Reasons to RP: Learn a Language

For many gamers, role play is a dirty little secret. It shouldn’t be. There are many benefits to role playing. Learning a new language, however, isn’t one I’d really considered. Fortunately, some folks at Wake Forest University have.

“The best way to learn a language is by immersing yourself in it,” said Ted Gellar-Goad, a post doc teacher-scholar in the classical languages department at Wake Forest who teaches a Latin class using a Dungeons and Dragons type role play adventure. “And it’s even more fun in a world not quite our own, in time, place or nature.”

Dr. Ted Gellar-Goad's Latin Class courtesy of Wake Forest University.

Dr. Ted Gellar-Goad’s Latin Class courtesy of Wake Forest University.

in this class, each student plays a hero. No really, their characters are the original archetypes of heroes found in Greaeco-Roman myths and legends though the character backstory, personality and in-game actions are largely determined by the student playing them. Over the course of a semester, the RPers take a virtual journey individually and as a group that is filled with challenges, opportunities and obstacles (as any good story line is). Along the way, they also learn to read and write Latin and one of the most challenging required course for Latin majors is transformed to dull and dry into something far more interesting and fun.

We aren’t talking about those silly little conversations at the airport or cafe that bored us to tears in foreign language classes in high school and college either. We’re talking about a full-fledged RPG with some 20 different levels for students to achieve.

“I look forward to the class, and I’m not constantly checking the clock,” says student Amy Templin who played Ariadne (a princess from Crete who helped Theseus slay the Minotaur and find his way back out of the labyrinth using a silken thread). “Though I was initially intimidated by the set up, especially starting the class at level zero, I’ve noticed so much growth in my abilities. I’m looking at the dictionary less and less. That we craft our sentences according to our character and the motivations of the game players is a big challenge, but so much more fun that translating the vanilla sentences someone else wrote from a 1940s textbook.”

Gellar-Goad is not just a teacher, he’s the dungeon master or narrator if you will who moderates the class, provides the setting and guides both the adventures and the storytelling (or story writing since it is a composition class). Students work together to determine how their characters will responde to certain given situations that Gellar-Goad sets up. In one lesson, for instance, players are in a city in ancient Greece where the Mycenean people are rebelling against their Queen. The rebels have captured the player characters and you have two options:

  1. Confess you are gathering information on how to defeat the Sphinx or
  2. hide your true motives

As a group the players discuss the options and possible outcomes then compose sentences (in Latin, of course) that move the game forward. Along the way, student players earn experience points and gain levels, rather than grades. They also complete a variety of educational projects including:

  • Scribing Spells (translation projects)
  • Dungeon Mapping (constructing visual representations of Latin grammatical constructions)
  • Craft Magic Items (creative projects)
  • Complete Side Quests (such as establishing standards of a Latin author’s style)

Ok, so those may sound a bit homeworky but still, it’s not just busywork. There’s a point to it besides just getting a grade and saying you’re completed the class. Think about it. Many of us spend hours creating images, audio and video for our RP characters and that’s without the actual RP. This is the same thing, just in Latin (or presumably any other language you want to learn.

“One of the biggest takeaways for me from the class is that Dr. Gellar-Goad’s unique approach is inspiring students in our class who have different styles of learning,” explains Matt Sherry, who aspires to teach Latin at the high school level. “He encourages creativity and that creativity gives students different ways to approach learning.”

How cool would it be to be able to counter the nagging “You’re rping again/still?” question with “just doing my homework” or “picking up another language”? Think about it. Then have a conversation with your language teachers and let us know how that goes!

Are you a language teacher parent interested in exploring role play as a means of immersing students in a different language? You can learn more about RP in the classroom from these handy references: The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game and Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning


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