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Video games -- the best Japanese teacher money can buy

By Jonathan Bethune

Sitting opposite me on a crowded Den-en-Toshi line train are five businessmen, all in black suits, each playing a Nintendo DS. What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, since we’re in Tokyo. Back home in New York, however, such a vision would seem curious.

In the West, video games are largely seen as toys, amusements for children, teenagers and 20-somethings still living in their parents’ basements. In Japan, video games are thought of more as hobbies. It doesn’t matter if you’re male, female, old or young — if you enjoy collecting game software, go nuts.

Nintendo and Sony’s historical dominance in the video game market surely accounts for much of the difference in attitude. But there’s also likely a bit of national pride involved. What Japanese person isn’t proud of the fact that Mario is one of the most recognizable faces on the planet?

Whatever the reason, Japan’s play-centric culture is a comfort to video game junkies of all stripes, including me. More so than back home, I find that my pastime is shared by coworkers, students and even strangers sitting next to me on the bus. I also discovered a more tangible benefit as I started to accumulate more and more Japanese-language titles: video games can make fantastic teaching tools.

After three years of DS gaming during commutes and playing PS3 RPGs in my apartment, I am now able to read and understand Japanese at a near-fluent level. By repeating the super-formal lines of the Elizabeth character in "Persona 3," I got comfortable with "keigo" (polite Japanese). Momohime and Kisuke from "Muramasa: The Demon Blade" gave me a crash course in advanced kanji. Solid Snake and Otacon from "Metal Gear Solid" familiarized me with technical language — so much so that I was able to fix my own computer while living in Yokohama. With a little discipline, a game can teach you hundreds of new words, improve your reading speed, sharpen your listening skills, and still be loads of fun to play.

Now, for a few qualifications. First, while I never took formal classes, I did study Japanese independently. I also made sure to practice speaking with colleagues and friends. (With few exceptions, you won’t get much speaking or writing practice from video games.) And it’s important to choose the right type of game — fighting games, for example, will introduce you to some hilarious curses, but little else. If you want to improve reading and listening, then adventure, puzzle and role-playing games are your best bet.

In fact, there are a lot of things video games can teach if you apply some imagination and effort. Nintendo’s impressive DS library is a testament to this. With various titles to help students pass the TOEIC, practice kanji, learn cooking, improve memory, or even balance the family budget (my wife loves this one), you don’t need Jedi reflexes or sore thumbs to enjoy a game system. Sadly, you cannot find a lot of these titles in the West.

Which brings up my next point. Why is it that Japanese teachers of English encourage their students to play DS games in English to review for exams while Western teachers do not? I can only offer a few conjectures. I suppose we could blame the Puritans, or religion and conservatism in general, for widely held fears about video games. "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" will likely be blamed for the next school shooting, yet no one will give credit to "Final Fantasy IV" for teaching little Jimmy 50 new words and improving his comprehension.

This is ironic, as nobody calls for banning books when some nut job mails letter bombs after reading "The Anarchist’s Cookbook" or "Mein Kampf." With few exceptions, reading books is taken as an unquestionable virtue to be endlessly encouraged. The writer Steven Johnson made a similar point in his 2007 work, "Everything Bad Is Good For You." Imagine, Johnson wrote, if video games had been invented before books. Few people would see them as great learning tools. Rather, we would decry their lack of interactivity, their inability to improve mental and physical coordination, and their extreme passivity.

Historically speaking, video games are still a new medium, and they’re constantly evolving. It will take time for us to see their full potential. Who can tell what benefit they will ultimately bring? From a young age, we’ve been hoodwinked into thinking that learning only occurs in classrooms or in the vicinity of textbooks and certified experts. Education becomes artificially limited when we think of it as happening only in a designated building or time period, rather than as a result of our own creative work and study.

