Play and Affect in Language Learning

Written by:
Joel Bacha
MATESOL / International Policy Studies candidate
Educational Development
Monterey Institute of International Studies

Teaching English in Japanese elementary schools for four years allowed me to experiment with a number of music, game, and total physical response (TPR) activities. I found that students were more apt to participate in an activity if it incorporated playfulness and physical movement. The resulting intrinsic motivation seemed to stimulate students' affectively and give them the desire to learn. There was, however, skepticism among a few teachers when using play such as music, games, and TPR in the classroom. I occasionally experienced minor criticisms and heard comments such as, "How can students learn when they are having fun?" or "Students should sit in their seats and pay attention when learning." Although I have found that such playful activities to stimulate students and promote learning, I know there are others who feel such activities do not compliment language acquisition. In this review I hope to examine research from the professional community on the effectiveness of playfulness and affect in language learning.

According to Cook (2000), trends in cognitive linguistics tend to concentrate on what is going on in the child's mind, following Chomsky; mainly focusing on the existence of some internal program. Studies in this area are based on the assumption that acquisition only involves the independent development of grammatical and phonological competence in isolation, rather than interaction with a child's physical, social, and personal development. As a result, little attention has been paid to the role of the environment on a child's language acquisition. Research has done little to answer the following question: What does happen in a child's mind when they listen to a song in another language, move to the rhythm of a foreign rhyme, or engage in a game that requires them to speak a foreign tongue?

Intrinsic motivation

Music, games, and TPR activities constitute an activity-based approach to language learning. General comments on the psychological effects of an activity-based approach on children were made by Vale and Feunteun (1995). They state that an activity-based approach has the potential to lower social and emotional constraints and pressures that interfere with effective learning. To answer how an activity-based approach lowers such learning barriers, it might be best to begin by discussing motivation. Deci and Ryan (1985) explain that when the educational environment provides challenges and rich sources of stimulation which include, in my view music, games, TPR, etc., it sparks intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation raises students' natural curiosity and interest which promotes learning. A study conducted by Dornyei (1990) also reveals that intrinsic motivation may promote long-term retention of language. In fact, a number of researchers believe that those who learn intrinsically gain superior understanding of the material being learned (Crookes and Schmidt, 1991; Deci, 1995). An activity-based approach to language learning seems to not only promote intrinsic motivation, but the resulting intrinsic motivation appears to promote a better understanding of the language in the long run.

Prior to the 1990's, much of the research examining the specific role of music, games, and TPR activities in language learning was limited only to the affective outcomes of such activities. There was still a problem between how motivation influenced language acquisition. For example, Coleman (1967) claimed that games encompass a wide range of skills and enable students to see the consequences of their own actions. Allowing one to see the effects of their own actions promotes intrinsic motivation, but how intrinsic motivation benefits language learning was still not clear. A claim by Rosenbach (1988) when discussing the benefits of using music in the classroom, simply acknowledges that using music in the classroom promotes intrinsic motivation, but how intrinsic motivation leads to language acquisition is not examined. Some such as Santos (1988) suggest that songs help students develop linguistic competences in pronunciation, intonation, vocabulary and comprehension. But again, there is little literature tying together how intrinsic motivation leads to such linguistic competences.


To gain a better understanding of how intrinsic motivation promotes learning, I will examine the physiological processes generated by emotion. In a paper discussing emotion, Ratner (2000) refers to Vygotsky's view that emotions are integrated into cognition and are formed by cultural processes. For example, the social activity of music in the classroom, which promotes intrinsic motivation, can also foster various positive emotional responses. It is difficult to determine whether positive emotion promotes intrinsic motivation or if intrinsic motivation sparks positive emotion. It might be safe to say that positive emotion and intrinsic motivation are mutually reinforcing.

Extensive research on the physiological relationship between emotion and cognition has been conducted by Damasio (1994). According to Damasio, the brain releases "chemical messages" which have a major impact on the efficiency of the cognitive process. This concept is applied to second language acquisition by Schumann (1990). Schumann explains that a gland in the brain, called the amygdala, evaluates emotional stimuli and relays "chemical messages" to other emotion centers of the brain. Once these emotion centers are activated, they may influence what is perceived and learned by an individual, contributing to second language learning. Thus positive emotion, by triggering a chemical response in the amygdala, creates a pathway for language acquisition.

Literature in the 1990's began describing how specific activities contribute to neural stimulation and learning. Arnold (1999) suggests that movement such as dancing or TPR, activates one's mental capacities and stimulates their neural network. Relaying this to Vygotsky and Schumann, we might say that social activity of movement fosters positive emotion which triggers the amygdala and provides support for learning. A connection was also made between music and positive emotion by Hansen (1999). Hansen explains that rhythm and harmony from song activates different areas of the auditory, visual, and motor cortex. He declares that this activation results in the release of endorphins (possibly Damasio's "chemical messages") which enhance pleasure, free emotional blocks, stimulate mental activity, and lead to acquisition.

