How To Use Video Games To Learn A Language

Tips for learning with video games, whether you’re a hardcore gamer or like to dabble on your phone from time to time.
A young couple in their living room combining video games and language learning

Video games have historically gotten a bad rap. They’ve been blamed for everything ranging from rising crime to lowering IQs. As they’ve become more and more popular even outside of “gamer” circles, however, it’s become obvious that this reputation is undeserved. In fact, video games can have the exact opposite effect. Games can be used to improve your life in any number of ways and, yes, video games and language learning can go hand in hand.

If you’re curious about ways to combine video games and language learning, we’re here to help you out. Whether you’ve been a gamer since the Atari 2600 or just started playing Candy Crush on your commute, there are ways to add some learning to your gaming.

Change Your Language Settings

This is the first suggestion we make whenever we talk about technology and language learning. Even if it seems obvious, it’s worth mentioning because it’s very simple to do and it helps inject some language exposure into your day.

Changing your language settings can also do more than teach you the word for “Menu” and “Start.” It fundamentally alters your user experience. If you’re playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, for example, the language will be determined by the Nintendo Switch’s language settings. This can, at the very least, give you a lot of reading practice in your target language.

Play With Friends Who Are Learning Languages

There are a few options here. If you have a friend who is a native speaker of the language you’re learning, or one who’s learning the same language as you, you’re golden. If not, maybe you could convince a friend to learn a language with you. And as a last resort, you could try to make friends online who are learning the language, or who are learning English and are interested in a language exchange (you speak in English for a while, then switch to speaking in your target language).

Where do video games come in here? Well, talking in your target language with friends and native speakers is a fantastic way to practice your language, but games can add a whole new dimension. If all you do is chat freely with your language learning partners, you might get caught in forced small talk all the time. But playing games will give you collaborative tasks to complete in a new language, and conversation will often be key to completing them. Whether you’re working together to bring down an enemy in League of Legends or throwing insults at each other while racing in Mario Kart, you’ll be able to speak the language in a wide range of contexts. At the very least, video games can make your language learning a little more fun.

Twitch It Up

A few years ago, the idea of watching other people play video games online might have sounded silly. Now, it’s a lucrative business that’s making many people rich. And, just maybe, it’s your next language learning tool.

As a side note, Twitch has branched out beyond video games, and you can find streams for people who are doing any number of things. Some people like to just chat about whatever. We’ll focus on video games for this article, but know there’s more out there than that.

This is a pretty straightforward tip. Just go to Twitch, click “Browse” and search by the language that you’re learning. There are bound to be dozens if not hundreds of people live right now speaking in the language you’re learning. You can also choose which games you want to watch specifically, giving you all the more control over what you’re seeing.

This tip is a little different from the others because you’re not actually playing games, but Twitch gives you multiple ways to practice your language. There’s the person streaming in the language, who can help you practice your listening skills. (It’s helpful because streamers will likely speak more colloquial varieties of your target language, but be prepared to hear a fair share of salty language on there.) There’s also the chat box on the side that allows you to practice your reading and writing skills. And lastly, if you like playing games and are so daring as to broadcast yourself, you can always practice your speaking skills that way.

Play A Multilingual MMORPG

An MMORPG, or Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, is fertile ground for trying out a new language. The settings and abilities you’ll have vary a lot from game to game, but if you look around, there are diverse opportunities.

One study by Paul Sevuki Rama done in 2014 looked specifically at groups of people trying to learn Spanish with World of Warcraft, the largest online game in the world. World of Warcraft divides its servers by location, so anyone in North America, for example, can join any of the Latin American servers and connect to Spanish speakers from other countries. The participants in the study, who were part of a Spanish class, were encouraged to start by interacting with each other, and then branch out to communicate with native speakers. 

The study found that the game, along with other video games like it, provide an excellent setting for language learning because it encourages collaboration and exploration. And this study also cited other research that shows games like World of Warcraft help players build their linguistic competence and confidence.

Trying to play multilingual games on your own may be a challenge at first. That’s why it may be good to find people who are willing to both play and learn with you at first to get some practice under your belt. But when you’re feeling ready, online worlds can offer you a chance to immerse yourself in a new language when you’re not able to immerse yourself in a new physical location.

Find A Fun Phone Game

Maybe World of Warcraft isn’t your speed. Smartphones give you access to hundreds of games, even if you’ve never touched a console in your life. While many of them might be a bit useless when it comes to language learning, there are some solid options out there.

  • Words with Friends — this game is basically Scrabble on your phone. While your phone will set it to English automatically, you can add German, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese to your games. It may be a challenge, but it’s a fun way to practice your vocabulary.
  • Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp — if you can’t play the console version of Animal Crossing, have no fear, you can still play the phone game. It’s a bit more limited, but you can use it for your language learning if you’re working on French, German, Italian, Japanese or Spanish.
  • Clue: The Classic Mystery Game — did you play this board game as a child and miss it? Well you can play Clue on your phone in French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish (as well as English, of course). It’s perfect for your crime-solving vocab.
  • Fortnite — we’re fully aware that mentioning Fortnite right now is a bit late for the trend, but this wildly popular game — which you can get on your phone, computer or gaming console — is available in Arabic, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Spanish, Traditional Chinese and Turkish. A fast-paced shooting game may be an imperfect way to learn a new language, but you never know!

Of course, this is only a fraction of the selection available to you. The best way to check if the game you’re looking at is available in the language you’re learning is to check the “language” section on the app download page. That way you won’t be stuck fiddling with settings to no avail once you’ve already downloaded your game of choice.

Learn a new language today.
Try Babbel