Where Are Your Keys? In my brain, that’s where.

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.



20 Responses to “Where Are Your Keys? In my brain, that’s where.”

  1. 1 Willem
    February 28, 2010 at 9:59 pm


    “Obviously” I love what you’ve written here. Spot-on. I love your run-down of some of the principles.

    I have to say too, talking anymore about WAYK makes me laugh; how much hyperbole flies around about the fluency game, and yet it’s all true. Haha. It *has* changed my world. It *has* rewired how I think about teaching and learning *anything*.

    I have this overwhelming feeling, that until folks play the game and grok the techniques, this is a fiendishly uncommunicate-able subject. It just sounds like a bunch of hair-on-fire hyperbole.

    I mean, tell me different, but I have this strong suspicion about how the game sounds to newbies.

    The only antidote to this situation: play, play, play. We really need to schedule a session for Gamestorm.

  2. March 1, 2010 at 10:27 am

    I’ll cop to being totally mystified.

    Here’s what I see:

    A native English speaker talking to another English speaker in all the videos. If you have people who speak English because these techniques work, put them on camera and let them talk. If you don’t, what are you doing?

    Use of ASL as a “bridge”, as though ASL wasn’t actually a discrete language with its own syntax and culture. Unless you are intentionally butchering ASL for your own purposes, that’s like teaching Thai by using French when neither of us knows French.

    It may be reductio ad absurdum, but it seems like the notion of fluency (be active, start simple, be obvious, start small, chunk related concepts, pace appropriately) are built into most pedagogies.

    I get that this might be an activity that does not lend itself well to explanation; but no goal-based activity does not lend itself to evidence.

    • 3 MartiInChico
      June 6, 2012 at 11:05 am

      I see that this is an old thread, but since the whereareyourkeys folks are practically impossible to contact, I’ll try here.
      I don’t understand how a person can play without knowing some ASL, and none of the videos explain how to acquire THAT vocabulary.
      I’m interested, but the Wiki WAYK site is apparently disabled, and there is no operational contact information.

  3. 4 Joel
    March 2, 2010 at 12:08 am

    Hi, Jason.

    I don’t think anyone has used WAYK to teach English yet; it’s focused on saving endangered languages from extinction. Willem and Evan have been working with several native groups in the Northwest to incorporate these techniques and start saving their dialects.

    Here’s a good practical example on film: Jay Bazuzi is learning his Palestinian grandmother’s particular dialect of Arabic, using WAYK. He’s using the techniques to draw language out of her; she doesn’t have to know the methods at all (though she’s starting to imitate the signs anyway). She just has to have conversations with her grandson. The “what’s that?” conversation with objects on a table is just the beginning; Jay can then go on a walk with Grandma and talk about what they see. Or go to lunch and talk about that. And so on, building fluency and complexity.

    For my own experience, I’ve attempted to learn a conversational Estonian, like three distinct times in the last 12 years. I found that, among other things, focus on grammar and structure slowed me down and tripped me up. My teacher did try to focus on moving right into practical conversation, but I had too many conjugation scripts running in my head to have any bandwidth for making conversational responses in real time. The Estonian I actually retained was little more than a parlor-trick smattering; I could say a few sentences about a couple of subjects and impress the locals, but I couldn’t really function or communicate without switching to English.

    Thing is, if you say something incorrectly in a language–thick accent, words in the wrong order, wrong verb tense–you can still be generally understood. I’ve met non-native English speakers time and again who could communicate just fine with one or more of these quirks. If you restrict yourself to only speaking flawlessly you’ll likely (as in my case) never say anything at all. Getting the conversation started even if imperfectly, is the aim of WAYK; refinement will come through play.

    The ASL “bridge” seems to work because A) people talk with their hands anyway, ESPECIALLY when struggling to communicate a across language barriers, so why not harness that? B) it’s a mnemonic to help you remember the words by associating them with an action, and C) It’s simply possible to sign and say a word at the same time, where it’s not possible to say two words at the same time. Pure pragmatism. I don’t think any disrespect is meant toward the unique culture of ASL, but it’s a helluva tool. Working with special needs kids, I see the same phenomenon occur; sign language is used piecemeal to deal with unique communication needs, modified to the demands of the moment.

