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Automatic English For The People

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Lessons From Video Games

by AJ

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Educators can learn a lot from video games. Good video games are, in fact, highly addictive learning experiences. The novice player is guided through ever-increasing levels of difficulty and challenge. This process is full of "failures"- ie. death, loss, etc. And yet, most gamers LOVE the experience. A failure in a video game is seen as a learning experience and a challenge.

Contrast this to the typical English class. How many schools treat "failures" as positive (and fun!) learning experiences and challenges? And thus, how many students have this viewpoint? In school, failure is a terrible, humiliating, and shameful thing.

What's more, students are rarely given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. The worst example of this I ever encountered was at Thammasat University. Instructors were not allowed to review the answers to a test after it had been graded. We could not go through the test and help the students understand the correct answers. The test was not a learning tool, it was a weapon for degrading students and boosting the authority of the university & teachers.

Another important aspect of video game learning is that learning occurs in "sub domains". The "domain" is the "real" environment- in this case, the full scale, normal level of the game. Novice game players rarely use an instruction manual-- perhaps they scan a small pamphlet to see how the controls work- but that's usually all.

Rather, most games come with built in learner scenarios that match the full game quite closely. For example, in the American Football Game "Madden 2006", the novice can play scrimmage games, practice plays against a "practice squad", or play full games in "novice mode". The important point is that the training module closely resembles the full game dynamics- only its simpler and easier. The gamer learns by actually doing.

English schools are exactly the opposite. Schools are obsessed with manuals, ie. textbooks. Students spend the bulk of their time reading the manual, studying the manual, memorizing the manual, discussing the manual, and being tested on the manual. This is learning by analysis, not doing. In fact, many students will spend 3, 4, 5, 6, or more years studying English manuals without ever really "playing" with authentic English-- without ever really communicating.

The English school is NOT a subdomain of the real environment (an English language speaking environment). The English school and manual have almost no resemblance to the environment in which the student actually hopes to perform. And so we see the same sad story again and again-- students who have "studied" English for 6 years, but can barely communicate beyond "How are you? I'm fine, and you?"

As teachers, we should be doing a MUCH better job. We should create English learning environments that closely resemble the real English environments that students will perform in.

Most students say that conversation and verbal communication are their most important goals. They want to be able to talk to native speakers (and other foreigners) in a clear and confident manner. They want to understand native speakers, and be understood by them. Writing excellence, TOEFL scores, and special interests (ie. Business English, English for Scientists) usually come after the most important goal- the ability to communicate in everyday spoken English.

So how should we be teaching these students? In English language education, what constitutes a subdomain? In other words, how can we create learning modules that are simpler and easier, but which still closely approximate the real English environment students plan to operate in?

Of course, there are many answers. But I've got one-- Real conversations. No more scripted dialogues. No more idiotic actors reading textbook English. No more grammar analysis, isolated vocabulary wordlists, linguistic terminology, textbooks, exams, grades, humiliation, or mindless drills.

Real conversations. This is why I've decided to launch a website for students-- to provide REAL conversations, by REAL people (not actors), talking about their REAL lives. Unscripted, unplanned, natural conversations from everyday life. Step two is to make these conversations simpler and easier for the student- which I will do by providing full transcripts and a learning guide for each conversation. The guide won't use any linguist terminology- just the simplest explanations or synonyms possible (and for Japanese students- the simplest translation).

This is a much closer approximation of the real life English environment in which students will perform-- but made easier and simpler. Recordings also provide another benefit- for just like a videogame, they can be played over and over again. If the learner "fails" to understand the first time, its no problem. They just play it again.

Week by week, I will build my library of real conversations. I've been recording phone calls with my sister, my mom, and my friends. I carry a small digital recorder everywhere I go now- and likewise record chats with friends and strangers.

As I transcribe these, I've been very surprised. Actually typing out the conversations word for word makes me see just how different these real conversations are from the dialogues you see in textbooks. They are totally different. The truth is, no one talks the way the textbook tapes do. No one. So why are we teaching students this nonsense?

Unfortunately, these ideas are hard to use in schools. I've encountered nothing but resistance and denial at every school I've worked at. The rules are too entrenched. The attitudes too rigid. Schools are the worst possible places to innovate. The administrators are mostly focused on keeping everything and everyone under control, following the rules, doing what has always been done. Teachers are mostly focused on preserving their perceived control, power, and influence. Both groups are utterly enthralled with the textbook industry and can't imagine a class without grammar points, long vocabulary lists, "communication drills", dialogues, tests, and grades.

And so, I feel the internet is the best possible place to both "teach" and learn a language. Nowadays, with the wealth of authentic material available, with online dictionaries and portable software dictionaries, with podcasts, with learning systems like The Linguist, with Skype, with Amazon.com-- there is simply no reason to waste time and money on a traditional language school.

My short advice to students is this: Don't waste your money on a school. Do it yourself!

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