An additional study conducted by Medina (1993), looks at the effectiveness of music on vocabulary acquisition. She does not discuss the role of emotion or physiological process described by Schumann, however, she does conclude that music affects second language acquisition indirectly by providing a"pathway" for language acquisition. Cook (2000) confirms that Medina's results are consistent with other statements made regarding the efficacy of music, and also rhythm, in language acquisition. Tying Medina's study to Schumann's physiological process, it might be safe to say that her "pathway" consists of the amygdala and the release of endorphins. This "pathway" bridges the gap between intrinsic motivation and language acquisition.


So far, I have examined literature with a focus on music, games, and TPR on language acquisition. I want to shift focus away from these specifics at this point and look into all activities under the umbrella of play. In addition, I am making a generalization that the discussions on intrinsic motivation and emotion above pertain to all forms of play. There is extensive amount of literature on the topic of play (Vygotsky, 1933; Huizinga, 1955; Bateson, 1972; Cook, 2000; Lantolf, 2001). As Huizinga (1955) notes, all people play and all people have the ability to play. It is, however, difficult to define what play is. Play varies among activities, social contexts, and age groups. Play might involve a game, but not always. Play can involve imagination, but it may also base itself on reality. Bateson (1972) makes a concrete attempt to clear the water on the definition play. He explains that when two individuals are playing, there is an intuitive sense that the current activity being engaged in is "play." "Play" looks something like, "the actions which are now being engaged in do not denote what these actions, for which they stand, would traditionally denote." For example, two children involved in playing "house" are playing because the activities carried out in playing house (pretending to cook dinner, etc.) do not stand for what "house" denotes in an adult society.

Play has many forms under its umbrella, including fantasy, story telling, music, movement, games, etc. Play almost always promotes excitement, enjoyment, and a relaxing atmosphere. The first research, and probably some of the most influential research on play was conducted by Vygotsky in the first half of the 1900s. Vygotsky (1933) said that play creates a zone of proximal development (ZDP) in children. According to Vygotsky, the ZDP is the distance between one's actual developmental level and one's potential developmental level when interacting with someone and/or something in the social environment (Vygotsky, 1978). During play, children are always above their average age, above their daily behavior, and ahead of their actual development level. It is as if children are trying to jump ahead of themselves when playing in order to explore their learning potential. Work by a number of researchers compliment Vygotsky's theory of play and the ZPD (Sylva, et al, 1974; Lantolf, 2001). As Lantolf (2001) explains, when children pretend to be a mother, father, a doctor, a famous person, etc. (when Vygotsky says they create a ZPD) they engage in activities that are not just about enjoyment, but allow them to project into the future. Contributions of play toward effective learning, thought organization, and problem solving were also found by Sylva, et al (1974). Results from their study show that children use information from mistakes during play to construct internal models that assist them in solving future problems. If play does indeed create a ZPD, it seems to promote development because children are able to project themselves into the future and learn by developing future problem solving strategies.

Play is also highly influential in language learning. In addition to songs, games, and TPR activities, verbal play can be used. According to Cook (2000), play in language learning is composed of two opposite spectrums: patterned sound at one end and pragmatic contextualized meaning at the other. The patterned end contains verse, speech, and semantic meaning. The pragmatic end resembles the interaction which takes place between interlocutors (touch, eye contact, affection, emotion, etc.) Butzkamm (1980) argues that verbal play also provides children with the training phases necessary for developing new verbal skills. Types of language play vary widely, from vocabulary games to talking one's self. Language play incorporates word play, unregulated rules, and enjoyment. Language play at the elementary school level might include a task to create "crazy" sentences such as, The octopus ate the giant purple banana.

Throughout this discussion, I have concentrated on play and affect in learning among children. However, play and affect are present among adults just as much as they are among children, with a few notable differences. Cook (2000) distinguishes play among adults and children in a discussion about fantasy. He notes that children are more likely to take part in make-believe and adults in fantasy. The difference being that both adults and children fantasize, yet children tend to act out their fantasies crossing the boundary into make-believe. Butzkamm (1980) confirms that play is also present among older learners during language play. In language play, older learners tend to use more mature language than children and pull ideas from the surrounding environment or personal relations. In a study carried out by Sullivan in a Vietnamese high school language classroom (2001), play is quite prevalent during communicative language learning activities. In the study, students are working on a playful narrative. Language is more complex than that used by younger foreign language students, yet laughing and excitement are still an integral part of the lesson.


