In this premiere episode of Games AOE, Zaki Agraraharja talks with Luis Cerezo, the director of the Spanish Linguistics program at American University, to explore the potential of learning language through games. The discussion covers several topics, including the phenomenon related to games and languages and the game design elements for language learning games.
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Language has become an important part in games, especially when it comes to the delivery of its instructions and its narratives. But can we really learn language through games? In this episode of Games AOE, we will explore the potential of using games in language learning. Our guest today is Luis Cerezo, a linguistic expert, director of Spanish Linguistics at American University.
ZAKI AGRARAHARJA (ZAK): Luis is an applied linguist, who does research on how languages were acquired and how they can be thought, which in his case, with the help of technology, specifically video games. He came from a touristic city of Málaga in Spain where he was exposed to multiple languages at a young age, and thus become interesting in languages. He got his BA in Translation and Interpreting, also several master’s degrees, including in Machine Translations and Computational Linguistics. And he got his Ph.D. in Spanish Applied Linguistic.
ZAK: So, Luis, welcome to Games AOE!
LUIS CEREZO (LUIS): Hi, Zaki! Thank you very much for having me. It’s a real pleasure!
ZAK: Let’s start with your gaming preferences. Can you share your gaming journey with us?
LUIS: [Laugh] Yeah, you know, throughout my life, I’ve gone through the different phases. The earliest recollections I have are from my Commodore 64 and my absolute favorite game back then was The Last Ninja II, then I got a Game Boy and I remember playing Tetris and Donkey Kong. And then there was a gap for many years I think, you know, I was really hooked to video games up until college, and then I think college was just so consuming that I stopped playing video games.
ZAK: Yeah, many of us do so. [Laugh]
LUIS: [Laugh] And now I own a PS4 (Play Station 4) and I that the video games that I’ve really enjoyed in the past couple of years are probably What Remains of Edith Finch, which is also an action-adventure kind of game where language plays a pivotal role, so I think that’s why I’m interested in it. Also Firewatch, that was amazing, I fell in love with the characters. And then of course I own an iPhone in my case, and I play an indecent amount of hours to Candy Crush whenever I’m killing time, I’m so hooked to it. [Laugh]
ZAK: Alright! So, I have an interesting phenomenon, that I’m sure many of us experienced. So English is not my first language. But when I play games in English, especially when I’m playing with others, I feel like I can speak English better. so what’s your thought about it?
LUIS: It might be a number of reasons! So, I had on a nephew, Diago. I was recording him playing Fortnite for part of my research. So the thing with Diago is he used to go to a British school. And my sister was concerned about the fact that whenever she would listen to him speaking English, he had a very, like, Spanish accent. And also he would make grammatical mistakes. And he would speak like “[In Spanish accent] well this is the English that I speak,” you know that kind of very Spanish accent. And then, I was recording him while he was playing Fortnite, and he would transform into a completely different persona, to the point that his accent was almost British native. And then, he would form sentences like “if you had stolen it, you would have known it.” And that is a conditional sentence.
ZAK: Yes it’s quite complex! [Laugh]
LUIS: That is like the most complex sentence you can acquire in the English language probably. Because it requires you to think explicitly about the structure of the sentence, because you know, “if you had stolen it,” you need a past perfect. And then, “you would have known it,” you need a perfect conditional. So it’s really complex, and he was producing it [Finger Snap] like on the fly without thinking about it, with perfect pronunciation. So I talked to him about it and he says that, you know, when he’s playing games, he doesn’t want people to realize that he is a foreigner. He wants to be one of them. And that’s why he uses the pronunciation that he knows is the right one. Yet, when he’s interacting with Spanish people because he doesn’t want to be mocked, he sort of like lowers the pronunciation to a less native-like so, that people don’t laugh him.
ZAK: Could it be related to the identity we want to show when we talk in a different language?
LUIS: Absolutely! And I think, you know, like there are always many different explanations. So one is related to the question of identity in his case. There are other possible reasons. So when you are playing a game, you are so into it, that you forget about your own sense of shame and so you just relax and you’re not so self-aware.
