Learning Languages Through Gaming | An Interview with Dr. Simone Bregni

Everyone remembers having mandatory language classes in school, going over sentence structure, grammar and vocab. However, Simone Bregni, PhD, an associate professor of Italian at Saint Louis University (SLU), has been researching and testing out language learning lessons that involve an unusual supplementary activity: immersing yourself in some of your favorite video games. Dr. Bregni started learning English in the sixth grade in Italy, and played classics like Pong. He has always used his various interests in comic books, music and of course games to bolster his language learning process.

We asked Dr. Bregni a few questions to get a deeper understanding of his method and the benefits of video games for language learning. Some of the answers have been edited for length.

Dr. Simone Bregni

Dr. Simone Bregni

How did your relationship with video games change over the years?

Dr. Bregni: Electronic games transitioned from the ‘70s and early ‘80s games, where one moved a few primitive blocks across a screen, to the more complex textual and graphic adventures of the Commodore 64 and other home computers in the later ‘80s. I really loved the pre-1983 crash consoles. My first programmable console was a Philips Videopac (Magnavox Odyssey in America), then I also got an Intellivision (my favorite), an Atari VCS and a Colecovision.

Thanks to games such as Activision’s Alter Ego and Lucasfilm’s Manic Mansion, I realized that my English (and later, French and Spanish) language skills rapidly improved while I was having fun. While playing narrative-oriented quests in video games, not only was I reading in a foreign language, I was also applying my reading comprehension to solve problems and using writing to attain goals.

My interest in video games also pushed me to explore other related content, which in foreign language acquisition is referred to as realia: authentic artifacts in the target language that help enhance language acquisition such as magazines, and later on, gaming websites for reviews, guides, tips and tricks. My personal interest in the topic bolstered language comprehension and new vocabulary acquisition in broader, related contexts.

What inspired you to start incorporating video games into your language research?

Video games challenge students

Dr. Bregni giving a lecture on how video games challenge students studying new languages.

Dr. Bregni: My own experiences as a foreign language learner have always played an essential role in guiding my pedagogical approach to the teaching of foreign languages and cultures, and supported the importance of realia that informed my teaching. To this day, I am more likely to remember vocabulary, idioms and irregular verbs from some song, comic book, magazine, TV show or video game. I never deny that foreign language teaching and language classes provided me with very useful, necessary structures, but I feel that it was the time I spent with my pop culture realia, especially interactive games, that bolstered my ability to communicate in multiple languages. These sources reinforced grammatical structures learned through traditional instruction, but they also taught me idioms and slang, all of which I would not have been able to access in a "regular” classroom.

The rise of video games as a mass phenomenon, which began around 1997 with the Sony PlayStation and with the popularity of the excellent interactive, animated role-playing games (RPGs) of Square Enix, such as the Final Fantasy series, led me to explore the full potential of video games as interactive multimedia narratives in the language classroom. At the time, I was a Graduate Fellow in Italian at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where they had just received a substantial Mellon Grant for language technology development. This allowed me to obtain the resources to experiment early on with digital realia. Along with my scholarly duties, I was also working as a freelance writer for one of the leading Italian video game magazine at the time, Super Console. The experience further stimulated my intellectual curiosity regarding the potential use of video games in learning. The process for my classroom experimentation in those days was a complex one. It involved using an Italian copy of Final Fantasy VIII in the PAL (Italian) video standard running on a modified, region-free PlayStation 1 system in the NTSC (North American) television standard connected to a multi-standard projector in a high-end, state-of-the-art multimedia lab.

Things are much easier now thanks to recent technical advancements, namely the advent of HDMI and, as a consequence, region-free and multi-language games. I can purchase a game anywhere in the world and play it anywhere in the world, in multiple languages.

In your research you use Assassin’s Creed to teach English speakers Italian. Why does the act of playing the game have better results than a more typical classroom environment with a teacher?

Learning Languages Through Gaming | An Interview with Dr. Simone Bregni

One of Dr. Bregni's classes focused on learning Italian with the help of Assassin's Creed.

Dr. Bregni: While I do not believe that video games and other digital realia should replace “regular” teaching, I am convinced that they can be used to reinforce and expand vocabulary and structures. Some specific recent video games are fully interactive multimedia experiences combining real-time animation, speech/dialogue, subtitles, writing/textual interaction and, in some cases, even spoken interaction in the form of audio/video chat with other users. Cinematic games can serve as excellent realia, enhancing language and, in some cases, culture acquisition. Such is the case of the Assassin's Creed series in and outside the classroom.

