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University of Chicago professor Shane Dunkle details a Dungeons and Dragons mechanic to students Ruining He and Qixin Lin

University of Chicago professor Shane Dunkle details a Dungeons and Dragons mechanic to students Ruining He and Qixin Lin in the school’s Cobb Hall on Feb. 2, 2024.

Violet Miller

Learning English through Dungeons and Dragons: How students role play slaying beasts to master a new language

Sometimes the best way to learn a language is by slaying a giant snake and looting skeletons in the depths of a cave.

That’s what University of Chicago professor Shane Dunkle and his English-learning board game group have found during their weekly Dungeons and Dragons games.

The stakes can be high. While defeating creatures is fun, for 24-year-old Ruining He, a spot in the U. of C.'s social sciences master’s program is contingent on her English-speaking abilities.

“For me, learning English is an urgent task,” said He, who came to the U.S. from China in 2022.

Dunkle, a professor at the university’s English Language Institute, used to bring in board games on the last day of the semester. After realizing students engaged with English more while playing, he created the group to work on students’ “outside-the-classroom skills.”

He then conducted a study that found students were negotiating more naturally and picking up on social cues while playing games better than in typical classroom activities. He said classroom settings can cause people to clam up, which he likens to the shields in Star Trek.

Students discuss their next moves in a game of Dungeons & Dragons

Students discuss their next moves in a game of Dungeons & Dragons at the University of Chicago’s Cobb Hall on Feb. 2, 2024.

Violet Miller

“When people get stressed, those shields go up, and that language transfer doesn’t happen because the body and the mind are doing other things than trying to learn,” Dunkle said.

Playing board games was a kind of “exposure therapy,” putting students on the spot while also encouraging them to open up, he said. “The more you do that, the shields go up less and learning is easier.”

Dunkle said the group isn’t unique. The French and Spanish departments have started bringing games into the classroom, and he hopes more will follow.

Fun as they are, the games are a way to tackle serious issues.

“Doing the best with what they have”

Melissa Baese-Berk, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago, said there are many barriers to learning a second language.

For younger learners, classes only take up a small part of the day, and kids are using their primary language the rest of the time. While she said it’s “never too late” to learn, adults still have to make ends meet, putting time constraints on when they can pick up a new language. She also said people often get frustrated with English learners who don’t have “perfect fluency,” which can be demotivating.

“It’s a case of everyone doing the best they can with what they have,” Baese-Berk said. “Some of the language is better than none of the language.”

The Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey found Illinois has the sixth largest population of people over age 5 who speak a language other than English at home, totaling about 2.8 million residents. Of those people, about 36.5% reported speaking English “less than well,” only slightly above the national average of 35.4%.

Chicagoans’ willingness to learn a new language seems to be on the rise, and many are taking it into their own hands.

Babbel, a language learning software, found new users from Chicago increased 26% last year compared with 17% in New York and 5% in Los Angeles. The main reason given by users was “heritage,” a company spokesperson said.

The company’s statistics also show city residents are seven times more likely to use Polish as their primary language than the national average. Chicago had four times the number of Ukrainian-speaking users learning English than the national average.

For Duolingo, another popular language learning app, English has become the second most popular language to learn in Chicago behind Spanish.

“The data proves that Chicagoans are overly interested in learning a new language,” Glenn Schechter, Babbel’s director of revenue and business analytics, said in a statement.

Some experts say issues with language learning are baked into the current education system.

Sunny Park-Johnson, an associate professor in DePaul’s Education Department and co-director of the university’s Bilingual Language Development Lab, said education systems often push English without having any support for students’ “home” language, which she said can stunt the student’s ability to use their home language academically.

“Even in places like Chicago, with a huge number of bilingual and linguistically diverse students, many of the schools focus more on English proficiency and don’t have curricula or supporting programs that are designed to grow both languages,” Park-Johnson said.

Test scores don’t translate

Chicago Public Schools had more than 77,000 students learning English last year and has recently seen calls for more bilingual teachers to accommodate an increase in English as a Second Language students.

Some of Dunkle’s students said the issues they saw in educational systems back home mirror the ones they’ve seen at the university level here.

Daohan Chen, a 24-year-old student who came to the U.S. from China last year, said there’s too much of a focus on reading and writing. This made interacting with people harder but allowed him to do well academically.

Fellow player and student Xin Yu Wang — who started learning English when he was 8 — said language tests can be beaten with test-taking skills, shifting the focus from learning the language to how to get a good grade.

University of Chicago students Daohan Chen, Xin Yu Wang and Kosuke Sato discussing Dungeons and Dragons

University of Chicago students Daohan Chen, Xin Yu Wang and Kosuke Sato discuss how they plan to attack a giant snake during a session of Dungeons and Dragons in the university’s Cobb Hall, Feb. 2, 2024.

Violet Miller

Members of the board game group said they weren’t taught as much about casual English use.

After getting her master’s offer, He said she spent the next six months working to reach the university’s benchmark, but it hadn’t helped her with everyday speaking needs.

“It’s just one score,” He said. “[And] it’s totally different than what we’re speaking here.”

The board game group said playing “helps a lot” since they have to come up with responses on the fly and get to practice in an environment where grades aren’t a factor — even if their English gets corrected.

Dunkle goes so far as to encourage some friendly trash talk.

“When you’re reading or writing you can translate English to your mother language, but when you are in a conversation you have to think in English,” Chen said. “Especially with role-play games. We have to act, we have to start a conversation.”

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