Since I began teaching in the US college classroom in fall 1994, I have always combined traditional teaching methods (grammar; syntax; and of course the interactive method) with realia, authentic cultural artifacts in a foreign language that can be used to improve linguistic skills. A restaurant menu in Italian, for example, could be considered a form of realia, and used to improve vocabulary related to food. Since my first semester of teaching, all of my foreign language students, from elementary through advanced, have been exposed to literature, poetry, cinema, comics & graphic novels, TV series, songs and games (traditional language-classroom word games; board games; “serious” video games; and, since 2009, learning apps and commercially-available video games). Using realia in the second/foreign language classroom allows to reinforce and expand vocabulary and grammar structures that have already been previously acquired through traditional learning methods. They also encourage autonomous, independent exploration and learning of the foreign language(s) and related culture(s).
I have successfully utilized particular video games in my foreign language teaching since 1997, with the rise of video games as a mass phenomenon 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. All of which led me to explore the full potential of video games as interactive multi-media narratives in the language classroom. My own experiences as a foreign/second language (F/L2) learner have always played an essential role in guiding my pedagogical approach to the teaching of F/L2 and culture, and supported the importance of realia that informed my teaching. Personal interests bolstered language comprehension and acquisition in broader, related contexts. Video games have been shown to be an effective didactic tool for reinforcing linguistic skills.
In recent years, some highly-communicative, narrative-centered video games have been published, which I successfully utilized as realia.
Realia cannot be used by themselves. It would be “flaky”. But they can be effectively used to reinforce materials that have been learned through traditional methods.
Reinforcing materials (grammar, vocabulary, syntax, and style) that have been recently learned through traditional methods is the most effective use of realia, as scholarship proves. Some specific cinematic games contain materials diverse enough to contribute to reinforcing most fundamental aspects of grammar and vocabulary.
My experiments in introducing video games as a learning device in the F/L2 language classroom have led me to explore the option of teaching a gaming-based language course. As the recipient of a Saint Louis University (SLU) Reinert Center fellowship, I further developed language acquisition strategies using video games and related media. In spring 2017, I used the SLU state-of-the-art learning studio 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 student population that self-identifies as gamers (10%, according to the 2016 PEW research). Based on my teaching experience, I believed that a strong, shared interest/passion for gaming would stimulate and enhance the students’ learning process, thus justifying the intensive nature of the course.
The experience of teaching Intensive Italian for Gamers was very positive. Although students came from very different backgrounds in terms of linguistic abilities, they all successfully attained second-semester competency in the language. By active, continuous involvement in the play mechanics, by the third week of the semester all students in the course could effectively give commands (“Open the door! Take the path to the right! Talk to the person in the room!”) and express success or disappointment, all essential communicative structures that are normally acquired towards the end of the first/early second semester.
Most interestingly, all of the students autonomously continued to explore gaming in the foreign language outside the classroom, by playing their own games in the language, or meeting as a group to play in our language lab, which has been equipped with a PlayStation 4 and multi-language games that students can freely access. As a result, by the end of the semester students were showing a knowledge of the language and culture (including idioms, interjections and fillers, expressions of joy, excitement and frustration; all markers of fluency in foreign language acquisition) above standard.
While more long-term research must be done, initial results of this course do, in fact, provide an answer to the question of whether the use of video game realia improves language acquisition. Currently, due to the fact that the course has only been formally taught one time, the size of the sample is quite small. This makes it difficult to run significance tests on the data. However, preliminary analysis does show some interesting facts that are worthy of further study. In the language course for gamers, the mid-term grade approximates the final grade that students would achieve in the first semester of the two semester sequence. In the language course for gamers, the final grade approximates the final grade that students would achieve in the second semester of the two semester sequence. A look at this data shows that students in the gaming course were almost four points lower when comparing the midterm grade with the final first semester student grades. When one looks at the final grade for the gamers, as compared to second semester students, the relationship reverses. Here the students in this new course rank two points higher than their counterparts in the regular program. What this seems to indicate is that the “initial shock” of the intensity of the course might well have a dampening effect on grades but by the end of the semester, the students are doing better than their counterparts in regular courses. The intensity and immersion may be confusing initially but can be overcome, yielding better results for students.
