How Can Games Help with Language Acquisition?

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How Can Games Help with Language Acquisition?

In middle school, I often brought my Game Boy Advance on the bus. The ride gave me plenty of time to train my Blastoise in Pokémon: Leaf Green or fish my way through a few long Winter days in Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town. At first I played by myself, but eventually I met another girl with a GBA.

That was how I came across the Hamtaro series.

My new friend suggested we play Ham-Ham Heartbreak. When we beat that, we tried the Olympic-themed Ham-Ham Games. One day, while searching for a difficulty setting, I found that the North American release supported six different languages.

There was no difficulty setting, as I’d soon discover. But I was learning Spanish in school. Switching the language provided me a challenge not in the minigames themselves but in practicing my Spanish instead—and learning some new words along the way.

What I didn’t know at 11 was that there was an entire field of study dedicated to examining the intersection of language learning and media, which can include TV, movies, radio, and, yes, even videogames. During the pandemic, a fair amount of research has emerged looking at the efficacy of games in particular.

One of the most recent is a 2022 American systematic review by researcher Dr. Juan Li. Li found that videogames were effective in helping players learn a new language, especially when they couldn’t easily practice in real word situations, such as at the store or on the bus.

This is due, in part, to urgency.

Common strategies in language-learning classes include practice dialogues, textbook exercises, and the rote memorization of vocabulary. All of these are, to some extent, scripted and therefore limited in scope. A test on Chapter 2’s material, after all, won’t include the irregular verbs covered in Chapter 7, no matter how common those verbs are.

In real life, though, the material in Chapter 7 isn’t off-limits. A clerk at the store will use whatever vocabulary—and whatever sentence structure, verb tense, case, etc.—needed to complete the transaction.

The stakes are a little higher, then, in real-world applications of language. This urgency—or “real purpose,” as Li calls it—is important for learners, as it makes language acquisition practical. When comprehension matters, learners are more likely to retain words, verb tenses, and sentence constructions. This is one reason why immersion is a good way to learn a language (and why it’s the M.O. of celebrity nomad and polyglot Benny Lewis).

At first glance, videogames may seem to fall under the nonurgent category. After all, NPCs often repeat the same information, and many games allow unlimited access to instructions and tutorials. Players can also rewatch cutscenes (think of the memories in Breath of the Wild). None of this creates urgency.

Undeniably the stakes are lower in a game than in real life, but Li’s research nonetheless suggested that videogames helped learners when real-world options were unavailable or inaccessible. For those learners, videogames provided a “real purpose”—the purpose being comprehending the game.

There’s also an argument to be made for the nonurgent, though, as repeated exposure to NPCs and cutscenes can still be useful for language learning. A 2022 Indonesian study by researcher Theodore Alexander Atmaja focused on Biohazard HD Remastered (Resident Evil in the U.S.; the remaster was released in North America in 2015). He identified 11 sentence types in the game’s English dialogue and puzzles: four levels of complexity and seven verb tenses.

Atmaja argued that videogames were useful for showing players varied sentence structures, which benefited their reading comprehension. Because some of these constructions were more complex, the game text mimicked real-world language. The simple sentences would give players an ego boost, and the more complex ones would challenge them.

The same benefits can also carry over into cutscenes, where dialogue may be spoken out loud and/or captioned. Cutscenes were helpful for improving learners’ listening comprehension and pronunciation. They helped them match static written words to dynamic spoken language.

Altogether, the benefits noted by both Li and Atmaja suggest that story mode can be an impactful way to practice a new language.

This doesn’t mean that online games aren’t helpful, though. In fact, the opposite is true: online games allow players to interact in their new language in real time.

A 2021 American study looked specifically at online games and morphology. As explained in a blurb by Florida State University, linguistic morphology is the study of “the parts that make up words.”

Consider the root word “interested.” If we add a prefix to it, such as “dis-” or “un-”, we create a totally new word, which has, in this case, the opposite meaning. Knowing the root word “interested” might not be enough to guess the meaning of “uninterested,” not without knowing that “un-” reverses meaning. This is what the researchers termed “morphological awareness.”

This particular study examined if English learners understood how morphology impacts language. To do this the researchers analyzed chat logs between native English speakers and English learners. They found that videogames had the “potential to enhance ESL students’ morphological awareness” as well as their “word reading accuracy,” both of which benefit learners.

Overall, then, recent research on language acquisition suggests that games can be powerful teaching tools, well beyond their entertainment (or speedrunning or social/cultural critique) value. That begs the question: If you could learn any language, by playing any game, what would you try?

Natalie Schriefer often writes about pop culture, sexuality, and identity. Say hi on Twitter @schriefern1.