The Language Hunter's Kit, 2013 edition
The Language Hunter's Kit, 2013 edition
Willem Larsen
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Table of Contents


Language Hunting emerged as the result of a growing community of language play. I’ve had much help and many great mentors in the work of learning innovation, language acquisition, and the new craft of Language Hunting.

To Jana Spear, my patient partner, who made the incubation of Language Hunting even imaginable, standing by me and being an ear for all my struggles, worries, and inspirations, I kiss you and promise I will always bring chocolate, no matter how hard the rain falls.

To Robert Wimmer, Russian language instructor and my first Total Physical Response teacher, thanks for opening my eyes to the possibility of experimenting with language acquisition.

To all my language instructors over the years - Danke, Grácias, спасибо, Mercí. Though I never became fluent in your languages, I learned a tremendous amount that I carried for a long time, and it now has finally found a home.

To Tom Brown, Jr., I bow deeply to the reigning king of Coyote Teaching and NEEDS GAP.

To Jon Young, a handshake and a blessing for your work to create a community around Coyote Teaching.

To Don Martín Prechtel, another great mentor in indigenous traditions of learning and teaching, and a peerless praiser of Life - to you I give a hand-made bead with a hole in the middle for hope to be strung through. I will always be your apprentice.

To Christopher Alexander, midwife to the Pattern Language, and fellow designer of Wholeness, I offer you this house of learning, made just so as to cause a lump in my throat, and perhaps, humble enough to be a worthy gift for God.

To my mother, and my childrens’ grandmother, Diana Larsen, a Queen in the kingdom of collaboration, and so close to my heart and my work - I hug you and buss your cheek.

To my sister, master illustrator Abby Larsen, who for earthly reasons consents to design websites, I thank you for the dignity and identity you have given Language Hunting. May I hold my debt to you sufficiently well to justify the heart you put into this work.

To Agilists the world over - for your open minds and hearts, your hunger for innovation and learning, I leave just enough work here for you to take it where I cannot go.

To Peter Bauer, true friend, uncle to my children, artist, writer, and storm on the horizon of Industrial Civilization, there is always a seat for you at my table. Let’s eat.

To Tony Deis, lover of the Edge, who role-modeled for me what rules need breaking, I bless all the children you’ll ever have, and your goats too.

To the Story Games Community, a strange un-looked for haven of something nobody can quite agree upon, for the inspiration and boiling creativity you have shared, for the support of Fluency Play, I shake your hand and bless the pirated .pdf of this book that finds you.

To Justin Robinson, Chinook Jargon instructor and member of the Chinook Nation, LaXayam and Hayu Masi for introducing me to the Chinook Jargon language, and the Where Are Your Keys? project, with that first trading game at the Grande Ronde Tribal Office in Portland. May you create many new speakers.

To Evan Gardner, with whom I spent two years co-developing the Where Are Your Keys? project - I wouldn’t be doing this work if not for those first rules of the trading game you created. Language Hunting was born from those years together. I bow in thanks and memory of our partnership.

To Jay Bazuzi, one of the first supporters, who understood both the language game, and the Vision, almost from the first moment, as evidenced of the never-to-be-forgotten video of hunting Palestinian Arabic language from your grandmother, I shake your hand, and I embrace you.

To Alyn Post, another early supporter, and the first host of a language game workshop - I bless all your dreams and plantings in dry lands and valley bottoms.

To John Graham, your face on Skype, your videos of language hunts from a green country on the other side of the world, gave me hope that the world was ready for this work - I shake your hand and offer my hearty thanks.

To Dustin Rivers, Sxwchálten X̱elsílem Tłaḵwasik̓a̱n, and his magnificent family, Cheyenne, Jaymyn, Deborah, Tiffany, members of the Squamish Nation, I raise my arms and say thank you. Dustin, you were one my first First Nation apprentices in this evolving work, and the first one to support and push for the name “language hunter” as a way of talking about this unusual craft. May the success you’ve already created increase a hundredfold for the benefit of your people.

To Becky Bendixen, Unangax Dane and director of the Sngagim Axasniikangin dance troupe, for your enthusiasm, your big heart, and your partnership - I hug you and I bless your drums, your feet, and your native voice.

To Joel Shempert, dear friend and courageous adventurer, I cannot thank you enough your support and company on this trail. I hug you, and sing my part in our duet.

To the LH Board members past, present, and future - Eric Bernando, Adrienne Flagg, Marty Nelson, Ian Gates, Tim Holbert - you have been a family and a place to come home to in this work. Your inspiration re-inspires me. I embrace you all, and thank you.

To the LH interns - Ana, Johnny, Drew, Maggie, Norah - you courageous crew-members of the S.S. Language Hunter - I offer you hugs, and a bottomless bowl of nut mix.

To Zhon Johansen, agilist, public speaking coach, and avid language hunter - for your hunger to master language hunting, your support, and your coaching, I shake your hand. It’s an honor to have you as a friend.

To Brían Ó hAirt, gifted speaker of Irish and traditional musician, and an increasingly skilled peer in this craft. You’ve given your time, your voice, and your heart to this work right when we needed you. I bow deeply to you and hold my eternal indebtedness precious.

To RaVen Sequoia - fierce and gentle heart, eloquent speaker of ASL - English is not sufficient for describing everything that Language Hunting, and I, owe you. You are an aunt to my children, a godmother to this craft, even as you profess to still be its student. I bless you and your hands.

To Glenda Eoyang, the newest mentor helping this work - the wisdom in Human Systems Dynamics has opened up secret valleys filled with the trails of new and exciting insights, and expanded my vision to an even greater whole. A hug and a deeply appreciative thanks for continuing my growth as a designer of learning.

To all those others who’ve given of themselves to help create a deeply multilingual world through the craft of Language Hunting - I do not forget you, I do not abandon you - a deep bow, a hearty thanks, and Good Hunting!


Though I’m responsible for this book, Language Hunting is bigger than any one person. I am the President of Language Hunters, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that I and others formed to spread this craft around the world.

For more information on connecting with the larger community of play, check out language hunting online:


I encourage you to come to our gatherings, events, and workshops, and do your part to develop this community system of language learning.

Please note that through this book, all-caps italicized text (i.e., SIGNAL STRENGTH, ALIVE, LIMIT) indicates a rule of play you can investigate further in chapters 10 and 15.


It’s Friday, about 11am, and I’m sitting in the community hall of a First Nation in British Columbia. Morning light is streaming in through tall windows - in a grassy field outside I can see weathered totem poles standing, hewn decades before by an elder sitting next to me, and beyond the poles and the grassy field the ocean sparkles. There are several elders sitting here with me - one of which all the staff of the local indigenous language program agree is the most fluent in the community. She may even be the only one fluent at an adult level.

We’re sitting around a small low table with a casino green tablecloth, a stick and a rock lie simply and almost zen-like upon it. We’re “hunting” language from our fluent elder by playing a language game that consists of a simple conversation, and periodically looking to her when we need more language, or a clarification. We’re doing this without any translations.

“Alqutax waya?” [“What is that?”]

“Waya noX aqoX” [“That is a rock.”]

“Waya noX alii’Xii?” [“Is that a rock?”]

“Ang, waya noX aqox” [“Yes, that’s a rock.”]

“Waya yaagaX alii’Xii?” [“Is that stick?”]

“KuGu’! “YaagaX alUkUX, noX aqoX” [“No, that’s not a stick. That’s a rock.”] 1

This exchange that we’re creating, though profoundly simple, is almost completely new for the entire tribal language staff. That’s right - even they can’t have this simple conversation without the help of the fluent elder. This doesn’t surprise me - on the contrary, this is so common as to be unremarkable, in spite of the competent, bright, college educated teachers that we at Language Hunters so often work with. Somehow, in language classrooms everywhere, and particularly for unusual or endangered languages, the ability to have a simple conversation is overlooked. Having a conversation as soon as possible is just not a part of the current language education paradigm. Students memorize songs, verb conjugations, and lists of nouns, but the ability to put together a sentence fluently in a back and forth exchange is very difficult to find (or achieve).

Suddenly, about 40 indigenous high school students walk in. They’re frisky and seem unsure about why they’re here. A colleague and I have been expecting them - hoping they’d arrive today. One of the greatest challenges in communities with endangered languages simply is getting people to show up. And young people are the most valuable players of all, for language hunting.

