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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
Zhè shì yí gè fángjiān, lǐmiàn yǒu lǎoshī, yě yǒu xuésheng. Lǐmiàn yǒu hēibǎn, yě yǒu shū.
- 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.
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:
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
Editor’s note: This article, originally from 2011, was rewritten from scratch in December 2021.
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