Based on my research and teaching experience, the use of video games and other related realia (online gaming magazines, YouTube videos, reviews, etc.), both in and outside the classroom, has shown to be a very effective didactic tool for reinforcing linguistic skills and exposing students to contemporary cultures of other nations and groups.

Cinematic games with a high emphasis on communication contain plenty of opportunities to reinforce a variety of grammatical forms and explore new vocabulary through listening and reading comprehension, lexical expansion and problem solving. Each main chapter in the Assassin’s Creed series, with its outstanding recreation of everyday life and culture of the specific time period and geographical areas in which it is set, allows educators like me, in languages and cultures, but also in other fields such as architecture and the social sciences, to explore first-hand several aspects of life in those times and places in dynamic, immersive and interactive ways.

What I apply in my teaching is game-based learning (GBL). GBL is pedagogy, closely connected to play theory where learners apply critical thinking1. My course was developed with the assistance of the SLU Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Leaning in fall 2016, as a recipient of a competitive fellowship. In spring 2017, I used the SLU Reinert Learning Studio (a state-of-the-art, high-tech learning space) to teach Intensive Italian for Gamers, which combines “traditional” intensive language instruction with gaming-based interaction. Within the pedagogical premise that language acquisition is a process that involves, and benefits from, daily interactions in the language in and outside the classroom, the course targeted the specific segment of the 10%2 of the student population that self-identify as gamers. Based on my learning experience, teaching experience and research, I believed that a strong, shared interest in gaming would stimulate and enhance the students’ learning process, thus justifying the intensive nature of the course. So I created an “Affinity Group”, which, as research shows, enhances learning. While more long-term research must be done, initial results through testing and surveys indicate that my premise is correct. You know how excited you get when you communicate with a group of peers that share your exact same interests/passions? Such situations have been shown to foster F/L2 acquisition.

[In your research paper, “Assassin’s Creed Taught Me Italian: Video Games and the Quest for Lifelong, Ubiquitous Learning”] you mention that lip-syncing is a limitation to this method. Are there others? How can you get past the issue of lip-syncing?

Dr. Bregni: Most cinematic games appear to have been created with lip-syncing designed for the English language. Observation of lip movements assists in listening comprehension. This is an important limitation until more games are created (or adapted) specifically for other markets. That said, in all cinematic games, co-speech gestures, another essential component of communication and foreign language acquisition, are excellent, and definitely provide a visual aid that enhances overall student comprehension. Although most games are currently produced with English, or, in some cases, Japanese as the main in-game language, cinematic games are, in my view, still very usable and beneficial for the acquisition of languages other than English. However, they become an outstanding tool for English as a Second Language (ESL) and Japanese language instruction.

Square Enix’s Life is Strange, for example, is an excellent portrayal of the life of American teens in a small, Northwestern US coastal town. Life is Strange has not been fully localized in Italian, which is really unfortunate, because I would have loved to use it in my courses, since it has many topics that would “speak” to my student population, and, more importantly, it provides opportunities to discuss and develop empathy. I am also disappointed that the amazingly innovative and well-written The Invisible Hours by Tequila Works has not been fully localized in Italian. But for ESL students it is an excellent learning tool: being able to observe lip movements up close and personal, especially in VR mode on PlayStation VR, greatly enhances listening comprehension, especially given the in-game ability to review and fast-forward time at will.

So, another important limitation that I see at the moment, and the most relevant one, is that not all games are fully localized as I feel they should be. Full localization is an investment that I believe all companies should make. The interest that my research and teaching practices have generated (as of today, they have been mentioned in ninety news sources of various kinds, for general audiences, educators and gamers, all over the world) show that there currently is a high interest in video games as learning devices for foreign languages and cultures.

I believe that the next frontier of localization will be the localization of lip-syncing also. The market of commercially-available games as foreign language learning devices may be exploding soon, as I am inclined to believe given the positive response I received regarding my research and teaching. This spring semester I was on sabbatical in my native country Italy, and while delivering presentations and workshops at a number of European institutions, I met a number of young men and women who instantly connected with what I was talking to them about, games as foreign language tools, because those kids had experienced exactly the same: they noticed that their foreign language skills improved rapidly while playing video games.

