It is true that young learners who are already playing Minecraft have no problem playing the game. However, will they be able to understand how the server works and gameplay expectations if they cannot read the information provided by the server and server members without resorting to translation tools? Will they be able to interact/communicate effectively in L2 with other players in-game if their linguistic competence is low or next to none? Do we learn a language by simply interacting with competent speakers of the target language? If what learners need to learn a language is “only” to have access to English, is there actually a need for language schools/programs/teachers to exist? 🙄 Do we need to even discuss pedagogical principles and strategies if we want to use it with our students? How is Minecraft as a teaching and learning space different from a physical in-person classroom, LMS or a conference room (Zoom, Google Meet, etc.)?
Imagine this scenario: You have a group of A1 students, you may or may not speak their L1. Your students know a lot about Minecraft in their L1, but they do not know how to say what they know in English. Some might know a few words related to in-game blocks, actions, items, etc. but they can’t produce sentences like “follow me, please.”, “I need to eat.” and “I want to build a house here.” by themselves in oral or written conversations. You, on the other hand, have just gained some gaming skills. Enough to move around in-world, build and survive but you haven’t fully mastered the vocabulary in-game and don’t know what pedagogical approach to apply but you think Minecraft is great to promote language practice and you decide to invite your English learners to “freely play together” during one of your classes.
Here are some reflection questions. Take a moment to reflect on them considering the scenario above.
- If the teacher can speak their L1, do you think the interaction between the teacher-students, and students-students in scenario 1 would be totally/partially/not at all in English?
- If students share the same L1 and the teacher doesn’t, would the interaction between students be in L1 or L2 during the play session?
- Should the teacher know most of the vocabulary related to Minecraft to be able to enhance learners linguistic repertoire and develop their communicative competence while playing in Minecraft?
- How would the teacher help learners move from using L1 to L2 during play sessions?
Now let’s move on to a second scenario. 👉 Same students, but this time teacher has not only developed enough gaming skills but also knows well how to interact in Minecraft and talk about most features of the game.
In this scenario, students still need to learn L2 and the language teacher is ready to use Minecraft. The question is not anymore whether language learning can be promoted through Minecraft. The question now is HOW!
Minecraft is indeed a powerful tool; however, we need to take this discussion to a pedagogical practical level in order to show concrete examples. Only by working with “real” L2 language learners in different stages of L2 language development and investigating our practice, we will be able to move from assumptions of what it should and should not be done when integrating Minecraft in our practice with pur language learners, we will be able to fully support other teachers. This is my own mission with Minecraft. I aim to unveil how it best can be applied according to the context and who the students are.
GROWING UP WITH ENGLISH: AN ANECDOTE
My son Emanuel was born in an English-rich environment, not English-speaking country. We spoke to him in English since he was born as 90% of the activities we carried out in our house was in English. When he started to speak, I would read to him and play in English every day. Keep in mind also that I have a degree in Early Childhood Education and during every interaction, it was hard for me not to apply strategies to enhance his linguistic and cognitive competences as he would have been exposed to if he were enrolled in a good nursery school. Soon later, he would not only watch children shows in English but also use apps and play games in English. We never let him unattended while using technology. He started becoming more independent at the age of 6. Before that, either me or his dad would interact with him during technology usage and he would use it for a certain amount of time. He loved playing with Lego. English was his default language as my husband and his older sibblings who spoke English as L2 started to communicate with him mostly in English. At the age of 5, when he went to pre-school, his Portuguese level was barely A1. Teachers were really worried as he didn’t seem to understand what they were saying. In the following year, my husband started tutoring him to support him in his academic needs. Until 9, he would refuse to speak in Portuguese with me or even read a book in Portuguese together. By that time, English had become the main language in our house. My husband took the responsibility of facilitating his homework and helping him develop his linguistic repertoire in Portuguese but he really took it seriously when he was in 3rd grade. That was when he realized that he was falling behind in his academic development and couldn’t really talk to his peers about things he was passionated about. Until he started making friends at school, he hadn’t really think that Portuguese was important. I know! Weird, right? Living in Brazil and thinking that Portuguese is not that important! At the age of 10, now in 5th grade, he manages his school work well and do the assignments by himself. I’ve worked with him to develop strategies to compensate for his lack of vocabulary and his grades are great. However, there is a huge gap between what he can do linguistically in English and Portuguese, especially now that he only receives assignments through Google Classroom and doesn’t have the chance to interact with other kids in Portuguese. He is very competent though in designing, planning, presenting his ideas, mentoring others etc in English. Due to his low linguistic ability in Portuguese, he can’t do any of these well in Portuguese.
