Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

How to improve fluency in Chinese by playing word games


What if I told you that there is a game that helps you speak Chinese more fluently, is great for improving communicative ability and works well regardless of your current level? What if I said that the game is also fun to play and doesn’t require you to buy anything?

I’ve been interested in games much longer than I’ve been learning and teaching Chinese, but it’s only in recent years I’ve been able to combine these two passions. This has led to several articles, both here on Hacking Chinese and elsewhere, about games and language learning. At the university where I teach, I have also created a professional development course for language teachers focusing on how to use games to boost motivation and engagement in the classroom.

Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to listen to this article:

Available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, YouTube and many other platforms!

The game I want to talk about today is either the best or the second best game I know for language learning, only Codenames can compete, but while I like that game more personally, it’s more limited in scope and also harder to explain.

Playing Codenames to learn Chinese and other languages

Introducing word-guessing games as stepping stone to fluency

The core idea I want to talk about is not limited to one commercially available game specifically, but has instead been used in different forms in many games, the most well-known being Taboo and Alias. These are both word-guessing games where you are supposed to describe words so that the other players are able to guess them, but what you are allowed to say is restricted in certain ways.

In this article, I will explain how the game works so you can play it on your own, and then I will go through various ways of modifying the game to better suit your needs as a student or a teacher.

How to improve fluency in Chinese by playing word games

Here’s how the game works for two players, but you can easily add more:

  1. Find or create a list of Chinese words that both you and your partner know. I will discuss vocabulary choice in detail later, but using your textbook works. You need to be able to read from the list without your partner being able to see what you’re reading. For a more casual game, you don’t need a list but can instead just come up with words on your own when needed.
  2. Select a word from your list and try to describe it to your partner in Chinese without using the word itself. Depending on your level, you can impose more restrictive rules or allow further support in the form of gestures and drawing pictures, but more about this later. In the basic version of the game, you’re not allowed to use parts of the word in your description, so if the word is 汽车 (qìchē) “car” you can’t just say that it’s the first character from 汽水 (qìshuǐ) “soda” plus the second character in 火车 (huǒchē) “train”.
  3. Continue describing the word in various ways until your partner has successfully guessed the word. You might need to employ different strategies here, such as describing what it means, what it’s used for or what it looks like. Another useful strategy is to break a compound word into smaller parts that could be easier to explain. Your partner can say whatever they want, including asking for clarification or more information. They can also guess as many times as they want.
  4. When your partner has guessed the correct word, the roles are reversed, and it’s now their turn to describe a word and your turn to guess what it means. Repeat until fluent or bored!

A few beginner-friendly examples in Chinese

To make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s look at a few simple examples in Chinese. See if you can guess the right words! For an audio version, please check the podcast episode embedded above.

  1. 这是一个房间,里面有老师,也有学生。里面有黑板,也有书。
    Zhè shì yí gè fángjiān, lǐmiàn yǒu lǎoshī, yě yǒu xuésheng. Lǐmiàn yǒu hēibǎn, yě yǒu shū.
  2. 这是一个东西,每家都有,可以用来放东西,吃饭,工作… 它有四个腿,不是椅子。
    Zhè shì yí gè dōngxi, měi jiā dōu yǒu, kěyǐ yòng lái fàng dōngxi, chīfàn, gōngzuò… Tā yǒu sì gè tuǐ, bú shì yǐzi.
  3. 这个东西很高,是绿的。它喜欢太阳。森林里有很多。
    Zhè gè dōngxi hěn gāo, shì lǜ de. Tā xǐhuan tàiyang. Sēnlín lǐ yǒu hěn duō.

Were you able to guess the words? In a real game, you’d have been able to ask questions or receive more help, but I think this is enough to show how the game works!

If you want to check if your answers are right, the answers are written here with white text on white background, so just select the following text and you’ll see them:

  1. 教室
  2. 桌子

Why word-guessing games are so good for learning languages

Most people enjoy this game for reasons completely unrelated to language learning, but there are many ways in which this type of game is excellent for learning Chinese and other languages. Here are the most important ones:

  1. It’s fun – I’ve played this game with hundreds of students and teachers and almost all of them have liked it. The commercially available variants of this game are all very popular, meaning that the games are great fun even for native speakers! This is normally a good sign that an activity is worthwhile.
  2. It gets you speaking – I’ve used this game with shy students and found that it’s a great way to get people to speak. Beginners often feel compelled to look up words they don’t know, but in this game, the whole point is to communicate something with whatever language you have.
  3. It helps you navigate conversations – If you think about it, not being allowed to say a word is actually similar to not knowing how to say that word in Chinese. This means that all the skills you pick up in this game will help you navigate real-life conversations, smoothly navigating around obstacles.
  4. It puts the emphasis on communication – Many students are overly concerned with saying things correctly and not making any mistakes, so much so that they might not say much at all. This game doesn’t care about correctness; the only goal is to get meaning across. That’s also what languages are for, so engaging in activities where this is the main goal is great for most students.
  5. It can be played on any level – The game works from beginner level up to advanced and native levels. If you’re a novice, you might want to add support in the form of gestures or maybe ever drawing pictures, but as soon as you can form basic sentences, this game works well. I’ll discuss how to make it easier or harder later.
  6. It can be played in pairs or groups – You do need at least one friend to play with, but that’s it. As a teacher, this game is great, because group size is flexible and the game works with any group size (although the bigger the group ,the less each participant gets to talk, of course).
  7. It’s easy to get started – Once you know how the game works, you don’t actually need a list of words at all, you can just start describing whatever word you think of. You don’t even need a pen and paper to play.
  8. It allows you to recycle vocabulary – The game works really well to review words you have learnt in an active manner. Whether you’re a student or teacher, you can use vocabulary from the previous chapter in the textbook or whatever vocabulary you’ve been covering recently.

How to adjust the game to suit your preferences and language ability

A good game is challenging, but not so challenging that it feels impossible. It’s therefore important to understand how the rules influence the difficulty of the game. Below, I present ideas for how to modify the game to make it easier or harder. Feel free to try different variants to see what you prefer!

  1. Type of words used – Some words are easier to guess than others. Typically, concrete nouns are the easiest and abstract grammar words are the hardest. In my examples above, I used everyday objects, which is a great place to start. As your Chinese improves, you can allow more abstract words too.
  2. Vocabulary range – The range of possible answers influences difficulty a lot. For example, the game becomes much easier if the players only need to guess which word is the right one from a certain list, such as the word list from the previous chapter in the textbook. The hardest option here is to have no limit at all, but keep in mind that the game won’t work if the players don’t know the words.
  3. Types of clues allowed – Normally, you’re only allowed to give verbal clues, so you’re not supposed to gesture or draw, but if the players are low-level beginners, then allowing some non-verbal support can work. I prefer body language over drawing, since body language is normally available when communicating in Chinese, but drawing isn’t. In hard mode, only verbal clues are allowed, and only clues that relate to the meaning of the word. For example, you’re not allowed to say that it sounds like this word or rhymes with that word. The commercial game Taboo comes with cards detailing additional words you’re not allowed to use, making the game even harder, but this effect is hard to recreate on your own and not at all necessary.
  4. Choosing and skipping words – Some words are easy for some people and hard for others. If you want the game to be easier, allow players to skip words they find hard, or even allow them to choose words themselves. If you want a more competitive game (see below), draw words randomly and if a word is skipped, deduct points.
  5. Time available – The game becomes harder if the time you have available to describe a word is limited. When playing with native speakers, it’s not uncommon to see good players clear more than ten words in a minute, but beginners will struggle with describing a single word in twice that amount of time. I suggest no time limit for beginners, and then a two-minute limit to start with once everybody knows what they’re doing.
  6. Competitive element – The commercial variants of this game are competitive, and this might or might not make the game better for you and the other players; it really depends. A two-player game can’t be scored meaningfully, but in a single-group game (three players or more), award one point to the player who guesses the word correctly and then let that player continue describing the next word. If the game is timed too, give points to both the player who guessed the right word and the player who described it. In a game with more than one team, teams take turns to guess words within a limited time. The team gains one point for each word correctly guessed, and the team with the highest score at the end wins.

As you can see, there are many ways to play this type of game and by fiddling with the above parameters, you can create a game that’s perfect for your situation. Everybody’s different when it comes to what we like and find engaging, so don’t hesitate to experiment!

Conclusion: How to improve fluency in Chinese by playing word games

I’ve used this game in many different contexts, with many different people and with several different languages. It’s always fun to play and can be challenging regardless if you’re a beginner or a native speaker. I’ve never come across a game with such a broad appeal that also has such strong advantages when it comes to language learning. If you want to improve your fluency when speaking Chinese, try playing a word-guessing game! Read more about how to use games for learning and teaching Chinese here:

How and why to learn and teach Chinese through games

Editor’s note: This article, originally from 2011, was rewritten from scratch in December 2021.

