This may not seem all that obvious, but it’s true. Learning a second language is a lot like playing – and beating – a great video game.
No, it isn’t going to require some amazing dexterity, and no, it isn’t going to feature any bright, flashy lights every time you get to the next level.
It is, however, going to feature a lot of the same thought processes and “leveling up” structures that keep us engaged and learning new things.
Why the Video Game Metaphor?
Because video games are encapsulated learning systems. A good video game challenges, rewards, and then challenges again. It gives you the tools you need to complete a challenge, but won’t do it for you. It won’t let you go any further, either, until you’ve proven that you’ve learned that amazing jump ability or that you can effectively take down that really annoying
This challenge/reward structure perfectly represents the way we can learn new languages.
The Noob Stage
When you first dive into a new game, you won’t have any experience with the mechanisms, rules, and world setting. You won’t know anything about the optimal way to play, you just want to try everything out and see what the game has to offer.
At this early stage, it’s not uncommon to be afraid of what other people might think of your abilities or your play style. You’re not sure where to go or what the “optimal” build or loadout for your character should be.
We all go through feelings like this when we learn a new language. We have no idea where this endeavor is going to take us, we’re just starting to understand our own learning style, and we certainly don’t have a ton of skills right at first, but the excitement over all the opportunities is palpable.
In a game, you will make a lot of big strides early on. You’ll gain lots of new skills, new abilities, and the experience points just seem to pile up.
All those monsters that were a real challenge at first are something you practically brush off, now.
You can see that there are a lot of people still better than you out there, but you can also see the path they used to get to that point.
As you start learning Arabic, you’ll notice a lot of these strides in the beginning as you go from strength to strength, learning more words, mastering the alphabet, and making complete sentences. You may not feel completely confident yet, but you can see yourself getting better as you immerse yourself in the language.
This is where things get a little heavy.
The “grind” in a game happens when the experience doesn’t quite build up like it once did, and the time between levelling up seems to stretch on forever.
You start getting annoyed with the idea of grinding your way through another level or fighting yet another mob of the same, bog-standard enemies that you’ve been fighting for the last five levels.
But it has to be done if you’re going to get that next level. And you’ll do it because you know that the next level includes a whole range of new weapons/skills/spells/items/etc. Reaching that new level may even finally open up the doors to that hidden dungeon/castle/mansion where, until now, you haven’t been allowed to go.
When you learn a language, you will hit a phase in which you’re required to grind pretty hard. There’s just no way to get around the fact that there is a lot of vocabulary and grammar to learn. There is a lot of speaking and listening you need to do. And there are a lot of mistakes to be made along the way.
But that’s okay, because the grind is not without its rewards.
The best games keep you engaged with a steady stream of loot. “Loot,” in this case, is defined as those small rewards that have the ability to make you want to play just a little bit longer.
To see what else you might get, of course. Sure, you could turn the game off now, or you could play for “ten more minutes” just to see if you can get that one last rare item you need to complete your set of equipment.
What counts as the “loot” of a language?
Well, that could be any number of things, but you’ll really start to feel that pull – that need to keep going just a little more – every time you catch one more word that a native speaker used. Every time you use a new sentence in the right context and keep a conversation moving, you’ll feel a certain something that makes you want to go just a little further.
The Boss Monster
The best boss monsters are not just bigger versions of the monsters we’ve been fighting up until now. The best monsters test everything we’ve learned up until this point, and they don’t allow us to advance unless we can use everything we know to find their weak spot, blow away their remaining hit points, and show them who the real boss is.
There can be several mini bosses along the journey, but the real challenge is the final boss. This is the one you’ve been preparing for the whole way. You’ve been grinding just for this moment so you can stand up to it and not die immediately.
There is no such thing as a final boss when you’re learning a new language. You’ll face off against a number of those mini bosses, though. There’s no end of those guys because learning Arabic is an ongoing process. There’s always something new to learn. You can always get better at the dialect. You can also interact more naturally with native speakers.
And you can always experience that next “level up” feeling if you stick with it long enough.