An example of what Emanuel can do in English and in Roblox.
So, how much active exposure to a language is needed for young learners to become a highly competent user of a given language by the age of 10? Let’s also not forget that some kids at this age could be spending lots of time online watching useless videos on Youtube and playing less demanding games. I have to constantly check what Emanuel is watching or doing online and if I see that he is wasting his time, I kindly remind him to focus on more interesting videos and games, discuss interest things with him and give him plenty of space for him to tell me about his discoveries.
MINECRAFT PLAYER versus BEING A LANGUAGE LEARNER IN MINECRAFT
When we first started our classes (August, 2020) she knew almost everything about the game in L1, but she only knew a few words in English (colors, numbers, the most common word in Minecraft: zombie!) It took her 4 months of 2 hours per week of mediated language learning in Minecraft to develop her ability to interact in-game in English. It has been 8 months since we started our learning play sessions. She had one2one lessons for 5 months, a break for summer vacation of a month and 2 more months with another student included in the class. Every strategy used during the one2one classes was selected/decided according to her needs. Classes ran for 2 hours a week, sometimes a bit more, totally dedicated to improve her conversational skills in Minecraft and for her to gain vocabulary. She moved from barely understanding anything she heard to being able to interact in oral as well as written conversations as you can see in the gallery show below. I still remember when she couldn’t use “have”, “show”, “give”, “teleport”, “build” or “can” in the present time. In fact, only less than a month, she has started using “can” correctly in questions. I always tell my students that learning a language is 50/50 percent effort. I create the conditions for them to learn, continually assess their progress and define strategies for them to keep improving, but they also need to do their own 50% part by engaging, being curious, willing to use the language, do the language assignments, etc..
My own experience as a proficient Minecraft player: Entering a Chinese server for the first time as an adult with A2 level of reading and writing in Mandarin Chinese.
咕咕服 server is a very active server! Players exchange lots of messages in-game and I can read them in Discord. It will definitely be a great source for authentic reading. I have a notebook ready for noting down all the interesting phrases I will learn by studying the chat log. As you have seen in the gallery show above, there were a lot of displayed texts in-game, but I couldn’t understand most of it. I didn’t even try to go back and forth translating it as that would have been really boring. So, I decided to ask for help as I was completly lost of where to go from the spawn area and what the expectations were. I realized, after taking the screenshot, that the way I asked for help was totally wrong. 😜 Once I died, someone teleported to me and used English to give me some pointers, show me the way out of the spawn area and gave me also some food and tools. Once I knew what I could do and where I could build, off I went to find myself a nice spot. During the interaction, I did not realize that I had chosen the wrong character for the word “Chinese language” when I talked about being a learner of Chinese. The other player recasted using the correct character. In fact, I just realized it while reading the interaction again after I left the game. That said, during the interaction, we are so absorbed in interacting or dealing with any issue at that moment of playing that we don’t see our own errors/mistakes or pay attention to the recast if the error is not explicitly pointed out which is not very different when we are talking to someone in a party, at the park, the supermarket or in a fluency task in class. Is it?
For young learners, beginning to learn another language at the age of 9/10, they would be able to talk about their buildings, negotiate with friends what to do in Minecraft, give tutorials and survive together in L1, but definitely not in L2. They would need to develop their linguistic skills to up to L2 to be able to interact in real time and continue developing it intentionally.
So my recommendation to teachers interested in Minecraft is to first of all remember that your learners are learners of English and you still need to plan out intentionally their learning experiences according to their linguistic level in L2. Be realistic of what they can and can’t do … otherwise, it is just playing Minecraft for the sake of playing, not developing their L2 language competence. Even in a free play session and even if their level allow them to interact in English, teachers will still need to define what kind of strategies they will use to mediate when students make mistakes, how their linguistic repertoire will be enhanced, etc. Plus, literacy is important even in L1, that said that learning to speak your L1 does not mean you will be a competent user of the language. We still need to develop ourselves throughout our lives to be able to operate in academic and professional contexts.