I spent last week at the Agile 2011 conference in Salt Lake City, held for an exciting international subculture of software developers and IT professionals known as “agilists”. The conference was a really fun and touching experience; I presented a 3 hour language hunting session Monday morning, the first day, and then had the rest of the conference to play games with fluent speakers from around the world. I got farthest in Polish!
The Agile community is a thrilling group of people to be involved with, full of old friends, new friends, and friends-as-yet-unmade. The stand out quality of this crowd is the community willingness to try on new ideas and paradigms, especially as they have to do with teaching, learning, and games.
That last part is the kicker.
There is a whole lot of explaining that I therefore simply didn’t have to do; as I ran games in the Open Jam (see the picture above), agilists may have sat down to play feeling skeptical, but they called Full as believers. This goes back to my feeling that intelligence (founded on hundreds of hours of game play) is not measured by an ability to compute or analyze, but by willingness – the openness to new experiences.
There are some major new insights about game play that I’ve taken from the past week. Two are language related; the last is about application to non-language domains.
Full or Killing Fairies?
As many of you know, killing fairies is the act of translating from one language to another, asking fluent speakers to “tell us what that means” (by implication, what English thinks that “means”). We avoid this for many reasons, not the least of which is every second spent translating is time spent not fluently conversing. Also, no word in any language exactly corresponds to any other word in another language, and therefore translating produces a false equivalency. The mother tongue brain (i.e., my English brain) is happy, but the new language brain’s growth is stunted and off course.
Now to a certain extent, our mother tongue brain will do this spontaneously, when interacting with a new language. It’s a natural part of growing that new brain; there is some subconscious competition that crops up. No big deal. Before you know it, you’ve habitually looked for and found what you think the new piece of language “means”. No problem, just let it go and keep copycatting.
The problem is when you do it on purpose, and invest energy in it. Yikes!
That’s when you see players struggling, the game getting slower and slower. One thing I’ve seen several times, surprisingly with very willing (and therefore plenty intelligent) agilists, is a glazing to the eyes accompanied by slow play. When I ask, “are you Full?” I get “no” as an answer. When I ask again later, same response. What is going on?
What I’ve finally discovered is happening is that the new player is translating internally; though on the outside, they may no longer ask for translation, on the inside, they are busy writing a Polish-English dictionary! Which is a big project, as you may imagine.
Therefore! If you see a willing, intelligent player struggling early on, appearing full with glazed eyes or slow hands and paper face, but answering that they are not full, then you have a fairy killer on your hands. Mark technique Killing Fairies, give them a short explanation that internal translation counts too and already is slowing them down, and keep playing.
They will experience a feeling of “letting go”, going with the game, and their enjoyment level (and language acquisition) will shoot up within a minute or two. Remember, it’s a Copycat game, not a learning game…
The solution is simple; the diagnosis has taken a while!
[Thanks especially to Simon McPherson and Lulu Lin for helping me see this]
The Exhilaration of Being Hunted
Over the years, I’ve had folks ask “won’t fluent speakers get annoyed at all the repetition in language hunting?” I’ve always said no to this. It just hasn’t been my experience – at worst they tolerate it, but mostly enjoy it.
I was in the unusual position this last week of really being surrounded by native fluent speakers of other languages, and so had the point particularly hammered home.
Speaking specifically about native speakers of other languages (not those who learned it in a classroom), there is a consistent “exhilaration” to being hunted. A feeling of “wow!”. With Kate’s Polish, Ariadna’s Catalán, Jonathan’s Parisian French, Carsten’s Danish, and others, the fluent native speakers expressed in their body language and words a full engagement in the act of being hunted itself.
This is amazing, if you think about it. They aren’t learning a new language, and I specifically ask them not to use hand signs or participate in the game as a normal hunter, to preserve the fluency of their language (hand signs tend to slow speech down and alter it).
And yet, they are experiencing their own flow state, their own engagement in the play of the hunt. My sense of the “why?” for this positive experience may in part have something to do with the unexpectedness of hearing one’s native tongue far from home. I need to start interviewing native speakers more on their experience of this – there are some great implications here for revitalizing heritage and endangered languages.
So as you hunt languages around the world, and worry about how fluent native speakers will react to play, let me reassure you – it’s gonna be great. And you’ll have a new friend, to boot.
A Bite-sized Piece for Agilists
My last insight came from many conversations with Agile coaches and trainers who essentially said, “It’s great, I love it, I’m in, but what’s the next step?”. This question applies to anyone trying to transfer the language-based experience of accelerated learning principles to a different field.
So I tried out a bite-sized answer during the conference, and it seemed to stick. I’ll keep honing it, but essentially it boils down to 4 things: techniques Fluency, Obviously!, Limit, and Set-up. I think this will help out anyone in this position, with a non-language skill they want to teach.
If you only take away 4 things from fluency hunting, take away these: change your goal to competency rather than knowledge (tq Fluency), remove all ambiguity and guessing (tq Obviously!), shrink your training scope at the start to the smallest digestible chunks and add one at a time (tq Limit), and take seriously the design of your learning environment by limiting and boosting obviously! all around you (tq Set-up).
I’ll be blogging more about this last item in the coming days – till then, good hunting!