If You Want to Learn a Language, It’s Time to Stop Playing Games

video game controller

Games are fun, and people like them.  Whether it’s tennis, football, chess, poker, Fortnite, FIFA mobile, Shuffleboard, Jenga, Clue, or Candy Crush, there’s a game for nearly everyone.  As Mary Poppins once pointed out, turning a chore into a game can make it compelling and fun, which is perhaps why the education industry is so focused on “gamification,” or creating learning activities from games.  Unfortunately, it sometimes takes more than a spoonful of sugar to get the outcomes we want.

A meta-analysis conducted a few years ago concluded that games can be more effective for learning than non-game educational approaches, but they tend to work best for rote learning, and there is little evidence that they promote the acquisition of higher-order cognitive skills.  Indeed, some topics are better suited to games than others. Take, for example, touch typing. It’s the perfect thing to teach with a game. Learning the position of the keys and which fingers go where is straightforward and can be quickly memorized.  Basic gaming mechanics can reward learners for choosing the right letters and penalize them for choosing the wrong ones. Whether they are using the keyboard to launch rockets, grow flowers, or move balls through a maze, a game is a great way to teach someone to type.

Language learning, on the other hand, is a terrible candidate for a simple game.  Many of the things that make playing a game fun are the same factors that make language learning hard.  Perhaps a table with a few examples would make this clear:

GAMES

LANGUAGE LEARNING

Players can quickly figure out the general rules of a game, even if some specifics are hard to master. It can take a lifetime to figure out the rules of a new language, and months to understand basic constructions.
Players quickly feel like they are making progress in games, and there are clear milestones and rewards for improvement. Learners can spend years at the same proficiency level of a new language, and it’s difficult to notice incremental progress.
Rewards are built into games, and even novice players of more difficult games (e.g., chess or golf) can quickly feel the thrill of a well-executed move. Novice language learners struggle with both fluency and comprehension, and understanding or producing isolated words doesn’t feel like an accomplishment.

The central theme here is that making progress in games is quick, while making progress with languages can be distressingly slow.  Despite this, there are still plenty of games that purport to teach languages. Generally speaking, the language learning content is shoehorned into a game framework, and people learn isolated words and phrases, verb conjugations, or rules about languages, but they don’t actually learn to use those pieces to do anything.

Language application designers would be far better served by thinking through how some of the elements that make games fun could be used in a language learning program with sound theoretical underpinnings, which incidentally, is the approach that gaming experts recommend for the gamification of education in general.  For example, the competition that drives engagement in multi-player games could be used with tasks that actually drive proficiency gains.  Leaderboards, engagement challenges, and timed activities could promote the time-on-task necessary for language learning.

Further, because language is a tool we use to accomplish real things, game designers could build games that simply require that learners interact to solve compelling problems.  The number of people who’ve learned English by playing World of Warcraft and other multiplayer video games is astonishing.  That game certainly wasn’t built to teach English, but players make progress by using English, more evidence that a real-world need, that’s relevant to learners’ interests and goals, is a far more compelling way to teach a language than translating nonsensical expressions to get fluency points.

Katie is Voxy’s Chief Education Officer, which means she leads the teams ensuring that learners are getting the most efficient and effective educational experience possible.  She has a PhD in Second Language Acquisition and years of experience teaching languages, building language courses, and evaluating the effectiveness of language training as a research scientist.  She lectures and writes about all things related to language learning and educational technology.