None of this is to say that Western schools ought to emulate Japanese ones. Lord knows the Japanese education system has its own problems. Yet a more liberal attitude about what video games can offer has opened up a world of possibilities here in Japan, and I can only hope that this will continue to spread around the globe. Just like Mario has.

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Waste of time those silly games. Anti creative thinking, so I guess it is ok for Japanese to play them.

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Playing Japanese games is a bit too difficult for me now (whenever I see a Japanese sentence I want to translate it fully so even with my denshi jisho it stays time consuming), so I will stick with my Japanese language study for another 6 months. However, I do have learned the majority of my English vocabulary thanks to playing Final Fantasy games (from playing FF VII as a 12 yo kid onward..). Whenever I did not knew a word, I looked that word up, which is really a good way to learn a language indeed imho. Though you must have some sort of base already to extend from.

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the writer makes several good points. it is curious how the western bias against video games is not only restricted to violent games.

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Interesting read. Ive picked up a few useful words/kanji from playing Winning Eleven and Panzer Front. And since were talking about killing two birds with one stone, I think the little stories that accompany porn can be useful too.

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How much the author was paid to spread the good word about games?

I was a fan of the Nintendo games at a certain age. My parents did not say stop playing those games. As I started growing up, I wanted to do other things that were for older people. Good for the author(just one exmple), that he mastered Japanese using these games. But I know a number of people here who mastered their Japanese without the games, to "near-fluent level" as decribed by the author.

The game makers are making loads of money using the old tricks. They cater to the needs of one and all: games for the single women who capture men, games for men to rape and conquer etc etc. Wonder for whom the author is working? It seems like he was asked to lure the English teachers and their students into buying games.

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wow...says alot about actual human teachers i guess

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Not all Western teachers refuse to endorse game-playing! I am a professional English teacher who mostly works with Japanese students. I play Japanese games myself, and I recommend that my Nintendo DS-owning students pick up English games, or even buy an inexpensive American PS2 if they're serious gamers. For me, it's a great way to get exposure to authentic Japanese in context. The dialogue is sometimes unrealistic, but the last time a Japanese friend looked at the dialogues in my Japanese textbook, she laughed herself silly at the outdated, awkward, and unnatural-sounding sentences...so just be sensible about what you do with language you pick up from games and compare it against real-world Japanese, same as with textbook Japanese.

There is a technique of second-language acquisition/teaching called "extensive reading" that this kind of game-playing can be a part of. Multiple studies have shown that reading a lot in the target language, particularly reading high-interest (that is, FUN) material frequently at a level that's appropriate for you can result in acquiring vocabulary and grammar relatively painlessly and quickly--particularly compared to the common methods of rote memorization with flashcards and dictionaries. Those methods tend to be extremely slow, and retention is poor. Learning words in context is better, so using video games--as one of many tools--is an excellent idea. A good RPG has text on the measure of a novella, I suspect, although I don't have any scripts to do a word count. The key is to find games at the right language level for you so that you don't have to interrupt your reading flow by hitting the dictionary or gamefaqs.com all the time (I recommended "Rhapsody" to one Japanese student, for example).

The notion that anyone who suggests that using a particular medium as a study tool must be a shill for that industry is quite ridiculous. I'm sure no one who thinks about it would seriously entertain this notion; however, the fact that anyone has suggested it does reflect the deep-seated hostility toward video games as anything besides light entertainment. It probably also reflects a belief that learning foreign languages should be painful. Both of these ideas are misguided. Another misguided notion is the idea that because some people learn a language without using a certain technique, that technique is useless for everyone. That clearly makes no sense at all. Dismissing them as silly and anti-creative-thinking? Well, I suppose if you think that reading a book is uncreative, then so is playing a game. To each their own. I also don't think it says anything at ALL about human teachers--a huge part of language learning, or really all learning, is in the students' heads and is the students' responsibility. The more you do on your own like this, the more you learn. That said, many foreign language teachers do not have any language-teaching training, and if you've struggled to learn a language before, it's not always your fault...so the more tools you have at hand for self-study, the better!

