Video games provide constant electronic stimulation on a level that mankind has never seen before.
Immersing yourself in an action-packed, digital world has been shown to boost brain power and memory strength, increase connectivity between regions of your brain and improve mental dexterity, hand-eye coordination and problem solving power.
They can even be highly cathartic and therapeutic. Had a difficult day at work? Stressed out after trying to master a complex grammatical structure in a foreign language? Go blow up some bad guys!
Meanwhile, some people will have you believe that video games make you dumb, lazy, desensitized or, at worst, a serial killer.
We can probably chalk that up to people being afraid of change.
Even my mom is rocking the virtual battlefield by leading a “Call of Duty” clan. (Mom, if you’re reading, you’re the coolest.)
So, it’s only natural that video games are starting to gain a reputation for being powerful learning tools, and of course, this can be applied to language learning.
You no longer have to limit yourself to interactive tools made specifically for language learners, either—you can play anything from “Call of Duty: Ghosts” to “Left 4 Dead 2” and “The Sims 4,” as we’ll show you later on.
First, let’s explore the why and how of learning languages with video games. Then we’ll jump into the popular game titles available in foreign languages!
Why Learning by Playing Is Super Effective
- Positive associations. Let’s play a little word association game. When I say “language learning,” what pops into your brain? If your answer is textbooks, flashcards, vocabulary lists, quizzes, exams or all-nighters, then, for the love of God, shake things up. Videos games are for you. If your study methods feel stale (or if you simply can’t motivate yourself to get started), then you need to create more positive associations with language learning in your brain.
- In-context learning. You’ll learn vocabulary and grammar while you’re embroiled in the action. You’ll be immersed in your virtual world, interacting with virtual people, traveling to virtual places and earning virtual money. Listening, reading and understanding the language of the virtual world (read: your target language, after you get around to switching your game’s language settings) will be rewarded with points, digital bucks or progress in your game’s storyline. This is how immersion works when you’re studying abroad: You learn by doing, you get immediate feedback and you need to keep guessing, trying and thinking creatively if you don’t quite understand something.
- Repetition. Even in games with complex stories or ones that give you tons of freedom to choose your fate, you’ll still hear the same words over and over as you play. That’s because every game has some core themes, key characters, big events and repeated actions that will keep popping up as you go. This will help to strongly solidify a good chunk of vocabulary. The more familiar with the game you are, the more familiar you’ll become with the language used.
- You’ll never put off study time. When study time is game time, will you really dread it or procrastinate it?
- Learn or die! If you don’t follow what’s happening, you’ll die. Plain and simple. Do you really want to lose another life?
- You can make real-world friends. Many games offer you the ability to connect with people online while you’re playing. Others will just give you a common interest to talk about with friends or Internet strangers on forums and websites.
- Games are easily accessible. Even if you don’t have an Xbox at home, many games are easily accessible through Steam and app stores.
- Let the kids have some fun! Kids adore games, obviously, so this is a great way to go if you’re raising bilingual kids or if you’re learning together with your whole family.
How to Learn Any Language by Playing Video Games
Level 1: Game-ify Study Time
Start with games made for children.
If you’re skeptical about playing children’s games, know that you’re in good company. I was too. But then I tapped into my inner ’90s kid and remembered all the amazing click-like-a-madman flash games I was addicted to on the Nickelodeon website and elsewhere. I remembered the immense pleasure of playing Spanish Nickelodeon games with my younger brother-in-law and cousins-in-law.
That’s where the idea began. Then, after clicking around a little bit, I become completely convinced. For example, I’d readily dare any Spanish learner to play the Ninja Turtles “Las Tortugas en la pizzeria” (The Turtles in the pizzeria) game without smiling—and without picking up at least one new vocabulary word.
You’re bound to learn something from these options because games for early childhood education, and even a bit beyond, are always designed to teach language fundamentals on some level.
They don’t have to be targeting vocabulary and grammar specifically—given the age group they’re appealing to (think ages 3-10), any game developers worth their salt will make sure the gameplay is friendly to young players who are still absorbing the basics of their native language. For example, Japanese children’s games rely more heavily on hiragana and omit more advanced kanji, which is great for learners who are still trying to get into the flow of reading.
Check out the websites below for some great resources in different languages:
- Juegos Nickelodeon (Spanish Nickelodeon Games)
- Spiele Nick (German Nickelodeon Games)
The games found on these sites are all of the same variety—kids’ games based on favorite cartoon characters and episodes. Having played a couple to test them out, I’d say that many (or perhaps most) are designed to include some more subtly mature elements to entertain parents and older siblings who have to play along with the little ones.
Play games made for adult learners.
This is the next step up. We haven’t yet arrived at games for adult native speakers, but we’ve found a comfortable middle ground to get you started.
