Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bilingualism as a game: "Congratulations! You just learned 1,000 words and advanced to the world of Quasi-Italiano"

I am by no means a gamer. However, I understand the general scheme that, in video games, you train to learn a skill, and then put that skill into practice in the world of the game. To advance, you must use what you have learned in order to overcome obstacles, often also through interaction with others. Essentially, as you play the game, you are continually strategizing, problem-solving, communicating, and acquiring new information that helps you along. In short, you are learning.

In the game of bilingualism -at least, in the case of the sequential bilingual living in the cultural-linguistic environment of the second language (e.g., me at the moment)- you may receive some prior training: lexical (vocabulary), morphosyntactic (grammar), and discourse (text-level) skills. This likely occurs in a classroom, where you have a chance to practice your skills in a controlled, safe, and -hopefully- supportive environment. However, as in a game, without authentic application and interaction, the language skills you can acquire in the "training" context of the classroom are limited.

Thus, as prepared or unprepared as you may feel, the best way to become skilled in a language is to be launched into the world of the game: the real-life application of your language and communication skills. As in a game, if you use your skills successfully and continue to learn more, you will advance: Successfully ordered breakfast: 100 points! Correctly understood directions to the train stations: 100 points! Survived a phone conversation to make a hotel reservation: 500 points!

Eventually, you accumulate enough linguistic experiences ("points") to advance to a new level/world of the bilingual game. Here, you become engaged in different and more challenging activities: e.g., teaching a class, giving a presentation, having a serious conversation about immigration policies. The game continues, you continue learning, and continue to advance. However, there are challenges along the way. Advancing through the first couple of levels may be easy, but then, you may get stuck in a level, feeling unable to advance, even after playing for a seemingly long time. Sometimes you might even have to go backwards.

Looking at bilingualism through a gaming metaphor helps explain the uneven nature of language acquisition. I have mentioned this previously. At times, one seems to advance just a little, suddenly advance quite a bit, get stuck on a plateau, or even take a few steps backward. Part of the reason for this is internal: i.e., the cognitive processes involved in language acquisition. Part of it is also external. As in the game, the bilingual, living in the authentic context of the new language, is continually faced with new linguistic challenges. It takes practice to figure out how to deal with these challenges effectively. The more experience you have, the easier it gets. Still, new challenges may always arise!

After a month and a half in Italy, I noticed a few days ago that I had advanced to the next level of the bilingual game. From one day to the next, I heard my speech sounding a bit more fluent. More importantly, while I am still making errors (of course!), speaking Italian suddenly became less effortful. Understanding, as well, and also learning new words. I can remember them much more easily now, without having to write them down. It was as if the phonological system of Italian suddenly came into clearer focus in my mind.

A couple of days after this realization, I, for the first time, felt comfortable putting myself into a social situation where I would have to do some interpreting: Italian-English and vice versa. Before last week, I had been generally avoiding those situations, as just speaking Italian was exhausting enough by itself. Fortunately, I managed the interpretation, and then spent the rest of the day with an Italian speaking friend. Happily, I was not tired at the end of the day.

Of course, after celebrating my advancement to the next level of the bilingual game, I encountered a new challenge: communicating with children and facilitating some activities in an after school program. Oh my… apparently this is the next obstacle in my game. However, unlike a game, language acquisition is never complete. We can always learn more, even in our native language. Thus, the game continues… new skills,  new interactions, new problems to solve, and new cultural-linguistic worlds of communication. I am thrilled to be a player!

For more on video games and learning, check out James Paul Gee's video. As you listen, consider how the game constructs he discusses apply not just to learning in general, but to learning another language. 

1 comment:

  1. Great post...And I love the video you posted at the end!