Video game case-study: Trying to learn languages like I did as a child

(Last Updated On: April 27, 2020)

Back when I was first introduced to the concept of video games in the very young age of maybe 5 or 6 my passion for the English language began. It was an interesting time, because I would load up a video game and enjoy playing it without understanding a single word. With enough exposure to the English language I slowly worked out what commonly seen words meant.

I would also watch a lot of shows in English, some of my favourites being: Knight Rider, Simpsons, Friends, Married with Children and many more of the typical 80s-90s shows. This coupled with the video games and having to communicate in English a lot (to discuss tactics in a game for instance) meant that I was basically fluent at a very young age with no formal teaching.

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The present day – 20-something and still enjoying video games

Today I still play video games, much to my mothers displeasure. To her video games are a waste of time and I should spend more time on my university. She's probably at least half right. But it made me think, if video games taught me English when I was younger why can't video games help me learn Russian as an adult?

And so the experiment was born. The best immersion genre has to be MMORPGs. For those unfamiliar with this, it basically means an open world where anyone in the world can create their own “avatar” and complete missions and talk to anyone. You are essentially immersed into a new world, and since every single word and sound effect is in Russian I will have no choice but to try and adapt.

World of Warcraft – A glorified chat room

The game I have chosen is one of the games that I have spent significant time on back in my teens. As fairly unsuccessful in general, being terrible at sports, overweight and slightly introverted the game gave me an escape from reality and allowed me to not be Mediocre Chris, but to be INSERT-FANCY-NAME-HERE slayer of dragons and respected by everyone in the community.

An example screenshot from within the game.
An example screenshot from within the game.

Of course World of Warcraft is a game, but I did not really stick with it because of the gaming elements, that was almost like a side benefit. My main reason for playing the game was the people I was interacting with. You built up these incredibly friendships by speaking over voice communication for sometimes 12 hours a day. Of course these friendships are not the same as real friendships, but they always felt that way and the “team” I was on often met in real life, so it was special definitely.

The headline of this segment comes from a criticism or comment about WoW, that it is basically a glorified chat room with graphics. To me that is not totally beside the point, but that is perfect for me.

Added benefits of World of Warcraft for language learning

So I join WoW to fully immerse me in a virtual Russian environment. This means that every single mission text, player name, artifact name and so on are in Russian and I will have no choice but to live with that. This replicates the process I first learned English with back in my early days.

Another benefit of playing a game such as world of warcraft is that it is not a high-paced action game at all times. You have moments where you casually walk around and do things that require very little brain activity. These moments are perfect for enriching your mind with audio, like self-help audio books or even language learning courses like Pimsleur.

Of course you are slightly less focused on the Pimsleur whilst you are running around killing beasts and performing missions, but the time is way easier to spend that if you had to sit on the sofa and just actively listen to your audio course. I'd probably rather just go through the lessons twice whilst playing at the same time, than go through them once on their own. Your mileage might vary on this one though, some people prefer to focus on one thing at a time.

Not actively learning

During my case-study of using a video game like World of Warcraft to learn a new language I will just be playing the game naturally like I would have done with my English video games when I was a child.

I'm sure that if you wanted to you could actively write down words you didn't understand, look them up, run them through Anki and what not – this is not what this case study is designed to be.

I have joined up with a Russian guild, which is basically a group of people joined up under the same “team” but I won't be seeking out conversations just for the heck of it. Hopefully as I progress in my ability I can use my guild as another channel of communication practice.

For now though, the focus is on simply doing passive immersion. I'm very excited to see what kind of results can be obtained this way. I'm familiar with my own English results, but of course that was a long time ago.

Watch out for updates on the Video Game Case Study coming up in the future. What about you, have you used video games to learn a language before?

Kris Broholm

Kris is the founder of Actual Fluency, and has spent the last 8 years becoming an expert in language learning software, methods, and techniques.

Originally from Denmark, he now lives in Portugal and speaks 5+ languages at varying levels. His other interests are Wine, Online Marketing, and Travelling.