Stephen Greene

Language Acquisition: Playing with your language


What can you learn about yourself from your Scrabble words? (garlandcannonCC BY-SA-2.0)

Why do we use language?  This has to be one of the questions we ask ourselves as language teachers as it will probably inform our beliefs about how to both teach and learn languages.

One of the main reasons we use language is in order to communicate needs and desires, to fill information gaps or to perform some sort of transaction.  It is through this struggle to meet our various needs that we learn language and therefore in the classroom we try to recreate these needs to make language learning both meaningful and efficient.

There is a lot to be said for viewing language in this way, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Watch a child learning a language and it is true that one of the main motivations is the need to fulfil certain needs such as the need to have an extra biscuit, the desire to watch another episode of Peppa Pig or the demand to wear the woolly hat despite it being 40°C outside can all be powerful motivators to learn extra words instead of relying on crying all the time.

But this doesn’t tell the whole story.

Young children are not just using language to communicate needs or wants.  They seem to take joy in the sound of words, saying them over and over again and relishing the sound that they make as they change the position of their tongues.

They delight in hearing nursery rhymes about ‘Baa Baa Blacksheep’ that don’t seem to be serving any communicative function.  They roleplay with friends to imitate their parents.  They talk to themselves and their toys about who knows what.

It seems to me as if they play with their language just as much as they play with their toy trains, dolls and dinner.

And it isn’t only children who play with their language because adults do it all the time.  Writing and reading poetry is a form of language play, as is telling jokes, saying prayers, doing a crossword or thinking up ever more outrageous puns.

And yet, in a lot of language classrooms this element of playing with language has been lost, overtaken by the need to make language activities ‘real-world’.  What a boring world it would be if we weren’t able to play with our language once in a while.

Further Reading

It isn’t often that a book completely changes my view of language and how to teach it, but ‘Language Play, Language Learning‘ by Guy Cook was one such book.

The always entertaining and almost god-like figure of David Crystal has also weighed in on the importance of ‘Language Play‘.

A free article available for download from Chicago University that borrows freely from David Crystal’s book.

Something to watch

I am not a big rap fan, but this song is great for the subject of language play and all the lyrics are relatively easy to understand.

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Stephen Greene

Stephen is a freelance teacher, trainer and editor. He has been teaching for over 20 years all around the world, but has been living and working in Curitiba, Brazil for the last 6 years. He writes self-indulging articles about all things associated with languages at

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