More people are learning a second language. There are as many reasons as individuals who embark in this journey. For some it’s just a pass-time, but for others it might be linked to job-related purposes. The need is real and the urgency too. There is a myriad of materials out there, free and paid and one category are games and gamified Apps advocating their ability to help us learn a foreign language. However, my question is, are they effective?
Aspects that encourage language acquisition and learning
The best example is the way children learn their mother tongue. They acquire it by interacting with their parents, listening to them, repeating what is said, associating images and objects representations to the word they hear. They practice through trial and error and corrections from parents, teachers and peers. Their acquisition of the language is spontaneous.
Contrarily, when someone studies a second language, he/she memorises vocabulary words and phrases, as well a grammar rule. Most often even though he/she might know words and rules by heart, he/she is unable to sustain a fluent conversation in the new language.
What does encourage language acquisition?
Input plays a great role in language acquisition/learning. As in the case of children acquiring their mother tongue, language students should be exposed to the language they are learning. They should have a great amount of input. Visual cues, listening to the spoken language, reading materials, previous knowledge of the language should all be considered as input.
They should create an immersive environment where the target language is used. This exposure should be using materials just slightly above their level where they can understand most of what is thrown at them and still receive the challenge of new words and expressions to investigate.
Learners should be encouraged to practice the four essential language skills
Learners should be encouraged to practice the four essential language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing from the very beginning of their language journey, although these skills might be taught separately.
It has been shown that affective aspects such as motivation, self-esteem and anxiety play a role on the outcome of acquiring a language. Low self-esteem, motivation and anxiety when using the language can lead to poor retention and recollection and impaired use of the language. When the contrary occurs, the learner has a better grasp of it.
People with intrinsic motivation (just for the joy and internal satisfaction of learning) learn easily and stay engaged longer in the process of second language learning. They adopt and maintain desirable behaviours which in turn boost learning.
On the contrary, people with extrinsic motivation (studying for work or exams) tend to have a short live engagement to the process once the goal is reached, they abandon.
A proper mindset can boost learner’s achievement.
It has been proven that learners with a growth mindset achieve much better than those with a fixed mindset.
Growth mindset is when the student believes their intelligence can be developed and improved.
Fixed mindset is when the student believes that there is no room for improvement, their intelligence is limited.
The learner should be prepared to practice what is learned on a regular basis and at increasing intervals. Nothing helps us learn better than practice, repetition, hard work and effort. Boyd (2015) affirms that increased difficulty and struggle lead to more learning and to a greater structural change in the brain.
We can see that the factors that encourage the language learning process are comprehensible input, intrinsic motivation, high self-esteem, low anxiety, growth mindset and positive attitude.
What elements of games can encourage language learning?
Games have the potential to engage people and this is the reason why games elements are added in non-games products to make them more enjoyable.
First let’s define the term gamification.
Gamification is the practice of applying game elements to non-game context to increase user engagement. The use of educational games is an example of gamification.
How do games encourage learning?
“Games are systems within which players engage in abstract challenges defined by rules with quantifiable outcomes” (Salen and Zimmerman 2004; Kapp 2012).
They provide a safe environment for the learner to explore and think, and they give meaning and context.
When engaged in a game, learners are not afraid to fail because they see failures as challenges that they must overcome. They are not judged by others based on their performance.
They are innovative as they must think out of the box. At the same time, they have a sense of control because they decide how far they go within the game. They feel competent which boosts their motivation hence the desire to carry on.
What type of gamified language learning tools are there?
There are essentially two types: the ones with a plot and those without a plot.
As the name suggests in the plot based gamified tools, there’s a story and various characters, sounds and visuals. The learners have a specific mission and the learning process happens whilst trying to accomplish the mission. Although they don’t have a competitive element, the game is addictive, and they create an immersive-type environment. These are primarily games with an educational content.
The gamified language tools with no plot are not a game per se, some game mechanics are borrowed to make the learning process more appealing to the users. They offer positive feedback, they develop a growth-mindset by praising the hard workers and encourage them to keep moving to more challenging lessons, they encourage engagement with external rewards like points and badges. These are educational Apps with gamified elements.
Both tools promote learning with attractive visuals, immediate feedback, user-friendliness.
How does gamification encourage language learning?
Although engaging, games and gamified Apps on their own are proven not enough to help learners study a language effectively. They can be beneficial when used with more traditional methods. They can help to awaken the curiosity of beginners for a new language, but they lack the tools to help students engage in a more communicative way as the speaking and writing aspect of language learning is totally neglected.
Have you used games or gamified Apps to help you learn a language? let us know in the comments.