World of Warcraft is a lot of things to a lot of people - engrossing RPG, all-encompassing addiction, Space-Goat Music Video Simulator - but according to a new study by Swedish academics, it's also become a vital tool in dynamically teaching young children new languages.

The proliferation of the English Language through pop culture has been going on for a long time - movies and cartoons without localised dubs spread across Europe, the language coming through to viewers and consumers of popular culture via osmosis - but it's evolved into a completely new beast in the last decade or so thanks to the rise of online multiplayer gaming, from Call of Duty and League of Legends, to MMOs like the ever-popular World of Warcraft, where players across the world are united in the fantasy realm of Azeroth. With these video games not always having localisation specific for each and every country they're sold in (WoW's European servers, for example, are predominantly English Language, with servers for German, French, Spanish and Russian also available), English has become the Lingua Franca for budding gamers across the continent who are coming together to play games.

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The study, conducted by Pia Sundqvist of Karlstad University and Liss Kerstin Sylvén of the University of Gothenburg, found that 10-11 year old boys in Sweden spent eleven and a half hours a week using English outside of a school environment - and that three and a half of those hours were spent playing online computer games. Such play offered a serious boost to their confidence in both spoken and written English, because in games as complex as World of Warcraft, players need to understand the game's language in order to progress through content.

What makes video games so particularly helpful in language acquisition is not only do they have lots of specific, unusual words in them that a basic user might not otherwise pick up - the study mentions examples such as 'rend', 'melt', 'roar', 'flesh' - but also because they provide something learning from a textbook cannot: Context to the words. It's a concept in linguistics called 'situated meaning', where speakers are more likely to remember the meaning of a word if it's attached to a common experience in comparison to reading it in a textbook. A word like 'Blast' might seem strange and confusing to a non-English speaker on paper, for example, but teach a budding Fire Mage in WoW that they should cast Inferno Blast when they get Heating Up to maximise their damage output, they're going to remember it.

Whilst it's good news for non-English speakers, we natives in the US and UK can't use Language learning as an excuse to play video games all day, as English is obviously already our primary language. Maybe you should try changing the audio settings in your favourite game to a completely new language, and see if you can learn something new!

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You can read Sundqvist and Sylvén's full paper, Language-related computer use: Focus on young L2 English learners in Sweden, here.

[The Conversation]


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