Why Playing Is an Important Part of Language Learning​

My memories of language lessons in Finland (and having studied four languages, there were quite a few) mostly include endless vocabulary lists and memorising grammar rules. Fun? Yeah, not really. Yet my love for languages and communication was so strong I became a linguist and a language teacher.

My studies and work experience in the UK opened up many new doors for me. It also opened my eyes to a whole new approach to language learning (and teaching): what if learning a language was so much fun, you’d forget you were learning? Children learn languages more easily than adults and although there are many reasons for this, one explanation is that children do not worry about making mistakes or embarrassing themselves. They may not be able to use learning strategies like adults, but they seem to acquire languages without any.

Therefore, I started to wonder how I could create a similar learning experience for adults. In the UK, communicative approaches are usually considered to be the most effective ways to teach languages. Often it is enough to get the student discussing topics they are interested in, as the language becomes a tool for sharing their thoughts and experiences. But often it is necessary to take a step further: playing communicative games or roleplaying do wonders with students.

Acquiring a new role helps the students to shift their focus from simply the structure of a language to using it for a communicative purpose. It also gives the students the opportunity to be more creative with the language and to use it in new ways. They can practise negotiation skills or become shop-keepers and politicians.

Not only is this often more useful than learning grammar rules by heart, it’s likely to be more motivating. In learning, positive experiences are crucial for motivation. Of course, learning isn’t always just fun and can require a lot of effort. But, learning any language should be about acquiring the ability to communicate with people which should, in most cases, be enjoyable.

I see my role primarily as a motivator and a creator of language learning opportunities. The students will hopefully carry those good memories and the knowledge gained through them for years to come. And, as a bonus, I get to see many happy faces and there are a few giggles in it for me as well.  

Blog post by Salla Hänninen, a TEDxOtaniemi volunteer