Learning to count the power of games in language acquisition
Welcome, aspiring polyglot! Of all the things that helped me learn the languages that I know, playing cards with my friends probably made the biggest difference. While learning to count is fantastic, understanding how people interact with one another and seeing and hearing conversations between people, even before you understand them, is helpful. When children are small, before they learn their native language, they are often read to almost every day.
This same concept applies to adults who are trying to learn. Call it osmosis, call it incomprehensible input, call it exhausting, call it whatever you want, but the more exposure you have to the language the faster your language skills will develop. Playing games can make this onslaught of confusion less frustrating, because once you understand the rules you no longer have to speak the same language to enjoy each other's company.
Communicating with slang
When you are playing games with people, there will be more slang used than in a general conversation, but when you are going through the process of second language acquisition, this is a good thing. Slang is going to be something you can rely on for years to come and understanding the nuances of when and where to use it will be beneficial long after you progress beyond simply playing games. The average language learner, and average language teachers will almost entirely ignore this aspect in pursuits of having students focus on passing standardized tests. Unfortunately, an essay is not the place to practice your slang.
Another important aspect of playing games is that you can learn to communicate in short spurts. Most conversations will carry on and become increasingly more complex, but when you are playing games you will find that many of the conversations are easier to understand. This is because you have played games before and already have a general idea of what might be discussed. These sessions will be shorter, generally speaking, and this allows you time to sit and immerse yourself in the conversation wholeheartedly without the fear of going until you pass out from exhaustion.
Furthermore, when you play games with people you will inevitably learn how to friends speak to one another in your target language. Formal speech is important, but it is not what you will be using most, and if you use it to speak to your friends they will not feel very close with you.
Understanding how friends communicate will aid in the development of your language skills and in your social skills. A large part of communication is non-verbal and while it is necessary to pick up the verbal part, the nonverbal can play just as important a role in your integration.
That said, with games comes one of the most difficult pieces of learning a new language: speaking in groups. Anyone who has ever learned a language will know that speaking to an individual in a one on one conversation is easier than speaking in a group. By the time you have pieced together the sentence you want to interject and verified that it has as few mistakes as possible, the group has already moved on to a new topic.
Not only that, but now you have missed portions of the conversation because you were too busy translating sentences in your head to hear what was being said. Mastering this is vital, because you will find that there are more than one way to play any number of games. In English we have a simple term for this, house rules.
House rules: Second Language Strategies
The first, most important, aspect to playing games is understanding the house rules. This means taking the time up front to have people explain things to you. Painstaking as it may be, this is a part of language learning and it is not the last, and likely not even the first, time you will have to do this. However, taking the time up front to understand the rules of the games will allow you to focus on other things throughout the duration of the session.
That said, you do not have to adopt all the rules of one person's house. A great pleasure of playing games with people is that you get to experience a variety of rules, forfeits, and conversational slang. Once you have had a few different experiences you can even create your own house rules and then ask your friends to play those with you.
This will help you in your ability to communicate because you will have to explain the rules, and well, for them to go over well. If that does not work, you might just find that making rules with friends is more fun than trying to make them up yourself.
Sharing your life while language learning
Other than working with the games that others bring to the table, it is just as important that you bring some of your own games. Whether they are card games, board games, or entire table top games, having something to share with people you are meeting is a game changer. If you need some ideas on what games may or may not play well with others make sure you check out https://boardgamesage.com, you might find something incredible to share with your new friends. Additionally, if you do not know the rules, most games have rule sets available in multiple languages.
Since the rules are available in other languages, it is in your best interest to learn the rules in your target language so that you are not translating in your head the first time you explain to people how to play. As with all language learning strategies, read the rules aloud when you are alone to get a dry run. You will not have to think beyond pronunciation and having a point of reference such as the English rules sitting around will be beneficial.
When you are alone there is no pressure, or at least there should not be. If you are afraid to make mistakes when alone, it is going to be almost impossible to speak in groups. Mistakes are not a bad thing. Make them during practice so that you do not make them when it's game time.
The reason games are so huge when you are traveling and learning a new language is because they offer a near unmatched way to create lasting bonds with people by spending quality time with them. Of course there are other ways, but games are, usually, fun and they can transcend language barriers early on in the process. Once those are established, you will have allies in your battle against your target language until one day you are no longer fighting. All this through simply playing games with friends.
Making friends and developing language skills
When you are first meeting people who speak your target language natively, one of the most difficult things to do is break the ice. It is challenging enough for most people, even when they speak the same native language. Unless you are fearless or delusional with confidence, starting new conversations may be outside the realm of possibility, at least at first.
Having go to games to play, even with a $1 deck of cards, is a simple way to overcome this barrier. You do not need to have a large vocabulary base to play a card game with ten numbers and 3-4 special cards whose names you will have to learn.
So long as you can count to ten, most card games are accessible to you. Yes, there will be other rules and no, you cannot get comfortable, but it will be accessible. This is where your language skills will really shine. The amount of vocabulary words you will encounter is near limitless, but it is not necessary to write them all down.
If you are hearing terms during a card game you will more than likely hear them so often that you do not need to have them all written. That said, it is beneficial to run through conversations in your head before you are actually put in a situation where you need to use new words.
Most language learners are quick to discount slang because slang is not going to be on the test. That is fine if you are in school, I guess, but if you are traveling and meeting people and making friends, you will be completely lost without at least a tangential understanding of the local and regional slang. The most exciting part about this is most slang exists across languages which means you can share the slang from your native language as well.
You will find that people are as willing to learn as you are, whatever that means in your individual situation. In line with that, most people are as willing to help you as you are to help them. When you make an effort, an effort will be made for you, too. Reciprocity is not only important in developed friendships. It may, in fact, be more important in the fostering of new friendships. Be gracious with people and watch how gracious people will be with you.
Games are an underrated tool in opening up the world. They can cost anywhere from $1 to $500 which makes the barrier to entry about as low as possible. All you really have to do is figure out which ruleset you want to bring with you and how you plan to present it. The best part is that you are in control which means you get to control who you want to present the games you know to and where you want to go once they have the rules down.
That said, make sure you are open to other people's games as well. You do not want to end up being the person who refused to play other games when others played yours. Acting in such a manner may result in people choosing not to be around you. No one wants to spend all their time around someone who refuses to integrate.
Be the person you would want to take time and speak to, who you would enjoy playing games with despite the language barriers. In short, the golden rule always applies, even abroad, even while playing silly card games. Treat people the way you want to be treated.
Becoming bilingual is difficult, but you can do difficult things and be great. So go do difficult things and become great. Here I’ve given you some of the tools, but in the end, there is no comprehensive guide, no tips or tricks to carry anyone across the finish line. Language acquisition requires time, effort, and consistency. That said, it is something that anyone of any age is more than capable of accomplishing. I’ll be here rooting for you and watching your progress.
For more content find me on Twitter or Instagram. If you are learning Spanish and struggling to keep track of your progress, be sure to check out the first of many in our Language Learning Logbook series! I look forward to seeing everyone’s progress in the months and years to come.