Textbooks. Lectures. Homework.
What if you could just throw it all away?
What if you could pick up a PlayStation controller instead—and your grammar would actually get better?
It sounds crazy, but it’s true.
Give it a try with our top tips for learning languages with video games:
- Pick games with strong storylines.
- Voice acting is a must.
- Keep track of unfamiliar words.
- Grab a headset and compete online.
- Play word games on the go.
- Make your own analog games.
Why should you learn languages with video games?
Okay, you might not be able to dunk your textbooks into the trash entirely. But pairing traditional learning with a few weekly hours of learning languages with video games (a.k.a. virtual immersion) is effective for several reasons. (Of course, you’ll have to switch the game into your target language. You can’t play Call of Duty in English and expect to learn Chinese.)
First, immersion. Outside of moving to a new country, role playing games are the most immersive experience that you can have—unlike watching a film or listening to music, it’s not passive. You become a character. You live in their virtual world. Imagine walking through narrow Polish streets, hearing a woman shout, “Pomóż mi!” (The Witcher III) or fighting to save your kingdom as your best friend begs you in German, “Enttäusche mich nicht” (Final Fantasy XV). How will you help the woman? How will you save your comrade? By thinking on your feet! You’ll have to master through the language quickly if you want to beat the game. Every minute matters.
Secondly, entertainment. Games are just—fun! When you have fun, you want to keep going back. A little bit of excitement keeps you from burning out, so schedule in game time just as you would any other study activity; I often replace a day of studying with an hour of my favorite German-language RPG. This tactic might seem strange, but at the end of that hour, I am refreshed, excited and armed with a long list of new vocabulary words.
Games also make it easy to track your progress. Test this. Start a game in your target language. When you’re about halfway through (which is usually after 10-20 hours), take inventory. You’re probably pausing to look up words less frequently than when you started. You’re probably absorbing the language more easily. In other words, you know more. By the time you beat the game, your comprehension will be miles ahead of where it was.
Okay, so how do you get started?
Pick games with strong storylines.
Humans are narrative creatures. We use stories to make sense of the world around us, and we remember facts better when they’re coded into our episodic memory.
Zero in on games with definitive narrative arcs. For one, you’ll remember the words better if they’re part of a larger, overarching narrative.
For even better results, gravitate toward narrative games that require you to make choices that affect the plot—not only will you have to comprehend the language, but you have to think and respond in it too.
Plus, the story will hook you in and keep you coming back. The only catch is that if you want to find out what happens next, you’ll have to keep working hard at decoding the grammar and vocabulary.
Check these out:
Haunting and Experimental: What Remains of Edith Finch and The Stanley Parable
Role-Playing: Stardew Valley
Sports: NBA 2k19
Choose-Your-Own Adventure: Detroit: Become Human, Telltale
Voice acting is a must.
For the most immersive experience, you need to read a language, speak a language, and hear a language.
If you’re just starting out, it’s especially important to hear the words aloud—not just so that you can learn correct pronunciation, but also so that you can adjust to how the language sounds. Unlike in class or rehearsed conversations, characters in video games speak fast. They won’t hold back. Short of talking with a native speaker, this is the closest you can get to communicating in the language naturally.
Games with multilingual voice acting tend to be big-budget, but you may be able to find some indie darlings that are at least partially voice acted.
Action: Bioshock (French, Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese)
Adventure: No Man’s Sky (French, Italian, German, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, Russian)
Historical: Valiant Hearts (French, Italian, German, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese)
Keep track of unfamiliar words.
When you play a game in your target language, you essentially have to work twice as hard.
On one hand, you have to focus on playing the game. On the other hand, you also have to focus on what’s being said: If you come across any unconventional linguistic constructions or unfamiliar terms, write them down!
Try to work them out via context clues; you’ll remember a term better if you deduce what it means and put it into your own words. But if you can’t, run it by your learning partner or a native speaker friend. (I recommend consulting people before Google Translate; language isn’t always a one-to-one translation, and Google is unreliable.)
As you play, keep your word list at hand. Try not to look at it unless you have to—challenge yourself to try to remember a word that you wrote down instead of referencing its definition. You remember more than you think.
Grab a headset and compete online.
Fortnite. Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. Overwatch. These days, just about every big-budget game supports some form of multiplayer, so grab an atomic gun and jump into a bloodthirsty battle royale. Explain to your foreign-language teammates that you’re learning your target language, and pay attention to the natural patterns and colloquialisms they use when they speak.
If competitive combat isn’t your cup of tea, then plug into some friendly multiplayer games such as City Life RPG, a game where you walk around a city ad infinitum, or Second Life, a game where you walk around a universe ad infinitum. These game developers give you all the open-world adventure with none of the high-stakes combat.
Action: Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite, Overwatch
Adventure: World of Warcraft
Role-playing: City Life RPG, Second Life
Play word games on the go.
Remember in 2010 when Words With Friends was the most popular game in the App Store? It might not be at its peak, but it did launch hundreds of spinoffs in dozens of languages.
Word games are some of the best (and most challenging) ways to expand your vocabulary. Want to learn a lot of new terms in a hurry? Challenge your crush to a game. The pressure to impress them will transform your word bank overnight.
To start, check out Words With Friends, now in Spanish, French, German, Italian or Portuguese.
On top of that, you could try various social media networks to aid your language learning!
Not a fan of technology? Make your own analog games.
If electronic games aren’t your thing, go analog.
All you need is a pack of index cards and some colored markers. Construct your own vocabulary flashcards and turn them into a game of Memory: On half of the cards, write terms, and on the other half, write definitions. Place all of the cards face down and try to match each term to its definition from memory.
If you’re more competitive, play hangman with your friends. Or if you really want a challenge, try Scrabble using only words from your target language.
Learning a language doesn’t have to be tedious. Whether you want to blow up some bases in Fortnite or prefer a parochial game of hangman, utilize games to master your language and add to your arsenal of learning tools — and have fun while doing it.
Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.