When it comes to learning languages, the expression “all work and no play…” is true. Without any playtime, language learning can be dull.
That’s not to say there isn’t value in doing the book work – there is a ton of value. It just means that it isn’t all you should do.
Finding a way to engage with your language beyond hitting the books is important to not only succeeding in your learning, but in connecting with the language on deeper level.
Media has been used for generations as a medium for language learning. Films, television shows, books, and music have all proven powerful methods for immersing yourself in your new language. But there’s another powerful way to learn a language through rich context and interaction. A method that makes the language that you learn more memorable because of all the connections you form while doing it.
Video games can be a powerful language learning tool, and there are loads of different ways to use them to maximize the time you spend both playing and learning.
I’ll get into just what these are in a moment, but before I do, I want to share a word of warning. This post is massive.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started.
Level 1: Introduction to Learning a Language with Video Games
In addition to being the language enthusiast behind Eurolinguiste, I’m also a gamer. I’ve used video games to improve or maintain a variety of languages on a variety of systems and I’ve found it to be a highly effective element of my language learning routines.
My history with gaming dates back to my early childhood when my brother and I would hijack our dad’s NES system to play Ice Hockey and Super Mario Bros., huddle around our neighbor’s Sega Genesis to take turns at Sonic the Hedgehog, or rack up points for tricks in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater on the original Playstation.
As I got older, entered the realm of PC games, and realized I could lock my brother out of my saves by swapping the game language, games were no longer entertainment but a learning tool. My curiosity peaked, I suddenly enjoyed the challenge of playing games in new languages and in figuring out enough of the walkthrough I found online in a different language to get to that next level.
Today, I play games almost entirely in other languages. It’s only when support for a language I know isn’t available that I resort to playing in English.
Some of my favorite games are The Legend of Zelda and Skyrim, so they’ll make quite a few appearances in the examples below.
The Stigma Behind Gaming as a Learning Tool
Video games still to this day often get a bad wrap. I’m sure at some point in your life you’ve heard someone say they’re useless or a waste of time, but studies have shown that there are a surprising number of cognitive benefits to playing video games. In fact, in an article from Psychology Today, the author states, “The bulk of the research suggests that the claims about negative effects of video gaming are largely myths and the positive effects are real.”
These include everything from improved visual processes, improvements in spatial attention and the ability to track objects, reduced impulsiveness, overcoming dyslexia, improved problem solving, improved ability to multitask, increased mental flexibility, and more. Plus, your time spent playing video games can also count as language study time if you play your cards right.
Why Learning a Language with Video Games Works
When we find ways to make what we’re learning more engaging, it becomes more memorable. And when you’re playing a game, you’re highly engaged.
The interaction, the processing and the figuring out that goes on while playing all add up to an immersive and interactive language learning experience.
Here are just a few ways video games can be a powerful language learning tool:
The more you see something, the more likely you are to remember. Games are a great place to get repetition. There’s a good chance that there’s a limited set of moves/options you have as you play, so you’ll get a lot of exposure to the vocabulary for these actions. Plus, most games today have a story of some sort, so you’ll get repetition in the narration as well. Finally, there also tends to be a limited number of objects or places you interact with within the game, so these too offer you plenty of repetition.
Procrastination Becomes Action
If you’re into playing video games, there’s a good chance it’s one of the things you do when you put off doing your “work”. But when you use games to learn a language, suddenly your procrastination becomes action. Your playing becomes a learning opportunity.
When you don’t understand what’s going on in the game, there’s a good chance you’ll lose (or your character will die). This can be frustrating, so it’s a good incentive to learn fast.
A big part of why we have a hard time sitting down to spend time with our languages is because it feels like work. Flashcards, textbooks, and study aren’t often high on the “fun” list for many, but games are. When you associate language learning with gaming, you’re creating a positive association. And this positive association makes it easier to sit down and do it.
When you study random word lists or even a themed chapter in your course book, what you’re learning can feel a little out of context. Do you really need to know how to buy a train ticket in German? What if you never travel to the country? If, however, you find that knowing how to investigate certain areas at a train station to get to the next level is important, you’ll have a context for picking up that vocabulary. It’ll suddenly be much easier and much more engaging than simply reading dialogues in a book, memorizing a word list, and doing workbook exercises.
There is a community for almost every major game worldwide. This means there’s a good chance you can find a group of people who speak your target language and who love the same games as you. Whether it’s through an online game, forums about the game, or other message boards, there are tons of ways you can connect with people who share your interests.
Don’t want to invest in platform games? No problem. If you own a phone or a computer, you can still get all of the benefits of games without having to buy a gaming system.