While play and affect may fulfill their own set of goals in learning, at some point it seems necessary for the learning such activities provide to be applied to the 'real' world. Cook believes that reality and the artificial world are complementary and that each reinforces our understanding of the other. Yet Sullivan (2001) raises the questions, "Whose reality is 'real'?" "What context is 'authentic'?" Reality and authenticity is discussed extensively by van Lier (1996). He agrees with Sullivan that the definition of 'real' becomes a bit murky and suggests 'authenticity' might be a better term. According to van Lier, authenticity does not necessarily have to do with material from the 'real' world, but a learner's self determination and commitment to understanding. Authenticity is a 'process of personal engagement.' Thus playful activities involving imagination may not be considered 'real,' but are still authentic if learners are engaged in the activity. Cook (2000) also notes that given the controversy with the term 'real,' one might be better off using 'authentic.' Activities may not be 'real' yet they can still be 'authentic' and quite useful.

There is still much work to be done in the area of play and affect in learning. Until the 1990's the gap between affect (motivation and emotion) and language acquisition still remained. As with Medina's (1993) study on the effectiveness of music on vocabulary acquisition, literature acknowledged that intrinsic motivation and emotion resulting from play created a pathway for language acquisition, but the exact properties of that 'pathway' were never clearly defined. Schumann's (1990) discussion of the amygdala opens the 'pathway' and shows how research in intrinsic motivation (Deci and Ryan, 1985; Crookes and Schmidt, 1991; Deci, 1995), emotion (Vygotsky; Damasio, 1994), and play (Vygotsky, 1933; Huizinga, 1955; Bateson, 1972; Cook, 2000; Lantolf, 2001) compliment each other in the field of language learning. Schumann contributes significantly to the idea that an activity-based approach to language teaching involving play and affect has positive influence on language acquisition among all age groups.


Arnold, J. (1999). Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. London: Granada.

Butzkamm, W. (1980). Verbal play and pattern practice. In Felix, S. (Ed.) Second language development: Trends and issues, 233-48. Tubingen: Gunther Narr.

Coleman, J. (1967). Learning through games. In Bruner, J., Jolly, A. and Sylva, K. (Eds.), (1976). Play: It's role in development and evolution (pp. 461-463). New York: Penguin Books.

Cook, G. (2000). Language play, language learning. New York: Oxford University Press.

Crookes, G. and Schmidt, R. (1991). Motivation: Reopening the research agenda, Language Learning, 41 (4), 469-512.

Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes' error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Putnam.

Deci, E. and Ryan, R. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum Press.

Deci, E. (1995). Why we do what we do: The dynamics of personal autonomy. New York: Putnam.

Dornyei, Z. (1990). Conceptualising motivation in foreign language classrooms. Language Learning, 40(1), 45-78.

Hansen, G. (1999). Learning by heart: a Lozanov perspective. In Arnold, J. (Eds.), Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Huizinga, J. (1955). Homo ludens: A study of the play-element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lantolf, J. (2001). Sociocultural theory and second language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Medina, S. (1993). The effect of music on second language vocabulary acquisition. National Network for Early Language Learning, 6 (3). Retrieved October 24, 2003 from the World Wide Web:

Ratner, C. (2000). A cultural-psychological analysis of emotions. Culture and Psychology, 6, pp. 5-39. Retrieved November 6, 2003 from the World Wide Web:

Rosenbach, M. (1988). Teaching methodology: A child-centered approach. In Benya, R. & Muller, K. (eds.), Children and languages: Research, practice, and rationale for the early grades. New York: National Council on Foreign Language and International Studies.

Santos, S. (1988). Bilingual Language Arts through Music. In Benya, R. & Muller, K. (eds.), Children and languages: Research, practice, and rationale for the early grades. New York: National Council on Foreign Language and International Studies.

Schumann, J. (1990). The role of amygdala as a mediator of acculturation and cognition in second language acquisition. In Georgetown University round table on languages and linguistics 1990: 169-176. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Sullivan, P. (2001). Playfulness as mediation in communicative language teaching in a Vietnamese classroom. In Lantolf, J. (Ed.), Sociocultural theory and second language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sylva, K., Bruner, J. and Genova, P. (1974). The role of play in problem-solving of children 3-5 years old. In Bruner, J., Jolly, A. and Sylva, K. (Eds.), (1976). Play: It's role in development and evolution (pp. 244-257). New York: Penguin Books.

Vale, D. and Feunteun, A. (1995). Teaching children English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the language curriculum. Awareness, autonomy, and authenticity. London: Longman.

Vygotsky, L. (1933). Play and its role in the mental development of the child. In Bruner, J., Jolly, A. and Sylva, K. (Eds.), (1976). Play: It's role in development and evolution (pp. 461-463). New York: Penguin Books.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Written by:

Joel Bacha
MATESOL / International Policy Studies
Educational Development
Lecturer, Kanda University of International Studies, Japan

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