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beyond the Kuiper Belt, over the sea

Find the Fun

July 25th, 2011 by Kit

Lately, I’ve been posting over at G+. It’s been longer-than-Twitter-shorter-than-blog type half-baked posts. But I think this warrants a blog post.

In Nora England and B’alam Mateo-Toledo’s endangered languages class, we were discussing the issue of getting community members—most particularly kids, the lynchpin of language revitalization—to care about their endangered language. And most particularly, to care about learning that language.

I thought, immediately, of the (misguided) idea of gamification, that is, adding game-like elements to non-game activities. This is the right impulse but the wrong approach. Better than gamification is what I call “finding the fun”. If there is any hope for getting people to do a non-essential activity, you’ve got to find the ways in which it is fun. Taking things that are fun in other contexts and bolting them on is wrong.

So how do you find the fun in language learning? The fun of language is communication. The fun of language learning is mastery of the language to the end of communication. I think that the first thing is to tell people it’s a game. Huizinga, I think, talked about how games supplant the usual social contract of a group, for the duration of play. So by saying “here’s a game,” and actually making a game, you can get people to do things that they might otherwise be reluctant to do. Now, make the game’s victory condition require communication. Make the game’s rules require communication in the target language. Kids will probably want to learn the skills to play the game, which happen to be the language in question.

Preliminary thoughts.

  • Miranda Weinberg

    Check out Vitaly Voinov’s 2010 paper “Words should be fun : Scrabble as a tool for language preservation in Tuvan and other local languages”, Language Documentation & Conservation 4:213-230,

  • Will do.

  • Norax

    I like your idea and will be interested in what else you add to it.  Definitely concur you shouldn’t tack on fun from other contexts—I remember reading, and I’m sure you do too, about how if you take the external reward away from a task, kids won’t want to do it anymore, even if they used to like it intrinsically.  I like the idea of a language-based game; maybe it could also make kids less self-conscious about trying out a new language than they would be if it was a strict “right answer/wrong answer” kind of test.

  • Yes, and this is what’s great about story-games. No real victory condition. Just communicative awesome.

  • When you say “finding the fun” of an endangered language, what first leaps into my mind are cants. Any girl who has gone through middle school knows that there’s nothing more enticing in the world than a secret, unless it’s taunting someone else with that secret.