    And as in the previous point, you can practice a “me Tarzan” dialect of sign language and still be understood by a proper ASL speaker fairly easily.

    Does that help you see a clearer picture? Are there any applications for your own practice that you’d like to explore?


  4. March 2, 2010 at 7:23 am

    Thanks, that’s helpful information. Appropriating ASL sort of raises my hackles but I understand what’s going on.

    If these techniques are preserving Southern Haida or whatever, that’s quantifiable. I want to see evidence, not technique. I will absolutely devour technique once I know it works.

    Can Jay Bazuzi now communicate effectively in Palestinian Arabic? Are there more Tagish speakers today than there were yesterday?

  5. 6 Willem
    March 2, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Hello Jason-

    One more note to add to Joel’s; we don’t actually use ASL, but PSE (Pidgin Signed English) as the bridge, for the reasons you note, and others too. ASL has its own unique and rich grammar not suited for carrying spoken language; SEE (Signed Exact English) however has a grammar designed to imitate English as much as possible. We find the mid-ground between the two, PSE, works best. Raven Sequoia, my good friend, ASL interpreter coach, and proud Deafie, uses the game to teach just ASL alone to her students. So we feel pretty good about the role of ASL in the game.

    The only real evidence you’ll get is by playing the game with someone, really, and experiencing the rapid acquisition of a language. It’s for this reason I’ve schedule a game for Gamestorm in Portland, OR, later this month.

    However, if you’d like to hear some more wild claims over the internet along with some numbers: our work with the Chinuk Wawa language has helped the language go from 1 or 2 speakers to perhaps about 60. In the next 1-3 months the speaker population will be a self-sufficient community of language speakers.

    We are about to begin a 12 week Squamish language revitalization program, and in working with our liaison Dustin Rivers (@dustinrivers) he described his personal experience as “my fluency in Squamish language has begun increasing exponentially”.

    As for Jay Bazuzi’s fluency in Palestinian arabic, I haven’t heard what his most recent progress is. I’d ask him: http://jbazuzi.blogspot.com/

    Hope this helped. Also, Joel is my minion in a LARP “My Life With Master” game that we’ve been running for a while, so he has to say what I tell him to, until he kills me…uh oh.

  6. 7 Willem
    March 2, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    Evan corrected my math; as for Chinuk wawa, it’s more accurate to say the WAYK system (in the person of Evan Gardner) began helping with revitalization when the community had 6 or 7 speakers.

  7. March 6, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Thanks! This is really interesting to me but I am, obviously, deeply suspicious. I was actually planning to be at Gamestorm but now I’m not, which kills me.

  8. 9 Willem
    March 6, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    I feel compelled to wonder out loud at your suspicion. Suspicious of what? If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If it does, it does. We have oodles of free videos up. Try it out. If it doesn’t contribute to your learning, then call it a wash. If the videos don’t suffice to teach you the game (for some, like James Brown of Blankshield Press, they do, but for many they don’t), then find a game to play in. If you can’t find a game (since you unfortunately won’t make it to Gamestorm), then you won’t learn it until you find someone who has. You can form your opinion then.

    I don’t really see the role of suspicion in all this – god help me, but I’ve managed to get offended on the internet again. I know Al Gore designed the internet to offend people, but still I ask you to treat what we’re doing with a bit more respect. We are two guys developing a game to accelerate learning and sharing it with whomever we can, however we can. I’m happy to more fully inform you on the game; I’m not interested in allaying any suspicions.


  9. 10 Joel
    March 7, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    I have to admit, I’ve also been having difficulty with this conversation. it’s hard to keep sharing in a spirit of supportive collaboration when the person I’m sharing with isn’t reflecting much back but demands and suspicion.

    I do hope you’re getting value from this, Jason, but I must say I don’t feel I’m getting a lot of value back. One thing this experience has taught me at least, is that I’m still not very fluent in describing WAYK in the first place. I can see that it took us at least a couple of exchanges to get past that initial murk to a place where I feel like I and Willem have presented a decently clear picture of what the game does and how it works. Now that we’re there, though, I’m not feeling a lot of reward for my efforts.

    Learning experience, I guess.

  10. March 9, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Some kind of zeitgeist here—I posted an episode of my podcast on Fluency Play, and you post an article about WAYK, on the very same day!

