When I first began learning to play World of Warcraft, I felt like I was learning a foreign language. I was too shy to speak over a headset and instead clumsily typed my communications with other players into the text box. My son probably got pretty tired of my questions. “What’s a mob?” “What’s a clothie?” “Why do people make fun of Hunters?” “What’s aggro?” “What’s brb mean, again?”
I never did become quite fluent in the language of WoW, and although I’ve taken several classes, I’ve never been able to learn French well enough to speak it in public, so you can imagine how impressed I was to hear a story about an older French Canadian woman learning English from World of Warcraft. It was last year at a GeekGirlCon panel. A panelist said her parents-in-law had retired, had been at loose ends, had learned to play WoW, and had really taken to it. Not only had they played with family members, but they liked the game so much they’d started a guild and learned to run it. And then the mom-in-law had learned to speak English just so she could communicate better with her guildies.
Apparently that experience is not as odd or rare as I thought it was.
There’s a new study out that says that Swedish boys who frequently play online games (four or five hours per week) become more proficient in English than the kids who play less or don’t play at all. (The boys in the study played multiplayer action games like Call of Duty, Counter-Strike, League of Legends, and Age of Empires Online.) The frequent-gamer group tested better in English vocabulary, reading comprehension, and speaking.
This makes a lot of sense. Language learning is well served by the need to make choices and react quickly, which is what happens in online games. And, as writer André Klein points out, playing online games gives learners a chance to interact with native speakers and be exposed to nuances they probably wouldn’t get otherwise. Playing an online game may not be the best way to learn a language from the ground up, but once you have the basics, games can be a great way to increase fluency. The need to repeat tasks in games in order to master a level helps, too. “While repeating a certain level or task in a game, a player will come across the same unknown words or phrases many times, thereby strengthening the new material,” Klein says.
In much the same way that books and movies can help people learn languages, games can too. Games for kids even tend to use the same type of language you’d see in a language-learning textbook. And simulation games like The Sims can be particularly good for language learning because they focus on day-to-day routines like eating and going to work.
However, language-learning expert Julie M. Sykes points out that games are not a panacea: “Just like any other pedagogical tool, their use should be thoughtful, intentioned, and critical…We should urge our learners to play and thoughtfully explore the digital world in ways that add value to their language learning experiences.”
One way to use games for language learning is to switch a video game to a different language setting. Language settings are available on so many games these days! Kids can often switch their favorite game to Spanish or German—or whatever language they’re studying in school. If the game is familiar, kids have a head start on expanding their foreign language vocabularies because they already know from the context what the words mean. This blogger recommends Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the Nintendo 3DS as a good game for learning new languages because many languages are available, the characters have interesting variations in the ways they speak, there are both written and spoken interactions, and it’s easy to take screenshots that you can translate later.