Invested engagement

In the last several days I have participated in several discussions that touch on the question of how to increase children’s knowledge of other languages by getting kids from different countries to communicate with each other on-line.

This topic is in some ways a response to the problematic nature of school-based teaching of a second language, which usually comes too late to take advantage of the “sweet spot” for proficiency in language acquisition (up to around age seven), while often devolving to teachers who are ill equipped for the task.

Putting aside for the moment the issues of security and provenance, what constitutes an effective way to use on-line social engagement between kids to promote mutual language acquisition? It came up during one of these discussions that mere conversation, such as Skype chat, seems not to work very well, whereas anecdotal evidence suggests that interacting with others by playing an on-line strategy game, such as “Worlds of Warcraft”, might be a much more effective way to learn elements of a second language.

This suggests that it is not merely engagement in conversation which leads to second language learning, but invested engagement — there needs to be something at stake.

Which leads to the question — could we construct an international on-line multi-player game that specifically promotes multilingual skills through invested engagement? And if so, how would we operationalize the question of how effective such a game is?

One strategy might be to build in design variations along various dimensions, instrument the game to measure effectiveness for language acquisition, and then gradually tune our design variables, in response to gathered data, so as to optimize the game for maximum language acquisition.

Another strategy might be to reward actions in the game that require multi-lingual proficiency — such as the ability to say a “magic spell” in two different languages, as in the recitation of the two spells: “place the magical cup upon the rock” and “coloque o copo mágico sobre a rocha”.

It might also be most effective to target such games toward kids seven years of age and younger, when facility for language acquisition is at its peak. This suggests, among other things, using spoken words and pictures in the game mechanic, rather than relying on written language.

There are so many possibilities — as well as unique challenges, such as the difficulty of building any computer software that must understand the speech of younger children.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if such a project were successful, and on-line game play could lead to greater understanding between people around the world?

2 thoughts on “Invested engagement”

  1. An alternative to having the kids learn each other’s language is to invent a common language for them -all- to learn. Then everybody’s faced with the same learning curve, and the players are rewarded with the ability to communicate with everybody in the game.

    The easiest way to pull this off is in the context of the fantasy worlds that are already internationally popular. Harry Potter, Star Wars, etc. are candidates. Avatar could do it with the Na’vi language; Star Trek got a little ways down this road with Klingon.

    If it’s done right, the commercial possibilities (for tourism, conventions, on-line activities) are enormous.

  2. The “Hole in the Wall”-Experiments come to my mind

    … where the researchers left a computer, connected to the Internet (or just with a set of CDs), installed in the wall of a slum area. It shows how kids learned to use the computer, learned to move the mouse, to click, to browse. It shows how the kids – in groups – taught each other to do so; could self-instruct themselves. On top of that, the kids learned some English through using the provided technology.

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