The game now has to adapt. We split them into two groups of twenty, and have the local language staff lead the “What is that? Yes/No” game we just designed that morning.

Within about 15 minutes, 40 high schools students are chanting along simultaneously, having a conversation that hasn’t been spoken by youth for several decades. Leadership of the game is now being traded off amongst the players - the high schoolers are leading the conversation now, passing it back and forth.

The fluent elder is sitting next to me again. The hall is echoing with a fluent conversation in the language of her youth, of family, home, and tradition.

“It’s a miracle,” she whispers.

I won’t mince words - I believe Language Hunting is revolutionary. It breaks all the rules - even better, it rewrites them. Through a simple system of game play and collaboration, and a tight improvement cycle, it continues to teach me anew what is possible, opening doors that lead to other doors. The game is a little different every time I play it, and I may not even recognize it in 5 or 10 years.

Honestly, it’s a bit overkill. In some ways it feels like putting a rocket engine on a stock car. Sometimes I forget to slow down and take a breath. I forget that it’s not about speed. Focusing on speed can ruin games and paralyze players; paradoxically though, acceleration happens naturally once you stop thinking about it. I call it the “wind in your hair” effect.

Endangered languages are dying at an accelerating rate. It’s a terrible, global crisis. The maintenance of our ancestral languages correlates with a strong sense of identity, which correlates with social and physical health. Language loss goes hand-in-hand with drug abuse, poverty, and a myriad of other social crises.

And almost nothing has been working to address the language crisis; vitalizing endangered languages has been a nearly intractable problem. What few single methodologies that have worked have their limitations.

Language Hunting was born as the result of throwing everything we know that works at the problem - Total Physical Response, Signed Exact English, the ACTFL proficiency scale, Where Are Your Keys?, Spolin Theater games, Coyote Mentoring, Master/Apprentice, Communicative Learning, Language Immersion, Peer Mentoring, NLP, Appreciative Inquiry, Agile teamwork practices, Human Systems Dynamics, and on and on.

But more than a fancy pedigree, Language Hunting emerged over thousands of hours of game play, each game ending with questions - “What happened? What does that mean? What do we want to do more of? What do we want to do differently?”

By answering these questions, we continue to shape the destiny of Language Hunting, into a maturing craft of individual and community language acquisition.

An art, a science, the game at the table is our laboratory, and what we learn there can be taken anywhere as we hunt language from fluent speakers in coffee shops, living rooms, classrooms, workplaces, and on the street.

It’s difficult to teach Language Hunting with a book. It’s rather like trying to teach Karate with a book. I know you can’t learn to language hunt simply by reading, at some point you’ll need to act. So I’m being very conscious of the goal of this book.

This book will provide you with the background, theory, and structure for how and why Language Hunting works. This then will be your springboard for action.

I want this book to inspire you to pursue this art, and to become a Language Hunter. With your confidence buoyed by what you’ve read here, I want you to play along with the online videos, run language hunting experiments of your own, create fellow players. I want you to track us down at Language Hunters, give us feedback, attend our community workshops and gatherings, donate to our non-profit organization, and join the growing community of play.

Our vision, the vision of Language Hunting, is a deeply multilingual world - where a 20 language child is an everyday phenomenon. In such a world, endangered languages will be a thing of the past.

  1. I’ve changed the language (this one is Unangam Tunuu, and written in an ascii orthography) to protect community privacy, but this should give a good feel for how unusual indigenous North American languages can feel to an English speaker.

1. The Life of a Language Hunter

You’re walking down a cobbled street in a small town, somewhere in Italy. The sun is warming the front of a small cafe, and you see some men and women sitting at a table. They’re speaking in a language you don’t recognize - it definitely doesn’t bear any resemblance to the Italian you learned for this trip.

You see a single empty chair, come up to the table, gesture at the chair, ask if you can sit down. They clearly don’t understand your English, though they understand the gesture. A man stands up and encourages you to sit down by holding the chair and gesturing you to it.

They’re smiling and seem excited to have a foreign visitor, but unsure how to proceed, talking amongst themselves. You choose two objects on the table, a full and empty cup, and you begin to hunt the mystery language that they’re speaking.

In minutes, they’re laughing and applauding. In a half hour you’re having a complex interaction in the language, passing objects back and forth in what they understand is a kind of game. In two hours you are able to get the simple gist of what they’re saying as they talk to each other, though you still can only ask and answer some very basic questions yourself. You’re invited home with them, and spend the next week sleeping on different beds, in different houses, becoming fluently conversant in a language that finally turns out to be East Central Friulian, a minority language spoken in Italy.

During your time here, on the side, you’ve also managed to quickly teach many of the children, and a couple adults, conversational English, through the same simple games you played with Friulian. They’ve begun to share these English games with yet other friends, in a contagious spread that you know has no endpoint.

You’ve made some dear friends and had an exhilarating week.

1.1 The Case for Language Hunting

This is the heart of Language Hunting. The free exchange of language ability, from person to person, fostering human connections, respect, dignity, and friendship.

Once you begin to hunt language, it’s so infectious and natural, you can’t really stop; becoming a polyglot, becoming multilingual, is more or less inevitable. It just requires running into foreign speakers with time, and though each of these time-scales - a few minutes, a half hour, two hours, or regular meetings over weeks and months - produce different levels of ability, the learning still begins right away.

Though I wish it were true, I don’t believe everyone in the world will become a Language Hunter. I think of it as a kind of “mental martial-art” for language learning - if you look around you, how many friends, family, and colleagues do you know that practice a martial-art? 1 in 20? More? Less? Language Hunters will probably become no more prevalent than any other practitioners of a skill that requires such passion and time.

Not everybody needs to become a Language Hunter, however. Almost anybody can lead a simple language game that a hunter has designed. And anybody can play. I’ve played with all ages, and all mental abilities. The game works; it only requires tweaking for different environments.

Those who master this tweaking eventually become Language Hunters.

1.2 How Do People React to Language Hunting?

It’s the Agile 2011 conference, in Salt Lake City. This conference is for innovative professionals belonging to a particular subculture of software development. I’ve been invited to present a session on language hunting. I’m in the Great America hotel, sitting at a round table covered in a green table cloth, seeing if I can attract players while I wait. Though one of the smaller rooms, the ceiling stretches high above me, light pours in through towering small-paned windows, and a dizzying complex pattern dances on the carpet under my feet.

Across the table is Jonathan, a speaker of Parisian French. He has the broad smile and intense eyes of a mad scientist, and yet is thoughtful, kind, and cautious. He is intrigued; he wants me to hunt his language. I ask him, “How do you say ‘What is that?’ in your French?”

“You say, ‘C’est quoi?’”

“Alright…then, ‘C’est quoi?’” I say, offering the black pen to him, pointing at it with my eyes.

“C’est un stylo noir.”

We go back and forth, I hunt through Yes/No, and we pause. I want to make sure he’s enjoying himself. “What do you think?” I ask.

“It’s exhilarating!” he says with a smile, his eyes dancing about the room.

Later on I play with Ariadna, a Catalán speaker. She becomes so excited by the short hunt that she asks a bystander to record the exchange on her iPhone, so her mother can see the video. “This is amazing!” she says.

A Polish speaker named Kate sits down. She has been encouraged to come play by a mutual friend, I’ve never met her before. We play for an hour, passing a full and empty glass of water back and forth, getting deeper and deeper into the Polish language. I’m pulling other players at the table through it, bringing them along with me for the ride. She tells the growing crowd of onlookers, “they’ve learned more Polish in this short time than language students learn in several months, or even their entire first year of study! Polish is one of, if not the most, difficult languages.” Kate grins and shakes her head.

I look at my fellow players. They’re all smiling. I can tell they’re thinking something along the lines of - “I could get used to learning everything this way!”

1.3 I Didn’t Promise You A Rose Garden

Accelerated, deep learning is almost entirely woven out of the strands of the human heart, out of feelings. This should surprise you; our institutions tell us that learning is a matter of mind and discipline. Though mind and discipline do play a role, I have found that it is a relatively small one.

In fact feelings are so powerful, that when we do on rare occasions hit major obstacles, tears and anger often result, especially when it comes to the emotionally charged issue of endangered heritage languages. Here’s one example.