Level 2: The Setup
To get started with gaming in a new language is simple. In the past, if you wanted to enjoy games in different languages, you often had to buy the version of the both the system and the games from the country that speaks your language (I may or may not have bought a Japanese version of the Nintendo 64 along with the Japanese versions of the Zelda games and by may, I mean I definitely did). Instead, changing the language today is just a matter of changing the settings.
There are two places you can change the language settings of your video games.
The first place to change the settings is within the system or computer itself. This means, if you’re using Steam, you’ll change your Steam settings to your language of choice. If you’re using a Wii Switch or an Xbox, you’ll change your system settings.
Here are links to do this for many of the major platforms. How to change the language settings for your:
Second, you’ll want to change the settings for the game itself. Often, changing your system’s settings will also change the language settings for your game (but not always).
When changing your game language, you first want to be conscious of what languages are available. Some games have subtitles or captions available in more languages than they do audio (this means that sometimes I may play a game with the audio in one language and the subtitles in another). And certain games only have support for a limited number of languages.
If you’re not sure if a game is available in the language you’re studying, you can often check the game description. This will let you know if you can enjoy the game in your language or if you need to look elsewhere.
Finding Games in Your Language
Getting games in your language doesn’t need to be a challenge. If you live in a country where your target language is spoken, it’s as simple as walking down to the nearest game or electronics store. But if you don’t, Steam is one of the best alternatives.
Steam is an online gaming platform that gives you access to an incredible selection of games for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS. And the best part? You can filter all of those games by language.
And, not only can you search for games by language, but you can also search by games developed in specific countries. That means you can find games developed by the country of your target language, ensuring that you get high-quality content in your language.
Buying Compatible Consoles, Downloading Audio/Subtitles
When all else fails, or if you’re into some of the more classic games like me, you can always buy a game console from the region that speaks your target language. You may need to buy converters or adaptors so that you can power it on safely, but it’s a great way to get around having to tweak settings or worry about what’s available and what isn’t.
Some games also have player-generated subtitles or audio that you can download. These aren’t always the best quality, but depending on what is available otherwise, might sometimes be better than nothing.
Level 3: Types of Games and Their Content
Not sure if video games are your thing? Don’t worry.
There are tons of different types of games out there and there’s a good chance you’ll find something you think is entertaining and engaging. Here are just a few of the game genres out on the market:
Online Multiplayer Games
First, I’ll cover a broad genre of video game. Many of the genres below can also be online multiplayer games (though not all). What’s the difference?
With online multiplayer games, you interact with other players within the game (rather than play by yourself). In some of these games, you may work as a part of a team and in others, you may just “run into” other players as you progress through the game. These types of games also have chat features, so you are able to interact with other players in the game beyond any in-game dialogue or actions.
Some of the most popular games in this genre are World of Warcraft and League of Legends.
If you enjoy a good story with some interactivity, interactive movies and visual novels are a great option. These games are often called “interactive fiction” and they contain a lot of dialogue.
Popular games in this genre include Game of Thrones, the Walking Dead, and even Myst.
Action games cover a wide variety of options – everything from platform games (like Donkey Kong) to first-person shooters (like Call of Duty). These games rely on the response of the player, so you may often find yourself more focused on the gameplay than the language content.
Popular games in this genre include Super Mario, Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, and Doom.
RPG games, or role-playing games, feature a character who moves through a storyline. The world often includes monsters, towns, dungeons, and castles, as well as character development (leveling up, gaining skills, and experience). Often, the player has a choice in how the unfolds and this is determined by how they interact in the world.
Games in this genre include The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Skyrim.
Simulation games are games where some aspect of fantasy or related is simulated. This may include running a business, a city, vehicle simulation or life simulation.
Some of these games include FlightGear, the Sims, SimCity, and Tamagotchi.
Strategy games are games that require critical thinking and planning in order to win the game. This often include games with battle tactics and other war-games.
Within this genre are games such as Civilizations, Age of Empires, and Fire Emblem.
Sports games include racing games, sports, and competitive games, and sports-based fighting games. They are a form of simulation games, but specifically built around sports.
Within this genre are games like FIFA, Pong, and Grand Turismo.
Games for Children
There are many educational games targeted at children, but just because they’re built for a younger audience doesn’t mean that you won’t get a lot out of them.
Companies like Nickelodeon and Disney have a wide variety of games for younger players in other languages (Juegos Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. France, or Disney Japan). Because the games are simple and targeted towards an audience with a limited vocabulary (relatively), they’re an easy entry point and often very educational. https://kids.disney.co.jp/game.html
Language Learning Games
In addition to playing games in other languages, you can play games that are designed for language learners specifically.