ZAK: Alright! When it comes to game design, what are the most important elements that we need to focus on when designing learning games, especially language learning games, from the linguistic point of view?
LUIS: Right!, So, of course, the linguistic point of view is super important when developing a language learning game. But we cannot forget that a game is a game. so for me, the top aspect in a language learning video game is the concept, the creativity behind it.
So is this game original? Do I want to play it? Am I having fun? Am I being surprised?
Then, you know, if you go back to the methodological principles of the most advocated language learning theories, like Task-Based Language Teaching, for example, one of the principles is you have to provide rich input.
So number two would be multi-modality. How many modes are being used to convey information? Only visually? or also orally?
Then, moving towards, like a more analytical linguistic point of view, the type of activity being used to expose learners to input, and to push you to produce outputs, are the ones that I think deserve a lot of time. And that’s where you have to look at modern research, current research on language acquisition, right? So we were talking about the importance of emotion for making strong connections in the brain, so you want to create activities that push your learners to think about language and to connect form with meaning, at a much deeper level than having a sentence in your first language and translating it into your second language. And don’t get me wrong, translation is a very powerful pedagogical tool and I do use it. But that’s not particularly in the context of games. Everything you can do, you can do much more.
But then, there are more elements, one of them is feedback. You know, whenever we learn anything, we make mistakes. And that is actually a great opportunity for Learning and there are many different ways in which corrective feedback can be provided. So that is actually the focus of my research, the different types of corrective feedback, and how they contribute to language learning.
And then the fifth element would be scaffolding. So particularly, when you are exposing learners to a new language, everything can be super daunting. And so you need to be very selective about how you are displaying your input on the screen to help them learn little by little, right?
And Scaffolding is here, is crucial here, you know, you as a language expert know which structures your learners are ready to acquire and structures they are not ready to acquire, right? And so you want to be very strategic about how you display information, types of activities that you want them to perform, and so on.
ZAK: By the way, in the context of game design, can we say that scaffolding is the difficulty level balancing?
LUIS: Yes, absolutely! And you know, like games are all about scaffolding because level one is always easier than level two, and so on, right? And that’s how you also help your learners acquire a sense of accomplishment because they’re like, “Oh well, now I’m able to do things that I wasn’t able to do two days ago,” so same things with language.
ZAK: Alright, awesome! Then, would you recommend game designers out there to delve into games for language learning area? And what premises do you think are interesting in this subject?
LUIS: Okay, I love this question, but it’s also very big, right? So let’s chop it up into parts!
So definitely I will recommend gaming students or linguistic students to consider developing language learning games. Because huge progress has been done, and apps and games are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and effective, and fun. But there is so much more that we can do.
And I think education, in general, is moving in the direction of game-based learning, so you know, children, since they are really little, they are learning through games. And the future generations of students are used to playing games so often, and yeah, definitely the field is moving in the direction of game-based learning, so yes, explore it! Because it’s the future, I mean, it’s not the future, It’s the present! We are teaching increasingly through games.
And then bear mind that this is truly interdisciplinary. So number two, don’t do it alone, do it in a team, because you need different levels of expertise. You need gaming expertise and you need linguistic expertise.
And then if you want to learn more about it, there are wonderful programs. American University has a fantastic program that is always improving, and there are also many conferences, so one of my favorites is Games for Change. I think it’s great to get out of the box. So in my field as a linguist, I usually go to conferences such as CALICO, which is about technology for language learning, but then it’s also beautiful to go to these conferences that are very different from your primary expertise, because they inspire you, really!
ZAK: Great! Alright, Luis, thank you very much for your time, and hope to talk to you again soon!
LUIS: It was a real pleasure, Zaki! I look forward to talking about language learning video games more with you in the future again!
ZAK: And that concludes our talk with Luis Cerezo! For the Listeners, thank you very much for tuning in, hope this talk would be insightful to you!
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