It’s August, 2009, in Ferndale, WA, on the Lummi Reservation, and I’m sitting in a newly built log-cabin style hall. We were on the second day of Unangam Tunuu (Aleut language) Language Camp, honored to have the help of Iliodor Philemonof as our fluent elder. Our partner Becky Bendixen, head of the NW Unangax Culture non-profit and Sngagim Axasniikangin dance troupe was thrilled after a day and a half of constant language games with a small but diverse group of Unangax - elders, preteens, teens, twentysomethings, parents.

And then it happened.

Through hunting Iliodor’s language, we discover that the words for possession in Unangam Tunuu that correspond to “Mine” and “Yours” are almost indistinguishable to the English-minded ear. “MAH-yoon”, and “Mah-YOONG”.

We turn this into a language game, but I can feel the scattered conversation pairs breaking down. Everyone is confused and struggling. The room grinds to a halt. Where once was laughter, heads are shaking, people are giving up. Becky breaks down in tears. I tell her not to worry, that we’ll get there.

“But what if I can’t learn my language?” she responds, tears streaming down her cheeks. If she can’t learn it, she can’t teach it. The pressure is immense.

She was flying along, conversing, feeling hope for the first time as she was having real, fluent conversations in her language - and then the door slammed shut. All that success and ability zinging through her, and then complete frustration.

It’s almost dangerous to open up such powerful feelings. But if you’re going to language hunt, you need to be willing to experience this.

1.4 The Clash of Cultures

Make no mistake, this is a new kind of learning, bearing little or no resemblance to what students and teachers have previously encountered in formal or institutional environments - schools, colleges, much tutoring, and so on. As exhilarating as it is for some, it is frustrating for others. All the skills and habits of learning they have acquired so far, through honest hard work, need to be thrown out to make room for the radically different skills of accelerated learning.

New students often want to take notes, to translate, to have some familiar kind of control over the language game. It is possible to compromise the two, but honestly it does a disservice to expectations on both sides. Language Hunters will want the speed they are used to; language classroom veterans will wonder when they can stop playing this game and get down to the “serious work”.

That’s not to say Language Hunting doesn’t belong in a classroom. It does, I’ve used it there many times with great success. But on its own terms, not as a compromise.

As a teacher, you just need to think of your students as fellow Language-Hunters-in-training. Unload the responsibility for becoming fluent onto your students as soon as you can. Learn from them too - teenagers have the potential to become the most effective Language Hunters ever.

As a student, you need to hunt what you’re encountering in class for material to build language games to use on your own, or with classmates, outside of class. It’s also possible to try to start a revolution in-class and convince your teacher to try Language Hunting - probably the best way to do that is to use it yourself to show its effectiveness before inciting a classroom-wide paradigm shift.

2. Where to Begin?

There are many ways to approach the craft of Language Hunting. I’m going to offer you five different starting places - I’m sure you’ll get to them all, eventually, so just pick the one that you find most energizing.

One word of warning. There’s a lot here. It may feel intimidating. I certainly think I would have been intimidated by this text, had I learned Language Hunting this way.

Nibble bite-sized pieces. There is no element too small to take on and experiment with. You simply cannot break Language Hunting - it’s very robust. You will never stop improving your play (I’m certainly still learning new things every day); but if you never start playing to begin with…

So where to begin? Here are your choices.

2.1 Do It Right Now

Yes. Always my personal favorite option. Put this book down. Log on to the internet. Go to the Language Hunters homepage1. Choose a language (at this time, January 2013, your best bet is probably Irish/Gaeilge2), start with the intro video to the series. Play until you’re fluent (or have questions), then come back to this book.

2.2 Look at the Big Picture

Part of this book is dedicated to offering a big-picture understanding of how humans learn, as individuals and groups, and how that relates to accelerated learning, and the global endangered language crisis. In the following chapters, 1 - “The Life of a Language Hunter”, 4 - “The Flow of Learning”, 5 - “Learning is a Feeling”, 15 - “the Rules of Accelerated Learning”, 8 - “Community Mosaic”, and 9 - “Endangered Language, Endangered Communities”, you’ll find more about the theory of how the game works and brings communities together.

2.3 Look at the Details

Start with the nitty-gritty details of Language Hunting by reading “What Does it Look Like”, “Ten Tiny Hunts”, and “Applying the Rules to Language Hunting”.

2.4 Read the Stories

Scattered throughout this book are short stories about our experiences hunting - our challenges, successes, and epiphanies. Feel free to skim this book for these vignettes to get an overall sense for how it feels to be a language hunter.

2.5 Explore the Science

In chapter 16 you’ll find references to research that supports and illuminates the work we’re doing. This is just a starting point; new research is emerging all the time about cognition and language learning.

2.6 Now It’s Your Turn

Now it’s time to make your decision. Best of luck, and remember, there’s no one right way to learn to language hunt, just follow your nose.


3. What Does it Look Like?

Language Hunting is a system of constantly-improving game rules adaptable to many contexts. There are many ways of describing it. First, let’s walk through an overall sense of what you see and hear during play in different situations, as follows:

  1. the “Language Hunt!” Game - Fluent Leader
  2. the “Language Hunt!” Game - Fluent Fool
  3. the “Language Hunt!” Game - Bucket Brigade
  4. the “Language Hunt!” Game - Hunting Pack
  5. Language Hunting in the Field

3.1 The “Language Hunt!” Game - Fluent Leader

This form of the game is most common, because it is both the training ground for new players, and the laboratory for improving the core system.

The most common thing you’ll see in a workshop, at a game night, or on instructional videos, is 4 players sitting around a table with a green table cloth. Each one has a black or red pen. They are speaking and signing1 simultaneously and in chorus, in a foreign language. They are going around the table over and over, gesturing at each successive object in turn, speaking and signing together.

At some point, you can tell the conversation breaks into two sides; questions and answers. Each player picks a single side for any one interaction. At any particular time, only half are asking, and the other half are answering, still in chorus and signing along.

It’s clear that one player is leading the game, cueing the group what to say with their voice and sign, and how to play. This game leader also is clearly fluent in the target language. She/he is the Fluent Leader.

Once they’ve acquired sufficient language to do so, players begin passing the objects back and forth, adding new ones to play, removing old ones, and so on.

3.2 The “Language Hunt!” Game - Fluent Fool

This form of the game is the second most common - for endangered language scenarios this is usually how the game starts.

Once again, you see a green tablecloth, but there are only two props. One for the game leader, and one for the FLUENT FOOL2.

Through body language and emoting, the game leader is emoting, prompting the FLUENT FOOL to respond to questions, immersed in the language. No English (or other bridge language) is used, except for explaining the play of the game.

The other players sit around the table, or in an outside concentric ring of chairs. The play consists of the game leader pulling a bite-sized piece of language out of the FLUENT FOOL, double-checking it with her/him, and then playing through it with the other players.

3.3 The “Language Hunt!” Game - Bucket Brigade

This form of the game is the full maturation of game design as applied to any one language - it requires one experienced Hunter per table, and is the most effective way to teach a language to an entire community as quickly as possible.

In a large room, you see a series of tables, each one a short distance from the next, and the familiar props. Each table represents one major conversation point from zero to adult-level fluency. Each table is run by an experienced Language Hunter, who acts as a door-keeper, moving players onwards, or holding them back until they’re ready to proceed to the next level of conversation.

3.4 The “Language Hunt!” Game - Hunting Pack

This form of the game is the rarest - it requires a team of experienced players.

In this game, every player is a leader, very close to each other in fluency, pushing language, pulling language, adding props, sharing new insights, exploring how far the group’s proficiency has reached so far.

In this way a group of Language Hunters is much more effective than any lone hunter. New language and learnings are quickly diffused through the group during play, as each hunter eagerly shares what they’ve hunted most recently.

3.5 Language Hunting in the Field

Though fairly common, I’ve listed this last - as it resembles the others the least. All that is required is a single Language Hunter, though the more the better.

This can look like no more than a conversation between two people (the Hunter and the native speaker), in some everyday environment - perhaps a lunch table is cleared of most (or all) of its clutter, but equally likely the Hunter accommodates the fact that the conversation is happening over lunch3, with the various debris and distraction that entails.

The experienced Language Hunter has played in immaculately designed game environments4 so many times, and built up so much confidence, that he/she can handle sensory and environmental chaos that would easily break a normal game with new players.

Onlookers will see that the conversation goes back and forth, the native speaker gets more and more excited as they begin to have an actual conversation with this new friend. Sounds of their home dialect, the everyday language of family, tradition, identity, begin coming out of this former stranger’s mouth. The native speaker is commonly quite energized from the conversation.