These games are still focused on acquiring a new language, but they’re presented as a part of an engaging platform.
In this genre, you have games like InFluent, Drops, and My Chinese Coach.
Text Rich Games VS Games with Little Text
When selecting games, bear in mind that the content you can use for language learning will differ drastically. Some games will have more audio dialogue, others more written instructions, and others still a mixture of the two. Depending on the language you’re learning and the stage you’re at, having a lot of audio content can be extremely helpful. It encourages to work on your listening comprehension. On the other hand, if you’re a beginner in your language, playing a game with mostly audio instructions may prove too much of a challenge and a game with a lot of text dialogue may be better suited to your level.
If you’re not sure what the audio and text content of a certain game will be like, you can do a search on Youtube for “[name of game] gameplay” to get a quick impression of what the game is like.
A point worth noting is that it is good to try out a variety of game types so that you’re sure to get a mix of audio and text input.
Level 4: How to Use That Content to Learn a Language
Now that you know what your options are for games, here’s how you can get the most out of your combined gaming and language learning experience:
- Join a community of some sort. Whether it’s the community of an online multiplayer game or the forums on Steam, there’s likely a community of gamers who speak your target language. Find them and take part in the conversation.
- If the game is online, choose servers where your language is spoken. Several years ago, I played an online game on my phone where joining a guild was critical to your success in the game. I found that if I joined the French servers, it was a great opportunity for me to practice French.
- Try your best to use your target language. Even if the people you interact with speak English, do your best to keep the conversation in the language you’re learning.
- Play at times when players from the country that speaks your language are online. You’re more likely to have a chance to interact with them.
- Play a game where some of the vocabulary intersects with how you use the language outside of gaming. For example, a game like the Sims is great for learning the names of everyday objects whereas a game like Fancy Skiing might be a better option if one of your hobbies is skiing.
- Experiment with the text and audio in the game. Because many games let you set one language for text and another language for audio, you can play with these settings to maximize your comprehension.
- Make sure you choose a game that you enjoy because you’re most likely to learn from a game that you enjoy playing.
- Just playing the game won’t teach you the language. You need to engage with the game and look up unfamiliar words. I usually add any frequent, unfamiliar words to my Memrise decks and do a bit of review between play sessions.
Level 5: Going Beyond the Games Themselves
Beyond the games themselves, there are tons of ways to use gaming and the gaming community to work on your language.
Not only will the following methods help you get more exposure to your language, but it will also give you the chance to produce in the language (speak and write).
Twitch, Mixer, and YouTube Games
Twitch, Mixer and YouTube Games are online streaming services that many gamers use to share their playing. And the best part – you can find game vloggers who speak a variety of languages.
When using this platform, the best way to find streams in your target language is by looking up the name of the games that interest you in your target language. The easiest way I’ve found to do this is by looking up a game on Wikipedia and then changing the article language. So, for example, the Legend of Zelda in Korean would be 젤다의 전설. I can then use that to search for streams about Zelda in Korean. You can then favorite the channels so that you can follow their game streams in the future.
Twitch and Mixer, in particular, allow streamers to set their broadcast language. And that means you can search for streams by language.
And since it’s slightly more difficult to find YouTube gamers by language, here are just a few to get you started:
Because the gaming community is so large, there are tons of communities around the world that start up discussions about the games that they enjoy.
Walkthroughs are available as either text or video. For example, Beam is a German gamer who provides detailed walkthroughs in German and on Next Stage, you can find French game walkthroughs. The popular gaming site IGN is also available in a wide selection of languages, and they have very well written walkthroughs for a large number of games.
In addition to all of the above, there are also game blogs and review sites where you can read about the games that you enjoy (or find out about new games) like this one in French. http://hitek.fr/test/ubisoft-assassins-creed-origins_1479
To Sum Up: Choose Wisely
In gaming, there are a lot of ways you can get exposure to your language, but there’s one thing worth noting before you dive in.
Before converting your study time over to games, consider what your goals are in learning the language. While it may be fun to play certain games, not all of the language you learn may be useable outside of the gaming environment.
For example, some games use a lot of fantasy (or invented) vocabulary, others have a lot of words that focus on weapons or attacks, while others still may be strictly sports vocabulary.
It’s alright to choose games that cover this territory if it’s something you’re interested in (and that you’ll discuss). Plus, you’ll pick up some grammar along the way. But if you’d like to have conversations about anything not covered in a game, make sure that it’s not the only thing you do.
By complementing your other resources with video games, you can banish the guilt from procrastination, inject a bit of genuine fun into your learning, and master niche and varied language by actually using it to get epic wins!
What about you?
Do you play games in your language? What games do you play and in which languages? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.