Can kids learn a new language by playing playing a video game?

A few years ago, I overheard my 16-year-old son excitedly speaking in French while playing Modern Warfare 2, the latest game in the Call of Duty franchise at that time. It turns out that he had been playing with a group of French-speaking Canadian teenagers for a number of days and was obviously gaining more from their interactions than just an improved game strategy. I didn’t think very much about it until his senior year in high school, when he was presented an award by the State of Rhode Island for his proficiency in the French language. Had Call of Duty really helped? Can kids learn a new language by playing a video game?

A recent study of Swedish boys, conducted by Pia Sundqvist and Liss Kerstin Sylven, found that the subjects spent 3.5 hours of the time they were engaged in video games practicing English. As a result, these boys had become more confident in their use of English. Honing this language skill improved their speaking and writing proficiency. Learning a language in this fashion is extremely powerful because game players are highly motivated to understand, and succeed at, what they are doing in a game. Additionally, it is immersive, as the children are engaged in the use of language without thinking too much about it.

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Video games can be very powerful tools for learning, not only because they motivate but because they demand learning specific skills during game play. James Paul Gee, the author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, describes how video games are particularly helpful for learning language because new words are used in a “situated meaning,” and can be directly attached to an experience for which a player is highly engaged.

The idea of using video games for teaching language is becoming more widespread. I have an opportunity to observe my wife learning to speak Spanish while playing with the JamTok app. This app shows the written words on her iPad while she sings along in Spanish to popular songs that she already knows in English. Not only does she enjoy the singing (I’m not sure that I always do!), but she is learning to speak Spanish fluently, engaged and attaching meaning to it because of her knowledge of the English versions of the songs. Another immersive language-learning app is Duolingo, which allows anyone with access to a computer or smartphone to learn Spanish, Danish, Irish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese, and Dutch for free, with no display ads. Duolingo combines a variety of practice methods — writing, speaking, multiple choice — with a game-style approach that encourages users to brush up on past lessons or allows them to test out if they are a bit more advanced.

Even playing popular non-academic games can also be useful for teaching language skills. For example, a child who is very engaged in playing Minecraft might see all of the text describing materials available in a different language. Other games that require a fair amount of reading such as the Legend of Zelda or the Professor Layton series could be played in Spanish or another language to help a child learn a new language. While the games may not be suitable for teaching all of the nuances of a language, they will encourage students to master some of the basics so they can perform better in games that they are immersed in and already love.

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