American soldiers can now get closer to their Iraqi and Afghani neighbours before their feet hit the ground. With virtual teachers, soldiers learn the lingo and the local customs at the same time... in a virtual game..

When the US Army touched down in Afghanistan in 2002, they barely spoke anything but English. When villagers ran into the streets, the soldiers, unable to communicate, couldn't work out if they were friend or foe. It was as the situation unravelled that a Californian defence professor came up with the idea of launching a "tactical language" programme Now, soldiers are briefed by their virtual counterparts in Arabic, Pashto or Dari, and given a few hints on how to follow the local customs and avoid cultural boo-boos. Former soldiers in Iraq tell us why the training isn't to be laughed at.

"20,000 U.S. Military personnel have trained with Tactical Language"

James Reilly works for Alelo, the company that develops the Tactical Language programmes.

We have had direct communication with returning soldiers and Marines who credit Tactical Language Training with saving not only the lives of military personnel, but also the lives of the civilians by promoting better understanding and cooperation with the local citizenry.

We estimate (via our distribution channels) that over 20,000 U.S. Military personnel have trained with Tactical Iraqi, Tactical Pashto or Tactical Dari (both for Afghanistan) to some degree."

"A citizen who used the official military game actually saved a life"

Christopher Coppolais a paediatric surgeon. He served in Iraq.

I would say that the most important component for valuable training, in my opinion, is the input of an experienced professor. However, I think there are many advantages to computer-based training. A citizen who used the official military game actually saved a life by using skills he learned playing it ."

"Americans are incredibly disconnected from the customs of other cultures"

Jami Gibbsserved in Iraq in 2005. She writes the blog Patriot Missive.

It was shocking how ignorant we were when we arrived. We, as Americans, are incredibly disconnected from the customs of other cultures. We are simply not aware of the world beyond the American shores (for the most part), and being culturally ignorant is our Achilles heal in many respects. While these military training programmes seem elementary or comical to other more "culturally enlightened" groups, to Americans they are valid and educational.

They weren't used when I was in Iraq. Every unit undergoes intensive training and processing called mobilisation for between one to four months prior to their boots hitting Middle Eastern sand. During mine, I only remember watching one video in that time. It's one thing to read a list of cultural "dos and don'ts" (boring!) and another thing to have it in your face. Visual stimulation enhances memory and interest. Also, I think virtual games appeals to a new generation of young adults who have been spoon fed television and the internet most of their lives anyway."

From Tactical Dari, one of the programmes for Afghanistan.