Serious Games Learning Languages by Playing

Learning Adventure German – A Mysterious Mission
Learning Adventure German – A Mysterious Mission | © Goethe-Institut

Play has always been used as a means of learning a second language. Serious games take learning a foreign language into the digital world and produce learning effects quite by the way.

Education and instruction has always sought the ideal conditions for effortless, casual learning. The image of „Nuremberg Funnel“ carries this to the extreme. Though not mechanically in this way, yet still effectively and entertainingly, digital games provide a framework for conveying information and education – so-called “serious games”. After all, play and learning have always been closely linked in human development.

Moreover, good computer games satisfy a large part of the requirements for learning environments: digital games are interactive, give direct feedback and allow for result checking at any time. Because they allow for trial and error, they enable experience-based learning, which is also problem and action-oriented. Because computer games are fun and entertaining, they furthermore establish learning motivation where this is absent in conventional learning.

The adventure of learning a foreign language

Given the capacity of play to create a learning environment, the use of digital game-based learning for the acquisition of foreign languages seems to suggest itself. For as easily as children learn their mother tongue, it is correspondingly difficult to learn a second language at an advanced age. Because communication skills can be learned only through the creative use of language, for example role playing has a long tradition in the teaching of foreign languages. But board, card and dice games have also always been used for the acquisition of language structures and vocabulary, because games always contain interactive elements and they provide occasions for talking. Serious games go a step further: they let the learner immerse himself in game worlds in which language is only a means to a game end, so that learning effects occur almost incidentally.

The German-French project Eveil-3D strives to create such immersive environments. Because the best way to learn a foreign language is still to surround yourself with the language in the country where it is spoken, the team of researchers consisting of language teachers, linguists and engineers are working on a game set in virtual reality. In an artificial environment, players can interact as if they were actually abroad. Using only the foreign language, they explore the history of the Strasbourg cathedral and liberate a stonemason immured in the cathedral walls.
Video: Lernabenteuer Deutsch - Ein rätselhafter Auftrag (i.e., Learning Adventure German – A Mysterious Mission)

The serious game Lernabenteuer Deutsch – Das Geheimnis der Himmelsscheibe (i.e., Learning Adventure German – The Mystery of the Sky Disc), on the other hand, with which the Goethe-Institut teaches the German language and regional culture, seems like a classical adventure game complete with puzzles, combination puzzles and interactive dialogue. Players embark on an exciting journey across Germany to find out if the 4,000 year-old Nebra sky disc was stolen. Lernabenteuer Deutsch – Ein rätselhafter Auftrag für fortgeschrittene Deutschlerner (i.e., Learning Adventure German – A Mysterious Mission), for advanced learners of German, works along similar lines. A mysterious letter from her uncle brings the protagonist to Germany, where she becomes entangled in a thrilling criminal case. The learner can succeed in both learning adventures only if he can master the various communication situations.

Serious Games are more than mere play

Because immersion in playful action sharpens the senses and cognitive perception and offers opportunities for interaction, serious games provide completely new and effective forms of foreign language learning. Not least because games stimulate motivation, they have several advantages over conventional learning methods. In future, ongoing technological progress will produce a variety of language games that enable more and more diverse learning experiences. Location-based serious games, which have knowledge of the user’s current location, use augmented reality to blur the boundary between the real and the virtual world and create personalized, social learning experiences – as in, for instance, the games Mentira, in which the user has to clear up a murder using simulated dialogue, or Chronoops, in which the player slips into the role of an agent and must find green technology to rescue the future. The player thereby exits the screen and must apply his language skills to complete his mission in the real world.

The medium requires elaborate preparation

No matter how far technological possibilities are explored, the effect of serious games can unfold only if the they are linked to other learning elements and develop a relation to the non-game world. In particular, the medium requires elaborate preparation and strong structuring of the learning process, because game mechanisms and possibilities of action must be coordinated, result checking and feedback defined. Serious games can be more than mere play, but their use must be accompanied by good educational assistance. It remains to be seen to what extent serious games will be successfully integrated into the foreign language curricula of universities and schools. As part of the Eveil-3D, there have been teacher training and test runs at schools. The Goethe-Institut has also made available teacher handbooks. But serious games at present are primarily directed at self-learners.