Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Playing word games in Chinese to practise fluency

Alias_zaidimo_lentaDuring my time in Taiwan, I sometimes helped friends and classmates to practise their spoken English. I realised that most students were actually fairly good at English, but for various reasons, they couldn’t really speak very well.

One reason was that they were shy, the other that they hadn’t had much chance to practise speaking before. This problem perhaps isn’t identical to the problem facing us when we learn Chinese, but it is similar enough that the method I used with these students have proved to be quite useful for myself and other Chinese learners as well.

This games is primarily designed to:

  • Practise fluency
  • Encourage shy learners
  • Work for different skill levels
  • Be fun to play

In my opinion, the game fulfils all these functions. I even think the game is fun to play in my native Swedish with Swedish friends!

Playing the game

Preparing for this game can either take ten seconds if you’re doing it on the fly or just want to get started immediately, or it can be a long process if you’re a teacher and plan to use this in class. In the remainder of this article, I’ll talk about the game played with one native-speaker friend. I’ve done this in Chinese with more people than that or with other learners, and all combinations work quite well. This is just an example.

This is how the game is played:

  1. Write some words in Chinese on a piece of paper without showing your partner (the words shouldn’t be very difficult, go for concrete nouns like car, table or tree if this is the first time you play)
  2. Select a word from your list and describe it to your partner in Chinese without using the word itself or mentioning any of its parts (if it’s a two-character word, you can use the individual characters to say other, unrelated words, but if you’re describing 火车, you’re not allowed to use 车 independently, neither is it okay to use 车子 or 车辆. The same goes for anything related to 火).
  3. In general, you’re not allowed to describe anything apart from the meaning or usage of the word in question (in other words, you can’t say that it sound like some other word or describe what the characters look like)
  4. Keep on finding different ways of describing the word until your partner has guessed the right answer
  5. Take turns doing this and gradually use more difficult words (abstract words, verbs, anything you like)

Some examples

Here are a few examples of what the game might look like in English:

  • Car: “It’s something many people use everyday to get to work. If there are too many of them in the streets, traffic will be slow.”
  • Table: “This is something we use to put things on when we eat or when we study. We usually sit on chairs around this.”
  • Tree: “This is a living things. It’s green and grows in the forest. It’s usually tall.”

Of course, the level of the descriptions can vary. Describing things such as “time”, “honour” or “life” isn’t very easy. If you on the contrary found the above example to be quite difficult, don’t worry, you can just use easier words. For instance, the word “table” above has a much easier description than “car” has.

After completing a round, it might sometimes be a good idea to use a dictionary to see how the word is defined there. The descriptions there are of course likely to be very concise and accurate, but it might still be interesting to see how the word could have been defined. Of course, your own descriptions don’t have to be in the form of entries in a dictionary! The game should be fun and encourage speaking, which is way more important than nailing down exact definitions of words.

Adding a competitive element and making the game harder

If you think the above game is too easy or want a competitive element to the game for some other reason, you need at least three other players (it’s possible to play with two friends as well if you’re creative). Divide the group into two teams and create a number of lists of words before the game starts. Shuffle the lists. One person in the first team then draws a list randomly and now has one minute to describe as many words as he can on that list. One word is completed as soon as his partner guesses the correct word. As soon as a word is guessed correctly, move on to the next. The team then gets one point for each correctly guessed word when the time is up. Then it’s the other team’s turn and the game continues either to a certain total score or for a given amount of time.

Practising fluency

This game is excellent for many reasons, but apart from being quite entertaining, it also allows you to focus directly on fluency itself. If you get really good at this game, you gain the ability to explain words you don’t know so well that people perhaps don’t even realise that you’re doing it when you’re talking. Let’s say you don’t know how to say “skyscraper” in Chinese, but since you know that and spot the problem one second before it appears in the sentence you’re currently saying, you just say “very tall building” instead. You know that you actually described the word “skyscraper” in another way, but if you do this smoothly, the person you’re talking to might not even notice.

Apart from this, I’ve found that this game works quite well even at fairly low levels and with very shy students. They have something concrete to focus on and there is a clear goal. Also, the game can be made very easy by selecting words that aren’t too difficult to explain. I’ve used this a dozen times at least and I’m equally surprised each time that it works so well. Try it!

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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. 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.


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