With a plethora of textbooks, grammar guides, vocabulary books, and even books trying to explain “the mystery of Japanese,” wouldn’t it be nice to just sit back, relax and learn in an environment led by a professional teacher living in Japan with not only knowledge about the language but also the culture?

And all that while having fun!?

And access from anywhere in the world?

Even while you sit in your underwear sipping gin ‘n’ juice?!*

If so, welcome to Kotoba Miners: Practical, activity-driven, structured Japanese language education for the 21st Century.



Overview of Project

by James York

1) a language; speech; (a) dialect
2) a word; a phrase.
miner 1 |′m In |
1) a person who works in a mine. A coal miner.
Based on these definitions, the idea behind Kotoba Miners (KM) is the use of Minecraft as a domain for the acquisition, or mining, of words—or more importantly, language, specifically Japanese and English.

My history with language learning in virtual worlds and with the use of games started in 2005, when a friend asked me to start playing World of Warcraft (WoW). I had just moved to Japan and was just beginning my adventure with the Japanese language. I knew that WoW would drain any free time that I had, but I didn’t want to give up learning Japanese, so I made a compromise. We decided to join a guild of Japanese players. This experience was invaluable on my journey to fluency and started my interest in the subject of online communities for language learning.

I am now teaching English at a Japanese university and conducting research on the use of games in language education. The head of my department told me that I could do a seminar class once a week on anything I wanted, so I decided to make my research into a class: learning English with video games.

But why Minecraft in particular?

I experimented with a number of virtual worlds and games as part of my research. I rejected massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) for lack of control over content and their often extremely specialized discourse (for example, Prot Warrior LFG SFK pst). I also rejected a lot of social worlds (such as Second Life) for their painful aesthetics, controls, and perceived distance between “users” and “content creators.” That is to say, they appeared to be either one or the other rather than both. Minecraft is simple. From controls to aesthetics and even gameplay. This means that you spend less time learning how to navigate the game and more time learning and focusing on language. Additionally, it gives teachers and learners 100 percent control over content—content that is easy to create and use. All in all, it is a very appealing canvas for the creation of language learning activities and of locations for language practice.

The KM project differs from other projects you will find in this book because it uses a Bukkit server (https://bukkit.org/) that is open to the public at all times. In other words, the KM server is not on a LAN, is not white-listed, and is not restricted in any other way. It would be difficult to conceive of the project in any other way, and the reason for this will become clear in the following pages. And although part of this project does take place in an educational institution, the main student body is made up of individuals outside of school or education, and most are adults with full-time jobs.


Getting Started

Unlike MinecraftEdu, which is very popular among teachers for its security and teacher-friendly controls, Bukkit has no inherent protection against griefing—the act of maliciously destroying other players’ builds or stealing items. I highly recommend the following three plug-ins to prevent such griefing:

  • World Guard allows you to protect important builds so that they will not be destroyed by others. Additionally, it allows you to define the game mode for specific areas.
  • Group Manager. With this, you can create a number of player groups whose permissions are customizable. The default groups are admin, moderator, builder, and guest. You can also add groups to World Guard areas, giving build access to only certain members.
  • Essentials features a host of useful commands, such as /warp, /teleport, /gamemode, and /seen. You can grant permission to use these commands on a per-player or per-group basis if using Group Manager.

I also recommend these plug-ins:

  • Dynmap is an interactive, online map of the game world. Very useful for seeing where everyone is building and to locate specific warps.
  • Variable Triggers is a plug-in we rely on a lot at KM. It has a whole range of uses, but the one I use most is to cause signs in the game to whisper a URL to players when clicked.
  • Citizens 2 and Denizens. We use these for the creation of interactive NPC characters.


Completing the Tasks

The Japanese course that I teach has been a long time in creation from the humble (read: shabby) buildings and scattered activities of the first implementation to the simple, aesthetically pleasing and practical area that it is now. This came about through trial and error, player feedback, and player contributions, so it is not easy for me to provide a step-by-step guide to creating a similar server. Although I can offer the following dos and don’ts.
1. Start with a concrete objective.
2. Take inspiration from lessons you already teach outside Minecraft.
3. Make use of all game modes.
4. Focus on creating a need to be in Minecraft. If the activity can be done without it, it is probably better not to use Minecraft.
5. Prioritize pair or small-group work to maximize individual output.
6. Create small goals within a larger, more holistic activity to focus student interaction from moment to moment.

In my opinion, the KM server will never be complete. This is not to say that it is an unfinished project but rather that it is constantly evolving, with new material always being added. At this point, I have a team working on building a city that will be used as the arena for an immersive roleplay-based curriculum. In other words, they have an airport, a train station, restaurants and other common shops, and a residential area. Each area has a specific roleplay activity in mind. We are working on a survival games map to pit player versus player.

Reflection and Assessment

This project has been a labor of love for well over a year, and although a number of activities could be re-created to be more engaging or Minecraft specific, I am very happy with the way the project has turned out. Feedback from students is generally positive, and the experience they are getting is the one that I envisioned: social learning with an emphasis on speaking and listening in a “real classroom in an unreal world.” Or as another student described it, “textbook content without a textbook.”

Project Future

One thing that I haven’t been spending too much time on is how to teach kanji (the Chinese characters used in Japanese). I personally used a system called “Remembering the Kanji,” by James Heisig. A number of free online resources for studying kanji use this method, and a number of alternatives systematically teach kanji. Because of the low-resolution graphics of Minecraft, it is hard enough writing the roman alphabet using Minecraft blocks, let alone an incredibly intricate character such as Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 12.53.57.
We have a weekly activity on the server called “Let’s Play in Japanese.” As the name suggests, we play games together in Japanese. The class is not formal, and vocabulary and grammar are kept to a minimum so that we can focus on actually playing. We’ve mainly focused on Minecraft until now, but we are experimenting with other multiplayer games, such as Rust, League of Legends, and a Garry’s Mod game called DarkRP. Player suggestions are also welcome. In a sense, the KM server hosts a formal, guided course in Japanese, and then we apply this knowledge to play other games together (including Minecraft).

Finally, I think the KM model is transferable for other languages. There is of course a need for language-specific buildings (such as those to explain the use of le, la, and l’ in French, pluralization rules in English, and more), but most activities are very much transferable. So if any readers would like to teach another language with us, please get in touch!


Excerpt From: Colin Gallagher. “Minecraft in the Classroom: Ideas, inspiration, and student projects for teachers” iBooks.


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