  1. There are exceptions to this, as noted in the “Sign and Gesture” chapter.
  2. Someone fluent in the target language, but with no obligation or ability to teach or language hunt.
  3. Likely, the Hunter has selected the restaurant because it’s the speaker’s favorite lunch place, according to the rule A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS (see chapter 15 “The Rules of Accelerated Learning”).
  4. See rules such as ALIVE, NARROWED SCOPE, DESIGNED ENVIRONMENT, BLACK PEN/RED PEN/GREEN TABLE, and so on, in chapters 10 and 15.

4. The Flow of Learning

The Essential Cycle of Learning Flow

The Essential Cycle of Learning Flow

The central theory of Language Hunting is that there is a core process constantly running in a learning environment. At its most essential, it can be represented as a wheel balancing two forces.

If you haven’t already, please view at least portions of a handful of online videos, so that you can picture this process more clearly1.

Focus (the effort required to absorb new ability) requires Energy (upbeat, positive, active energy). Focusing uses up Energy, which you then need to recharge in order to continue Focusing.

This applies to yourself as a self-directed learner when learning solo, it applies to your partner when you’re both learning as a pair, and it applies to leading group learning. You can manage the Energy and Focus in all these situations the same way.

There is, of course, a little bit of Focus required for generating Energy, and there is playful Energy you can generate while maintaining Focus. They aren’t exclusive of one another. In the beginning, however, it will help to think of them as two separate forces you are managing.

4.1 The Fluent Edge

The place of the FLUENT EDGE

The place of the FLUENT EDGE

There is another kind of “flow” that needs to be mentioned here - what athletes call “being in the Zone,” others may call it “complete engagement in the present moment.” Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s book Flow contains a tremendous amount of information on the value of this “flow” state.

I call it THE FLUENT EDGE. Language game play has shown us that we can create, and maintain, this “flow” state by setting the challenge level of the game right at the place of THE FLUENT EDGE.

If challenge is too low for too long, boredom results. If challenge is too high for more than a moment or two, overwhelm, panic, and anxiety results.

At the simplest level, there is a feedback loop here. When bored, to increase challenge, add a new bite-sized piece of skill. If overwhelmed, to decrease it, remove a bite-sized piece.

There’s another aspect to the FLUENT EDGE that may surprise you - whatever new BITE-SIZED PIECE you’re adding right now, is not the one you’re truly becoming fluent in; it’s the one several pieces back. There is a lag effect in building fluency - whatever you’re taking for granted right now, whatever you’re building upon, is what you’re truly becoming fluent in.

This is useful to keep in mind - in order to solidify fluency in an ability, you must be using it to learn something else.

4.2 Managing the Learning Cycle

Factors of Learning Flow

Factors of Learning Flow

Let’s say you are about to kickstart your learning environment, and you are leading a group. If your group is excited and attentive you can proceed simply with the Focusing activity (i.e., adding a new piece of language to conversational play). But let’s say it’s not; instead, you notice that your players seem a little limp, nervous, reluctant. You’ll need to first inject Energy into the system - through inspiration, play, positivity, silliness, group-connection, trust. There are many easy tools for doing this; ice-breakers, inspirational storytelling, children’s games, and so on. I’m a big fan of the “Zip, Zap, Zop” kid’s game, but any high-energy, physical game can work - if it’s relevant to the target language or local community, even better. You may want to do some research beforehand to choose the best game.

Once your group is humming with playful energy, direct it into your Focus by beginning your first Language Hunt game. Being a “game,” it has an energy generator built into it, which will extend the life of your Focus activity.

4.3 Looking for Feedback

Learning Flow 2: Feedback

Learning Flow 2: Feedback

There’s a missing element though; unless your group is composed of super language geeks2, the energy generator contained in the game of Language Hunting won’t last forever. Even if they are, you’ll still want to be looking for Feedback on how and when you need to inject more Energy into the learning environment. Is the game too challenging or too easy? Is the room too cold, or too hot? Are the players mentally fatigued and needing a change of pace?

Change the game according to the Feedback. As soon as possible, you want the players themselves to take more responsibility for making these judgements by applying game rules such as FULL, EXTENDED FAMILY, THE MEADOW (again, you can find these rules and more in chapters 10 and 15), and so on.

4.4 Game Flow

Game Flow - the Focus of Language Hunting

Game Flow - the Focus of Language Hunting

Let’s zoom in on the Focus element. In language hunting, Focus is the constant addition and absorption of new BITE-SIZED PIECES of language. You’ll experience this game flow over and over.

First, you add the new BITE-SIZED PIECE of language, role-modeling it. Then, the fellow players faithfully IMITATE it, almost like marionettes whose strings you are pulling. You work around the table, using MY TURN/YOUR TURN, adding the piece into the current conversation and working it over and over.

You will be feeling out the moment when you can start letting go of such strict game leadership, transitioning slowly to LIGHTLY-GUIDED PLAY. This kind of play is marked by you nudging players to use their new found fluency, through signed cues and PULLING THEM THROUGH IT.

The players themselves will signal FREE PLAY. They will become frisky, taking the initiative, testing the rules, flexing their new fluency. This is the time for playing with LINKED LISTS, 2+ WORDS SAME SENTENCE, and other language play (i.e. punning, tongue-twisters, etc.)

Before moving on to the next BITE-SIZED PIECE, and certainly before moving on to the next major conversation, you’ll want to make sure you have REINCORPORATED everything that has come before. Each conversation should contain the totality of what you have already covered. Breezing through WHAT, TRADING GAME, WHO, WHERE, HOW MANY, etc, one at a time and in isolation, will simply fragment your fluency. You’ll file all these conversations in your mind separately, and only combine them in a halting and hesitant fashion. Therefore, make sure to REINCORPORATE early and often.

  1. See for dozens of videos illuminating the Language Hunting process.
  2. In accord with the rule A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS (chapter 15), those with a prior interest in language study for its own sake will intrinsically derive energy from language hunting.

5. Memory, Retention, and Mnemonics

Language Hunting is a way of exploring language, in order to embody it. As you improve in this craft, your goal is not to learn any one language - your goal is to continually improve your learning process, with your increasing language proficiency as feedback to how well you’re doing. That may seem like a subtle difference, but it is a completely different world of learning than most of us are used to.

When it comes to fluency (and hunting it), we’re redefining what it means to “learn a language”, and maybe even what it means to learn anything.

5.1 Memory

Let’s start with the popular definition of “learning”. The dictionary definition orbits around the concepts of knowledge, comprehension, skill, and mastery. Yet somehow with language, common notions of learning seem to return over and over to memorization as a central activity and benchmark of success.

The elevation of rote learning and memory as the ultimate purpose of study, creates a classic trap for beginning language learners: the Novice trap. According to the 4 level1 ACTFL scale, Novice language proficiency is marked by a tendency to produce lists of nouns from memory - at this level anything more substantial than that is usually a regurgitated memorized phrase. Rote-learned greetings (“Good morning!”) and questions (“How are you! I am fine”) are wonderful markers of student motivation, and excellent conversational lubricants, but terrible indicators of actual progress.

You might wonder - “but isn’t this memorization the first step to becoming fluent?”. With Language Hunting, the answer is always: the first step to fluency is fluent action (see the rule FLUENCY). Whatever lies between the moment you “begin learning”, and the moment you say something meaningful in your target language, is a distraction from the goal of fluency and increased proficiency (except for effort invested in the DESIGNED ENVIRONMENT, and the overall design of your learning process, of course).

So am I saying that it doesn’t matter if you remember any language from a Language Hunt in the field, or during a game? No. Retention of language is remarkable in Language Hunting, and a critical factor in its effectiveness. A common example: Marty, a former board member at Language Hunters, still can speak the Squamish language conversation from a half-hour language game he played in June 2010 (over two and a half years ago, as of December 2012), with no practice or effort on his part to retain it in the meanwhile.

Marty isn’t special (besides being a great guy); this is the kind of phenomenon we rely on in Language Hunting. How is this possible? Well, it’s even weirder than you think.

5.2 The Morning After

I’ll let Maggie, a former intern (and ever-improving language hunter), tell her story.

August 2011. 7 o’ clock AM. The blinding white rays of sun shoot into my bedroom window like a laser beam. I awake, roll on to my back, and my first thought of the day takes hold. “Is peann déarg é!”, I state.

