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Digital games to overcome barriers in second language acquisition

Did you know that playing games can help with learning a second language? No matter the age, most people love playing games. What better way to learn something new than through a medium that is fun and rewarding and promotes exploration and curiosity.

Technology is an inseparable part of our life. Blogs, wikis, podcasting, social networking, video and photo sharing and playing computer games are just some examples of the technologies we interact with on a daily basis. However, the education system in many countries has not yet been adapted to accommodate the technological changes in society and students are bored with traditional teaching methods. This has resulted in a disconnection between learners and learning systems. The educational value of games has been long since been recognized (Lee, 1979), however, a growing interest in the pedagogical use of digital games has only been seen in the recent years.

Willingness to communicate in second language

Studies show that different characteristics of serious games can help second language teachers create an environment for their students to improve their willingness to communicate. Willingness to communicate is a fundamental goal in second language learning and increases the possibility that learners transfer these new skills outside of the classroom (Reinders and Wattana, 2011). Studies show that there is a direct relationship between willingness to communicate and the likelihood of students improving their second language skills, particularly productive skills.

According to second language researchers, learners who communicate with a second language more frequently, have a greater potential to develop language proficiency. However, willingness to communicate in the second language can be affected negatively by such things as anxiety, shyness and lack of self-confidence during evaluations and speaking in front of a group. Therefore, it is very important for second language teachers to remove any barriers in order to improve willingness to communicate among students (Reinders and Wattana, 2011).

Gaming is fun and motivating

Given that games are considered by players as fun and engaging, they create a low anxiety environment for players. Players like communicating in a gaming environment because it allows them to communicate without anxiety or embarrassment (Reinders and Wattana, 2011). Engagement and motivation are key elements of playing the game. If players are confused about a game quest, they are increasingly willing to communicate with other players in order to overcome game challenges and to move on to the next level. This Interaction between players emphasizes the value of communication and gives them an immediate sense of achievement (Rienders and Wattana, 2014).

In multi-player serious games, communication is even more critical since it is key to winning the game. Players are more willing to engage in communication by using the vocabulary and the grammar that they have already learned in the class. Moreover, players have the chance to correct the linguistic mistakes of other players during the game.

Chatting during the game

Chat is a motivating tool which increases students’ willingness to communicate. Players use text chat more than voice chat while playing serious games (Reinder & Wattana, 2011). Players have enough time to read each other’s text messages and prepare their own answers. Most of the players produce a greater amount of language output, experience more intrinsic motivation to communicate in the second language and less anxiety about communication using chat while playing a serious game (Reinders and Wattana, 2014). Once players use text chat to communicate with other players, it helps them to feel more prepared and confident to communicate in the second language and as a result willing to participate orally in the classroom. Text chat communication also motivates students, who are shy in face to face communication, to participate in communication and express themselves while playing serious games (Reinders and Wattana, 2011).

Psychologically secure environment

Second language learners who are in good psychological condition are more likely to concentrate on language learning, communicate in a second language, accomplish a task, receive comprehensible input and acquire the second language (Reinders and Wattana, 2015). Therefore, a psychologically secure environment is required to reduce negative barriers (Aoki, 1999). Serious games provide this type of secure environment. Players are less conscious of themselves while playing a game, thus they don’t feel embarrassed or anxious about making mistakes in communication. This increases student enthusiasm, lowers anxiety and improves willingness to communicate (Reinders and Wattana, 2011). Serious games let the students make mistakes and learn while having fun throughout the game play.


Games which allow players to choose an avatar and associated name helps reduce anxiety. Since players don’t have to face other players directly, they worry less about getting embarrassed when making mistakes. Therefore, they are more encouraged to communicate in the second language with other players while playing the game (Reinders and Wattana, 2015).

So, now that we are aware of the educational value of digital games in learning a second language, let’s think about adding them to course curriculums!

This blog post was written by Hoda Izadnia, a graduate student from the Masters of Educational Technology program at Université de Laval who completed an internship in Teaching and Learning Services (TLS).


Aoki, N. (1999). Affect and the role of teachers in the development of learner autonomy.

In J. Arnold (Ed.), Affect in language learning (pp. 142-154). Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.

Reinders, H., & Wattana, S. (2011). Learn English or die: The effects of digital games on interaction and willingness to communicate in a foreign language. 26.

Reinders, H., & Wattana, S. (2014). Can I Say Something? The Effects of Digital Gameplay on Willingness to Communicate. Language Learning, 23.

Reinders, H., & Wattana, S. (2015). Affect and willingness to communicate in digital game-based learning. ReCALL, 27(01), 38‑57.

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