The Expression: Amrilato – Suddenly Voiceless

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The prospect of learning a new language is a daunting one for many people — particularly English speakers, who tend to take their language’s position as “default” for granted.

What this means, more often than not, is that if you’re not put in a position where you have to learn a new language, chances are you won’t. There are exceptions to this rule, of course — some people learn a new language to improve their career prospects, some learn to broaden the range of language-dependent arts and entertainment they can engage with and some just do it for fun — but for the most part we, as humans, are rather lazy when it comes to this sort of thing.

When The Expression: Amrilato’s protagonist Rin finds herself in a version of her hometown that seems to be all “wrong”, she soon finds herself learning firsthand what being in a position where you have to learn a new language is like.

Rin, at first, doesn’t understand the situation she’s in. Disoriented, she realises that she can neither understand what the people around her are saying, nor read what any of the signs on the shops say. Upon doing the first thing any stranger in a strange land does — address someone in their own native tongue — she discovers that she cannot make herself understood, either.

“Not being understood by anyone was a miserable feeling,” she muses after unsuccessfully attempting to engage a passer-by in Japanese conversation. “And being completely unable to understand what anyone else was saying was beyond disheartening.”

Rin is thrown into this situation suddenly and without warning; she is surrounded by scenery that should be familiar but is actually terrifying; she can no longer count on anything around her to be as she remembers it, and even places that carry deep personal meaning to her are alien and unwelcoming. This is no longer “her” world, however much it might look like it.

Can you imagine being in that position? It would be enough to make you question your own mental health, I imagine. In its opening hours, The Expression: Amrilato emphasises Rin’s predicament by deliberately exaggerating the phonetic pronunciations of these “alien” words in its text box; and Rin presents the reader with questions for which there seems to be no “correct” answer — not that you’d know either way, when the response is unfamiliar combinations of sounds.

But in many ways, this is the situation any new language learner finds themselves in at the very start, regardless of context. You might know that you want to learn a language, but upon encountering a native speaker talking at their natural pace, feel rather discouraged at the mountain you suddenly have to climb. But you have to begin somewhere. And there’s no one, clearly defined place that you “should” start when learning a language; you just have to pick something and run with it.

Fortunately, our heroine is thrown a lifeline by deuteragonist Ruka, who discovers a despondent Rin hiding down an alleyway and attempts to comfort her. Ruka reveals after a while that she speaks a little Japanese — how this came to be the case in a world where Japanese does not appear to be the first language of Japan isn’t made immediately clear — but by no means enough for Rin to be able to talk at full fluency with her. Thus the pair have some common ground to begin working with.

Ruka takes in Rin without hesitation rather than leaving her to fend for herself. In the process, we learn that Ruka seemingly lives alone, but comfortably; she has a pleasant house with all the amenities she might require, and certainly doesn’t appear to be wanting for anything. Finding this bit of stability in the chaos she’s endured up until this point allows Rin to calm down somewhat and consider the situation from a more rational perspective… and think about how she’s going to learn to communicate effectively with her saviour.

One interesting thing about The Expression: Amrilato as a localised visual novel is that it has to make certain language puns and references work across three languages, not just two. An interesting early example comes when Rin goes out for the day and inadvertently comes back to Ruka’s house very late, worrying the poor girl to death. Upon reuniting, Ruka takes the opportunity to give Rin her first real lesson in Juliamo — what the game calls its Esperanto-based language — and teaches her how to say the time.

“What’s ‘two’, by the way?” asks Rin after Ruka teaches her how to say “one o’ clock”.

“‘Nee’ is ‘us’,” replies Ruka.

“Huh? ‘Two’ is?” responds Rin.

To an English speaker, this exchange might not appear to make all that much sense — that’s because the misunderstanding is based on the Japanese word for “two” being “ni”. In other words, in the original Japanese, Rin would have expressed her question something along the lines of “「二」とは何ですか” (“‘ni’ to wa nandesuka?” while Ruka misunderstood Rin’s Japanese “ni” as the Juliamo “ni”, which, as she points out, means “us”.