Just like any other realia, video games as digital realia cannot be “simply” used by themselves. There must be solid preliminary work done involving the creation of vocabulary worksheets, listening and reading comprehension exercises, and follow-up activities that should take place before each video game-based class activity. There are currently no textbooks (or scholarly articles, for that matter) that could provide a “data bank” of suitable games and exercises for F/L2 acquisition. I have created such materials for my Intensive Language for Gamers course and my other courses. The process was very time-consuming and I would very much like to share my work with other colleagues. Each gaming session was combined with preliminary and follow-up work-sheets centered on scaffolding and task-based learning. For example, after learning basic action verbs (to run, to jump, to climb, etc.), we would play the first “chapter” of Rise of the Tomb Raider (Square-Enix), which presents many of those verbs in context (the young protagonist, Lara Croft, exploring the Himalayas in frigid weather, escaping from a group of criminals). A worksheet I created would guide students to review related vocabulary and structures, then observe them at play in the on-screen narrative (through fill-in-the-gaps exercises). Other exercises assist students in expanding their vocabulary (using images to introduce unfamiliar words) and forms (i.e., talking about weather). Finally, students would be called to discuss, and write about, the gaming narrative first, and then about their own life experiences, by applying the vocabulary, verbs and structures they have just learned. This is a process I call Identify, Acquire, Create (IAC): identifying, first, already known vocabulary and structures, then new ones; acquiring them through a series of task-based exercises; finally, creating written texts and spoken discourse.
In future efforts, I hope to produce such a textbook that would include game recommendations and specific exercises/tests for elementary through intermediate language courses. I am currently cooperating on this project with Dr. Brandon Essary at Elon University, who also teaches language and culture with cinematic video games. While our initial project, which will benefit of the cooperation of colleagues in the field of second-language acquisition, will be focused on our specific field, Italian as a foreign language, it will be in a format that could easily be adapted to other languages.
My course could serve as a model for a mixed/blended learning format that could be applied to other languages and even other fields. After all, video games lend themselves to some interesting potential multidisciplinary developments in, among other subjects, such as History, Art and Architecture. My students, for instance, learn about 15th century Florence, its architecture and art, the Medici, Leonardo da Vinci, etc. through the Assassin’s Creed series.
- “Assassin’s Creed Taught Me Italian: Video Games and the Quest for Foreign Language Acquisition.” Invited article. In print. Profession, the Journal of the Modern Language Association. https://profession.mla.hcommons.org/2018/03/22/assassins-creed-taught-me-italian/ (published on 4/13/2018)
- “Using Video Games to Teach Italian Language & Culture: Useful, Effective, Feasible?” In press (fall 2018). NEMLA Italian Studies XXXIX special issue “The Italian Digital Classroom: Italian Culture and Literature through digital tools and social media.”
- Assassin’s Creed – The Ezio Collection; The Invisible Hours; Rise of the Tomb Raider: Three mini-chapters (1,000-2,000 words each) accepted for inclusion in Learning, Education & Games Vol. 3: 100 Games to Use in the Classroom , ETC Press/Carnegie Mellon. In press (fall 2018/winter 2019)
- “(E-)Life is (not) Strange: Teaching an Intensive Language Course for Gamers.” “Language Learner Psychology”, Editors Mark R. Freiermuth & Nourollah Zarrinabadi. Forthcoming (winter 2019)
Photo: Dr. Simone Bregni, Associate Professor of Italian and Coordinator of the Italian Studies Program in the Department of Languages, Literatures & Cultures at Saint Louis University delivering one of two game-based learning sessions to an audience of instructors and students in Italian at the Spring Hill College Campus in Bologna on Thursday, March 8, 2018. The workshop format was created with the assistance of the SLU Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning. Dr. Bregni is the 2018 recipient of the James H. Korn Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Award.