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  1. Gary says:

    Great idea, however, I don’t think this learning method would benefit a beginner very much since a beginner’s vocabulary is limited.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      It depends on what you mean by “beginner”. it’s probably useless if you’ve studied Chinese for a week, but it can be used as soon as you can construct basic sentences. I played this game a lot with a friend when we first started learning Chinese and had studied for about six months. We both lived in Sweden and had no contact with native speakers at the time, but it still worked out quite well. If you live in a Chinese-speaking environment, this game would be useful even earlier. So no, it’s not useful for pure beginners, but I still think it’s quite good for beginners who have learnt some basics.

      1. Nick Miller says:

        I agree that this game is actually quite suitable for beginners. First, in my experience, many beginners spend too much time looking up new words, and not enough time practicing. This game forces learners to use what they already know to “talk around” words they don’t know. Second, many beginning learners struggle to make relative clauses with 的, so this game makes them practice that (the thing you use when you listen to music, the place you go when you want to eat dinner, the singer who sang “聽媽媽的話”, etc.).

        1. Michael says:

          This is a great idea but since I am a complete beginner I may make it easier to suit my level i.e. You are allowed to include 火 or 车 in you description. At least until my vocabulary increases.

          To demonstrate my naivety I translated 火车 into “hot car” which of course did not make sense. I was quite embarrassed when I checked and found the translation to be “train” 🙂

    2. 劳伦西亚 says:

      But you will be more able to know on what you really need to work more. Note the words you don’t know yet which would help you explain another you know. You don’t have to have so many limits…

  2. Great idea Olle! I’ve played a game on board nights here called Balderdash. It’s great fun. I always thought it’d be too difficult for my learners too, but you’re right, you must use the language you have at your disposal and it’s a good motivation to learn how to say more!

  3. Mactuary says:

    Am I allowed to say something like, “I put my books on the___.” or “When I want to shower I take of my__.”? It seems like a cheat.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      It depends on how difficult you want it to be. If you do as you suggest and find that it’s too easy (i.e. cheating9, then disallow that kind of descriptions. The game can be used in many different ways and the rules are only there for you to get started, feel free to ignore or add rules!

  4. Dennis Yeo says:

    Your game is very close to the game Taboo, which involves describing a word without using certain other blacklisted words. I’ve actually played (English) Taboo in Chinese before and it’s quite a lot of fun.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thanks for the recommendation! I have since also found another game which does basically the same, but as far as I know, it’s a Swedish game. I managed to buy a second hand copy of Taboo a few weeks ago and it seems to be excellent for language practice (that’s why I bought it). Perhaps one could develop a similar game specifically for practicing Chinese? That would be awesome and not very hard to do.

  5. Eemeli says:

    Another very useful game is Rory’s Story cubes. It consists of dice having pictures of various items or verbs. You throw them, and then tell a story using each of the words. If you want to practice your own list of words contact a friend with a 3D printer 🙂 It also works when playing alone or for practicing writing.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I have seen them but not used them. A cheaper alternative to the 3D printer is simply to cover dice in masking tape and just write or draw whatever you want. Takes about a minute and costs almost nothing!

  6. Martin says:

    We used this in as a class of 3 last semster(intermediate level). I thought it was fun and useful. We would each come prepared with definitions for three words we all previously covered. I its fun to feed just a few clues at a time until the penny drops. Or give contexts, eg: “When I show you this thing, you will change your mind about
    lending me a bus-fare” (answer:gun).

    1. Olle Linge says:

      This reminds me of a game that at least exists in Sweden. It normally works just like I have described here and the goal is to describe successfully as many words as possible to your team mate in a give time (one minute or so). However, there is another game mode where you are supposed to explain a word so that ONLY your team mate can guess it and no-one else (i.e. everybody are allowed to guess). This typically takes a lot of time and involves some very obscure riddles based on shared experience. 🙂 Might be good for language practice, too. 🙂

  7. Rickard says:

    Have you heard of the tabletop roleplaying game Magicians by Kyle Simons, where you cast spells by saying Korean words? An app checks if the pronunciation is correct. When the players get better at the language, more complicated spells can be cast.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      What? That sounds really, really awesome. 🙂

  8. Rickard says:

    Oh, I forgot. Where Are Your Keys is a method for using gaming to have the students teach each other a language.


  9. Dennis Lee says:

    Just to note that in your example word game the answer to the first description is “classroom” 教室 instead of “car”.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thanks for pointing this out! I changed the example while recording the podcast because I thought it was boring to use the same word again, but then forgot to change the answer. I now also realise that I changed the sentence in the podcast, but not the answer, so I need to edit and republish that too. I would never hav found this on my own, and it might have already confused a lot of people, but no more thanks to your sharp observation! 🙂

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