Video Games and Language Acquisition

When I went climbing in Colombia in 2008, I found Colombian partners who all spoke excellent English. Asked how they had learned, all said a variation of school was totally boring and useless…but subtitled movies and YouTube and TV in English are great. When I was in Mexico in summer of 2022, the Mexicans who spoke good English all repeated what the Colombians had said, but with an addition: I play a lot of World of Warcraft/Call of Duty/Guild Wars etc, as well as I use Duolingo (or other such apps).

Is this true? Do people actually acquire lots of language from gaming? Yup..and thanks to C.I. Fight Club‘s Joe Kelley, we now have some solid data. In this paper, Dixon, Dixon & Jordan looked at what effects gaming in an additional language had on gamers’ language acquisition. Here is a brief summary. Discussion follows.

A caveat: these studies measured vocabulary acquisition only. This is a decent, but incomplete, picture of what ppl have picked up from exposure to a language. But it’s a useful base: if we know vocab, we can undertsand the language, and that understanding leads to implicit acquisition of “grammar” over time.

So what did we learn?

  1. Not all games are of equal value. “Non-educational” games produced much greater gains than dumb stuff like Quizlets or Kahoots (which are basically flashcards). Actual fun games also outperformed the likes of Duolingo, which is just a sophisticated flashcard.
  2. Fun matters. The authors note that “Further limiting the success of educational games [eg Duolingo] is the idea that these games replace ‘play’ with “repetitive and superficial tasks in which the learning objectives are too obvious” (Reinhardt, 2019).” Students can smell b.s. a mile away. And while kids may have low “performance” with the language they are acquiring, their brains are cognitively quite advanced. So dumb activities like “match the word to its definition” are going to make ppl feel spoken down to and bored. This is crucial to remember: vocab level and brain development in a language classroom are not in sync, so we must increase the thinking whilst decreasing the amount of vocab used.
  3. Exactly as anyone who reads would have predicted, “[G]ames requiring no output from participants showed the greatest positive effect (d-weighted = 1.60) on L2 learning outcomes.” In other words, students don’t need to speak or write in the target language to acquire it.

    There is some interesting discussion about why (in the context of video games) speaking and writing requirements seem to slow acquisition. First, when speaking (or writing), we aren’t getting input, and input is what drives acquisition. Second, the authors speculate that the real-time cognitive demands of gaming overload players. When you are listening to (or reading) a new language, AND moving a game controller AND processing non-linguistic input, AND planning moves, your brain is super-busy. The amount of “conscious bandwidth” available for processing language is limited, and so people pay less attention to everything, including language.

Like anything else one might do in a language classroom, the overall message of gaming studies is, if it’s interesting and comprehensible, people will want to do it and will acquire language from it. I wouldn’t assign games as homework, or have kids play these in class, but I have told them “if you can play a game in Spanish or using Spanish settings, or with Spanish speakers, you are going to pick things up.”

There seems to be a lesson here for eg DuoLingo: stop teaching people, and start interesting them.

2 comments

  1. When I taught German, my standing “homework assignment” was to spend 15 minutes per day doing something fun in German. (I never checked or graded the “homework.”) One suggestion, among many, was to play video games in German. The hook was, when their mother or father asked them what they were doing, they could say, “My German homework.” Over the years, several students did that, and every one of them made impressive gains in their language acquisition. So did students who did other activities they enjoyed in German. I counted it as a win for everyone.

    Yes, this is anecdotal evidence, but that does not negate its value as evidence. I’m glad to know someone is presenting evidence from a formal investigation of what I saw happening in a casual setting.

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