The games here can take the place of your dull study materials that are overdue for retirement.
People love to learn in fun ways. And people love to learn using technology. Those are two truths of the modern age. So, what better way to combine the two than gamifying language learning? They might be fun, but they’re made to get serious results. Here are the best of the best games out there for learning a language:
- Influent — This fantasy adventure game puts your new language in context. You wander around the virtual world in a free-play mode, clicking on whatever piques your interest to learn new vocabulary words. It offers tons of interactive elements to play with, and you can challenge yourself by trying to unlock a few secret play modes.
- FluentU — FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. Not only does it let you watch fun video content that native speakers actually watch when they’re chilling out in their free time, it also equips you with active learning tools like video-based flashcards and fill-in-the-blank questions. It packs all the entertainment power of a video game, while boasting all the educational value of a classroom. Try it for English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.
- Duolingo — This little app is ideal if you’re just starting out. It will help you get acquainted with all the vocabulary you’ll need while advancing your studies. The whole system is totally gamified, offering you special points (Lingots) for achieving high scores and making you eager to unlock new levels and bonus rounds. You can also connect with your friends, which is a great way to stay competitive and accountable.
- LyricsTraining — Love music videos? This site turns them into a fill-in-the-blank game! As you watch the videos, you’re challenged to fill in the missing vocabulary along the way. If you can’t come up with the word, the video pauses and waits for you to figure it out. Try to keep up with the rhythm!
- Slime Forest Adventure RPG — This role playing adventure game is a great option for Japanese learners.
- My Chinese Coach — This Nintendo DS game is also available in Japanese, French, Spanish and English. The Spanish and French versions are currently available on iOS, while the others are still in development. A couple versions can be found for Wii U. The English version works for learners and natives who want to expand their vocabulary. If you’ve got a DS, you really can’t beat the portability of this option!
Level 2: Remember, There’s an App for That
The game apps we’ll discuss here are ones that native speakers of the language twiddle with on their phones instead of spending time with their loved ones, not apps designed for learners. You already know what that means: You’ll be thrown in the deep end.
App games are great because anyone with a smartphone can download them instantly. Sometimes you’ve got to pay a little, or you have to pay to unlock certain game features, but the ease of access and portability arguably make up for that.
I will admit that it’s hard to track high quality ones down if you’re not actively living (and paying for a phone plan) in a country that speaks your target language. If you’re having trouble finding ones that work for learning and are actually fun, be sure to search your app store for any app that says the name of your target language in the target language. For example, español or 日本語.
Some apps seem to be in another language, but then download to your phone in English (or whatever language is used in your current location) instead. Frustrating! Just keep digging, and something is likely to turn up. Here are a few options for American learners (can’t guarantee you’ll find them elsewhere):
- Sopa de Letras: Español — A classic, granny-style alphabet soup game where you search for words. Searching in another language is great for exercising your brain’s recognition of that language. To find similar games in any language, try searching for “alphabet soup” or “word search.” Doing this quickly in Japanese immediately brings up options, like this Japanese word search app. Give it a try in whatever language you’re learning!
- Jeu de Mots en Français — A fun French problem solving game that’s something like a crossword puzzle.
- Maratón Clásico — A great trivia game app from Mexico that’s great to play with 2-4 friends on the same phone.
- Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — Oh yeah, we all want to be millionaires. That’s why this TV franchise—and all its related games and merchandise—have taken over the world. Simply search for the equivalent of the show’s title in your target language. That’s how I uncovered this Spanish version and this French one.
- Quizduell — This is a very popular trivia app straight from Germany.
Level 3: “Steam”roll Through
Do you have an Xbox, PlayStation or Wii? Any game is great in a foreign language, but they can be hard to come by. Usually, you’ll need to have bought your console and/or games in a region that speaks your target language. Most games aren’t automatically available in multiple languages.
The exception to this is Steam.
Most games here are offered in a variety of languages, so you can download the one that you want to learn! When you choose a game, be sure to check the “Languages” section before getting too excited. Here, you’ll see if the game supports your target language as subtitles only. Most commonly, you’ll be able to download a version of the game that offers subtitles and complete game interface in your target language. For many games, which don’t have characters that speak a made-up language or which don’t involve any dialogue, this will be more than enough to work with.
Even if the characters are all speaking English, having some Chinese subtitles and having to navigate maps and menus in Chinese will be a good boost for your learning—especially if that’s a game you were dying to play anyway.
Here are the games that support full audio in other languages, and a list of their supported languages.
Shoot. Kill. Don’t die. Curse like a rabid teenager when you do die. Accuse everyone else of hacking, modding and cheating. All the necessary ingredients for an infuriatingly fun time. This is perhaps the epitome of the addictive video game model, and one that you’ve likely played if you’re into video games at all.
