Catching Up with Language Play


I’ve been reading and thinking about play in language learning lately, with an interest both intuitive and intellectual. Before going much farther, I should make a few distinctions clear. The first is that I don’t mean the observation of and analysis of play in a foreign language, but rather performed play. This post is only going to examine the latter. Similarly, I’m going to discuss externally focused language play, putting this post more under the aegis of Cook rather than Lantolf (links below). I don’t discount the importance of intrapersonal language play, but my intent is to make connections with what Yale language lectors are doing or could be doing in the classroom to introduce an element of play. Finally, many writings have recognized a difference between playing in the target language (pragmatic play) and playing with it (form-based); this distinction is not always as neat as the others, and this post will talk about both.


Many years ago, I was intrigued to note the existence of a short book dedicated to the proposition that all the best of human culture was or originated in play. Homo Ludens, by Johan Huizinga, is a fascinating read — albeit with some dated attitudes toward cultures outside the West — that made the revolutionary assertion that play is an end in itself and is a worthy subject for scholarly inquiry. While this inquiry was taken up in some quarters (see, for instance, 1959 and 1968 issues of Yale French Studies), it was largely ignored in second language acquisition research.

In the 1990s, the discussion started to blossom, with writing of note from Claire Kramsch and Patricia Sullivan in 1996, Guy Cook in 1997, and Jim Lantolf in 1997 (in Ana Pérez Leroux), as well as Eileen Tarone’s presentation at the 1999 Second Language Research Forum. The Cook article turned out to be particularly significant, as he expanded and deepened it into a book of the same title (Language Play, Language Learning) that received the MLA’s Mildenberger prize in 1999. Since the publication of and accolades for the Cook book, studies on language play in language acquisition, teaching, and learning have greatly increased in number. Maggie Broner and Eileen Tarone (expanding on Tarone’s SLRF paper) in 2001, Julie Belz in 2002, Chan Warner in 2004, Cade Bushnell in 2007, and Ilona Vandergriff and Carolin Fuchs in 2009, among others, have added to our understanding of the value of language play in language learning and teaching.

Coincidentally, in that same time, video games have become a cultural force, so it’s worth noting a number of papers exploring their value for language learning. To pick a few, there are writings by Todd Bryant (2006); Yolanda Rankin, Rachel Gold, and Bruce Gooch (2006); and Steve Thorne (2008). In fact, many pieces by Thorne are worth reading from a language play perspective, particularly those with frequent collaborator Julie Sykes (2008, also with Ana Oskoz; 2009, also with Rebecca Black; 2010, also with Jonathan Reinhardt). In turn, Sykes has written on gaming and games in language learning (two pieces forthcoming in 2011) and has, with Christopher Holden, created a “mobile, place-based, augmented reality game” for Spanish learning. The jury’ still out on whether video games per se contribute to language acquisition, though there are strong indications that they can incubate factors for it.

Pulling back to a broader level, I’ll mention that I found the Cook book through a Claire Kramsch mention of the importance of language play in her Mildenberger prize–winning The Multilingual Subject. Yet more broadly, a colleague recommended the work of James Paul Gee as well as Ute Ritterfeld’s Serious Games for good reading on games in learning in general. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that while I have had other recommendations for Gee’s work, I have not read any of it, nor any Ritterfeld.)

Classroom Implementation Possibilities

As touched on by Cook (p. 36), practical necessity prevents considering the universe of fictions and other unrealities we create or perform. After all, language students in a classroom are self-evidently not in a ‘real’ situation, right? Looking more narrowly, with the models proposed by Huizinga, Roger Caillois, and Cook in mind, how can language play be incorporated thoughtfully into the classroom? To start at the very beginning (a very good place to start), you’ll need to ask yourself some important questions: What do you hope your students get out of language play? Are you going to measure that? (What are the stakes?) What are the students’ abilities and proclivities as concerns language play? (Keep in mind that play may bring forth hidden abilities or personality aspects.) What sort of scale of play can you consider?

Beyond general evaluation of your aims and your students’ capacities in anticipation of introducing or advancing language play, it is worthwhile to reflect on your students’ “off-task” language, as did Bushnell in his 2007 study. He noted ways in which beginning Japanese learners’ off-task language nonetheless made use of target concepts and vocabulary. Perhaps what your students are saying to fill gaps, save face, or make an exercise more enjoyable would provide an avenue for your exploration. Similarly, step back and take a look at the elements of your course(s) to see whether there are existing pieces that could be adapted for or nudged toward language play. Slight changes may allow you to compare outcomes between situations avoiding play and those fostering or requiring it.

