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Gamification in Foreign Language Learning

Authored By: 
Daniel Shabasson, Spanish teacher

Gamification, in plain English, means turning learning into a game. Take the popular foreign language learning app Duolingo for example. Duolingo makes language learning fun, turning it into a sort of video game. When students do well, they win virtual prizes (gems). They compete against other users of the app and get ranked based on their performance. They can make it into the “obsidian league” if they rock the game, or even into the “diamond league” if they’re one of the best that day. Virtual characters cheer for them if they get a perfect score on a round or are promoted to the next level of difficulty. Users get a little dopamine hit every time they get an answer correct. I find Duolingo to be an exciting, fun, efficient, and even addictive way to strengthen skills, and I encourage my students to use it. In short, gamification motivates and engages adolescent (and adult) learners of foreign languages in its own wonderful way.

Obviously, an app like Duolingo cannot replace a Spanish language classroom experience for language learning. The app does not explain grammar, and it does not allow students to practice speaking to a teacher or to their classmates in the language. 

If I could, I would love to assign Duolingo for homework instead of written exercises that are less engaging. How great it would be if homework were Spanish could be doing 30 minutes of Duolingo a day. The problem is that is that Duolingo is not aligned with the vocabulary and grammar I teach in my class.  And I cannot align my teaching with Duolingo because it is not set up to follow the morphological acquisition order, the systematic introduction of vocabulary and grammar that follows the order in which children naturally learn a language as native speakers. Most good textbooks follow this order, but textbooks do not come with an app like Duolingo. Another problem with apps like Duolingo is that they are not aligned with Common Core standards and often omit instruction on culture. 

Ideally, what we need is a version of Duolingo or some similar app that follows the morphological acquisition order and includes culture. Even better, the app could be set up so each teacher could customize it to reflect their own lesson plan structure or to align it with a particular textbook. Hopefully, the private sector will develop a great app. If not, perhaps the federal government could find the funds to do so.