In the beginning there was Walkman: a cultural cornerstone. Then there was Discman: a cultural concession. Then there was Walkman again, this time in MP3 flavor and on cell phones: a marketing inevitability. And now there's TalkMan: a cultural pun. Perhaps that's unfair, but in truth, Sony will have a hard time convincing people that this foreign language aid will be as essential a travel companion to them as their iPod, their Nintendogs or, presumably, their foreign dictionary.
Allow me to explain. TalkMan consists of essentially two main modes: one is Game Mode, where the player can take part in listening and pronunciation tests (using the packed-in microphone) and have their linguistic abilities graded by a cartoon pelican named Max. Then there is Talk Mode, in which the player can select a variety of phrases from numerous everyday situations, or speak themselves into the microphone and hope TalkMan interprets what they say with their PSP enunciating the meaning in perfect French, English, Spanish, Italian, German or Japanese. The idea of this latter mode presumably is to promote the PSP as an indispensable travel companion that can come to the rescue should you need to converse with Johnny Foreigner; just whip out your Sony TalkMan and voila, the language gap is bridged. Your newfound friend can even use it to reply, and have that reply translated into your language too.
Unfortunately, my inner cynic tells me that few people would want to converse with others through their PSP. Not only is it arguably a condescending and decidedly odd way to communicate with another human being (who wants to talk to the hapless geek stalking a hostel using their games handheld as a conversation aid?) and not only does its very existence contradict the notion of learning another language ("why bother when you have TalkMan?" seems to be the thinking), but would I really want to brandish my shiny PSP in front of a complete stranger to tell them that I'm lost and need to find a cash machine?
Game Mode, on the other hand, glimmers with promise. The listening game initially feels plodding and easy, but if someone is able enough not to look at the screen (displaying the translation) it does begin to sharpen his deciphering skills and slowly bolster his vocabulary through the repetition of certain words. Any absolute beginners, however, will merely find it an unedifying memory test without a keen ear and a dictionary to help them figure out exactly what's being said.
The pronunciation game is similarly straightforward and short-lived, but at least it asks me to speak a foreign language (unlike any other part of the TalkMan). The voice recognition is reliable enough for me to usually predict Max's evaluations (I generally know when I'm saying things right), and the complexity rises gently until I find full sentences rolling off my tongue with growing confidence.
What TalkMan does not do, however, is teach me to speak a foreign language. This is, I imagine, what many would have been expecting from such a game, but it doesn't even attempt to teach the basics in any structured kind of way—even if the games do follow reasonably well-set difficulty curves.
Why couldn't the listening game have included optional foreign language text for each phrase (useful for learners and surely essential for beginners) rather than the non-optional translation alone, or helped to explain which verb tense was in use, or commented upon phonetics, or pointed out general rules and notable exceptions to them? This lack of optional help or reference material (what about verb tables, lists of special cases, a simple dictionary or a custom vocabulary-builder list?) is disappointing.
It seems that Game Mode hints at a potential that TalkMan couldn't fulfil because Sony were too busy perfecting Talk Mode and offering its most useful language building aspect as an extra diversion only. As such, the game is to be used either for blagging one's way around a foreign country (and confusing a few locals along the way I imagine), or for briefly brushing up on listening and speaking skills in a language one already has a reasonably decent grasp of.
If nothing else TalkMan is certainly a unique kind of phrasebook with neat voice recognition, but I'm sure there is a market for a genuine language-teaching videogame and compared to that game this is such a slender package that it feels almost irrelevant for the time being. Nevertheless, it's an enterprising and likeable curio with plenty of potential; a faltering but intrepid first step on a long but worthwhile journey.