When VICE reporter Johnny Harris was left to play video games with his two sons during quarantine, he came across an epiphany about language acquisition and how the game mechanics can play a role in it. He began thinking about how this could be applied to his language-learning process when trying to learn the Italian language.

Johnny Harris’ Argument

He argues that language-learning has the same mechanics as a video game, but more specifically an 18-bit Zelda-esque map with strict pathways to reach a goal. Of course, I do not want to mock him as being a “big map guy,” but I do want to show how such characterization of the language-learning process can be quite simplistic.

For one, he characterizes the traditional path to language-learning by “getting past gates” by learning the right conjugations and then defeating the final boss; but then he suggests that there is the alternative path, which is to speak with the locals and ensuring that they understand him. The goal, in which case, is to use the most useful words in order to get around the town.

I do think that this is an important step, since it represents the linguistic Pareto Principle, which is to learn 2000 words that are used 80% of the time in sentences in everyday speech. However, this is rather simplistic, since the best way to view language-learning on a video game map is to view the journey as constant zig-zagging back-and-forth between the locals and the gates.

How Do We Acquire Language In The First Place?

The reality is that you not only have to take into account any second, acquiring language, rather at the acquired language which is your native language. Throughout everyone’s earliest years, they are spent learning the language of their parents/guardians. At first, they have to hone their listening comprehension and then they start speaking the language through a handful of words. As they progress with age, they start developing more complicated grammar until they reach a point when they can fluently speak their native language without second thought.

Of course, you not only have to take into account the human aspect, but also think about the physical and auditory aspects. These can be found in television, road-signs, literature, video games, and everywhere else. Americans are typically monolingual, however if they overhear members of the Latino community speaking Latin American Spanish (depending of course, where they were originally from, whether it is from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, etc., in which there are dialect differences), they would definitely know that they were speaking Spanish. This is based on the bare minimum of Spanish language-learning they get in school.

So, there is that immersive component to language-learning, even unintentionally. Even if you do not understand what they are saying, you can still recognize the cadence of their phonology, which would be helpful if you were trying to learn Spanish. In that case, you are developing proficiency–albeit at a very rudimentary step.

Language Learning A La Disgaea

Coming back to Harris’ example of the video game map, the main objective of the game itself becomes obscure, as well as the definite way to complete it–if possible. In order to finish the game, you must defeat the final boss and/or acquire the important items. However, what if the final boss, or even the final-final boss, becomes irrelevant on the journey?

I have recently begun to see language-learning more as an RPG video game a la Disgaea. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Disgaea is an RPG game series published by Nippon Ichi, which is characterized normally as having zany characters, item-maxing, and–the most crucial component–character levels that reach 9,999 with stats that reach the millions.

When you play Disgaea, you spend more hours in the Item World maxing every stat of your character, the item enhancements, or the item itself, than the actual main storylines. The Item World works by progressing through many levels in an effort to strengthen the item. Every level is unique in some way, in terms of its challenges, which are often determined by Geo blocks, which colorize any part of the map with a particular effect to those who land on it–such as +50% Attack.

As such, the items do have importance not just in themselves, but also with an omni-applicability. If you were progressing deeper into the language-learning, you would need to develop a complicated grammar, not to sound smart but to convey a particular mood. It is about making use of time and space that does not feel limiting. You are doing multiple tasks at once by maxing the item while also maxing the characters who clear the item levels.

In the real-world, the actual goal of language-learning is achieving the status of near-native fluency. However, it is not as rewarding as the never-ending dopamine rush that is the grind. Like the diverse levels, you encounter many unique challenges associated with your acquired or acquiring language.

This also reflects back on the language-learner. You are not only being tested every time you talk in the language, you are also being tested in your own natively spoken language. Think about it this way. When you using the exact grammar at the exact moments and the exact contexts, you receive subtle affirmations. Whereas, if you slip up, you would be told “Do you mean…?” by familiars, whereas any other language-speaker would try and correct you. Perhaps it is a dialect issue, they would think.

As such, it is very easy to think that achieving this type of status derives from either a university degree or the amount of people you are able to communicate effectively to. The problem lies in the reward itself, since it can be evidence of great accomplishment and a recourse for celebration, but it is also a demotivator in disguise, as though letting the learner off their guard, giving them an excuse to relax. Of course, a way to relax in this case is to give up speaking the language as a ceremonial mission-accomplished.

