Game-Based Learning

How to Bring Traditional Games to World Language Classes

Play is a popular student engagement strategy, and traditional games boost world language learning via an authentic cultural experience.

April 22, 2021
Allison Shelley for the Alliance for Excellent Education

I’m always gratified by just how much interactive and culturally relevant activities change the dynamic in my world language classes, and in my experience nothing beats traditional games from the target culture.

I teach Tagalog, one of the major languages of the Philippines, and over and over again I’ve seen how playing street games, in particular, can prompt authentic communicative tasks that are great for assessment and student practice—and hold students’ attention because they’re so engaging.

Getting Started

Choose fun traditional games for groups: Find games in the target culture that rely on communication among students. For instance, traditional street games (think four square or Simon says in American culture) provide authentic language input among participants and cultivate negotiation of meaning; they also harness collaboration and plausible language interaction among students.

Make learning game mechanics a language learning opportunity: While any traditional game offers an opportunity to explore culture and vocabulary (e.g., numbers and verbs), the mechanics of the game can take your students’ appreciation of it up a notch. Consider sharing videos of the game being played to build a priori knowledge about its dynamics and culture. (Here’s a video of the game tumbang preso, which is a bit like kick the can, that I share with my students.)

Use culturally relevant icons or concepts to identify the teams: Ask students to gather in groups and choose a name for their group that represents the target culture. For example, they can use the name of an endemic species from the country, famous cultural icons, or traditional cuisines to make the game culturally relevant. That way, they have agency, and you can also assess student retention and understanding of words and concepts that are culturally laden.

In my Tagalog classes, student groups have identified themselves as tarsier (the smallest living primate, which can be found only in the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia), tamaraw (a dwarf buffalo from Mindoro, Philippines), and pilandok (Philippine mouse-deer). Students also used names of Filipino icons such as José Rizal (the Philippines’ national hero) and Lapu-Lapu (the first Filipino hero to fight against Spanish colonizers) to identify their groups. Names of Filipino dishes such as adobo (meat or fish marinated in soy sauce, vinegar, and other spices) and kare-kare (a peanut-based dish with mixed vegetables and meat) are also good choices to consider for a group name.

You can ask students to create a cheer or slogan for the team, highlighting words and expressions from the target language.

Require use of the target language during the game: Interactive communication between and among students during the game strengthens the use of the target language. With traditional street games, you can introduce them to expressions and idioms that represent local color—terms that have no direct English translation.

For instance, in tumbang preso, some standard action words like “Tira!” (“Hit it!”) and “Takbo!” (“Run!”) are used, but players need to remember that there are specific Tagalog words such as taya (the person who tags other players to mark them as out of the game) and the expression “Wala, wala, wala!” (failure to tag a player) must be strictly used to avoid confusion during the game. Students then practice the target language and negotiate meaning to win the game.

Act as referee to model communication: Play the role of facilitator or even referee by reminding students of the rules and appropriate language expressions and phrases to use; then the players focus on the goal of the game, and the communicative purpose—the vocabulary—becomes naturally embedded in the activity.

This approach helps students retain numbers and action words, and motivates expressions from them that help them win. Example Tagalog expressions include “Tuloy lang!” (“Keep going!”), “Isa pa!” ("One more try!”), and “Bantayan mo!” (“Guard it!”).

When you act as a referee, there are plenty of opportunities to jump in and explain something in the target language, and that spontaneous exposure can help students, too.

Recognize students’ efforts and provide appropriate rewards: After the game, acknowledge the students’ participation and individual contributions—and those of both the winning and losing teams—so that you’re modeling the welcoming, appreciative language. In Tagalog, I say things like “Magaling!” (“Excellent!”) and “Nagawa ninyo!” (“You did it!”). I also like to pass out culturally relevant rewards, like postcards from places in the Philippines and dried mango.

Invite students to reflect on the experience of playing the game: Post-game, encourage students to share what they felt about the game in the target language. Sometimes, I prompt them with questions in Tagalog, like “For you, what’s the best part of playing the game?” and “What language expressions in the target language did you use most?”

That way, the students and I debrief on the activity and the accomplishment. It’s a nice way for everyone to meaningfully connect everything they experienced (both culturally and linguistically) before, during, and after the game.

Naturally, you have to take into account the students’ proficiency with the target language when you play this sort of game with them.

Another consideration is the safety of the participants, since some street games can become quite physical, so be sure to caution and remind students to be careful before they start playing (and be aware of any medical conditions that might prohibit them from playing).

Finally, give students choices, and don’t insist on something they’re not comfortable with. If a student isn’t comfortable actively playing, they can still participate by cheering their classmates on, acting as scorekeeper, or offering play-by-play commentary like a sportscaster. 

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