Full Audio: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian
Subtitles and Interface: English, Chinese (Simplified and Traditional), French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Russian, Spanish
This installment of “Metal Gear Solid” allows you to play more freely than ever before. Sure, you can roam around and cross wide distances with vehicles in this game, but don’t get to thinking that you’re done sneaking around forever—you’re not! You’ll still need to get Snake safely from point A to point B without him being caught and killed.
Full Audio: English, Japanese
Subtitles and Interface: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian
This radioactive, mutant-infested, post-apocalyptic wasteland needs your help. But you’ll probably be too busy customizing your characters and building your own little settlement to bother with doing good deeds. Or perhaps you’ll decide to go on an explosive rampage instead. No matter which direction you choose, do it in your target language and explore this vast world while you learn.
Full Audio: English, French, Italian, German, Spanish
Subtitles and Interface: English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese (Traditional)
Explore mystical (and valuable) alien ruins on a faraway planet in another one of those shoot-em-up adventure games, complete with quests and little side missions you can opt to complete.
Full Audio: English, French, Italian, Japanese, German, Spanish
Subtitles and Interface: English, French, Italian, Japanese, German, Spanish, Korean, Chinese (Traditional)
Love “The Lord of the Rings”? So do I. (My chihuahua is named Frodo. True story.)
That’s why it’s so fantastic that French and German learners have the opportunity to explore the beautiful regions of Middle Earth, meeting familiar faces and strangers along the way. You’ll learn some very unique language from your adventures in this sprawling online arena, and you’ll learn how to talk about your favorite trilogy in a foreign language.
Full Audio: English, French, German
Interface: English, French, German
This might be one of the coolest, darkest and more artfully innovative video games out there these days. Play your way through a spellbound tale of prophecies, legends, elves, dwarves and wild monsters. Your choices really matter in this world—you can’t just passively ride the rails of the predetermined storyline as you can in most other games—so you’ll need to pay close attention to the language being used so you know what to do at every new juncture.
Full Audio: English, French, German, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian
Subtitles and Interface: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, Czech, Hungarian, Korean, Chinese (Traditional)
This game has no audio to speak of—the Sims themselves speak Simlish, obviously—so you’ll just want to make sure you have the interface in your target language. Then click your way around the various text options. If you’re not familiar with “The Sims,” to play you’ll need to control virtual humans and help them navigate their way through day-to-day life. Every action is performed by clicking on a text command. That means you’ll see the words for every single human activity, from mundane daily tasks to major life events and exciting escapades, in your target language.
Prepare to learn how to live life in your new foreign language.
Interface: English, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Chinese (Traditional)
Well, the zombies in this game speak the same language that they do in the English version—they just moan, groan, scream and splutter—but by downloading a version in your target language, you can learn while hearing the intrepid apocalypse survivors hash out their game plans and scream for help.
I haven’t listed the interface and subtitles languages, because this game is much better played with the full audio in your foreign language.
Full Audio: English, French, German, Russian, Spanish
This game has the power to capture your heart, I promise. Unless you decide to become an evil villain and inspire fear in the hearts of everyone around you. Your choices define whether your character becomes a beloved hero (a saint, really) or a vicious madman. So, pay close attention to what’s going on at every step and make your choices accordingly. Your understanding of the language will determine your virtual fate.
Full Audio: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish
Subtitles and Interface: English, Chinese (Simplified and Traditional), French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish
Level 4: Meet Gamers
Many of the games listed above from Steam are multiplayer online. Be sure to get yourself a headset to plug into your computer so you can hear and speak clearly! Interact with other players, get to know them, make cooperative teams and become friends.
Soon, you may find that you have a regular group of foreign gamer friends to play with!
If you need help finding people to play with in the foreign language of your choice, then take to the Internet to find some. Here are some subreddits curated in foreign languages that are perfect for tracking down international gaming buddies:
- Spanish: /r/videojuego
- French: /r/JeuxVideo and /r/GamingQuebec
- German: /r/zocken
- Italian: /r/videogiochi/
Level 5: Twitch and Let’s Play!
Remember when your older sibling or annoying friend would hog the console and play one-player games for hours? (Okay, I’ll be honest—I was the older sibling who hogged the controller.) Well, this is more fun than that. Not to mention, it will help you learn lingo and meet people to play with.
You’ve probably heard of the YouTube trend where users record themselves playing favorite video games, walking views through the games and reacting to whatever happens along the way. This trend has completely gotten out of hand, in the best possible way.