The problem that even university graduates with language degrees would face is whether they can retain that information and hold their own in a simple conversation. The problem that Harris faced after earning his minor in French when he was traveling to France was being able to communicate with the locals. The missing component to this problem is the lack of socio-linguistic engagement. He may have been engaging in French-speaking with his French Language professor and the other students who were non-native French speakers as he was, but that was as far as it would go. Would it have been different if he regularly engaged in French conversation with members of the French diaspora–if they were available? What if there was a French-American Cultural Center, where Harris could have found French speakers to talk with; or at least connections to French speakers?

In some ways, this is comparable to level-maxing. Indeed, the YouTube polyglot Moses “laoshu505000” McCormick had language courses which were called I’m About To Level Up. So, the mechanisms of game design can definitely be applied to language-learning. Of course, it depends on which genre and brand of game. In my case in comparing language-learning to Disgaea, level-maxing becomes a central part of the dopamine-rushing grind. Although you would want to train your characters, you would not want to fight an Overlord with only a few characters that are maxed to the same level as the Overlord. You would also need mage characters that can heal and revive; as well as characters with long-range attacks to distract and weaken the enemies. Level-maxing alone does not guarantee victory against an Overlord. That also does not include maxing out skills in order to use less mana and to acquire powerful skills with wider range.

As far as how this type of thinking would apply to language-learning, learning key words, such as commonly spoken words, is not enough to fully comprehend a language, rather you would need to find how these words are spoken in many ways. Rather than just the meanings, you would need to focus on their utilities in grammar. This would, therefore, involve a form of pattern recognition.

Coming back to the point about zig-zagging between the locals and the gates, it easily translates into the Disgaea series. When you reach a certain point, you are able to adjust the difficulty level, whether at the current level or at an incredibly difficult level. You can probably guess where this would lead to. This would lead to intense level-maxing, especially when you can get to fight enemies that have four-digit levels and be able to level up faster.

This brings us back to what Johnny Harris would talk about when it came to the main objectives people have when learning a language in a game mode. Is it to defeat the final boss or to keep good company among the villagers? Disgaea offers multiple questions to any player. Would they want to finish the final boss or finish the final-final boss? Would they want to progress to the Carnage Dimension and continue level-maxing? Would they want to expand into the DLC content? Would they want to start over with a New Game+ where they keep the stats but play at a more difficult mode?

I can go on and on about the complexities of the Disgaea gameplay system, but the point being that language-learning itself has complexities.

Glory Be To The Grind

This is also going to tick off the language-speaking community, but I also find importance of repetition and rote memorization to be important factors as well. Think about professions that require intense quick thinking, such as fire-fighters and pilots. There are cases, as psychologist Gary Klein noted, where experienced fire-fighters are able to prevent fires from devastating a building just by focusing on the areas of the building which are most likely to be the sources of the fire. This would not be possible without years of consistency.

Consistencies are key to truly studying languages, for it is not efficient to learn each specific conjugation for every regular and auxiliary verb. However, what is efficient is finding the common affixes and working-words between all of the verbs in the same language. It is also important to study these auxiliary verbs in many contexts and conjugations gradually. Therefore, consistencies lead to quick thinking in scenarios, such as living in another country or speaking with a language-speaking group.

The incremental rewards may not be as fulfilling, however maybe it is not the small rewards that would motivate someone to go through seemingly infinite levels. Rather, it is that nearly mythological reward that never was. Maybe it is the reward within one’s own mind that motivates those level-grindings.

Or maybe the grind is itself the reward.

And if the grind is itself the reward, then it would stand to reason that the stories that follow these grinds are the byproducts. Therefore, that reward-in-itself when it pertains language would probably be the identity one acquires when speaking another person’s language. That identity springs from the story of struggle and repeated attempts to try-try-try again ad infinitum.

The video game map theory might be beneficial to Johnny Harris himself and his language-learning methodology; however I find it too simplistic. Perhaps it is because language acquisition is itself not a simplistic learning process. It involves rigid discipline, but also a carefree sense of fun. It involves realism with a side of fancy. Language-learning can definitely be a confusing endeavor; but it can be a labor of love.


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