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Japan firm offering lessons on 'Fortnite' to get kids learning 'Gaming English'

A player is seen dropping from a location of their choosing at the start of a match in "Fortnite," in this image. (C) 2021, Epic Games, Inc.

TOKYO -- More and more parents are looking into a special conversation class that utilizes popular shooter "Fortnite" to teach children in Japan "Gaming English." The company behind the project, Shibuya-based CROInc, offers the classes completely online, allowing children to play games at home while learning English.

    But while it might seem a great option for kids who love gaming, does it actually work? To alleviate these concerns, the company has formulated a way to ensure the classes don't stop at just play.

    Via the popular gaming chat app Discord, the voices of a foreign teacher and an elementary school age girl could be heard. The teacher tells her to repeat the phrase "Where are we going?" She does so. "Okay, very good!" the teacher says.

    Yusuke Watanabe, head of CROInc, is seen talking about the "Gaming English" classes, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on April 8, 2021. (Mainichi/Shusaku Sugimoto)

    The student is an elementary school fourth-grader living in Chiba Prefecture. Because the lesson the Mainichi Shimbun observed was the first English conversation class she had taken, the student's pronunciation was a little uncertain. Through the class, the teacher weaved in fragments of Japanese to slowly introduce the concepts.

    At first glance it might have seemed just like any other online English conversation class, but both were actually playing the video game "Fortnite," with the teacher reportedly joining from some 3,000 kilometers away on the island of Cebu in the Philippines.

    Fortnite is a survival shooting game connecting up to 100 players on an island where they compete to be the last person standing. Players can join team modes including as twos or threes, known as Duos or Trios respectively. With more than 350 million players worldwide, Fortnite is one of the most popular games today.

    Competitors start each match by dropping onto the island battlefield. Some areas are easy to run into opponents, while others aren't. The first phrase taught, "Where are we going?" is to discuss where on the island the pair will drop themselves. Thanks to improved internet speed, there is almost no time lag between student and teacher.

    Yusuke Watanabe, the head of CROInc, said, "It's not like because they're games there's some special kind of conversation required; the speech and the sentence structure used are almost unchanged from those in daily life."

    Watanabe launched the gaming English conversation classes in December 2020. He went to live in southeast Asia in 2014, and from 2017 started running his own language school in the Philippines for Japanese people.

    While living abroad, he began to keenly realize the growing popularity of esports in southeast Asia and the U.S., and after returning to Japan in 2019, he happened on an idea that could bring gaming and English together. He entered a partnership with Kredo, a language school in the Philippines he had done business with before, and they began the gaming conversation classes.

    The company has kept its student recruitment online, and primarily via social media, from which it has seen numerous inquiries. So far, around 50 elementary and junior high school students from prefectures across the country including Hokkaido, Tokyo and Tottori have tried the classes. Of course, many of the children are hooked on Fortnite, and a number of them have taken the classes with their parents' encouragement.

    Because the kids are doing something they like while learning, their development is fast. The company says that students taking around 10 lessons a month will be able to use simple conversation for playing games after a month.

    Watanabe has been holding trial gaming English conversation lessons with correspondence high schools that have esports courses. But he doesn't want to stop there, and intends to make use of games in learning at universities and specialist schools, too.

    (Japanese original by Shusaku Sugimoto, Sports Project Department)

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