The “Why?” of Tokoha GameLab (part 1)

In my first post here, I talked about how Tokoha GameLab is being run—a bit about the mechanics of what we do each week. This time, I’d like to talk a little bit about the why—the pedagogical approach and teacher beliefs that lay behind the type of activity I’ve designed for the lab.

Most essentially, the pedagogical approach of TGL is based around what Swain & Deters (2007) call a “participation metaphor.” This phrase is meant to encapsulate a sociocultural view of language learning that focuses on learners’ engagement in certain types of practices in certain types of contexts (or communities of practice) rather than the acquisition of language through a disembodied view of cognition and cognitive processes. In this view, language is not seen as a possession of individuals, it is a thought of as a social currency, always shared, always connected to specific real-world contexts. It is something that is practiced socially over time, not something that is acquired once by an individual and then possessed for life.

But when language learning is seen as a process rather than a product, and the goal of participation is no longer “acquisition” per se, I think the question for foreign language educators becomes: what do we want the interactions with and in the foreign language we teach to yield for our students (when these take place in our educational contexts)?

In our rapidly changing and globalizing world, we cannot necessarily predict the types of contexts of language use that our students will find themselves in once they graduate. Like most humans, they will surely spend their lifetimes learning new language, whether it is local slang, jargon related to their professions, another foreign language, whatever. But even if we do know, for example, that a few of our students will likely work for shipping companies after they graduate, is the university the place where they should learn terms like “bill of lading” and “interline shipment”?

I think it is self-evident that teaching and testing such specialist language to all students so that it is “acquired” by the students who will need it would be somewhat meaningless to most students. But this is not to say that students should not be exposed to specialist language they will not necessarily “need” in the real world. This is where games come in. Games allow familiarization with various genres of language in a designed context that gives relevance to this language. A game about shipping could be fun for any number of reasons, and the language needed for the game could work as a currency for communication in the context of the game. In such a case, students could literally play with the new language much the way children do when they first appropriate new L1 speech genres.

In the end, I want students to develop greater awareness about language itself and the ways language is used for different purposes. I want students to think about what values different genres and modes of language use connect to, and how these values shape the world we live in.

From a social semiotics perspective (e.g. Kress, 2012), any interaction between two or more individuals involves the construction of a shared communicative culture. What board games offer are affordances for this culture to be co-constructed in a way that is playful and yet purpose-driven. Different games offer affordances for different types of interaction, and games naturalistically involve the usage of different genres and sub-genres of language. With some reflection on these genres and other forms, board games offer opportunities for dialogue leading to deeper understanding of the complexity of language, the functions of language, and the values and meanings behind different ways of using language.

That’s all for now. Soon, I’ll be writing more about some other real (observed) and potential benefits of Tokoha Gamelab.


Kress, G. (2012). Thinking about the notion of “cross-cultural” from a social semiotic perspective. Language and Intercultural Communication, 12(4), 369–385.

Swain, M., & Deters, P. (2007). “New” Mainstream SLA Theory: Expanded and Enriched. The Modern Language Journal, 91, 820–836.