That is Irish, that translates to, “that is a red pen”, and that is just the tip of the iceberg of what I learned about a week ago at my first Language Hunters workshop with a focus on Irish in Aurora, Oregon. I birthed a baby Irish brain in my mind that weekend, and “is peann déarg é” are some of it’s first words. How adorable!

Let’s fast forward to later that same laser beam, sunny day, shall we? It’s 3 o’ clock in the afternoon and I’m attempting to explain to a friend my recent language acquisition.

“Tell me something in Irish!”, he demands excitedly.

“Oh, yeah………. uh.. is…..”, my mind is fumbling over various sounds and I can’t quite recall if any of them are particularly right.

I refrain. My mind is as murky as mud. I couldn’t think of a single thing that I had seemingly mastered over the course of the three day workshop. Nothing.

What’s up with that?!

Why can I fluently ask, “Is this my cup of tea?” in Irish while I’m putting on a pot of water at home, but not even get out, “What is that?” when someone wants to see what I know?

Well, here’s what I can gather. My baby Irish brain may appear to be like a human baby at first glance- cute, simple, accessible, and concrete. But, as I’m initially experiencing with Irish, this baby don’t wanna talk for just anybody. This baby is a little bit stubborn. My baby Irish brain has a mind of it’s own and I can only really get a grasp on it when it decides to “bubble up” according to its free will.

It may seem frustrating and a little bizarre, but isn’t that actually how learning works in real life? Outside of a classroom where a target language is regurgitated on demand, genuine learning tends to happen on its own time. Think about it this way- as a baby, nobody could get us to really, physically walk before we could do it with no assistance, on our own, right?

The picture is clearer now, but you still have to wonder- What’s up with that?!


Though this may be a surprising phenomenon to us, it is a reliable element of human learning called hysteresis, or STRETCH AND FOLD. Neuroscientists now say that “forgetting is the friend of learning” - this process of bouncing back and forth across the line of memory, is a natural and important part of the learning process. There is something about language hunting that amps the effect of hysteresis to a remarkable degree.

At first, we are stretching ourselves neurologically, causing the mental discomfort of new learning, much like in a physical stretch.

Then, we must “fold it in”, over and over, distributing that new ability throughout our neurology and body.

You can think of this as adding a new ingredient to bread dough - you roll the dough out flat, and throw a bit of spice in the middle. To average that out througout your neurology, you need to fold, knead, flatten, fold, knead, flatten, over and over, until that new knowledge has been distributed. If you don’t do this, there will still be a spot here or there empty of that new “ingredient” or ability.

When you exercise, you gain new muscle when you’re resting, not when your working out.

Learning is the same; you gain new ability during rest periods, such as sleep, or varying your study. STRETCHING into new territory is great, but you also must eventually FOLD to integrate it.

It might help to know that the Tzutujil Maya call the brain, “dough that remembers”.

This, quite simply, is how humans truly gain new ability, and there is no way around it.

In the hours after finishing language game play for the day, it’s extremely common for players, when trying to recall it, to feel that they’ve “forgotten” vital pieces of the language they’ve just been speaking. It’s even quite common for them to feel like they forgot everything.

This phenomenon, called “bubbling-up”, is unpredictable and untamable. Without intention upon the players part, language fluency “bubbles-up” on its own, in fits and starts, in odd moments, unbidden.

Missing from Maggie’s story above is another phenomenon experienced each morning after language game play. The same amount of players that report the short-term language loss, also report its spontaneous reappearance upon waking the next morning. This major, morning-after “bubbling-up” happens to me too - I wake up hearing the game conversations from yesterday, playing on their own in my head, with no effort on my part. It’s like listening to a language CD inside your head. This phenomenon inspired the rule SLEEP ON IT.

Here’s another story on memory, focusing on the SLEEP ON IT aspect, from Jay, a long time language hunter:

Last Fall I hunted a little Mandarin. There was a class on Chinese language, culture, and food for homeschoolers that met for an hour each week. The instructor, a woman from Taiwan, told me she enjoyed the food and culture part the most, and wasn’t sure how to teach her language.

I dropped in on a couple classes to see if I could help. I hunted her language with the kids in the class. I was there for 2 classes, and spent about 20 minutes each time on language.

I didn’t have an opportunity to use that bit of Mandarin for a while. A few months later I got the urge to run through those conversations again. But I couldn’t remember the words. I tried SIGNING to trigger the memory, but it didn’t help. The words didn’t come. I shrugged and let it go.

The next morning I found the words again. The conversations came easily.

I’m used to thinking of SLEEP ON IT as applying directly to a learning situation. You learn something, you sleep that night, and the next day you know it better.

But in this case, it was months later. It’s funny how memory works - something I thought was gone was still there. It just needed a trigger and a night’s sleep.

It’s this “bubbling-up” that we’re shooting for. We’re not trying to “remember” or “learn” anything - due to STRETCH AND FOLD we know that the human brain needs to bounce back and forth across the line of retention. What we’re practicing then is unconscious, effortless fluency in the moment. We want the language to speak us, rather than the other way ‘round. Our goal is to think in the language, not think “about” the language.

And by aiming for “bubbling-up” rather than memorization, we can focus on just practicing live conversation and language use.

Even when we do get to the skill of reading and writing fluently in your target language, rather than writing as note-taking, for practicing literacy we instead play the same conversational language games by passing notes back and forth, on the spot, to get what we want (the “passing notes in class” game). It’s this spontaneous free action that we want - not puzzling, remembering, and so on.

It’s not that there’s no place for puzzling either - we save the part of our brain that likes puzzling for applying and layering the rules of Language Hunting, running games, setting-up hunts in the field, and so on.

5.4 Why Mnemonics?

So is there no role for working your memory in language learning? On the contrary, there is a key role. Developing your memory skills is an important part of Language Hunting, but like literacy, it’s one we save for later, after you have a good grounding in the system.

Thinking in terms of memorizing can trigger bad habits and obsolete ways of learning. Once you’ve re-patterned yourself at a basic level, according to the skills of accelerated learning, you can start building your mnemonic skills.

Hunting language “in the wild” is where mnemonic tools come in most handy. When you’re having conversation with a native speaker, you want to capture as much live language as possible. This is when you want to use vivid envisioning, link and peg systems, and other mnemonic tools. Rather than taking written notes (which encourages bad habits and can’t capture living language anyway), you build mnemonics on-the-fly to make the language stick better. And/or you can record it with audio or video devices, but you’ll see more on this in the “Documentation” chapter.

The final joke of all: one of the most commonly forgotten pieces of language in a hunt, is “what is that?” - the most repeated, relied upon phrase to start conversations. The mind is a mysterious thing.

Watch for future editions of The Language Hunter’s Kit where we will explore in more detail the basics of association and recall through the tools of VIVIDNESS, LINKS, and PEGS.

  1. ACTFL recently updated their scale to include a fifth level, Distinguished. We’ve been working with the four levels for long enough that we leave off mentioning the fifth level until players are more experienced.

6. Sign and Gesture

I’m devoting an entire chapter to the use of Signed Exact English (SEE) and American Sign Language (ASL) in Language Hunting; it’s one of the more noticeable parts of the system, and I field a lot of questions on it.

6.1 One Learning Accelerator of Many

This is the most important thing to remember. Yes, sign language is powerful. But it is not what drives Language Hunting; what drives the system are the core rules of ALIVE, FLUENCY, SIGNAL STRENGTH, NARROWED SCOPE, and DESIGNED ENVIRONMENT.

If you have arthritis, no arms, or there is some other factor that prevents you from personally using sign, you can still Language Hunt. You’ll just need to up the intensity of your other accelerated learning tools to compensate. And you’ll still benefit from fellow players pairing sign with their spoken language.

6.2 Universal Language?

Using SEE and ASL as common bridge languages has accelerated communication between language hunters around the world, and it’s tempting to think of these languages as the “universal sign” of Language Hunting. And yet there’s a trap.

It’s the same trap as with any standardized or “universal” system. It can easily crush diversity, life, and new thinking. In my mind, the utility of SEE/ASL as a universal language in this craft is a far lesser priority than supporting the diversity of signed languages and their speech communities.

