While my peers were forced to play outside, I spent much of my childhood glued to a computer.
Contrary to what you might expect, I’m far from being overweight, and my eyesight is 20/20. Better yet, I also came out of this experience with a passion and aptitude for language.
Film, books, language schools and tutoring have all impacted my English in a positive way, but when I’m asked how I acquired the language, it is video games that I credit with my success.
I’ve tried to integrate games into the study of all languages I’ve tackled since, and they remain a staple of my language learning routine to this day.
Here are just some of the benefits of this way of learning:
- It’ll reduce your fear of making errors, the greatest roadblock on the way to fluency
- You can procrastinate without the guilt of wasting precious study time
- You’ll learn the language by using it in context, and with a rewarding goal in sight
- Many games make you integrate different skills: reading, writing, listening and sometimes even speaking
This sounds great, but which games are best for language learners?
Traditional video games
As long as you’re flexible with the genres, traditional video games are excellent at exposing you to language of all registers, used in a variety of situations.
I accustomed my ear to British pronunciation by playing FIFA, acquired a wealth of financial and bureaucratic slang in Hospital and Theme Park World, learned nuanced language when negotiating in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, lost the fear of historical vocabulary after a few campaigns in Caesar III and Civilization, and leveled up my street skills in Grand Theft Auto.
All this while having a load of fun, and without fully realizing I’m learning.
Games combine three different characteristics associated with effective language learning:
- You learn in context
- You learn by using the language
- You get positive feedback for making progress
I cannot think of any other method that consistently combines all three, which makes video games so unique.
Let’s say you wanted to learn Japanese language needed for your part time job as a store clerk.
You could open a dictionary, look up some words, rote learn them with paper or digital flashcards. It’ll likely take quite a while, you’ll be tempted to quit every second, and you’ll still be at a loss of words on your first day at work.
Instead, you could install Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, switch it to Japanese, and actually interact with customers inside the game.
Of course, you should keep in mind that the game might use more casual language at times, and some of the items you’ll sell will be tough to find in the real world.
But, you’ll also learn more common inventory, as well as greetings, shopping expressions, and even basic math and finance.
Next time you look to become more fluent in a particular context, try to find a game that uses it as its setting and has been localized to your target language. Worst case scenario, you can at least procrastinate without too much guilt.
Serious (educational) games
If you’d like to try something designed specifically with learning in mind, there are also so-called serious games that teach you in a gamified environment.
We spend three billion hours a week playing online video games, and apparently that’s not nearly enough to solve the world’s most pressing problems:
If changing the world is too ambitious, you can at least change yourself. Several excellent language learning games have been launched in recent years, available on different platforms and for all major tongues:
Crowdfunded on Kickstarter, Influent let’s you explore a virtual world from a first-person or third-person point of view. In the learn mode, walk around and click any object to learn its name in a foreign tongue. In the timed review mode, do your best at quickly finding objects whose names appear on the screen.
A fun little app with a collection of games teaching you the writing system, basic vocabulary and grammar of your target language. The content is somewhat limited but the games provide a nice break from more serious learning.
Learn actionable words and expressions through bite-size mini lessons adapted for the small screen and for the busy learner. As you progress, grow your very own virtual panda.
These games may not be as engaging as the more traditional titles, but you’ll be learning new language skills throughout, and in an order adapted to your current abilities—something that can be an issue with games translated for native speakers.
Where to get games in your target language
If you live in the country where the foreign language is spoken, you could of course just walk into the nearest video game store, but the easiest way to acquire localized games for most of us will be Steam.
The video game platform has a wide selection of titles available in multiple languages, and you are free to switch between them at will. Most Steam games are only available on Windows, but there is a growing selection of Linux and Mac OSX-compatible titles.
There is no easy way to filter by language availability in the store, but if you’re learning a mainstream language, it is safe to assume that most major games will have it as an option. Just make sure to check whether the translation includes a professional voice-over, or is textual only!
I would also strongly recommend you to search for games developed in the country of your target language. Not only will these games be guaranteed to have good copy and voice-overs, but they can also teach you more about the country’s culture!
Language learning can get boring at times, and most learning methods are unfortunately completely disconnected from where, when and how the language is actually used.
Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand. —Chinese proverb
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!