    I can’t speak for Jason M., but I’ve felt some suspicion, too. The claim of learning a language that quickly seems dubious. But I have a lot of trust in Willem, and the whole thing sounds incredible. If you ever make it out to the northeast with this, I’ll definitely come to a workshop and see how it all works together, but for now, living on the opposite end of the continent, the speed claims do seem too good to be true.

  11. 12 Willem
    March 9, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Jason G.-

    Thanks for chiming in. When you come to the COMC residential program, you’ll learn it then for sure. ;)

    To improve how I speak about the game, could you tell me which speed claim (“…learning a language that quickly seems dubious…”)you’re referring to? How fast are we claiming people will learn a language? Or are we making a different, difficult-to-believe claim?

    I don’t remember ever making a specific claim about a specific length of time. But maybe that caused the problem, a lack of a specific time?

    Anyway, the more you can enlighten me about this, the better.


  12. March 14, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    I think I read either you or Evan early on say that you learned Chinuk in a day. Frankly, anything under a month seems too good to be true. Though, the way you put it on the CoMC blog once, pointing to how the “arms race” of scouting techniques in the southwest led to feats of scouting that seem superhuman really put it into perspective. After reading that, I started to think maybe you really could have something that would teach you a language in a week, or even a day. Certainly, the idea seems sound, and if anyone were going to achieve it, I think you’re onto how they’d go about it. But then, there’s a lot of hucksters out there with things like learning a new language in your sleep and such, y’know? The simple fact that it sounds so much like a claim that a lot of hucksters have made before immediately arouses some amount of suspicion.

  13. 14 Willem
    March 14, 2010 at 3:03 pm


    Thanks for clarifying. I think it comes down to what it means to “learn” a language; the common understanding of what it means to “learn” a language seems hopelessly vague. Does it just mean you can say “Hello, My name is…, Goodbye!”? Does it mean you can get to your hotel from the airport (get directions, pay the taxi, etc.)? Does it mean you can talk about your day yesterday? Or does it mean you can interview Presidents about foreign policy?

    According to the ACTFL scale, fluency in a language means you’ve at least tested to “Advanced-low”, the ability to tell stories involving the past, present, and future.

    I can get someone having a basic conversation in Chinuk Wawa in an hour (or, for, example, the Squamish language game probably took not much more than an hour to complete – see the video: http://ow.ly/1ktvH ).

    My point being, at this point in time, I can’t teach anyone the entirety of any language in a single day. Like you say, we make this a kind of ideal goal, but who knows if we’d even achieve it in our lifetime.

    I can, however, get someone speaking and having a basic conversation in an hour, and a pretty involved conversation in a day. “Basic” means the kind of conversation we offer in the videos we’ve made, i.e. “Do you want me to give you my keys? -Yes I want you, to give me, your keys.”.

    So, I consider that pretty unfortunate if we gave the impression we can teach the entirety of anything in a day. I certainly can’t do that. But we can still do some pretty amazing things!

    Hope this clears things up.


  14. 15 Eric Bernando
    March 29, 2010 at 11:58 am

    My Name is Eric Bernando. I have a Masters in Education from the University of Oregon and am an enrolled Member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. I usually do not post about such issues because I prefer to leave the political or pedagogical aspects of learning a language to those better suited to debate such issues. I have been closely associated with learning the Chinuk Wawa Language for the last 4 years and I can attest to the workability and usability of the “Where are your keys” or “WAYK” program. Because of the WAYAK method, the number of speakers of Chinuk Wawa has grown from about 15 speakers (Fluent and Novice) to upwards of 100 (about 20 Fluent speakers, 30 Advanced Speakers, and 50 Novice speakers). Because of the work of Evan (and Henry, but he’s not associated with WAYK), Chinuk Wawa is alive once gain. I am attempting to offer a Chinuk Wawa community learning class in the fall through PCC.. I feel that WAYK, however, is only the beginning of the language learning proces. WAYK can only get a person to an advanced level of speaking. That being said, by the time a person is speaking at an advanced level, fluency is just a stones throw away. There are a few examples of how WAYK works because the process is new and not enough time has passed to document how well it works for language preservation. Just remember, not every technique or style of learning works for every person.