6.3 The Beautiful and Diverse Speech of the Hands, Face, and Body

There are many, many signed languages, and many dialects of each. Besides being worthy languages to learn, share, and revitalize on their own terms, by also focusing (whenever possible) on hunting and applying the local, culturally relevant signed language to the corresponding spoken language of the area, Language Hunting offers us an opportunity to introduce a culture’s hearing community to the deaf community living among them. The deaf are often marginalized, invisible to mainstream eyes - there is a possibility of bringing them back into the center of the communal space. Deaf signers are the unsung heroes of language hunting; I would say by maintaining their beautiful signed systems of speech they are doing more to help accelerated learning, by keeping these languages alive, than any single other group. This might surprise you. Let me tell you why.

Signed languages are intricate and masterful systems of pantomime, hand use, emoting, mastery of facial expression, and more. Fluent signers are constantly experimenting with the most elegant and impactful ways to speak eloquently with one’s hands, face, and body. This is vital work - it’s a core tool for boosting SIGNAL STRENGTH - and it’s the deaf who are at the center of doing it.

6.4 Learning ASL or Your Local Signed Language

With my ASL mentor and native Deafie RaVen Sequoia, we’ve already developed the core of a “Race to the Party” in ASL. Until we get this on video, and barring your ability to learn from other players locally, or Language Hunters staff at a workshop, you’ll need to pursue some good-enough-for-now options.

There are many video dictionaries for ASL online; just search for “ASL dictionary”. Local Deaf social events are great ways to get involved too. You can begin language hunting ASL at these just like you would a spoken language. There are also community college classes and other similar resources (see “The Clash of Cultures” for how students can apply language hunting in a classroom setting).

The very last option (for the purposes of learning sign for language hunting), 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- start doing something, anything, right away that pushes you in the direction of meaningful action.

7. The Community Mosaic

I’m sitting in Language Hunters’ small, brightly lit video studio, CFL lights are glowing brilliantly but coolly from the walls to match the bright grey Portland sky coming in through the window. Our team of interns is here, and so is Brían Ô hAirt, our fluent Irish speaker leading the games, and a gifted musician in traditional Irish music.

We’ve been spending several hours a day, over several weeks, to make the first draft of the Irish Language Hunt video series.

During a break, I’ve asked them - why are you all here? Why are you obsessed with language hunting? Some respond right away, others mull over it thoughtfully.

Brían pipes up: “Why? Because it has revitalized my interest in the language…for the first time, I’m creating a language community around me.”

7.1 Language As Community

Language is kept alive and revitalized by everyone in a community. Babies, children, teens, twenty-somethings, on up to elders - everyone plays a critical role in keeping the community treasure of language alive.

Though it’s possible to talk to yourself (I do all the time), truly living language is something that happens between two speakers. Language is community, an art-form of the people. Anyone, even the most unlikely people, can make a joke, coin a new phrase, speak new eloquence. And so a language lives, breathes, evolves.

To be effective, a language learning technique must be usable where the people are - their living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, workplaces, on the sidewalks and in the street - right in the middle of their busy lives and conversations.

That’s why we designed Language Hunting not just to tolerate, but actually thrive in environments where all ages and learning levels are present.

7.2 There Are Many Roles to Play

There are some common roles, depending on the age of players. These are not set in stone, by any means; but I have noticed some general trends1.

Babies, toddlers, and children add energy and vitality to the conversation space. They echo and imitate the conversations without any prodding during their play nearby, around, between, and underneath the game conversations. Their very presence encourages “prosocial” behaviors - trust, collaboration, play - that leads to accelerated learning in adults.

Preteens and teens are just coming into their own as adult learners, able to combine children’s play, and the highly adaptive neurology of their young minds, with adult “meta” thinking. As they progress, their ability to combine this playful adaptability while wielding the rules of language hunting increases, most likely peaking in the late teens and early twenties. At this time they are still energetic, playful, silly, quick to learn, with college-age minds that can also perform with great technical skill. There is also tremendous economic and vocational opportunity here for this age group, as they will be among the world’s most effective language teachers and interpreters, and just starting out in their lives as economically.

Adults in their late twenties through middle-age may have less of this neurological “flexibility”, but have an edge as socially mature people (and better yet, as parents). The best language teachers in the world are mothers, and we continue to harvest new insights from watching mothers interact with their young children. As socially mature adults, language hunters can have greater insight into making fluent speakers comfortable and happy, keeping conversations going, and keeping a group together. I’m still surprised that none of my intern/apprentices at Language Hunters has passed me by in ability yet; apparently youth (and a young brain) isn’t everything, even in language learning.

Elders present some interesting paradoxes. If they already speak the target language, their roles are cut out for them - it’s their job just to speak, and keep the most elevated levels of discourse and conversation alive2. If they don’t speak the target language, but rather are part of the community wanting to learn it (and to learn to language hunt), they do have some neurological obstacles to tackle. I’ve found the most resistance to absorbing the skills of language hunting from people age 50+, and the most frustration at not being able to translate, take notes, and so on. However, I’ve also seen amazing language hunters emerge in this age range. And there is always the example of Kató Lomb, the hungarian polyglot (a fluent interpreter in 9 languages, translator of even more), who was still learning new languages till the day she died at the age of 91.

  1. You can read more about this under the rule WE’LL ALL GET THERE TOGETHER, and in the chapter “the Science of Language Hunting”.
  2. On the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages ACTFL language proficiency scale, we’d say their job is to keep Superior-level proficiency alive.

8. Endangered Languages, Endangered Communities

When asked why we should care about endangered languages, I respond by saying I’m the wrong person to ask.

By this I mean, if the crisis is not obvious to you - if your heart isn’t aching over this - how am I to give you the empathy required to understand what it’s like to lose an identity? To be lost in the smothering storm of globalized media and culture? To lose your literature, your lullabies, your jokes, your family histories, your named and storied landscape?

What if an English speaker lost all of this - all of Shakespeare, all the novelists, all the conversation, all the movies, all the sports culture? Imagine what would be lost if all this were translated into another language, like Mandarin Chinese. How different it would feel - how unfamiliar, off, unmoored from your identity, sense of self, and your cultural root.

Strength of identity goes hand-in-hand with social and physical health, and a loss of identity corresponds with a loss of social and physical health. Research is being done on this as we speak1, but it’s something that is very familiar to indigenous peoples the world over.

And lastly, every endangered language represents a unique point of view, a logical system, a paradigm for thinking about the world. Each carries its own insights, wisdom, and encoded knowledge. Switching from language to language feels to me like switching brains, or changing entire worlds.

As you can tell, I’m helpless, I can’t stop, I usually go ahead and try to answer the question anyway. But I don’t fool myself - I don’t think I’ll actually change any minds by responding.

It’s not my job. My job is to train guerrilla language revitalization activists. To train communities to become their own experts at maintaining the vitality of their language. Nobody knows the value of what they’re losing better than the people to whom the language and culture belongs.

There are approximately 7,000 languages in the world, we may lose half of them by 2050, and 90% of them by the end of the century. These are dire statistics, but with some luck, I think we can create a much happier ending to this story unfolding before us.

8.1 Looking for Solutions to the Endangered Language Crisis

It’s easy to get lost in the international super-spy, whiz-bang aspects of Language Hunting - go anywhere, learn any language, rapidly and smoothly. But the original reason we developed this overkill system of language acquisition was due to the intractability of the problem of endangered languages. Nothing conventional was working - and what was working, had its limits2.

What we needed is an explosion of revitalization, a revolution. In terms of interest and awareness, that is exactly what’s going on in the world of endangered indigenous languages. Everyone is looking for ways to improve how they maintain the vitality of their language.

But we haven’t yet reached a momentum shift, the turning point where we’ve cracked the fundamental problem that is keeping this crisis alive.

8.2 Speakers and Teachers

Endangered languages have two fundamental problems: not enough speakers, and not enough teachers (due to the difficulty of training and keeping them). Though this may seem common sense, it’s this insight that allows us to make the next leap; we must therefore train every student as a potential teacher, and we must prioritize speech, daily conversational ability, over any other factor (such as literacy, an abstract understanding of grammar, etc.)

What we discovered, my colleagues, apprentices, and I, was that this new kind of student, this new kind of teacher, what you could call a “speaker-teacher”, was the first manifestation of what would eventually become the Language Hunter.

8.3 Applying Language Hunting to an Endangered Language

If you’d like to share Language Hunting with your community to revitalize your heritage language, or with another community that has an endangered language, there are several things to be aware of. You’re diving into a social issue with deep roots into all kinds of areas - culture, politics, colonialism, trauma, oppression, and a long history.

