The name of the game

How playing games helps language learners

Games are fun. They make us laugh, think, learn something… Whichever it is – and often it’s all those things and more – we love playing games. No matter the reason we play, for most of us it’s a guarantee, or even the equivalent, of having a great time. Whether we’re kids or grown-ups.

And yet you keep hearing that games are for children and that adults aren’t supposed to play any. Heaven only knows how many times we at WWG have heard people say this when talking about adult language learning or, worse yet, in an actual course. “I’m not here to play, I want to do something serious.” As if games were nothing more than just a bit of fun to somehow pass the final five minutes of a lesson when the teacher can no longer squeeze in anything ‘important.’ Silly, isn’t it, if you think about it. And we sure do.

Using games in language teaching is serious: you need to choose, plan and present them carefully, knowing exactly what, when, why and how to play to make games an integral part of the courses you offer, and to make sure that they really help your learners improve their skills. At the same time, games shouldn’t feel serious; they should be engaging and fun. So, let’s take a closer look at how adult learners can profit from game play: what do language games bring to the table? 

Let’s play!

Well, where do we even start? Language learning is all about input and interaction, and games tick both boxes. When used with well-chosen content, a specific goal and clearly set rules, a game is a rich source of input and offers plenty of opportunities for learners to interact with each other. That, in turn, allows them to constantly practice what they’ve learned and to acquire new knowledge through the collaboration with their peers. The rules of the game show what direction the learning process should take and how learners can achieve their goals - and all the while, the teacher/mediator/facilitator is there to guide and support them in their quest.

At the same time, language games bring a sense of fun and a positive attitude, which helps the learning process. There have been numerous studies conducted on how playing games in language lessons affects learners and their development, irrespective of their mother tongue or the foreign language they’re learning. A 2016 questionnaire asked university students of 39 nationalities how they felt about language games in their French lessons, and 62% said they were beneficial to their learning. More recently, a 2021 survey found that adults attending English courses who played games as part of their lessons were more comfortable communicating than those whose lessons didn’t include games. And their teachers also reported that they believed games had a positive influence on their students’ attitudes towards learning English. 

Our trainers at WWG can only confirm all of the above, and we would add that games can help you develop your skills, no matter your language learning styles. There are thousands of books on the subject out there, so we cannot possibly give you the whole picture in such a short article, but here’s a crash course – no pun intended. 

People can be grouped according to how they perceive the world around them, i.e. which of their senses they tend to rely on when learning something new. For example, visual types mostly rely on what they see, auditory ones on what they hear. This applies to language learning, too. Some want to see the words, read texts or work with flashcards and photos to make learning easier, while others make great progress when they get the chance to learn through sound. They’re the ones who particularly enjoy conversing with others since that involves speaking and listening. But learners can also be categorized based on their cognitive learning styles. Some people focus on the tiny details and like to break language down into small bits, while others pay attention to the big picture and their main goal is to convey ideas rather than to understand the inner workings of the language. Then there is the question of personality: some learners tend to be reflective, others are more impulsive. Such differences are clear to see during a game play session, and games cater for all these styles. 

In addition, the element of competing that is intrinsic to most games encourages learners to take risks and experiment with language. You probably know somebody who is usually quiet and shy, but turns into a completely different person as soon as they see that winning is at stake. They throw caution to the wind and become unrestrained and communicative – every language trainer’s dream. Also, games provide an opportunity to create and focus on any given scenario that may be just as likely to play out in real life, which helps learners develop language skills that they can then transfer to their day-to-day life, whether it’s presenting a convincing argument, recounting a pleasant experience or just joining a conversation around the water cooler.     

We could go on talking about what you gain from playing games in your language courses, but we suggest you see it for yourself instead.

Game on!