The short answer is "no" and there are plenty of reasons.
Kids love to play, in fact most, if not all their learning in the early years occurs during play. So it's not surprising that educational games - especially those on tablets and smart phones - are pouring into the marketplace. These games combine playing with targeted learning and include educational topics from geography, math, spelling, science, to native and foreign languages.
Much research is being done about how children learn with structured games. A good resource for that is the Mind/Shift blog on www.kqed.org about Games and Video Games.
Kids and Language Games
There are numerous audio, video, and other “toy based” games and apps, which children play in their native language. With these, they enhance word recognition, pronunciation, spelling, and writing, etc. And they play native or even foreign language games not because it helps them to better communicate with their parents, siblings, and peers, but because they provide interactive fun.
Why Language Games Work for Kids
Kids' language games teach basic vocabulary, often with funny pictures, cute sound effects, and "rewards" for getting it right. They feature droll or adorable characters, catchy music, bright colors, and require the young player to swipe, click, or move a word or image in order to progress.
Adults and Brain Games
Games and play are not just for kids, though. Adults also learn well with games. A well-established segment is the field of Brain Training. Lumosity has surged to becoming the dominant online presence, but there are plenty of other brain games available as well. A few years ago Nintendo DS developed a series of Brain Age Games. There's also research being done in the area of cognitive improvement, especially related to the effect of video games on the brains of older adults. (see our previous blog)
Adults and Foreign Language Games
In 2007 Nintendo DS started a series of language games (My Spanish Coach, My Japanese Coach, My French Coach, etc.) But these did not seem to catch on. Around the same time, Craig Gibson launched Digital Dialects, a website with simple, animated games for 30+ languages. Mindsnacks with its language learning games appeared in 2010 and added gamification (rewards, badges, etc.) and humor to its games. When in 2012, Duolingo, a gamified "crowd-sourced text-translation platform" (Wikipedia) took the Internet by storm, it became clear that language learning games for adults are here to stay.
Why Language Games Work for Adults
In contrast to children, adults typically do have a specific plan or need for the language they are learning (be it for work, travel, friendship, personal satisfaction, etc.). Moreover, adults not only have to develop the discipline and learning habits to keep going in the midst of their many other commitments and time constraints, but they also have to find ways to stay motivated. Games can therefore be an effective addition to any language learning program, especially because they are interactive and fun.
Because of their interactive nature, games are very versatile. They can easily combine humor and serious learning. (Think of the Duolingo Owl, or the Rhinos of the Mindsnacks games.) Plus, games are nonlinear and dynamic, features which help in the acquisition of language as a complex tool for communication. When learners make a mistake or need to figure out a grammar point, they can easily replay a segment and get immediate feedback. Games can also interweave a story line - which provides context - with vocabulary and grammar practice, while keeping the learner interactively engaged (a main feature of Gamesforlanguage). Moreover, by involving multiple senses - visual, auditory, and touch - games stimulate association and sharpen memory. Last but not least, games are relaxing because they are fun and entertaining.
As language games for adults become more numerous and go mainstream, they join the "learning revolution," which Markus Witte (Founder and CEO of the language learning site Babbel) talks about in a recent blog: The Learning Revolution: It’s Not About Education in Wired Magazine. In his words: "A new trend is initiated by a whole new breed of learning technology start-ups that set out to make learning easier for everybody." Why not jump on this trend and play a few language games?!
The New Year is often the time when we make a fresh start and set new goals. If learning a new language is one of your goals for 2014, then preparing for the potential struggles ahead may help you achieve this goal - and maybe others as well. (And even, when the path to reach the top is obvious, staying motivated is key...)
I also really liked Zenhabit's “20 Ways to Sustain Motivation When You Are Struggling” and, in a recent blog, adapted the first eight ways to language learning.
Here are (selected) seven more: (Sentences in italics are taken directly from the just mentioned Zenhabit blog.)
Find like-minded friends. Online communities for the language you are learning are great avenues to connect with like-minded learners. Even better, if you can find a partner with whom you can practice. My wife and I - we both want to improve our Spanish - have made it a habit of reviewing some Spanish vocabulary and grammar every day at the end of lunch.
Build on your successes.Every little step along the way is a success — celebrate the fact that you even started! That's why we believe that a game-based approach to language learning is so effective: Games let you experience your successes though scores, points, medals, etc. Start with just a few words, phrases, sentences a day. The next day, recalling what you learned the day before will feel good, and you can slowly increase your progress and feelings of success.Celebrate every little milestone. Then take that successful feeling and build on it, with another baby step.