There isn’t enough room here to go into the history of residential schools and its impact on language3; this was a worldwide colonial strategy - Russia, Canada, the United States, Australia, Africa, and beyond. You can find residential schools almost everywhere there is an endangered language. Suffice to say they were a very effective tool for removing (stealing) indigenous youth from their families and dispossessing them of their cultures and language. The more you understand this issue, the more you read up and investigate it, the better you’ll be able to understand the mixed emotions of the elderly fluent speakers you work with, and the community around you.

If you are not a member of the community you’d like to help, you’ll need to be invited by a team of community liaisons, with whom you’ll be working intensively.

8.4 Outside-In: The Community Liaison Team

As someone coming in from the outside, you’ll have the greatest chance of successfully training another community in language hunting if you have a team of community members to work with.

Though it is possible to have an impact with just a single partner, your ideal team at minimum is a young pair, each with an elder mentor who speaks the language. An example scenario would be a brother and sister in their mid-twenties, with their fluent grandparents as mentors.

This grandchild-grandparent language connection is very important, and instrumental in making the whole venture as stable as possible.

As always, you try to get as much of this ideal team as possible, and work with what you get.

8.5 Sizing Up the Level of Challenge

As a language hunter, your ideal language acquisition environment is a large, tightly-knit community, in close geographic proximity, that eats together, plays together, and works together. Speakers are fluent at all levels on the ACTFL scale4, and every age group, from babies to elders, is fully participating.

Anything less than this idealized situation of full vitalized community fluency presents an element of challenge that you will need to solve with the tools of Language Hunting. Peeling this situation apart, the various factors are:

  1. Dialects (at the region, village, and family levels)
  2. Diaspora (How spread out is the community? What’s the geography?)
  3. Intergenerational Transmission (How involved are the various age groups and at what proficiency levels? How involved are teenagers/high-school age community members?)
  4. Cohesion (how often do they eat, play, or work together? How often does the community have cultural events? Do the speakers speak to each other? Does the community have a high school? How many kids? How close is the community’s high school to the community center/language revitalization team?)
  5. Language Domains (Home? Work? Government? Media?)
  6. Number and ACTFL proficiency level of Fluent Speakers

This approach was heavily influenced by the guidelines released by the UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages in 2003. However, we at Language Hunters include several factors that UNESCO does not consider, and we did not include a few factors that the Expert Group found important - such as New Domains (i.e, the internet) and Documentation (video, audio, text). Though we believe the internet and documentation, in certain contexts, can be valuable for maintaining the vitality of language, their presence or absence does not indicate a degree of language vitality that we’re trying to measure.

We want to know: is this language still at the center of this community’s identity, and how strong is this identity? There is plenty of room for multilinguality and the presence of other languages in other appropriate domains - speaking Japanese in your martial-arts class, or Spanish at work, or English on the internet, doesn’t intrinsically endanger your mother tongue(s). However, if communities feel they have to choose between their heritage language, and the language of economic opportunity - this can endanger a language.

The goal of Language Hunting is to remove this false either/or decision, and change it to both/and - to foster multilingual communities.

8.6 Guerrilla Evaluation

It’s easy to lose time by looking for a precise measure of the language vitality. Pursue a “good enough for now” sense of the language’s vitality. Begin with a spreadsheet containing the names, ages, locations, and addresses of as many of the native speakers as possible, including their dialects/language origin and reputed proficiency level. Include information on who speaks to whom.

It’s unfortunately common in any small community for there to be grudges between different individuals and families - endangered language communities are no different. Having two speakers left of an endangered language, who for geographic or personal reasons never speak with each other, is not an ironic joke - it’s a common part of the overall process of language death.

If you’re a community member, interview those knowledgeable about the community regarding the factors of Diaspora, Cohesion, Transmission, Domains, and Number/proficiency of speakers. If you’re not a community member, you’ll need to rely on your community liaison team for this information.

8.7 Ground-Truthing the Evaluation

You’ll find, due to the highly diverse opinions on what it means to speak a language, and political and social pressures around holding language, that your initial information about language vitality may fall far from the mark.

For example, when your initial research suggested there were 15 speakers of your target language, you may find that there are only two effective speakers with whom you can make contact and start an ongoing relationship, and only one is at Superior proficiency level, while the other one proves over time to be at Intermediate.

Don’t worry too much about this; this is part of the natural process of discovering, evaluating, and re-evaluating the resources available for the work you’re doing.

8.8 We’re All In This Together

One of the most critical, and overlooked elements of a successful Language Hunting revitalization effort is involving other language/dialect communities from early on in the process. This isn’t just about your language; this is about our ability to help each other, and support each other. This is about taking back from outside experts the ability, and responsibility, for keeping our languages alive.

Therefore in the first community Language Hunting trainings, include guests and representatives from neighboring language communities, and invite them to play a key part of your growing team of Language Hunters.

Soon, due to being first on the ground with Language Hunting, you’ll become a regional expert, and a resource for training others in the community art and science of revitalizing language in this way.

8.9 Keep in Mind That Not Everyone Will Become a Language Hunter

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this book, not everyone has the passion to design learning and provide community leadership, thus becoming a Language Hunter.

Language Hunters are the community experts, the ones who fall in love with this craft, hunting all the way to Superior proficiency level in their heritage language, and don’t want to stop with just applying it to their own language.

Game Leaders are those in the community who are happy to run and share the games that the Hunters have designed, but don’t have the time or inclination to make a commitment to Language Hunting as a craft. These players are vital to the effort.

Game Players are those in the community who orbit around, jumping into games, sometimes sitting in THE MEADOW, listening and supporting the language play with their presence. They may never lead games, but they too are vital to the effort. Many people, such as busy parents, community leaders, children, elder speakers, and the like, just don’t have the time or the ability to learn a new craft, even just at the Game Leader level. Welcome these folks into the game environment.

  1. See the chapter 16, the “Science of Language Hunting” for information on the importance of cultural heritage to an individual’s wellbeing.
  2. For example, at the time of this writing, Te Reo Maori, the Maori language and teaching community in New Zealand whose success made “language nests” so well-known, is still struggling. In spite of the success of bringing conversational language back to life, the community is still struggling with mainstream fluency at Advanced and Superior proficiency levels - storytelling and speeches/debate.
  3. Residential schools were state-supported institutions, often run by religious orders, infamous for stealing indigenous children from their families. Think boarding schools, but much, much worse. At these institutions staff beat children for speaking their language, cut their hair short (sometimes both boys and girls), and generally “assimilated” the captive children into the dominant culture. Sometimes children were never heard from again. Sexual and corporal abuse by institutional staff was rampant.
  4. ACTFL,, the levels are Superior, Advanced, Intermediate, Novice, or fluent ability at Speech/Debate, Stories, Full sentence Q&A, or just Words and memorized phrases. See the rule TEA WITH CHARLIE.

9. Applying the Rules to Language Learning

By combining and interbreeding the fundamental Rules of Accelerated Learning (see the chapter by that name), we’ve continued to improve the Language Hunting approach. I’ve tried to divide as cleanly as possible the rules that come up in language play a lot, and the rules that are more generic that most players don’t encounter unless they commit to a long-term education in language hunting. The line can be fuzzy; some of the rules below have a more general application too.

Each rule in the following pages has an associated sign from American Sign Language, that we use for marking it. You can learn these from watching our game videos; looking them up in online ASL dictionaries; or CONTRACT your own as a stop-gap solution.

Introduce these rules of play JUST IN TIME, as needed by your players, to answer their questions or address their objections. There is no one order of introduction; every game is different, every group is different.

Each rule section has the following components, when appropriate:

  • Name
  • Rules of which it is a child
  • ASL Sign
  • Definition
  • When to introduce it
  • What to say when introducing it


Child of FLUENCY and IMITATION, among others. ASL Sign - a special contract sign combining ASL “copy” and an animal head-shape.

This is the first rule you introduce - players must begin COPY-CATTING from the first moment for an effective INITIATION into Language Hunting.

Rule: COPY-CAT. Copy my signs and my voice, throughout play, and especially when I’m sharing rules. Rule: COPY-CAT.


Child of SIGNAL STRENGTH and FLUENCY. ASL Sign - “Obviously”.

Remove all hesitation and ambiguity from play. Anytime you see a hesitation, you’ve just witnessed an opportunity to make play more OBVIOUS.