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Agreed. I learned quite a lot of kanji, words, expressions and dialect playing Zelda on the Wii with a denshi jisho sat in front of me. Course, I didn't have a full time job at that time...

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talktotheclouds, yeah, it's amazing the number of crappy books out these days (facilitated by that industry unto itself, Amazon), and yet nobody ever says bad things about the entire book medium. indeed, anybody who did would be deemed anti-education. in fact there is a whole genre of "how to" books on making your crappy book a best seller on Amazon!!!

womanforwomen's opinion kind of exemplifies what the writer was saying. how are video games childish, and yet checkers, charades, monopoly and gin rummy are not?

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I think that at least part of this article is true, playing video games in Japanese can help you learn new vocab, although I have a little trouble committing them to memory. Typically the type is scrolling too quickly of some games for me to look them up. I prefer using DVDs of JDramas with the subtitles on, that way you can pause when theres a word you don't know, and you can choose different dramas that use different groups of technical terms that you want to learn.

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Considering I probably spent 1/6 of my life playing games and another 1/6 watching anime and probably yet another 1/6 reading managa I would have to say they taught me a lot more than school could ever.

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I'd like to learn Japanese to allow me to enjoy Japanese video games natively.

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I have researched the meance of video gaming to society a lot better than this author obviously.

Sony are relativley new to video gaming , making their first in the mid 90s when video games have been around since the early 70s. Historically have not dominated the market, only recently. Anyone who uses these terrible things as a learnin g tool is wasting monety. These games are for over grown kids.

Want a hobby? Try choir practise or jogging.

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DM, too funny! That schtick never gets old.

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Being an avid gamer I don't mind learning my Japanese with games, but I don't really see it as a major source of learning. I prefer my good old reading and writing kanji book which I still have not finished. I have a few games that are kind of text heavy, but I still prefer my method of being able to not only read, but write/type the language.

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I am intrigued by this article. I have been struggling to learn Japense for almost a year; and this sounds like a fun way to learn.

I am a relative newbie to games: I do have a PS3, but I use it mostly as a Blue Ray player. In the US of A, I wonder, where can we get such Japenese language games for the PS3?

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While video games are a good way to pick up new vocab or fine-tune your language skills, I still think it's best to start with textbooks or a class and work up to them.

Reflections- Your best bet would probably be online. Unless you're in a rather larger city, finding them in person would be pretty tough. PlayAsia.com has a great selection on Japanese games and they ship to America.

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thanks for the chuckles dickmorris

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Nice idea. Anything to spike the interest level, although I imagine a bunch of J-language students sounding like some warrior on a quest to free the fair damsel in distress when all the cashier asked was "do you want a bag?".

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In the US of A, I wonder, where can we get such Japenese language games for the PS3?

eBay or playasia.com

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Reflections... be careful about committing real time to "learning Japanese" from video games and anime. It wont take you long to offend the locals and make an ass of yourself in front of those who took real courses. Learning in a formal environment is IMO a required foundation. Your friends will help you with the "living Japanese" Japanese spoken in real life. But, video games, anime... that stuff is pure entertainment. Can you imagine a Japanese person learning all their English from watching Star Wars, or from playing the "Grand Theft Auto" series??? It wouldnt take long before someone asked; "Where did you learn English???" They would lie, and the English speaker would know it was a lie. Dont expect learning Japanese from Mario or Zelda will produce very different results.

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I agree with Kuroyama and Saitao, best to work with a formal professional base of study then fine tune with the more modernized language and slang terms that you can find in the fields of Japanese entertainment.

playasia.com/ncsx.com/and himeyashop.com are all resources for finding import systems and games. With the exception of handhelds and PCs most systems have territory lock outs.

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I would agree that Japanese video games definitely do help, but they should not be your only source. I studied it in school and then tried to apply what I learned in games that I would import. It was a good way to test my reading and listening.

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