minecraftThere are many who claim that the over-dependence of our society today on gaming and online socialising is a scourge on both the written and verbal language, and yet it would appear that the use of digital media has actually enhanced the learning of languages. A number of smartphone applications and online tools are now used to facilitate the learning of additional languages, and in a clever move Minecraft is also being used in language education.

Minecraft was originally designed by Swedish programmer Markus Persson. The game quickly developed and was published by Mojang; it can now be enjoyed across a number of devices, from laptops and PCs to games consoles and tablets. The game itself allows users to build any number of structures and constructions using textured building blocks. This sounds simple enough, rather like a digital alternative to Lego; however, the game is much more advanced with players having the ability to create circuits, build working machines and, of course, blow things up.

The intense popularity of this cult indie game could not have been foreseen, with children as young as five enjoying it alongside grown men and women.

An English teacher and PhD language student, James York, has taken his own language and learning research a step further than most by using Minecraft to teach the Japanese language online. Using a dedicated Minecraft server, York’s class (who call themselves the Kotoba Miners) utilise a number of different structures within the server and their Minecraft world to learn valuable language skills, comprehension and more.

For example, one structure named the Ice Palace gives students the opportunity to communicate in Japanese so that they may successfully move around a number of pressure plates without error. Making a mistake and stepping on the wrong plate would cause a virtual explosion, “killing” the character that would then need to start again. Another structure cleverly incorporates a number of language exercises into the game play, which encourages York’s students to speak and read Japanese as a group.

York told interviewers that he became interested in online methods of language learning after joining a Japanese server to play World of Warcraft in 2006. He had explored a number of online games and virtual worlds but found the majority too unpredictable, harder to control and not as private or as easy to manipulate into a learning tool as Minecraft.

While it is certainly true that the use of text speak, social media and gaming language has infiltrated into everyday speech and writing, no-one can deny that the use of platforms such as Minecraft offers students unique opportunities when it comes to learning languages.

The number of established learning styles has grown in recent years with more and more people looking to take advantage of modern technologies to encourage others to learn languages. York’s innovative method of using a globally recognised and popular game platform could be just the beginning of a whole new revolution in online language courses.

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