Just get through the low points. It's easy to lose motivation, especially when some of the grammar points make no sense at the beginning and none of the words or phrases seem to want to stick. But hang in there. Just stick it out and wait for that motivation to come back. In the meantime, read about your goal, ask for help, and do some of the other things listed here until your motivation comes back.
Get help.It’s hard to accomplish something alone. But there are plenty of resources out there today, both free and for-pay online language programs, CDs/DVDs, classes, tutors, and online communities or forums you can join.
Chart your progress. Many online language programs indeed help you chart your progress with scores, number of words learned, goals to be reached, etc. You can add your own progress chart of hours/days studied: This can be as simple as marking an X on your calendar, or creating a simple spreadsheet.
Reward yourself often. As you are celebrating your successes (see above) you should also reward yourself for achieving certain milestones. It helps to write down appropriate rewards for each step, so that you can look forward to those rewards. These could be watching a foreign movie after having completed a portion of the course, downloading some great foreign songs iTunes, buying a CD, or foreign audio book. Or you could go for the ultimate reward: When you have achieved your overall language goal, plan a trip to the foreign country to practice your new language.
Go for mini-goals. Language courses typically are organized by lessons and levels. Set yourself some achievable mini-goals of 5 or 10 minutes a day, every other day. You don't have to do a full lesson every time. Just get into the habit with mini-goals, especially at the beginning. Once you feel good about achieving those, you can always set yourself more challenging ones.
Clearly, many of the ways to stay motivated are connected and support each other. There is no single “trick” to keep you motivated at all times. There are just many little ways that - when done together - will nudge you to reach your language goal.
While experts may still differ somewhat on the claims and real benefits of video games, there seems to be mounting evidence that they can indeed be used for cognitive training, though the results should not be overstated.
Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, acknowledges:“We do need better, more carefully controlled studies in order to make really strong prescriptive advice. That being said, in general, I think if you find these games fun, at least there's no clear evidence that they have detrimental effects, so I usually don't disrecommend them.”
Cognitive Training & Language learning
Anecdotes, common sense, or even personal experiences have long pointed to the It turns out that something as ordinary as speaking a couple of languages reconfigures the brain network in a way that positively affects certain things that brains do.grey-cell” benefits of learning a second (or third) language as an adult. This is also supported by brain research. For example, a 2012 study performed by a group of researchers at the Umeå Center for Functional Brain Imaging at Lund University shows that language learning makes the brain grow. “There is a lot to suggest that learning languages is a good way to keep the brain in shape,” says Johan Mårtensen, one of the participating researchers at the university. Or, research by Ellen Bialystok of York University in Toronto, Canada, who also concludes that bilingualism sharpens the mind. In an interview, conducted in 2011 for the British newspaper, The Guardian, Bialystok talks about the cognitive enhancement that many bilinguals experience. She states: “It turns out that something as ordinary as speaking a couple of languages reconfigures the brain network in a way that positively affects certain things that brains do.”
Video Games and Language learning
Combing language learning with Video Games should therefore be a natural marriage and a “no-brainer.” (excuse the pun!) If both activities enhance our brain and memory functions, those of us who like games would get a “twofer”: Having fun playing while learning a language at the same time. Language learning apps, such as Mindsnacks and Duolingo, etc., and online language learning sites such as GamesforLanguage, Digital Dialects, etc., all use games and gamification as their main teaching tools and are getting increased attention. However, compelling video games that combine effective language training and pure fun are just starting to gain momentum.
So for all you language learners: If you find fun video games for learning a language – continue with them: They are unlikely to have a detrimental effect on your brain activities – and, just maybe, they will even boost them. And as an added benefit, you'll know how to communicate in another language!
Hold yourself back – It's often easy to race through the first few lessons of a new language course, in our case, maybe to see how the games work, maybe to find out how much you already know, or maybe just because its fun to score points. All of that is fine, but if you are really serious about learning – HOLD BACK. Your brain can't absorb more than +/- 20 new words a day. So rather than pushing on, look forward to the next lesson tomorrow. Keep the energy reined in, harness it, so that you can ride it even further.
Just start – There are days when you just don't feel like practicing. But, instead of thinking about how hard it is, and how long it will take, tell yourself that you just have to start. Take your language book, tablet, laptop, or power up your PC or Mac, and just start. After that it all flows naturally.
Stay accountable – Committing yourself publicly on an online forum, to friends, to your spouse or partner, or even to the language program you chose, is a good way to help you stay motivated. After all, you would not want to let them know that you gave up! (We, at GamesforLanguage are currently experimenting with this “accountable” aspect by letting motivated users play and learn for free as long as they practice regularly. If they don't, they'll have to pay to continue.)