Just this past summer, YouTube made its Gaming site, set up specifically for viewing and broadcasting live streams, available to every country where YouTube is available. Plus, it made streaming live insanely easy—anyone can set up a live stream account and get started broadcasting in a matter of seconds. Save your favorite games and channels, and pop back to see what’s live whenever you feel like watching.
But there’s one catch for international viewers and language learners alike: For now, the interface is entirely in English. This will hopefully change as the site becomes more popular (which it inevitably will), but for now you can track down the recently recorded and live videos in your target language by simply typing your target language in the search bar. For example, Spanish learners will want to search for español. That will just show whatever’s most recent in Spanish.
Looking for a specific game and specific language? Type the name of the game with the language. For example, Japanese learning GTA5 enthusiasts would search for “日本語GTA5.” Star the channels and videos that look relevant, and you’ll be able to keep track of when they go live or upload new videos.
You might see the phrase “Let’s Play!” around the Net when searching for good video game videos. “Let’s Play!” videos are any YouTube videos that shows video game walkthroughs. The idea is that viewers will learn how to play in general, or they will learn the specifics of advancing through levels and completing games. These videos compile series of screenshots or gameplay clips, and they provide audio commentaries that explain every step.
These are awesome for listening practice, so it’s worth tracking down some in your foreign language.
All Let’s Play! channels are YouTube gaming channels, but all YouTube gaming channels are not Let’s Play! channels. This is a slight but subtle difference. The more broad YouTube gaming-related channels can go far beyond the walkthrough format, where you see how to play through games.
YouTube hosts on these channels might spend time talking about the mythology and lore of their favorite games, talking about themselves, making music videos, featuring hot gaming news and so on.
This could give you new perspectives on gaming, favorite games and your target language.
- CyprienGaming — This channel belongs to one of the most famous French YouTubers, and will provide you with a weird, humorous grab-bag of gaming-related videos in French.
- CodJordan23 — Despite the username, which suggests undying devotion to COD (Call of Duty), this YouTuber is mostly into showcasing NBA games.
- Yankeeunit91 — This YouTuber has an infectious laugh, which ranges from belly laughing to a high-pitched cackle, so his videos are bound to make for some hilarious German lessons. Check out his coverage of “Need for Speed”, “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto V” (online and offline).
- Rocket Beans TV — You never really know what to expect on this channel, as the YouTuber in charge is into an assortment of game titles. However, his videos make for fabulously diverse German lessons because he’s constantly bringing his friends on for lengthy game-related chats.
- elrubiusOMG — Want to learn Castilian Spanish? This the gaming host for you. The “Games in 1 Minute” segments are great to watch for those new to the gaming scene. You’ll also get to watch him run around trolling (frustrating and mocking) other gamers, which is always worth a laugh.
- JuegaGerman — This Mexico YouTuber loves online and flash games, “The Sims 4,” “Minecraft” and “The Walking Dead.”
- Fernanfloo — Get a taste of the distinctive Argentinian accent on this channel!
Understandably, most of our Chinese gamer friends aren’t on YouTube. There are, however, a few popular Taiwanese gamers that you can watch online.
- MrChesterccj — This one covers “Grand Theft Auto 5,” “Minecraft,” “Halo 5” and other Xbox One games. You’ll even be able to watch “Little Big Planet 3,” which is adorable, and various RPGs.
- RSPannie72127 —This YouTuber is very animated, and gives great reaction sounds that you could use in your own Chinese. She mostly does “Minecraft” and various RPGs, but she also does some fun “real life” gaming stuff, including board games.
If you’re learning Japanese, using video games (and videos about them) to learn will be a breeze. Not only do Japanese natives love games, they love sharing them and talking about them. Not to mention, Japan has tons of unique, otherwise unheard of games that only exist within the country, so you’re always in for new surprises.
- Pazudoraya — Here you’ll find features on mobile and tablet games, puzzle games and generally games you’ve never heard of. However, this guy talks a lot so his channel will give you excellent listening practice and great inspiration for future mobile app downloads.
- Tomo0723sw — Do you find loud, maniacal laughter to be contagious? Then this channel will have you in stitches! The host mostly covers mobile and app games, old “retro” games, flash games and online multiplayer modes. You’ll also get to see him play through “Alan Wake,” “Call of Duty, “Grand Theft Auto 5,” “Lego Star Wars” and Japanese games with strong elements of actual Japanese culture and society. I’d recommend you try watching videos about games like “Boku no Natsuyasumi” (My Summer Adventure), which will give you magical summer vacation nostalgia even if you didn’t grow up in Japan.
So, that’s it!
It sure was a long list, but the hope is that now every language learning gamer has been able to identify a video game that works in their target language.
Now’s the time to get out there, connect with fellow gamers and dive into your own virtual language learning experience.
Good luck, and game on!
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