If you don’t know what text roleplaying is, it is basically collaborative story-telling, where several people, each writing from the perspective of their own character, create a story together.  It can be done over instant messaging apps and in chat rooms, although the more organised ones are usually found on online forums.

Here’s an example of what text roleplaying looks like. Let’s say I’m playing a character named Lisa, and the story takes place in a middle school. I might start with a post like this:

It was the first day of school. Lisa stepped into the building, feeling nervous. She surveyed the hallway quickly, looking for her friends, Maya and Louie, but they were nowhere to be seen.

 Then the player who’s playing Maya might continue the story with something like this:

Maya had wanted to take the bus this morning with her best friend, Lisa, who lived a few blocks away, but her mother insisted on giving her a ride. “But I promised Lisa!” she’d protested, but her mother wouldn’t listen.

She got out of the car as soon as her mother pulled up. “Thanks, mom. See you later!” she said, slamming the car door shut and running away before her mother could say anything. She soon found her friend, Lisa, standing next to the water fountain all by herself.

“Hey!” she greeted her friend cheerfully as she approached. “Sorry I couldn’t meet you on the bus. My mom insisted on giving me a ride.” she said, rolling her eyes.

And on and on it goes, with all the players taking turns to post as their characters. Sometimes there’s a predetermined ending that everyone tries to work towards as the story progresses. Sometimes people prefer to just go with the flow and keep things spontaneous. It all depends.

So how exactly did this help with my language learning, and why is this so much better than all the other methods I’ve tried? Well, first of all, it was essentially a combination of writing and reading practice. I had to read the posts written by other players before formulating my own. This was great because it exposed me to new vocabulary and expressions that I could then use in my own writing.

And unlike reading a book, where all you have to do is sit there and soak up all the words passively, I was required to respond with my own writing, in which my character had to react to all the things the other players had said and done. I had to do my best to glean as much information as I could from their posts.

And then there was the writing part. Keep in mind that I was a B1 at best, and the only tenses I knew how to use was simple present, present continuous, simple past and simple future. I wasn’t even aware that there were other tenses other than these four. I spent a lot of time wondering why people would put the word ‘had’ before verbs conjugated to the ‘simple past tense’ ( I didn’t know about past participles until much later). I was really lost, but I was determined to make it work, because it looked like so much fun.

I did everything I could. I would piece together all the words I’d learned from other players’ posts to form sentences. I would take some of the sentences they came up with and tweaked them so it wouldn’t look like I was copying (I’m sure they could tell though). I would flip through all the short novels I owned at that time to look for sentences that I thought would fit in my posts. And every time I found a sentence that I liked, I would write it down in a notebook, so I could reuse it later with a different group of people. For a year or two, my writing remained a patchwork of all these random sentences that I’d collected from all sorts of materials – books, movies, but mostly the posts written by other players.

But the more I did it, the better I got. Soon I found I didn’t need my notebook anymore. Roleplaying demands a certain level of commitment – you have to reply every few days. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but I was getting regular practice in reading and writing at the same time. I kept learning new words, new ways of wording my sentences, and I kept reusing the same expressions over and over until they became natural to me.

The key was mimicking others. I paid attention to how the native speakers wrote, and did everything I could to emulate them, until it became second nature. Text roleplaying made this easy because it allowed me to utilise what I’d learned almost immediately. It shortened the time between the moment I acquired a new word and the moment I actually put the word to use. That gap is where we lose most of our retention. Basically, I was unknowingly using spaced repetition to reinforce my memory of the things I’d learned.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I became fluent (no one can), but I did, over time, just like that. I still remember the day I joined the roleplay forum on Neopet’s discussion board out of curiosity. I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if I hadn’t. Without that experience, I don’t think I would be half as fluent as I am today.

And that is why joining that forum is still, in my opinion, the single best language learning decision I have made in my entire life.

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