“Disney Dreamlight Valley” is Japanese immersion paradise

The language-learning intermediate plateau is tough. You’ve grown out of beginner-friendly resources, and you see diminishing returns from traditional studying because the more advanced grammar points and vocabulary are less frequently used. But at the same time, at this level you’re finally starting to see glimpses of the payoff from all that studying: for the first time you can sort of understand your favorite shows or books or whatever else motivated you to learn the language in the first place, and when this happens it’s magic!

At this point, you want to move beyond textbooks and study apps and find materials in your target language – podcasts, books, TV, shows, video games, forums, etc – and spend as much time with them as possible. But, at least for me, this is easier said than done. Getting the difficulty level right is tricky, of course. It’s also challenging to stay motivated, because using your target language is a lot of work. Ideally, by choosing media you enjoy, getting invested in what’s happening can help with pushing through the extra challenge. But if you pick things you really love and force yourself to read/watch/play them in your target language, it can be frustrating because you’re missing out on a lot of the nuance that you’d be able to understand in your native language. On the other hand, if you go too far in the other direction and choose something that you’d never touch normally, it’s difficult to force yourself to spend much time with it.

I finally got past the plateau in French within the past year or so, where I can now comfortably watch/read/listen without fear of missing too much or quickly becoming exhausted. I’m still struggling with Japanese. That’s where Disney Dreamlight Valley, a game released in early access last month, comes in. Gameplay-wise, it’s a pretty shameless Animal Crossing clone: you earn money, gather materials, and find, buy, or craft things to customize your character and village. The hook, of course, is that the villagers are all Disney and Pixar characters.

I’m not a Disney fanatic – to be honest, I’m lukewarm on most of the films I’ve seen – but playing this game in Japanese is the best thing that’s happened to my progress since I found the excellent Nihongo con Teppei / Nihongo con Teppei Z podcast. The simple and familiar (read: blatantly copied) gameplay makes the instructions easy to follow. Meanwhile, the cast of Disney characters are an endless source of varied and entertaining dialogue and questlines. The character variety is especially nice for Japanese, where word choice and sentence structure depend on gender, age, and personality. Furthermore, prior familiarity with these characters gives context that helps a lot with guessing the meanings of words I don’t know. The fantasy setting doesn’t hurt, either – a lot of the dialogue revolves around a small set of concepts like “night thorns” or “dream shards,” many of which are English loan words spelled out phonetically.

When I’ve read enough dialogue to set my head spinning, I can cool off by doing some mindless fishing or farming for a bit. This comes with a gentler form of immersion, where I pick up the names of fish or flowers simply by encountering them. And when I’m ready to brave walls of text again, there are always new requests from the villagers to take on. This loop, where I can effectively control the language difficulty in an intuitive way, is my favorite part of the game. Because of it, I’ve not only had no problem persuading myself to stick with Dreamlight Valley, I’m even finding it mildly addictive!

With the caveat that finding good practice materials is very subjective, I can solidly recommend this game for language immersion. In addition to Japanese (and of course English), it’s currently available in French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Mandarin (simplified characters). Read the rest


Inspired by the Planet Money podcast, I’d like to celebrate Valentine’s Day by giving out some virtual valentines to things I’m especially glad are real things that exist.

Water Bears

Whether or not tardigrades, or “water bears,” can really survive quantum entanglement, they still have a lot going for them: they’re insanely tough and oddly charismatic. So I was absolutely delighted to discover a wholesome puzzle game based on rehydrating tardigrades that are in their dried-out hibernation-like “tun” state. The puzzles themselves are only fine, but Water Bears is totally worth playing just for the tardigrades. They even make cute alien-ish purring sounds. The only thing preventing this game from reaching a perfect 10/10 rating is that I can’t pet the tardigrades.

How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

The ambitious title of this cookbook is, surprisingly, very nearly justified. You know how many recipes give long lists of highly specific ingredients, down to telling you what kind of salt to use or, heaven forbid, specifying that you need to use organic cranberries? This book is the antonym of that. Each recipe comes with several possible variations and notes about what you can change or substitute. If most recipe books treat cooking like following Ikea instructions, Bittman’s approach is more like teaching you how to paint or write programs: here’s the basic structure and technique, now go nuts. I’ve now made dozens of recipes from this book, and not only have I gotten a lot of delicious food, but I also think that working from this has made me a better cook. The vegetarian version is also excellent.

Effective Altruism: An Introduction podcast

Last year I discovered the 80,000 Hours podcast, which produces long, intense interviews with people working on how to do as much good as possible. Effective Altruism: An Introduction is a set of 10 episodes picked from the archive to help new listeners get up to speed with the most important ideas from the effective altruism community. I’ve found the quality and depth of the interviews in this series to be impressive, and learned about many fascinating questions and perspectives I’d never considered before. I’m glad that there are smart people thinking seriously about how to maximize the long-term welfare of humanity (and what doing so even means), and that I have the opportunity to learn from their insights.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

This is a collection of short stories about robots and free will. A full year after reading it, I still remember several of the stories in great detail, and think about them regularly. They’re the kind of stories I would have liked to be able to write, if I were an author.

Integrated Chinese textbooks

These textbooks are used by the Mandarin classes I’ve been taking at Berkeley, and the books are a large part of the reason why I’ve stuck with it so long (I’m currently in the fourth semester). When I took French in high school, I was well into my second year before I read an entire paragraph-long story rather than random disjointed sentences. In contrast, the Integrated Chinese books center each lesson around a dialogue or short narrative about a recurring cast of characters. The dialogues come with videos that land squarely in so-bad-it’s-good territory. The reading and listening exercises are frequently humorous, with characters gossiping, complaining, and telling each other off. New vocabulary and grammar is used regularly in subsequent lessons, helping memorization come naturally and creating a feeling of progression and growing empowerment as you gain the ability to understand more complicated topics. The textbooks are aimed at classroom use, but if anyone used similar ideas in an app targeting independent learners, I think it would be incredibly effective. Read the rest