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Can Games Teach a Foreign Language?

Sam and Frodo stand upon Mount Doom

The Beginnings

Recently, I have been learning French through various language learning apps and free courses. Yet, as many in high school can attest, my growth and prowess with the language began too slow. I thought then of children: “Do they not pick up languages by nature?” Surely, I could bring some of my natural skills I utilized as a child back into usage. My abilities of grammar learning and phonetic precision, I believed, may be innate, but they have been inert for almost two decades.

I did not subscribe to the idea children are merely masters of language and adults lack the tools of the toddler. After a few weeks of experimentation, I believe this still. Granted, I have neither the time nor the exposure to be immersed in a new language as an infant is. Yet, with technology I knew I could simulate the experience. What’s more, I could add facets of fun and familiarity to aid in my learning.

I will explain below my little experiment. However, before I proceed, I cannot neglect the negative aspects of learning a language through the games I chose for my trial. There indeed were some; though for part one, I will concern myself only with the benefits of the practice.

The Inspiration

I took inspiration from the playfulness of the mute or unintelligible toddler. I tried to immerse myself in French. However, toddlers crawl a new and exciting world and the apps I was using seemed to be getting me no farther than they had in the first several months. My vocabulary was lacking, as was my ability to comprehend text and speech. Reading practice paragraphs and example problems bereft of intrigue and context both bored and hindered me. Again, I thought of the toddler’s world. Children are ardent gamers; they make games out of anything and if there is nothing physically to play with—they create their own carnival.

Moreover, I began eyeing the language settings of my favorite games because I knew and, importantly, enjoyed them. They erased the boredom that accompanied more traditional methods of learning. Indeed, from my vast hours of experience in the English versions of my two trial games, I could use familiarity advantageously. By playing in worlds already known and solving puzzles I knew from English—my French handicap seemed partially lifted.

Game 1: Lord of The Rings Online

I began with Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) and followed with Skyrim. Both represent open worlds capturing a simulative version of the world a mute child would know. Again, I was at an advantage. I knew the world, story and lore of Tolkien. I have hundreds of hours played in Skyrim. Like the child, these worlds would awe me—but I was not totally blind to their inner workings.

Theoden gives his speech before the charge to Minas Tirith.
In Theoden’s speech before the charge of the Rohirrim, context is everywhere.

The Witch-King confronts Eowyn, with a quote easily remembered from the Jackson Movies

The Key is context

It was from my wealth of available context clues I could decipher entire plot lines. To illustrate the point, I will use a quest in LOTRO called, “Dressage.” In the quest you must follow closely the actions of an NPC and thereafter type emotes to mimic the behavior. This proved a great exercise in learning roots and infinitive modes of words. I had to learn either from memory or from staring at a word bank—what word corresponded to ‘laugh.’ This exercise came in the game as I went about achieving goals I felt had value outside of language. As a result, I stayed at the quest—although it proved a time consuming test. The emotes in the quest became an unintended lesson, though it was not the last. Furthermore, unintended opportunities for learning while gaming became a recurrent theme.

There were some instances when playing LOTRO that my vocabulary was insufficient to decipher quest text. However, I had the boon of being an extreme Tolkien nerd. I am as learned in the lore of Lord of the Rings as many keyboard scholars of actual nations. Thus, though lost in language, my ability to piece together places and people into the puzzle was quite adept. More so than it would have if the game was a new one to me. I knew the character’s motivations, I knew the personalities. I new the unique ways of speech of Gandalf, Faramir and Gollum; this proved invaluable for determining what the correct definition to a word was. Despite my limited capacities in French, playing within a realm I was familiar aided my comprehension greatly. This of course, was because a Tolkien world is one rich in context clues to one who can find them.

A Slight Hiccup Becomes a Lesson

This stated, there were points where the world of Tolkien could not make gameplay in French less of a challenge. Make no mistake, though the process of learning was made easier by playing LOTRO, it has been no easy quest. If the game is the eagles and the ring is comprehension, they do not fly me to the finish. The game aids me, yes, but there have been certain pitfalls. For example, I encountered a glitch while questing in Mordor whereupon I was falling in place. Of course, this is a simple fix in English—but the translation I knew for stuck was not the command to save my character from his purgatory of falling. Not one to give up, however, I began to google keywords and sentences in French, scouring the scant forum pages for the right command. I eventually did stumble upon the correct solution, and felt more knowledgeable of the language as a result. I had to navigate the internet in a foreign language. Like a game too, did surfing the web become; moreover, the simulation forced me into a form of a pop quiz, another mini game.

