of them effectively having been raised in Lincoln), and they unlike her felt the pressure to hide this fact. It marked them as not authentically Chinese and much wealthier than their peers – an extreme version of the kids who didn’t go on the school trip with their friends because their parents took them to Disney World. Those who had only visited her life for an hour or two a day, after the hours of homework that Chinese kids all had to do, usually seemed more relaxed and comfortable in their skin, and she knew they looked down on the returnees. Those who had spent no time at all in VR and had instead tried to learn English the old fashioned way usually looked nervous too, but more the nerves that come with being 18 in a room full of strangers (i.e. the experience of every university freshman) than the stress of trying to hide your eerie otherness.
Nhi thought a few of the dozen students present were probably VR returnees on first glance. For the moment, since they didn’t know her background, she was fine with letting them feel uncomfortable while she pretended to be a run-of-the-mill exchange student from no place in particular, USA. She unassumingly took a seat around the conference table and waited for the professor to finish connecting her tablet to the projector, confident in her ability to make a good first impression and start making friends.
The professor sat down at the head of the table and began to speak.
“Yeah, so, it’s nice to see everyone here today, in our seminar, so… if you’ve got the wrong class, this is History of Communication seminar, so, you can go down the hall if you meant to go to Communication Technology lab. It’s just down thataway.”
She pointed out the door, but Nhi had lost focus on her words. All Nhi heard after the first, aggressively articulated “nice” were a series of hard Midwestern Rs.
“Ok, so, I guess you’re all here because it’s where you’re supposed to [she pronounced it ‘spowsta’] be. Ok, so, let’s just go around and introduce ourselves.”
The first boy to her left, who Nhi had thought was probably an old-fashioned English learner, stood up and addressed the class in exactly the same accent.
“Yeah, so, I’m Jim Chen from Foshan. I don’t have a major yet. That’s all.”
Nhi tried hard to hide the tension now gathering around her ears as the next student stood up to speak.
“Yeah, ok, I’m Sarah Chen, I’m from Foshan too. I guess I think I wanna study Poli Sci. Nice to meetcha.”
Sarah Chen waved at everyone with her elbow tucked into her hip, just the hand flapping around, and sat down. Nhi had gone through a phase in 5th grade when she tried to re-feminize all of her gestures and mannerisms after becoming extremely self-conscious about tomboyishness. This wave was an expert, unselfconscious recreation of her wave from that period, ages 12-14. Even worse, Nhi had met enough people in Guangzhou to know how they usually pronounced the last name “Chen”. It wasn’t supposed to remind you of Cheese Frenchies. The student to Nhi’s left stood up.
“So, yeah, I’m Nh… Nancy Li. Nice to meet everyone.”
Same wave. Nhi was next, and she felt like a spy about to be exposed and quickly gunned down. Only instead of guns, it was a roomful of strangers that she knew nothing about knowing everything about her life from her near death in discovering her walnut allergy to the fact that she tells people she peed herself on stage at a piano recital once when it was actually three times, and she had to wipe down the bench the third time.
Nhi stood up and faced everyone solemnly.
“Dear classmate. It is good, nice to meet you today. Please let’s be friends each other.”
People looked confused, but Nhi figured she had dodged that bullet at least for today. She was fine with everyone thinking she was just learning English, especially if the alternative were everyone knowing that their adolescence had been modeled on hers.
After the seminar ended, Nhi rushed home to watch English learners on YouTube and practice her cover for the next 9 months.