Last weekend I attended a two-day workshop intensive for the language fluency game Where Are Your Keys? with Evan Gardner and Willem Larsen. I’d dabbled with playing short games of it before, and certainly had many conversations about Fluency concepts with Willem, but this was the first time I had the opportunity to truly immerse in WAYK and see what it would do to me.
The short answer is that it lit my brain on fire! Even a week later I feel like I’ve got a whole set of neurons switched on that I wasn’t using. The learning methodology and sheer mindset of Where Are Your Keys? has been running like a script in my head, even in my dreams.
So what’s the big deal? Is this just another “learn German in your sleep or your money back!” type of gimmick? I say no. WAYK cuts right to the heart of how we learn in the first place.
For instance, children learn things super-fast, and without being told to—without even realizing they’re “learning.” Walking, running, climbing, talking—my daughter is nearly 15 months old, and every day she surprises us with a new skill or a refinement on old ones. Occasionally she needs a nudge to figure out a new obstacle, but by and large she gaining mastery of her body and her environment, super fast! All children have that capacity; the minute you tie them down to a desk with a sheet of exercises it mysteriously vanishes. Remember how much you hated as a kid any form of entertainment that was “educational?” That’s because we learn not by being told; we learn by doing. We learn through the sheer play of doing it.
WAYK seeks to meld that child’s knack for learning-play with an adult capacity for sophistication and dedication. The learning process is a game, but a game with purpose. Its primary focus is rescuing indigenous languages from extinction by creating a greater base of fluent speakers. But I’m finding that its concepts can apply to ANY set of complex skills one wants to learn–reading music, for instance. Or fixing car engines. Or roleplaying.
How’s it work? Well, it’s something y0u’ve got to (unsurprisingly) see and do yourself, and there are a series of videos on the website to get you started. But there are some basic principles that, after swimming in them for a weekend, I think I can extrapolate into broad application:
Learn by doing. I mentioned this already, but it bears emphasis. Rather than being told what to do, at length, it’s better to be shown what to do, and to do it right along with your teacher. In the case of learning a game, this means that the distinction between learning the rules and playing the game vanishes—almost every moment is play!
Be obvious. This technique is as, well, obvious as it sounds, but subtle at the same time. It means you should avoid the potential for confusion and misunderstandings from the very outset. When learning a language, make sure there aren’t three things sitting in a pile when you point and ask “what’s that?” When playing a game, make sure aren’t similar terms for different things, or basic rules with lots of exceptions. If there ARE lots of exceptions, make sure you introduce them later, at a higher fluency level, keeping the opening learning stages simple and direct. There’s a time to introduce complexity, and that time is whatever point you are able to make it obvious.
Begin with the most basic step. On that note: your starting point should be the most direct, fundamental aspect of the skillset. The 14 conjugations of nouns in your target language is NOT the most fundamental aspect. More likely it’s something like: “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” Or, as every three-year-old knows and WAYK emphasizes: “What’s that?”
Move on ONLY after attaining fluency with previous steps. Fluency is not proficiency, which is mastery over a complex array of skills. Fluency is ease of use, whether it be with two words or an entire dictionary. If someone is struggling with 2+2, if you introduce 2+3 or 3-2, they’ll fall hopelessly behind and stay there. If you move on when they’re ready, both fluency AND proficiency will explode! That’s where complexity can come in—putting off rules of grammar, or the more complex rules of a game, isn’t devaluing them or doing the thing “wrong,” but waiting until the practitioner can take them on easily and joyfully, rather than suffering under their weight.
Sort techniques into related groupings. This is how you add complexity. WAYK uses the mnemonic “Craigslist” to denote lists of like things, such as “what, who, where, when, why?” or “I, mine; you, yours; he, his; she, hers.” For a roleplaying game it could be the Fighting rules, the Debating rules, the Grappling rules, and so forth. Instead of learning new things willy-nilly with no context to attach them to, arranging them as they relate to each other lets our brains acquire and RETAIN new knowledge at an exponential rate.
I’m so excited to have the command of these techniques! I’ve already talked about teaching and playing games this way. And with these techniques, Fluency Play isn’t just for simple or “minimalist” games—there’s no reason something as complex as Burning Wheel or D&D couldn’t be learned with the fluid ease of ever-increasing complexity levels, as opposed to the oft-lamented scene of the disengaged player mumbling, “just tell me what to roll.”
Plus, not only does it mean I can improve the skills I already practice in a fun and fast way, but I can acquire new skills with the same ease, especially if I can find fluent practitioners to learn with together. I can learn Estonian, Gaelic, Elvish; I can start playing the guitar, dancing, painting…endless possibilities are waiting! And the techniques are open source and viral—the more people I do this with, the more it’ll spread.
I can’t wait.