Bonjour. Ciao. こんにちは. Hallå.

Learning a new language is a fun but oftentimes a frustrating experience. I’ve spoken Italian for 3 years, and learned the basis of the language at a language school in Milan. Nowadays, I can hold a decent conversation and get by in Italy just fine, but I still lack the words and diction necessary to articulate myself the way I do in my native English.

It’s a familiar story, one we see among many adults and teenagers in America today. They’ll study Spanish or French for a few years in high school, take some credits in college and perhaps even study abroad in Barcelona or Paris, only to wind up perpetually stuck half-way.

You can speak, but you can’t fully express your ideas without having to resort to an explanation of some sort. You think clearly, but the not-so-often used vocab words that come naturally in English evade you in your second language.

You grasped the simple concepts of basic and intermediate grammar, learned how to converse with people, and looked for other ways to improve, but where do you go from there? The best place to start interacting with your second language is outside of a formal educational setting. Put down the dictionary, close the workbook, and instead, turn on your PC. It’s time to make learning fun again by playing video games.

With a few simple edits in the registry, you can change the language of most titles installed on your computer to whatever language you want to learn. While “en_US” signifies the game is displayed in American English, a swap to “es_ES” will give you Spanish. If you’re playing a game with a lot of cut scenes and audio, you’ll probably wind up with subtitles instead of voice overs in most cases, but the entire game – actions, instructions and interface – will appear in your new language.

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Why is this method so much more effective than just memorizing verb tenses?

Well, for starters, it introduces you to the language in a more natural setting. You won’t be encountering the language in a cookie-cutter fashion; you’ll see it actually used, and see how the content is presented to native speakers instead of students. This means there will be more expressions, slang and a colloquial diction that isn’t deemed appropriate for an educational setting or textbook.

Take it from Diane Soares Palmer, a freelance writer from California who, after playing World of Warcraft in Spanish for 8 months, moved up two levels in a placement test. She even wrote her PhD dissertation on her experience. Her story is just one of many that researchers have begun looking into. A paper titled “MMORPGs for Language Learners,” published by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explores the reasons why games, like World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, present such opportunity to language learners.

The article reads, “Although there is an abundance of software dedicated to teaching language, and specific subsets therein designed to simulate conversational settings, an MMORPG has been shown to offer the unique immersive environment, previously available only to those who could travel to a foreign country. From the perspectives of immersion and language-learning, this quality maybe the foremost of many that serve to accelerate the learning process, thus making MMORPGs a powerful tool in achieving fluency, in spite of (or perhaps thanks to) its numerous negative stereotypes.”

When you play a game online in a different language, you are bound to encounter native speakers. The fast pace of these games require learners to use their brain in a way that is not often exercised in a language-learning software or classroom. While the latter focuses on the slow and steady acquisition of a language, video games force players to think on their feet and work with the knowledge they already have, while simultaneously observing their environment and utilizing it to the best of their advantage, much as they would have to if they were in a foreign country trying to communicate.

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If you’re not a fan of MMORPGs, that’s okay. I have never personally been a fan, but that hasn’t stopped me from building my Italian vocabulary through video games. On your DS, you can change the language in the settings menu and in most cases, the game will translate right along with it. I’ve switched between English and Italian in Animal Crossing many times, never losing any data but gaining plenty of valuable language insight.

A 2009 study by European Schoolnet assessed the effectiveness of using digital games as a language teaching tool across several European countries. The full 180-page PDF book that presents the study can be found here , but all of it boils down to one major revelation:  learning with video games enhances students’ cognitive response and ability to retain information.

The Sims is perhaps one of the best PC games out there to practice a foreign language. While The Sims 2 was used in the study 7 years ago, times have progressed and now players can choose the most recent iteration, The Sims 4, which features some of the most complex and realistic Sims so far. Doing this, they can learn everything from dozens of new verbs in the imperative form (since this game really is all about bossing pixel people around) and household objects, clothing, body parts and more.

Whatever you prefer to play, the point is that a simple adjustment of the language setting – even if just for a solid afternoon gaming session – can have a huge impact on your second language. Playing in a new language makes even our most beloved titles feel fresh again, and it allows us to experience our favorite games through a new set of eyes, a different mind and leaves a lasting impact on our education that we’ll be able to use both on and off screen for years to come.

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