When learning a foreign language, there are numerous methods of study available to the student, such as formal classes, textbooks, and online programs and resources. Full immersion in the country whose language you’re studying is widely regarded as the best and most effective approach, but of course not everyone is equipped with the funds or means necessary for living abroad. One professor, however, has found a way to give his students access to an immersive language environment without the requirement of travel, foreign or otherwise, through the use of Minecraft.
Even if you’ve never played Minecraft, you probably either know someone who does or has at least heard of it. Minecraft is the wildly popular sandbox indie game created by Swedish developer Mojang. It’s a world-building game with no real goals or purpose, and has been described as “a cross between Legos, the Sims, Night of the Living Dead, and Dwarf Fortress.” It is also known for its seemingly limitless potential for creativity and imagination. To give you some examples, in creative mode users have built everything from the Tower of Babel to King’s Landing, the capital city from Game of Thrones, with many of these recreations constructed to scale.
James York, an English professor at a Japanese university and Ph.D. student researching language acquisition in virtual worlds, was inspired by his own experiences learning Japanese from participating in a Japanese World of Warcraft guild. Through research he has found a way to apply the world of Minecraft to real-life language study. What’s perfect about Minecraft is that learning how to play the game is reminiscent of learning a new language: the mechanics are very simple to start and build gradually over time, becoming more difficult and complex. Simple controls also make it perfect for any student to use. According to York, another advantage to Minecraft classrooms is the element of “[l]earning by dying. Simply put – games offer feedback loops that show/punish you when you do something wrong. And people are more likely to take risks and get things wrong when playing a game than they are in a classroom.” (You can check out James York’s full interview with Tofugu here.)
York originally started the private Minecraft server, nicknamed “Mining English,” for his Japanese university students as a means for them to interact with English speakers online and practice their conversation skills. Unfortunately, after the end of semester his Japanese students lost interest and stopped using the program, but the English-speakers the students had been interacting with remained, eager to learn more Japanese. As a result, “Mining English” transitioned to “Kotoba Miners,” a virtual Japanese language classroom.
York teaches several classes a year in Kotoba Miners, applying the lesson content in the Genki textbooks to his custom-designed virtual campus with the ultimate goal of getting his students to the JLPT N5 level. Within the world the students are given practical tasks with real-life applications. Many of the activities involve the students comparing their experiences upon completion, meaning that every student is required to speak the language during class time. The greatest benefit to Kotoba Miners is that anybody anywhere in the world can participate; all you need is a Minecraft account and the TeamSpeak program, which allows students to actively communicate with each other.
Although York is one of the first to use the world of Minecraft as a Japanese language classroom, the game has actually been used as an educational tool for some time now in schools worldwide, especially when facilitated through the projectMinecraftEdu. The project uses the collaboration of educators and Mojang programmers with the intended purpose of engaging students in learning while also satisfying their desires to play. The program includes custom mods, world-building tools and easy-to-use software, enabling teachers to create custom lesson plans within the world of Minecraft.
Classrooms in countries all over the world are using this game-turned-educational-tool. Most recently, there was a news story about how the government of Denmark (specifically the Danish Geodata Agency) recreated the entire country of Denmark in the world of Minecraft. The map was built at a 1:1 scale and was intended to be used as a teaching tool…that was almost immediately invaded and bombed by American tanks and flags. (This is why we can’t have nice things.)
There is great potential for the use of Minecraft in a school setting and it will be interesting to see the evolution of the game in the education sphere over time, specifically in regards to language learning. If you’re interested in signing up for Kotoba Miners, check out the sign-up guide here.