Learning Environments and Forms of Learning: Language Learning Games
Language Learning through Play

Language Learning through Play
Language Learning through Play | Illustration: Melih Bilgil

Can learning a language really be fun? Absolutely! If teachers understand how to take best advantage of the possibilities offered by language games, this is an excellent way to learn, assuming that enjoyment of the game is not lost in the pursuit of the learning goal.


We often regard games and learning as a pair of opposites – one is part of our leisure time or childhood, while the other is the serious business of life. Yet play is by no means exclusively for children, and it is perfectly possible to learn through play. What is more, playful learning can be both varied and enjoyable. What do we know about the relationship between play and learning? And how can this knowledge be put to good use in foreign language lessons?

From a neuroscience perspective, learning means that processes of growth and organization are taking place in the brain. The brain adapts its architecture when something is repeatedly used, tried out or practised. In this sense, play can prove extremely useful – after all, when we play we intensively explore how best to deal with different elements, challenges and indeed our fellow players.

Provided that the game is fun, we are prepared to practise repeatedly even the sort of skills or content which would otherwise be boring without the incentive of the game. The repetition and intensity of the game experience make the synapses – the points of communication between the neurons – more efficient: the brain learns. Consequently, we find it easier to access the processes or skills we have learnt. Playful exercises can even be used in many cases to automatize certain processes; this reduces the burden on our working memory and allows us to focus our attention on other things. In other words, learning and play are by no means mutually exclusive – quite the contrary.


Learning is also an essential purpose of play from a behavioural biology perspective (cf. Sachser 2009: 20). It is not only humans who play; some animals do too, especially their young. Not infrequently they take certain risks during play because this pays off in terms of the learning effect it has. When we play, we internalize and practise things we have already learnt, we try out new things, and we develop strategies for overcoming problems. Furthermore, games follow specific rules and thus provide a structured and manageable framework for many learning processes.

Learning has a particularly lasting impact when it is accompanied by positive emotions: we play because it is fun, that is to say out of “intrinsic motivation”. This is because play is an activity which causes the neurotransmitter dopamine to be released in the brain, thereby triggering the body’s own reward system even in the absence of any external rewards. Things we practise during play thus have excellent chances of being well interconnected and stored long-term in the brain.

What is more, many games involve movement. If we move while we are learning, this can have a positive impact on our ability to learn, raise our frustration tolerance and stamina and help to reduce our experiences of stress (cf. Sambanis 2013: 89ff.). Animal experiments have also found increased levels of the growth factor BDNF in certain regions of the brains in rats engaged in active play with one another: BDNF is a protein that plays an important role in the formation and survival of neurons and their connections. It was shown that social interaction – which is also a characteristic of many language learning games – was a favourable factor (cf. Spitzer 2008: 458ff.). It can be assumed that shared experiences in play have a beneficial effect not only on rats!

There are good reasons to use playful forms of language learning for adults too. Movement can also take place in exercise breaks, which are used mainly to give students an opportunity to relax following periods of intense concentration and to help maintain their motivation.


In teaching and learning contexts, it is language learning games in particular that are of interest. They directly combine the goals of play and learning, the activities in play intended to produce a concrete learning effect (cf. Kleppin 2007: 263). It is very important for the game not to be sacrificed for the sake of the language learning objective. If the game becomes overly “goal-oriented”, participants may feel cheated out of their enjoyment, causing them to react, quite justifiably, with resentment and other emotions which will do little to promote the learning effect. If players lack motivation, however, the intended goals will not be achieved.

A “relaxed field” (Sachser 2009: 26ff.) is needed to ensure that students enjoy and participate fully in the game and achieve the intended learning effects. Relaxed fields come about when learners feel confident and safe: for example in the protection of the group or during role plays in which they do not have to perform as themselves. At the same time, the field needs to offer a certain incentive and must give rise to neither disinterest nor boredom.

In his Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, Friedrich Schiller wrote that man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and that he is only completely a man when he plays – in other words in a relaxed field that offers incentives to play.


It is not easy to present a systematic list of language learning games from a didactic perspective. It is often not possible to distinguish precisely between the individual types of game, and different viewpoints are possible when attempting to classify them. Depending on the language learning goals, we can distinguish between linguistic, communicative/interactive, creative, intercultural and systematizing games. Games can also be classified in terms of the strategies for which they offer incentives to practise, or in terms of the skills they aim to develop.

In any case, teachers should ask which skills or subskills are to be developed by the game (specification), the learner’s current status in this area (determination of status quo), where the learning game should take the learner (identification of concrete goal) and which didactic and methodological intention best suits the language learning game – that is to say, whether the game should aim rather to introduce, consolidate, automatize, make more flexible, systematize, reactivate or interlink particular skills (operationalization). Additionally, it should be checked whether the desired language learning game actually pursues both a language goal and a game goal.

Popular games which can be used to develop various language learning skills include
  • board, card and dice games such as Pelmanism, Quartets, bingo and domino formats in which for example words have to be matched to pictures. Some board games have fields which require the players to draw activity or event cards and then perform the tasks printed on them.
  • Guessing and memory games such as Kim’s games, “lucky dip” bags, quizzes, puzzle games and stories.
  • Reaction games such as betting games in which picture or word cards have to be drawn, or word association games which involve catching a ball.
Of course, there are also digital games. The fundamental principles of digital games are the same, yet the use of media opens up particular Spielräume, e.g. spaces for learning“ (cf. Althaus article). Teachers can select suitable games from the diverse range on offer and use them in the classroom in such a way that learning goals are pursued and combined with the enjoyment of a game experience.


Kleppin, Karin: „Sprachspiele und Sprachlernspiele“. In: Bausch, Karl-Richard et al. (Hrsg.): Handbuch Fremdsprachenunterricht. 5. Auflage 2007, 263-266.

Sachser, Norbert: „Neugier, Spiel und Lernen: Verhaltensbiologische Anmerkungen zur Kindheit.“ In: Herrmann, Ulrich (Hrsg.): Neurodidaktik. Grundlagen und Vorschläge für gehirngerechtes Lehren und Lernen. Weinheim und Basel: Beltz 2009, 19-30.

Sambanis, Michaela: Fremdsprachenunterricht und Neurowissenschaften. Tübingen: Narr 2013.

Spitzer, Manfred: „Spielen und Lernen. Friedrich Schiller und der Wachstumsfaktor BDNF.“ In: Nervenheilkunde (27/2008) 5, 458-462.