Alelo, a California-based language and cultural training company that specializes in applying social simulation technology, is working to bring social simulation to the Defense Department, as well as into international and commercial markets. Training & Simulation Journal recently spoke with Alelo CEO Lewis Johnson and new board member Paul Bremer, whose public-service résumé includes stints as U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism, and presidential envoy to Iraq.
Q: What sort of expansions are you making internationally?
Johnson: We have an ongoing contract with the government of Australia. We are actually developing courses for use by Australian personnel in their region of the world, in particular [the Austronesian language] Tetum. The Australians do a lot of work in countries in their region, as well as participating in NATO and coalition activities. And we just established a subsidiary in the U.K. We’ve opened an office in London and we are providing mobile cultural and language training for the troops deploying to Afghanistan. The first groups with iPods incorporating our software will be leaving next month.
We also have a strong interest in teaching English worldwide. We developed a website called “goEnglish” for Voice of America. What Alelo started as providing language training to the Department of Defense — now, the largest single user is in Iran through Voice of America. We are now working to build and expand on that to develop a wider range of educational products.
Q: It sounds like Alelo is looking to expand into the commercial sector as well. What is your emphasis there?
Bremer: The major one that Lewis just touched on is education. Technology is becoming a tremendous part of education in any school that I walk into now. Some of the experience that Alelo has developed in the courses they already sell to largely military applications have a direct application to learning languages, but also to just plain learning. That to me is the exciting future for a lot of these language firms — figuring out how to broaden the base of their markets beyond the military and intelligence world.
Johnson: We develop language and cultural training products, but our core technology is in social simulation for learning purposes — simulating interactions between people. It turns out there are a wide range of potential applications from a social simulation approach, such as customer service or corporate training. We’re working with the board of directors to identify what are the most promising opportunities to pursue.
Q: Dr. Johnson, when we spoke in the fall before I/ITSEC, the big training and simulation conference, you were developing version 2.0 of your Virtual Role Player (VRP) simulation engine, which incorporates Alelo’s social simulation technology. What
Johnson: Our effort is continuing to focus on really making it an integral part of the way training takes place, particularly in the military. It’s a common recognition now that intercultural communication is one of the pillars for military units and personnel. We are working with various clients around the world to figure out how to integrate VRP technology into their overall training solution. We see that as being a very promising area going forward. It’s certainly an area across the defense sector which shows the most promise, because there are a lot of people in the military and government who recognize you can’t continue doing things the old way in terms of training. Simulated technologies are necessary to reduce cost while retaining effectiveness. We are pushing to establish that.
Q: VRP version 1.0 has been trialed by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. What is the Defense Department’s interest in version 2.0?
Johnson: VRP is still in development and we’re planning initial trials with the Marines for the new version this year. The Army and Marine Corps went through initial trials with version 1.0, but they aren’t in active use at this point, in part because they wanted more in the way of scenario-authoring tools, which we are developing as part of VRP 2.0. The goal is that trainers can customize their own scenarios using a library of virtual role players. We’ve gotten a good response from our U.S. and military sponsors, so we’re moving ahead.
Q: How does the social simulation being built into VRP 2.0 differ from other training methods and better prepare service members for real-world experiences?
Johnson: The whole approach is about figuring out what situations learners are likely to face when they are in a foreign country and what they’re going to need to be able to do in those situations. They are simulations of different encounters that you might face. This is the case regardless of the type of training we do. Another advantage is that it promotes transfer, meaning that what you’re practicing in the simulation, those skills easily transfer to the real-world situation. An illustration of that is people who go through our virtual training on how to meet with village elders and local officials. Once they go into that in real-life encounters they recognize aspects of that being similar to what they already practiced.
Bremer: In my experience learning languages, the more realistic the situation you’re in when you’re practicing a language, the more likely it’s going to stick. And that starts with having a native speaker in front of you, not someone who learned Dari as a defense intelligence foreign language. One of the good things about this technology is you’re actually hearing native speakers. You’re put in a real-life situation. You’re not just going back and forth saying, “Here’s how you say hello or please or thank you.” In the old days they would say, “OK, you’re arriving at a train station and here are the sentences you need to know in italics or whatever.” That’s a start, but it’s nothing like actually arriving at a train station and you see animation and everyone’s speaking Italian and suddenly you have to deal with it. That’s why I’m enthusiastic with it as a teaching technology.
Q: Mr. Bremer, what fostered your interest in language and cultural training?
Bremer: My whole life has been involved in learning other languages. I spent my whole life outside of the country with what I do in government and in business. So I became interested in that. I actually served as chairman of the board on another language company from 2004 to 2010. I’ve also been involved in language technology, as well as been interested in the general principle of languages.
Q: How many languages do you speak?
Bremer: Three, other than English — French, Dutch, Norwegian. I’ve had the practice of learning the language in any country I lived in. Those are the ones that I haven’t begun to forget.
Johnson: That’s an interest we share. I’ve been learning languages since a very young age, and I’m forgetting them too. French, German, Chinese, those are my strongest at this point. As well, I love to be a beta tester for a lot of Alelo products. I’ve learned a fair amount of Dari.
Bremer: Dari is one of the languages I’ve forgotten [laughs]. My first [embassy] assignment overseas was in Afghanistan.
This article first appeared in Training & Simulation Journal.