27 December 2012

Computer games as language study

Before the Christmas holidays I tried to give advice to my students about what to do to keep practicing their English in the holidays, and the thing I really recommended them to do was to play computer games, and I was sure I'd blogged about computer games before, but apparently not...

Anyway, computer games as language study?  Nonsense, right?  "Blam blam blam, pow pow zap kaboom" is the same in any language, after all.

True.  Not all games are of any use to a language learner as most have virtually zero language content.  Action games really aren't much use... unless you're playing with native speakers on the internet, but most people aren't going to do that when they can play with people who speak their own language (and also on a local server minimising the lag).

The games that I recommend to my students are point-and-click adventures, the likes of the old Lucasarts Monkey Island series (if you're familiar with those).  If you're not familiar with the genre, you basically go around talking to people and trying to find objects to solve puzzles.  There isn't usually any way to die, you just keep going until you find the solution and win the game.  These are particularly useful for several reasons:
  1. Dialogue is central to the game.
    In most action games, very little of the dialogue is needed to complete the game; in a point-and-click adventure, the dialogue is full of clues on how to solve the puzzles.  The learner is therefore forced to pay attention and to try to understand.
  2. Dialogue is partially repetitive and has a restricted vocabulary.
    On the simplest level, there are default phrases that are repeated whenever the player tries to perform a task that isn't part of the game (eg "I don't want to cut that", "It's too heavy").  More subtley, though, the vocabulary is very "tight" as the same words appear very frequently to give you clues as to how to solve the puzzles.
    When you're watching a film or reading a book, there is repetition of language, but not to the same extent.  And yet, because these games are designed for native speakers, the repetition is not so blatant and restrictive that it becomes boring, unlike many dedicated learners' resources.
  3. Subtitled dialogue.Most of the games in this genre have voices and text, although the earlier ones are text only.  Having the option to read the text as you're listening seems to help train people to recognise the spoken form of words they know how to read.  You can't really do that with film and TV, because the subtitles never match exactly what the actors say (subtitles have to be easy and quick to read) but in these games, the spoken and written dialogue is almost always exactly the same -- as a rough estimate, I'd say at least 95% of all dialogue matches.  This makes this the only class of "authentic materials" that offers the ability to read and listen at the same time.
  4. Slow pacing.
    The dialogue in these games is pretty easy to follow, as it's not subject to the usual sources of interference.  In films, people talk over each other and loud sound effects mix with the dialogue.  In a point-and-click adventure, everything is usually clear and distinct (and if it's not, you can usually turn down the volume on music and sound effects independently of the dialogue).  As a bonus, the pacing of the game gives you plenty of time to look up unknown vocabulary as it occurs -- the game naturally waits for you, so there's no need to pause and unpause.
There's a few games of this type available for free at scummvm.org, and there are others for sale at GOG.com and on Steam, in various languages.

I've used this approach myself, having bought the first two Runaway games when I arrived in Spain, and having downloaded a couple of games in French before moving there.

It won't teach you a language by itself, but as a form of practice when you're at the immediate level, it's very, very effective, and I would recommend it to anyone, even if you don't normally play computer games....

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