Immersion

By learning with LOTRO, my immersion was secured. Even when glitches threatened all of my progress, I wanted so greatly to continue playing that I persevered. That is a key point: The rewards of playing the game caused me to keep learning French—even when I was tired of the task. Whereas traditional learning methods almost always bore eventually, the addictive powers of gaming kept me long at the keyboard—practicing infinitives and reading large swathes of text in the language. So many language learners fail because they are both bored and because they spend little quality time with the language. I too was bored with conventional learning and despite my willingness to learn, true immersion remained out of reach. The usual boredom I experienced rarely coalesced because unlike Duolingo, or other websites—the rewards of progress meant something to me. I wanted to game and as a side result, I learned.

There remained still a problem: a bulwark blocking true comprehension. LOTRO is a game with many thousands of quests, but the game is voice acted sparingly. Indeed, the new developer of the game, Standing Stone Games, has abandoned all non-English voice acting for new content. Because of this, I looked to a similar game. One with depth and a world capable of teaching me a language of my own, but with ample voice acting.

Game 2: Skyrim

A sly Argonian thug is brought before the long arm of the law

I quickly started a new character in Skyrim. The opening dialogue was difficult even for someone who knew the story, like myself. I could piece together fragmentary phrases and only rarely did I comprehend a sentence. Those pieces I did understand almost universally contained a context clue such as ‘Stormcloak rebellion.’ Additionally, some dialogue was so memorable I needed know only one word to register the whole. A few of these were the famous ‘arrow to the knee’ quote, as well as the question ‘who are you,’ asked when you are creating your character.

The Item Mini-game

I think Skyrim differed from LOTRO as a learning tool in an extremely prominent way. Yes, it was voiced but it contained another element of context clues. I had reached level five, bought potions, armor, and skooma for my long and weary wandering. I needed these now as I began my trek, and so opened the items tab. Like LOTRO, Skyrim utilizes visuals to tell a story; yet, in Skyrim more emphasis is placed on individual items and resources. As such, the everyday objects of crafting could be interacted with in the world, and in the item menu they were listed in great numbers.

A mass of items is displayed, the language corresponding with the visual

I have no doubt that the menu would have been a mini-game unto itself were it not for pictures. Do not underestimate the visual powers of images when learning a language. As a child uses the visuals of its world to process words, so the adult should if they can. For if this experiment taught me anything, it is that pictures are a vital tool in learning language. Sight aids often in everyday speech, such as when you do not hear what someone is asking. But with context from the surroundings, one easily can read that the person requires a wrench, or has a flat tire.

In games, unlike in traditional vocabulary lists and long, boring practice paragraphs—pictures are ever present. The Skyrim item menu made me appreciate a toddler’s ingenuity. The menu was a matching game, simple in its rules: sort words to the image of the item. I almost always knew the function of the item pictured and this allowed me to learn various linguistic concepts rapidly.

I observed the object and noted its purpose, in one case it was a grey, metal hauberk. Knowing this I discovered that in French an object of a certain material had the phrase ‘of material’ following the primary noun. Suddenly, all of the armor and swords with that linguistic form were made clear. It was like an image, up to that point in the background, made vivid once singled out.

Starting to Speak

While the reading of French continued easily enough, hearing the words proved taxing. The mental strain of being one hundred percent attentive during dialogue began to wear on me. Perhaps out of delirium or maybe it was the copious quantities of…erm…skooma, but I began to speak the answers my character would select. Often I did this with exaggerated theatrics; but, I enjoyed myself. What is more, as I honed my pronunciation my ear attuned itself to the accents and phonetics. Though still a novice, I can with some delay converse with the good folk of Whiterun. I even have exchanges with the rude children of the city, where I offer pleasantries of ‘Putain, merde,’ and ‘nique ta mère.’ Yes, my little Argonian peasant has become quite the cosmopolitan.

The Jarl's son annoys a weary wanderer for the last time.

The Conclusion:

As I conclude my second week of this experiment, I am sure of three things. Firstly, immersion is key when learning anything—languages included. If not entertained, the brain will idle. This idleness from boredom cannot coexist with language learning or stagnation is only inevitable.

Secondly, never underestimate your brain’s power to decipher meaning from given context. Utilize the detective that is the brain to your advantage and learn languages where context clues are readily available to you. For me, the wellspring of context came from fantasy RPG’s, but any game with linguistic elements may do the trick. The key, though, is you have to participate. Gaming is by definition a participatory activity. By not being a passive learner of French and actually using it, my fluency soared. I needed not be around French speakers; because in Skyrim, French was always coming from my speakers.

Lastly, I think the power of games as tools for learning is understood—but not in its totality. By just playing a game I found fun, my fluency grew. What a compliment to game creators, that their worlds not only awe us; they can teach us about our own.

This is merely the positives of learning language through games. Games are imperfect simulations, although they grow in realism and complexity daily. An imperfect simulation such as Skyrim or LOTRO cannot teach language as perfectly as reality, not yet. In Part Two, I will discuss my negative experience with the experiment—as well as ways to solve these problems.