How about some more specifics? A game I have always appreciated is the cadavre exquis, in which each writer in a group creates a short narrative block that must connect to the previous writer’ block. The catch is that each writer is only permitted to see some fraction of (down to and including none of) the previous narrative block, resulting in all likelihood in an absurd or surreal story. Such a game can (within reason) scale from beginning students, who might only write a sentence or two, through more advanced ones, who might write more extensively. With the contemporary ease of multimedia recording, this structure could also be applied to audio, video, or still images with or without captions. Another source for inspiration is improv comedy. Improv groups at Yale have long used the word-at-a-time-story, the acronym game, the gibberish expert, and other forms of pair or group narrative construction in their shows. Like the cadavre exquis, the implementation of these games can be massaged to be challenging for different levels of students; unlike the cadavre exquis, improv games lend themselves easily to competition. As a last implementation example, I’ll crib from The New Yorker and suggest captioning striking artwork. In their version, they (naturally) use cartoons from their stable of artists, but it can also be done with journalistic photography or even with re-subtitling movies. This game scales well along the axes of abilities, cultural knowledge, competition, and time, allowing for a project that could last over the course of a semester as a weekly or biweekly assignment. Note in all cases that language play does not necessarily incorporate humor: Mark Knowles has quoted Jacques Bourgeacq as saying, Rien n’est plus serieux que le jeu. (Nothing is more serious than a game.)

Implementation Examples at Yale

Finally, to give you some examples of your colleagues at work, I’ll mention some ways Yale language lectors are using or have used playing in and with language. One common use of language play is in the performance of artistic creations, whether fictional or nonfictional, original or adapted from a text used in the course. Monica Georgeo’s students in her “Theater Practicum: Pirandello” study and stage a play in Italian each spring. Similarly, Julia Titus has worked with students in Russian to perform Chekhov. Many instructors, including Michael Farina in Italian and Shiri Goren and Dina Roginsky in Modern Hebrew, have had students create short films. Finally, Indriyo Sukmono of Indonesian is creating with his students a global simulation of an Indonesian café. (For more on global simulations, look at Francis Debyser’s creation, L’Immeuble, or Nicole Mills’s discussion of her digital global simulation [PDF] using Facebook.)

Another handy avenue for exploring language play is the world of games. As noted above, there has been some recent investigation of the place of video games, but games in general have a longstanding place in language learning. Scrabble seems to be a popular game at Yale, perhaps for obvious reasons, most publicly in the annual Scarabeo night for Italian; a version adding the ability to build words vertically has been used in the past in beginning Modern Hebrew, along with an Israeli version of Monopoly and even basic card games for number learning. This year in beginning Modern Hebrew, Dina and TA Amit Ashkenazy have used online typing games to build students’ multilingual computing abilities.

Lastly, I want to highlight two sophisticated academic debate groups on campus. First, there is the Chinese debate team, coached by Wei Su and winner of the non-native speakers category of the 2007 International Varsity Debate competition in Beijing. To make it to that summit, they defeated teams from Columbia, Princeton, and Oxford, inter alia. Second, there is Seema Khurana’s annual Hindi debate competition, which has grown in three years from including only Yale students to being the final of a competition among students from multiple schools and receiving a mention in the Times of India. Though Cook, for instance, does not discuss debate per se, it seems to me to be an outstanding example of language play, incorporating competition, creation of fictional worlds, and a careful semantic focus.

I am quite sure there are many more examples at Yale of language play in language learning, so please discuss yours in the comments! In addition, I’m very interested in your thoughts on some questions surrounding accessing language play in language teaching and learning: Does language play ever become a distraction? How do you know? That is, does unencouraged play become bad disruption? Should you assess language play? How? (What about setting a personal goal of engendering language play in your class? How would you set this goal and mark your progress toward it?) Does mediating language teaching and learning with technology change the nature of language play? How?

My appreciation to all the instructors who informed me about their language play efforts and to Purple Crayon of Yale alumni Greg Pak and Mike Everett-Lane for jogging my memory about improv games.

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