Currently, I believe that the Assassin’s Creed series and games by Quantic Dream are excellent examples of strong localization, which, to me, is much more than “simple” translation. High-quality localization makes every single in-game data and reference fully understandable and accessible to people from other cultures.

Does the added element of fun also help students stay on track and motivated to learn or does it distract?

Simone Bregni Lecture

Dr. Bregni teaching

Dr. Bregni: Video games are effective not just because they are fun, but because they are challenging3. They are difficult, and repetition enhances comprehension and memorization. Video games involve Total Physical Response (TPR), Adrenaline production and Csikszentmihályi’s Flow Theory — the best learning happens when we become oblivious to the passing of time. Gamers often refer to “being in the zone” when they play effectively, all of which have been shown to enhance learning.

What are some student reactions to this method? Do they prefer it?

Dr. Bregni: Over the years, my experiences with video games in the classroom have been more than positive. Student interaction was good, and it did get them excited. Even those students who were not gaming-inclined appreciated the storytelling, the clearly enunciated, authentic foreign language speech and subtitles. “Unpacking” the meaning of the various Italian gestures correctly used by characters in the Assassin’s Creed games set in Italy became a students’ favorite and sparked many meaningful discussions about non-verbal communication in other cultures.

I also observed that gaming-based activities had the advantage of fostering group cooperation and active participation better than other digital lab activities, with agency and problem-solving being the keys. All of the students who responded to the survey over the last three years enjoyed the video game-centered lab activity very much (approximately 95% thought it was excellent) and approximately 93% of them felt that they had learned very much from the activity. Post-activity test performance showed a 9% median score increase. Many non-gaming students expressed surprise, as they games I exposed them to were “not the typical ‘run & kill’ games they were used to”, and “more like watching episodes of Stranger Things”, the Netflix TV series (they were referring to games such as Quantic Dream’s Beyond: Two Souls and Heavy Rain).

Some students are bound to be either unfamiliar with or just not care much about video games, and playing them could be a complex task for some of them. The solution I envisioned, as I mentioned, is to elicit volunteers to do the actual gaming and encourage the rest of the class to participate by encouraging the players. Approximately 70% of college students play video games “at least once in a while” 4.

Video games become an effective didactic tool for reinforcing linguistic skills. After all, as language learning research confirms, we all become more excited and communicate more easily and effectively when in the company of people who share our same interests and passions.

Since our agency is responsible for localizing games by changing the language and cultural context to make it more immersive for native speakers, would you recommend that people choose games in different languages if they are trying to improve?

Dr. Bregni: Absolutely! The key is playing games in the chosen language with subtitles set in that same language. The biggest challenge for language learners at the beginner/lower intermediate level (which generally corresponds to 2-3 years of foreign language in high-school or 2-3 semesters in college) is to move away from constantly translating everything into one’s own native language, and towards approaching the foreign language as such, with its own forms and structures. Also, while in some languages, such as Italian “What you see is what you get” (one pronounces every single letter, and there are standard rules for pronunciation) that is not the case for other languages, such as English. Ask the average non-English native teenager/young adult, “What is the name of the game series that features the heroine Lara Croft?” In my experience, over 90% will respond correctly “Tomb Raider,” but only a small percentage will be able to pronounce both words correctly based on their high-school and college education, even when solid and rigorous.

My other advice is to have handy, on your mobile device, while you play, the WordReference app, the interactive multi-language dictionary5. Whenever you encounter a word that you do not know, look at the context. Are you able to give that word a plausible meaning based on that context? Then do, and move on. Are you totally stuck on that word, instead? Then pause the game, and take 30 seconds to look that word up. You will soon notice that your vocabulary is rapidly expanding, that quickly those new, previously unfamiliar words are becoming part of your vocabulary. That is because we remember 90% of what we do (Xunzi, Chinese philosopher, 3rd century A.C.).

If you are interested in receiving updates on Dr. Bregni’s research, workshops and teaching, check out his practices on LinkedIn, Academia.com pages and personal blog: simonebregni.com

To read his research, click here.

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1. Farber M., Gamify your classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning, 2017, 2nd ed.

2. 2016 PEW Research Center

3. "Los videojuegos funcionan no porque entretienen sino porque desafían," Gonzalo Frasca

4. PEW Research Center

5. Word Reference

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