Importance of Engagement in Language Learning

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth...”
by ~Victor. E. Frankel~


There are many reasons why so many people struggle to learn a second language, however if I was asked to pick a key one, my choice would be the lack of “engagement”. So much of learning a language revolves around beliefs about studying, memorisation, grammar and drilling. This emphasis just does not work for most people and leaves them thinking they have no skills in learning.

There is an increasing interest in engagement, even though it is labelled differently The idea that learning can be like a game (gamification) has been gaining some momentum in recent times, at least in terms of dialogue about it.  One of the key elements in games is the engagement factor. This is something close to my heart and which I have written and talked about at different times. My intention now is to tease out some of its characteristics.

language learning engagementI have come to the conclusion that engagement can be described as something akin to the dynamics when people are involved in playing video games. As no doubt many of you have seen, once someone is playing these games in earnest, it can be very hard to drag them away as they are so engrossed in the game. They are completely engaged!

So what is it about video games that has that affect? There are many factors to consider here at different levels, however for now I will stick to perceptions and understandings that we can all readily identify with. My reflections here, I should hasten to add are all made from observations, both as an observer and as a player. It might well be interesting to have some solid research on this, however it needs to be remembered that most of our day to day learnings come from our own observations and conclusions as well as from input, of the same ilk, from people who we come across.

Learning to value and trust our own perceptions is an important part of once again becoming a good learner.  As long as we value other people’s ideas over our own, we diminish ourselves. It does not mean we should not listen to them, it just means we need to test what they say against what we have seen and understand and acknowledge that whilst at times we can make our own decisions based on all that we have before us, at other times we in fact might have little experience to decide. At these times we can just suspend our judgement.

So here are some observations:

  • the games are designed so that the players can find challenges that are pitched at a level that they believe  they can master
  • the environment is responsive to the input of the players
  • skills AND confidence are developed as the player participates
  • and as they are, the challenges grow or change
  • each new challenge builds on what was learned before
  • the end target may be alluring, however it is without doubt that it is the level by level targets/challenges that really do the “heavy lifting” in  terms of having the learners persist
  • the player is in control, even though the parameters are set by the game
  • there is no element of compulsion or forcing
  • testing is built into the game, namely progress ONLY happens when new skills or knowledge are learned and applied.
  • it is what you can do that ultimately controls your progress, not what you know ( though clearly what you know, to an extent controls  what you can do)
  • the student is independent of a teacher – it is the game from which the player learns

Just imagine if we could apply even some of these principles to learning a language. It is possible, however for many people they need to be helped in this as their beliefs and biases (gained whilst learning a second language) may well prevent them from seeing what they need to do. Here is an example of what an engaging game might look like, a game which the learner can construct for them self and a game which results in learning of the highest order.

It is my belief at the talented language learners are those that use many of these understandings in how they learn. They may not see it that way unless they were asked to reflect on their learning.  There is no special gene they have, they have just cottoned on to ways of learning that have them progress. These ways typically have learners:

  • engaged in their learning
  • maintain their engagement by choosing what they learn ( not let a text book or course book determine that)
  • feel they are not forced or compelled to learn
  • know that what they can do is more important than what they know
  • understand that their learning is more about building their skills
  • not persist in activities that don’t lead them to increased skills
  • look for patterns and clues to make their learning easier
  • experience increased confidence in what they can do
  • feel more empowered and independent from participating in the “game”

So the biggest single improvement you could make to your learning is to keep looking for ways that have you be more engaged. That can only happen over time if your skills and confidence keep improving. They go hand in hand.