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Meet Paul. A few years ago Paul was just your average college kid with a few years of high school Spanish under his belt and a passion for linguistics. Today Paul works as a bilingual Claims Service Adjuster whose fluency extends beyond his native tongue of English to that of Spanish, Japanese, and a touch of German. Can you guess his secret? Beyond traditional classes and studying abroad in Spain, Paul attributes much of his foreign language mastery to video games with a special nod to the Pokémon series. Take that, Rosetta Stone.

Pokemon high five

And I would know because Paul just so happens to be my older brother. In an effort to better understand my brother’s journey through the seemingly contradictory terrain of language-learning and game playing, I took a trip to what can only be described as his geek chic bachelor pad for a little Q&A. As a single-language speaker, and someone who’s never felt overwhelmingly passionate about broadening my foreign vernacular beyond Skyrim Dragon Shouts, I’ve always framed learning a language in relation to academia – requiring books, intensive study, and memorization. While Paul was initially inducted on the linguist path through his school work, true proficiency was inspired by a medley of techniques – studying outside of the classroom, surrounding himself with speakers of foreign languages and seeking every opportunity to improve his vocabulary, which included playing his favorite games in Spanish. “The key when learning anything new is to have fun while you’re doing it,” he said. “I’ve been playing Pokémon for 20 years, if I can ‘Catch Em’ All’ while learning a thing or two, I’d call that a win, win situation.”

The Language Swap

After a sliver of informational talk, we drifted to some of our more typical brother sister activities; you guessed it, playing video games. While I was more focused on flexing my sibling superiority by ‘whooping’ my brother’s butt in Mario Kart 64, he took the opportunity to share more of his wisdom. “As you know,” he began, “I’ve played every Pokémon game more times than I can count.” True story. Paul is the most passionate Pokémon fan that I’ve ever met; he even has the Legendary Suicune tattooed on his calf. “So I pretty much understand the gist of what’s happening and what’s being said at any given point within the games. When you’re first learning and playing in a second language, it’s like the ultimate game of trial and error – translate what you can and figure out the rest through the process of elimination.”

Pokemon Hyper Beam

The idea sounded great in theory so I decided to try it out for myself. After just a few battles in the Spanish version of Pokémon Black, I was able to decode the menu titles and quite a few moves despite my inability to comprehend the text. Since I am familiar with the skill animations, matching the Spanish term to its English counterpart in my brain was simple. Did you know Hiperrayo is the Spanish equivalent to the move Hyper Beam? I didn’t, but I do now. Beyond flat-out guessing, with the help of contextual clues, playing a game in which you’re already familiar removes a big chunk of the guess work when trying to decipher an unfamiliar term. If you have a general idea about the game’s context, then figuring out how a word fits within a sentence is that much easier. Not to mention the repetition is great for committing new vocabulary to memory. While my crash course in Pokémon Language 101 was enlightening, I definitely have a long way to go before my Spanish skills start to evolve. Luckily, even beginners like me have options when it comes to language learning and video games.

Subs and Dubs for the Newbie

The language swap technique that my brother adopted is clearly an effective method under the right circumstances but what if a user is a novice linguist and he or she is interested in playing a game for the first time? When still in the beginning stages of learning a new dialect, using subtitles and dubbed voices can be especially helpful for building proficiency through video games and beyond.

Ni No Koni

Although video games typically have fewer options in the language and text departments compared to say movies or television, there are still ways to utilize the almighty subs or dubs to enhance your lingual cognition. Playing a JRPG with the original Japanese voices and subtitles is just one example of bridging the gap between getting your game on and broadening your lingual horizons. Not only are the original performances often better – a chunk of the anime community can vouch for me on this – subtitled media typically offers more accurate translations than its dubbed counterparts. Play Ni No Kuni or the first installment of Xenoblade Chronicles in its “authentic” language, you won’t be disappointed! Beyond the bonus dose of authenticity, there’s so much cultural and conversational significance to absorb just by listening to speech. You might not become proficient by playing video games with subtitles, but deviating from your norm with an entire game’s worth of foreign audio is a worthy experience that might just help you pick up a few words, learn pronunciations, perfect intonations, and become more comfortable with the language as a whole. Perhaps the best news, there’s no language skill requirement to hop aboard the subtitle train beyond a passion to learn.

Data Shows Multiplayer is the Way to Go

My multilingual sibling isn’t the only one to see the educational and language-mastering potential offered by video games. Peggy Sheeby, one of the designers of WoW in Schools – a collaborative workspace program that uses MMOs such as World of Warcraft to teach students language arts courses – regards video games as excellent learning tools due to their highly engaging and often collaborative nature. “In my estimation, a well-designed video game is pure, scaffolded, constructivist learning at its best. Mastery of content opens up new content and offers unlimited opportunity for success.” Video games, especially titles that fall within the online or multiplayer genre, incorporate key principles of effective language which make them highly useful to absorb and retain previously unfamiliar terms and phrases. As James Paul Gee, co-author of Language and Learning in the Digital Age explains, video games can be particularly helpful when studying a new language because games frame the unknown with something familiar such as an in-game action like “shoot” or “collect.” When words are attached to a specific experience, they become much easier to remember. While picking up a few foreign words is easy enough, in some places, adopting a more thorough grasp of a secondary language is actually a necessity for gamers. A recent study conducted by academics Pia Sundqvist and Liss Kerstin Sylvén found that on average, fourth-grade Swedish boys spent 11.5 hours using the English language outside of school, 3.5 hours of which was spent playing games like Counter Strike, World of Warcraft, or FIFA.
World of Warcraft
They can’t all be aspiring polyglots, so why you might ask, would a bunch of kids choose to play video games in their second language? Given the global scope of many online gaming communities, members of different nationalities and languages must intermingle to some degree and often work together in these digital spaces. In most cases, English has become the default language of communication both verbally and in writing within the online gaming world so to succeed in a given game, these players must possess a functional understanding of said language. In this case, video games are not only facilitating linguistic proficiency, they’re driving it.

One Tool of Many

Whether you’re a world traveler seeking to master a fifth tongue or a toddler with only 100 words under her belt, learning a language is one of the most difficult yet rewarding accomplishments that a person can attain. Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Language is the tool of understanding, the gift of connection. No matter how you like to learn or what techniques you find most beneficial, I think we can all agree that improving yourself is an honorable goal; especially if you’re having fun while you’re doing it. I’d supplement my language education with video games any day of the week. Would you?