  15. 16 Joel
    March 29, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to share, Eric! Your report on Chinook Wawa speakers is so good to hear. I’m so excited to see WAYK grow, and know Willem and Evan are too.

    One thing that I’m personally loving about having WAYK concepts available for my own use is that all the techniques are not only open source, but modular–I’m free to invent or mpdify techniques for needs of the moment, AND to adopt individual principles wherever there’s opportunity. WAYK base game is extremely intense, and not every learning situation is going to lend itself to “OK, OK, OK, let’s all take a time out and run a round of “What’s that?” But having the arsenal of techniques at hand means I can always default to the “obvious,” exercise good and clear “setup,” and be on the lookout for “sorry charlie” or “we’ll get there” moments, i.e. slowing things down so we all get there together and don’t take on more than we can handle at a time.

    It just occurred to me that WAYK might give the impression tnat one operates every hour of waking existence with all Fluency Play cylinders firing, which is simply not the case–your brain would melt out your ears! But I find it a flexible body of techniques that helps me ferret out fluency in all kinds of nooks and crannies of my life.


  16. 17 MartiInChico
    June 6, 2012 at 11:11 am

    I’m suspicious too – but of how a person can learn WAYK when its practitioners are so difficult to contact!

  17. 18 Joel
    June 7, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Marti, I’m sorry you had such a hard time tracking us down! Part of the problem is that the Where are Your Keys organization has split to pursue different foci: Evan Gardner is continuing under the Where Are Your Keys? name, while Willem Larsen now operates under the organization Language Hunters. Here are some links:


    Those should give you an idea of what Language hunters is up to right now… the youtube channel features a series of over 20 Irish Gaelic videos that take you through the Language Hunt game up to the first lap of “get to the party.” We’re shooting a fresh set of Irish videos this summer to refine the presentation based on our improving accent with the language and evolving sense of effective game/conversation setups.

    I say “us” and “we” because I’ve been working as an intern and now fully fledged Staff with the program and I’m really on board with its aims and methodology. You can see a bit about our 9-week program at Corbett Middle School on the blog posted above, and I’ve also posted about it here:


    Now, about your specific question:

    “I don’t understand how a person can play without knowing some ASL, and none of the videos explain how to acquire THAT vocabulary.”

    The answer to that depends on your context and needs. The Language Hunt game is nothing if not adaptable. It IS difficult to play without that tool, but the REAL difficulty, I think, is learning to Language Hunt without being taught by a live practitioner. Just like learning a language without a live speaker is a huge challenge, learning to Hunt without playing the game in person is difficult. Not impossible, but difficult, for sure!

    You can think of this as a nested series of optimum setups: the best way to learn Language hunting, and ASL for that matter, is by playing face to face with a live practitioner. Failing that, you can play over Skype or similar. Failing that, you can watch videos of live practitioners. Failing that, you can do textual research using tools like dictionaries, Google Translate, and so forth. Willem’s written a book, the Language Hunter’s Kit (http://leanpub.com/languagehunterskit), which boils down the game’s core techniques as a supplement for live gameplay, but it’s also aimed at giving you the best tools possible for developing the skill in the absence of live mentorship.

    Now, regarding ASL, Willem says this about it in the Language Hunter’s Kit:

    The very last option, and yet a perfectly fine one, is to CONTRACT your own signs to match with spoken language that you hunt.

    Experienced signers do this all the time – I do this all the time. If you do this with no previous signing experience, you’ll probably invent some fairly awkward signs – I’ve noticed hearing people with no experience signing can come up with some extraordinary over-involved signs – but it will get you hunting. And you can always hunt sign language for real when you meet a Deafie or fluent hearing signer.

    Don’t wait for the perfect situation (such as being fluent in a signed language or just finding an ASL mentor) to begin Language Hunting – do something, anything, right away that pushes you in the direction of meaningful action.

    (Here, for instance, is an ASL dictionary: http://www.aslpro.com/cgi-bin/aslpro/aslpro.cgi)

    Sign is a very valuable tool for the game, but there’s nothing sacred about sign in general or the particular signs we’ve chosen to use. You’re right that the videos don’t teach sign per se, but if you watch and copycat along you WILL pick up a robust set of the most core signs for the game, and if you need a new one in the course of play you can just make something up!

    Does that give you a clear direction, Marti?

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