Squash negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones – Language learners may indeed tell themselves “I'll never get those French sounds.” Or, “Those Spanish tenses are much too hard.” Or, “Those German cases are impossible.” We totally agree with Zenhabits: It’s important to start monitoring your thoughts, and to recognize negative self-talk. Just spend a few days becoming aware of every negative thought. Then, after a few days, try squashing those negative thoughts like a bug, and then replacing them with a corresponding positive thought. Squash, “This is too hard!” and replace it with, “I can do this! If that wimp Leo can do it, so can I!” It sounds corny, but it works. Really.
Think about the benefits – You most likely had your own very good reason for learning a foreign language in the first place: family or friends, work or travel, study or research, etc. Whatever it is, imagine the benefits you'll derive from being able to understand, discuss, negotiate, or simply communicate in a foreign language. Keep your original reasons for learning and the benefits in mind and they will surely energize you.
Get excited again – Why do you suddenly have second thoughts? Because learning is harder than you anticipated? What thoughts got you excited in the first place? Was it the prospect of traveling abroad? Taking a job in another country? Whatever it was, try to recreate that wonderful feeling of excitement. It'll get you going again.
Read about it – Struggling with and having second thoughts about learning a new language is an experience shared by many. But today you can easily find blogs and articles by those who have struggled through but who got there in the end. Reading stories about others who made an effort to learn a language and have succeeded in becoming fluent may just be what you need to get your motivation back. If they can do it so can you!
So keep the picture above in mind: When struggling up a mountain, the view will get better and better and the feeling of having reached your goal will stay with you for a long time - not dissimilar to the feeling you'll experience when you begin to understand, read, write and participate in a conversation in your new language...
The recent death of Nelson Mandela reminded me how during my earlier career as a management consultant I had studied “The Mont Fleur Scenarios” as one of the very interesting case histories of scenario planning. The question that was asked in the early nineties, after Mandela had been released from prison, was: What will South Africa be like in the year 2002? You can read about this planning effort in the link above.
But how does it apply to learning a new language?
Learning a language certainly doesn't involve a planning effort that includes many constituencies. It involves mainly YOU. And you are the one to decide which learning path you want to take. You could take the “Icarus” path, start fast and try to learn rapidly, just to crash and give up, too often the fate of many adult language learners. But there is another scenario:
The Flight of the Flamingos
In the Mont Fleur Scenario, "The Flight of the Flamingos" tried to evoke their slow, gradual take-off. Your language learning scenario should be similar. A "Flamingo" path takes your time constraints and other commitments into account, but still allows you to review and practice regularly, ideally daily. Practicing 15 -20 minutes daily will be more effective than spending 1-2 hours once a week. Daily practice will move the new words and phrases from your short-term to your long-term memory. And over time and with a good language practice plan, you will progress.
You get the point. There's no need to dwell on other possible scenarios (as in the Mont Fleur case). Remembering “The Flight of the Flamingos” will let you hold the image and remind you that with a realistic and sustainable practice path you indeed can learn a new language!
You had registered on our site some time ago. You may have purchased/subscribed. Or you just tried one of our languages, but for whatever reason decided not to subscribe and continue.
And if you didn't subscribe, you may have felt that our course was:
too easy or too challenging for you, or you just didn't like it, or
you don't have any interest and/or time to learn another language now, or
you just thought you shouldn't pay to learn a new language as there are free online courses available.
There is not much we can do about (1) and (2) above, but if you fall into category (3), or are a current or past subscriber, we'd like to hear your opinion about our CRAZY NEW IDEA:
The Crazy new Idea of a FREE Deal:
We continue with our FREE lessons for those who register and will be happy about any subscriptions. However, those who score more than 500 points by the end of Scene 2 will be able to continue with a FREE unlimited but conditional subscription.
What does “unlimited” mean?
Unlimited means that there is no time limit to your subscription. You can replay any Games and Scenes as many times as you'd like. You can progress at your own pace until you complete your course. In fact, any current subscription would also become unlimited, as long as the condition below is maintained.
What does “conditional” mean?
We want you to play and learn. But we also know that you'll learn a new language only with regular practice. Your free (or paid) subscription will stay active as long as you play at least 4 times per week (Monday-Sunday). If you skip this schedule more than twice, you'll see the screen on your right and you'll then have to subscribe (or your current subscription will expire as scheduled) in order to continue with your course. Learning is FREE – you'll only be paying, if you are NOT practicing!
What might be the effects?