Confusing, right? Thankfully, The Expression: Amrilato has us covered through its inline translations that appear in the dialogue window. Any time there’s a play on words that is dependent on the original Japanese word, a small Romanised version of the Japanese word appears above the English word, allowing us to see where the reference stems from. While not quite the same as being able to recognise the pun in its original context, it at least means that the original script doesn’t have to be changed too much for the jokes and misunderstandings to work.

From this point on, Rin’s efforts to learn the language begin in earnest. She is recognised as a “vizitanto” (visitor) by what appears to be an official body in Ruka’s world, and is provided with a series of sheets from which she can study the language and relate it to Japanese.

Engaging with the educational content that appears from hereon in The Expression: Amrilato is actually completely optional; you can turn off the in-game quizzes and study sessions in the options menu, but the experience is much more interesting and satisfying if you keep them active and learn alongside Rin.

The initial sessions concern recognising the main means through which Juliamo is distinguished from standard Esperanto — its stylised, angular alphabet — before moving on to some more practical applications such as recognising the conventions of numbers and a few helpful verbs and phrases.

By immersing yourself in this side of things, you will naturally start to pick up some of the conventions of the language unconsciously. You’ll come to recognise common sentence structures and words and be able to draw some conclusions from them. And given how Esperanto’s vocabulary seemingly consists of variations of words from a variety of different European languages (including English), you can actually start to parse a few things out for yourself along the way, even before you’ve explicitly been taught them.

This is a commonly accepted and highly effective means of learning a new language, and is the main reason that modern foreign languages teachers maximise the amount of time they spend addressing their class in “target language”. Even if the learners don’t initially understand the exact words and phrases that are being used, they will be able to pick up contextual cues, learn to remember the vocalisations or written forms that come alongside those contextual cues, and in turn develop their overall confidence in parsing the language.

One of the particularly masterful things about The Expression: Amrilato’s writing is that Rin’s reactions to various situations are seemingly tuned to be perfectly in line with the reader’s responses to various situations — or at least they’ve been perfectly in tune with my responses.

Just at the moment you start feeling overwhelmed and inadequate by the fact that the few key phrases you’ve “mastered” are by no means enough to be able to get by without help, Rin will make a comment to the same effect. Just as you start getting frustrated at the obtuse language used to explain the function of a particular linguistic component, Rin will complain that she doesn’t understand.

“I was bad at subjects that required a lot of logical thinking,” Rin explains to us on an occasion where she decides she just needs to escape from Juliamo for a bit. “So in that way… I would understand something instinctually first and figure out the governing rules later.”

This is actually quite a good means of approaching language study — at least in the early stages. You don’t necessarily have to be able to fully understand the rules of a language in order to make yourself understood. Indeed, many of the modern popular online language learning services such as Duolingo and Memrise concentrate on developing your confidence and instinct with short-form daily studies primarily based on the memorisation of words and phrases, rather than bombarding you with grammatical information.

In the long term, though, it’s helpful to learn those rules, because once you know those rules you can apply them to your vocabulary and start constructing words, phrases and sentences that you haven’t explicitly been taught. This is particularly important in a language like Esperanto, which is heavily dependent on modifying its base vocabulary through prefixes, infixes and suffixes to convey different meanings.

For example, as Rin learns when she first encounters these tricky rules, basic Esperanto verbs can be modified with the “-ig-” infix to become a transitive verb: one which describes an action the subject of the sentence is performing. In the case of the verb “bruli” (“to burn”), “la paperoj brulas” (“the papers burn”) becomes “mi bruligas paperojn” (“I burn the papers”).

You could then combine this with Esperanto’s system of suffixes to change the tense of the sentence easily: “mi bruligas paperojn” (“I burn the papers”) versus “mi bruligis paperojn” (“I burned the papers”) or “mi bruligos paperojn” (“I will burn the papers”). And as you learn more rules, you can build on those sentences (perhaps with a little less paper-burning, think of the environment) to broaden your repertoire and gradually, little by little, learn to make yourself understood.

This is what keeps Rin going throughout The Expression: Amrilato; she knows that she won’t be “voiceless” forever. She knows that every small victory — even if it’s something as simple as being able to use a verb correctly in a sentence — brings her closer to being understood. And once that process is well underway, she’ll be able to explore those growing feelings she has for Ruka… but more on that another time!

More about The Expression: Amrilato

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