If you are a really motivated learner who likes our game/story-based approach you'll want to continue for free until you have completed the course. Even if you skip days and lose the free access, you may want to subscribe and continue. (Or, you may indeed just stop using our course.)
Why are we doing this?
We are a young, closely held company, and are less interested in revenues than in attracting motivated learners.
We hope that our “Learn & Play/Skip & Pay” model can keep learners motivated: We want you to learn for FREE and only pay, if you are NOT learning and practicing!
We want to test whether “avoiding to pay” is as good a motivator as paying up front.
What do you think?
Before we test our “crazy new idea” we want to ask our past/current subscribers and our registered users:
Would your learning behavior have been/be different?
Would such a “deal” interest you?
Would it motivate you to learn?
What are aspects of the “deal” we should consider (vacation, illness, other, etc.)
Is this too crazy or unrealistic an idea?
We'd love to hear from you. What are your thoughts?
If you want to get better at something, you have to practice. That goes for sports, yoga, singing, playing an instrument, etc. It also holds true for becoming fluent and proficient in a foreign language.
I belong to an online group of polyglots. The enthusiasm and talent of most of the members is high and I find this very inspiring. Many of us are fluent in several languages and are shooting for several more. It's a great goal to have, but even talented polyglots need to practice in order to learn and get better.
Practice takes time, which is a limited resource. So it's a good idea to have a plan to make your learning most effective. Some, but not all of the seven “ingredients” below are typically provided by traditional classes, online or self-teaching courses, CDs, books, etc. You can greatly enhance and accelerate your learning, if you include them in your own, personal Foreign Language Practice Plan:
Generally speaking, these three (3) basic ingredients belong to "practicing" a skill:
doing something regularly
doing something with focus
doing something with the goal to improve over time
And then there's the whole question of how practicing can be both fun and effective. Here are my 7 ways which I've been using for my fifth and sixth languages:
1. Practice in Small Chunks
Devote some of your time to practicing your new language in small chunks (also called "chunking"). Take individual words, phrases, idioms, set expressions, and go over them with focus and intensity. Do them multiple times and use different ways to practice: listen & repeat, see & say, listen & write, say & record, listen with eyes shut, etc.
2. Practice All 4 Language Skills
Not only will it come in handy to know all four skills - reading, listening, speaking, and writing, with time they'll begin to boost and strengthen each other. [See also our blog: How the 4 Language skills boost each other]
3. Practice at Different Levels
Vary the level of difficulty. What you learn with easy texts is different from what you learn with texts that are highly challenging. So, for example, alternate between reading a simple text and puzzling out a tough grammar structure. Or, listen to a basic audio after practicing speaking and recording yourself. Changing around is also a way to keep things interesting.
4. Engage Your Senses
The more senses you can involve when you're acquiring a language, the more effective you'll be. Listen to the audio of a story or song, watch a movie or YouTube clip, read aloud or record yourself, write things out by using the motion of writing or typing, play interactive games on touch screens, etc.
5. Always Think of the Context
Why the context? Because in communication words take on different meanings in different contexts. Even when you practice your small chunks, you should have the context in mind. For example, is it a formal or a casual situation? Is the tone serious or humorous? Does the word have another meaning that doesn't fit the context? To communicate effectively, you need to practice with more than simple word lists.
6. Practice often and regularly
We may not all have the time and opportunity for long daily practice sessions. But, if you can set aside some 10-15 minutes for language practice every day, you'll progress faster than committing the same 60-90 minutes every week. The reason may be that daily practice helps move foreign words and phrases from short-term to long-term memory.
7. Reward Yourself
Practice takes discipline and isn't always fun. You need to keep your focus, challenge yourself, as well as tolerate a certain amount of boredom. Rewarding yourself after a good practice might just help you stay motivated. For some people, a gamified program works nicely. Others may want to give themselves points that add up for a special treat. For those with a serious goal in mind, the ultimate reward could be a trip to the country where you can experience the language and culture first hand.
The seven practices described above overlap in many ways, similar to what a physical exercise plan may do to the muscles in your body. Keeping them in mind as you develop your personal Language Practice Plan will help you select your practice materials. In fact, just as you may use various exercise equipment and activity - weights, machines, running, etc., you should experiment and try out different practice materials - books, audios, online programs, CDs, or traditional courses, apps, etc. For the best results, you need to tailor your Personal Practice Plan to your own needs and goals.
A recent blog “Learning Grammar with WordDive” reminded me that indeed there are many ways for adults to learn a foreign language. The author notes: “WordDive is primarily about 'diving' into language through its vocabulary” and “When studying with WordDive, you are exposed to grammar structures integrally in the course of the learning process." We agree that adults can learn grammar structures "integrally," somewhat similar to the way children learn them "through numerous repetitions and imitations."
Games and “The Story”
Our approach at GamesforLanguage is different: We teach vocabulary and grammar structures with short games and “The Story” - a sequential and connected series of dialogs and short narratives that tell of a young man traveling in European countries.
While the various games help the learner to practice all four skills (listening, reading, writing, and speaking), the dialogues and narratives introduce and repeat grammatical structures, which he or she will recognize and/or, at times, be alerted to.
For example, already in the second Scene (lesson) of our French 1 course, we bring in the subjunctive, with the sentence “Je suis contente que vous parliez...” in our dialogue (left). We then briefly explain it in our “Deal no Deal” game (see right). Twenty Scenes later, the expression “je suis contente" is used again, but with the subjunctive of another verb. Will we teach all subjunctive forms of these particular verbs? No, but the learner is alerted to the context in which such forms are used and will start to recognize new subjunctive forms as they come up.
Learning the vocabulary, i.e. the foreignlabels of objects, actions, feelings, etc. (see also: Language Learning with Pictures and/or Words) is clearly important and necessary. Romance and Germanic languages have many similarities to English, which help English speakers to remember words and phrases, even if certain grammatical constructions are different.
For example, in our story our traveler is asked :
“Do you also need something?” and he answers: “I need a travel guide.”
In Spanish one would say:
“¿Necesitas también algo?” and “Necesito una guía de viajes.”
and in Italian:
“Hai bisogno di qualcosa anche tu?” and “Ho bisogno di una guida turistica.”
Rather than drilling the conjugations for “necesitar” and “avere bisogno,” the learner picks up the second and then the first person singular as part of the question and answer. And he or she remembers the meaning of “you need” and “I need,” because it is connected to the “travel guide” of the story, with “guía”/ “guida” (guide), “viajes” (voyage), and “turistica” (tourist) being closely related to their English meanings.
Based on our own experience of learning several foreign languages as adults, we know that we can best retain and apply words and phrases, when they relate to objects, actions, feelings, etc. that we encounter in our own life. (That's why we chose a travel story.)
And while our approach is somewhat different from WordDive's, we agree that the discovery of grammatical structures during the learning process is rewarding and more effective than drilling conjugations, tenses, etc.
For some learners, more detailed explanations are necessary, for others explanations are just confirmations of their own discoveries. The extensive offering of free or inexpensive apps and online courses allows learners to choose and combine different approaches that fit their needs and learning styles.
Some time ago we wrote a blog post Fluent in Ten Days? The idea for it was related to the more outrageous marketing claims and promises that we found on the internet as we started GamesforLanguage.com. Most people understand that you can't become “fluent” in a foreign language in 10 days, even if you studied 24 hours a day.
The term “language fluency” is actually a speech language pathology term and refers to fluid as opposed to halting and slow speech. However, to most foreign language learners “fluency” denotes a high level of proficiency in speaking, and in comprehending spoken language.
But there's a catch. “She speaks like a native” would indeed be high praise for a young bilingual child – although he or she may not even know how to read and write, and therefore not really be “proficient” in the language. Or, on the other hand, a person may be quite proficient in reading a foreign text, but unable to engage in a conversation.
Thus, achieving “fluency” in a language is mostly understood as being able to communicate with ease in conversations. On the other hand, when you evaluate someone's “proficiency” in a language, you usually want to determine the level of proficiency in each of the four language skills.
The Four Language Skills
The four essential skills when learning a foreign language are commonly described as follows:
Listening/Comprehension: the ability to understand the meaning of foreign speech
Speaking: the ability to produce foreign speech and be understood
Reading: the ability to read and understand foreign texts
Writing: the ability to write foreign texts
Foreign language organizations in most countries have developed proficiency tests for each and all of these. This wiki link details it for the US. Indeed, proficiency testing has become quite an industry.
More options today
Anybody who wants to improve his or her foreign language fluency as well as proficiency in the four language skills, can choose among an extensive offering of foreign language apps, online courses, books, CDs, audio, traditional, or immersion courses, personal tutoring etc. (A brand new website, Sites For Teaching, ranks educational websites by popularity.)
As we describe in another blog post, the four language skills boost each other. Still, each learner may also sometimes have to decide on which of the skills to focus most: either because of a special current need, or because of a particular interest or aptitude.
But for an adult to become both fluent and proficient in a new foreign language, it will certainly take more than 10 days, more like between 100 and 1,000 days...