Introduce when players want to play in a confusing environment, or use props that are not absolutely clear (is that a pen, a fountain pen, a felt-tip pen, or a marker?).

Rule: OBVIOUSLY!. This rule means we only ever do what is obvious - we remove and avoid all hesitation or confusion. If we use a red pen, wanting to identify it as a red pen, then it must be an all red pen, with no writing on it, that writes red. Rule: OBVIOUSLY!


Child of NARROWED SCOPE. ASL Sign - “Limit”.

Narrow the scope of the conversation, the number of props, and reduce all other factors so that players are able to IMITATE without hesitation.

Introduce when players want to expand the scope of conversation, add props, or otherwise add to the cognitive load.

Rule: LIMIT. We limit everything about our conversation, down to the smallest level. We want the smallest number of nouns, so that we can learn immense amounts of language structure around those nouns. There are an infinite number of objects to point at and name - but a finite amount of language structure. So we limit the scope of conversation to get as proficient as we can, as quickly as possible. Rule: LIMIT.

9.4 SET-UP

Child of DESIGNED ENVIRONMENT. ASL Sign - “Set-up”.

Design the space in between players in the conversation to reflect a zen-like simplicity and clarity. Remove all distractions, use simple tablecloths and clean props. Shut windows to remove noise, increase lighting.

Introduce this rule whenever you change the environment without using the target language to do it. Conversely, don’t change the environment without using the target language, unless it is to increase clarity, and then call SET-UP.

Rule: SET-UP. Every time we change something in the environment to make things more obvious or limited, we call Set-up. Rule: SET-UP.

Hunt SET-UPS, Not Language

I can’t overstress the importance of SET-UP to Language Hunting. You could say that we’re not Hunting language, we’re Hunting SET-UPS; effective physical arrangements of objects in accord with emoting and gesture that elicit the relevant language for solving that situation (i.e, getting a glass of water to drink, finding a pen, getting milk for your tea, etc.)

As you’ll quickly find, eliciting a word as simple as “have” in a Language Hunt can feel quite challenging. By learning from what has worked for other hunters, or with other speakers, and other languages, we can apply that to future Hunts.

Focus less on transmitting language in your Language Hunt games, and more on transmitting the ability to your other players to SET-UP a fluent speaker so that they get the language they are looking for.

I can’t show you or effectively describe in a book the SET-UPS we have innovated for most Language Hunts; you’ll need to learn from online videos, other players, or experiment on your own. Who knows, you may discover even better ones than we have!



The most skilled natural language teachers in the world are mothers. Over talk everything you do, just like a mother talking to her child, or like pet owners with their pets.

Introduce this rule when players are erring on the side of short, clipped answers, rather than long, flowing, repetitive dialogue.

Rule: MOMMY TALK. The most skilled language teachers in the world are mothers. Over talk everything, just like a mother talking to her child, or a pet owner to their Pet. “Are you adorable? Yes you are! Do you have a doll? Yes you do! Are you giving Mommy your doll? Thank you! Now Mommy has your doll!”. Rule: MOMMY TALK.


Child of MOMMY TALK AND FLUENCY. ASL Sign - “Full Sentence”.

It’s imperative to play in full, formal sentences, right from the beginning. Conversation can always get more casual and clipped; but it’s difficult to make it longer and more formal if you haven’t already done it.

Introduce this rule when players are responding with single words, or half responses.

Rule: FULL SENTENCES. Ask and answer in the fullest, most drawn out sentences possible. Rule: FULL SENTENCES.


Child of ALIVE and FLUENCY. ASL Sign - An “F” CL fluttering like a butterfly, and then dropping to the table.

Your mother tongue brain will fight tooth and nail to make the new language define itself in terms of your native language - one of the greatest potential obstacles to accelerated learning, due to the “double-thinking” effect. It also encourages errors through false cognates, and other such mother-tongue confusion. Avoid any translation of any kind. Define the new language only in terms of what is happening in the conversation space.

Introduce when players want translations. Introduce the fundamental rule AHA! for extra information.

Rule: KILLING FAIRIES. We never translate in this game; our goal is to think in the target language, not know what it means as defined by our language. Every time we make such a definition, it kills a piece of the spirit of the language we’re learning, because no word corresponds exactly to another word in another language, even simple words like “yes”, “no”, or “red”. Rule: KILLNG FAIRIES.


Child of FLUENCY, NEEDS GAP, and THE CONVERSATION. ASL Sign - “Trading Game”.

The most important benchmark of actual ability in a target language is to get your needs met. The most primary needs are the ability to give and take objects. The TRADING GAME is composed of the actions that English calls wanting, having, giving, and taking, expanding to other verbs or actions as needed.

Introduce this much later, when explaining the overall “race to the party” - achieving intermediate proficiency in the target language.

9.9 LIST

Child of LINKING. ASL Sign - “List”.

Lists provide a rough framework for every new conversation game. Players use them, add to them, improve them, and create new ones depending on play. For increased retention, make sure every time you forget a word in a list, you say the whole list together, using 1-2-3 GO!.

Introduce this technique early, with the first list that structures the first conversation game (likely the TRADING GAME).

Rule: LIST. A linked list is a list of connected words, that we plan to use in our conversational play. Every time we say the list, we say the whole list using 1-2-3 GO!, and every time we forget a word during conversation that we know is in a list, we say the whole list all over again, using 1-2-3 GO!. Rule: LIST.

9.10 1-2-3 GO!

*Child of LINKING. ASL Sign - “1, 2, 3 Go”

Lists are a great starting point, but to really amp their mnemonic power, tighten the links in them so that each word leads naturally to the next.

Do this by going through the list one word at a time, till players are following, then go through it two at a time (for example, “want-have, have-give, give-take”), then three at a time (for example, “want-have-give, take”), then all at once (“want-have-give-take”). Hence, “1-2-3 Go!”

Rule: 1-2-3 Go! Whenever we recite a LIST, we make it stickier by reciting it first one item at a time, then two at a time, then three at a time, then all-at-once. Rule: 1-2-3 Go!


Child of ALIVE, FLUENCY, and NARROWED SCOPE. ASL Sign - “Accent”.

There is no one language to learn, but rather an infinite diversity of languages that run through fuzzy borders from one to another. Standardized languages are essentially myths, and emergency damns against the flood of vitality and language drift. We accommodate this reality by choosing to identify and learn the language/dialect/accent of the fluent (and ideally native) speaker in front of us, and celebrate it. We create separate games for separate language lineages. Essentially, we respect and respond with a “Yes, I agree” to anyone that tells us their accent is the “correct one” - because all accents are the “correct one” - within that lineage.

Introduce this whenever there is any right way/wrong way conflict about the language in question. Include MUMBLE if there is any attempt to get the ACCENT perfect.

Rule: ACCENT. I’m offering the ACCENT I learned, from a live speaker, to the best of my ability. When I meet someone more fluent and proficient than me, I will defer to their judgement. Until then, this is the ACCENT I’ll be using for this game. Rule: ACCENT.



This rule is founded on emerging research in infant language acquisition, the well known McGurk Effect (our visual system boosts our auditory system), and empirical results from play. Human beings need to be able to see and read lips in order to hear and improve their ACCENT.

Rule: READ MY LIPS. Look to me to PULL YOU THROUGH IT, and to improve your ACCENT, by READING MY LIPS. Human beings are wired to hear better while looking at the speakers lips. Keep your eyes up and looking for this help as much as possible. Rule: READ MY LIPS.



Language Hunting follows the natural language learning arc that all humans travel along. Literacy is the last language element we learn as children (and some cultures have no written component), therefore we save it for last (usually after we “Get to the Party” at Intermediate proficiency). We pair each element for a chain of games - Listening/Speaking at the same time, then moving on to Speaking/Reading, then Reading/Writing.

Introduce this when someone wants to take notes in the target language, use dictionaries, phrasebooks or texts, and so on.

Rule: LISTENING, SPEAKING, READING, WRITING. We follow the natural language learning arc. We’ll quickly get to reading and writing - but not until we’ve “gotten to the party” first.


Child of FLUENCY and NESTED COMPLEXITY. ASL Sign - a contract sign, strumming the four horizontal fingers of your left hand with your right index finger.

Language Hunting is patterned after the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) oral interview - it is a five step scale, of which we usually only mark the first four to begin with. The ACTFL scale is the most effective scale (it was born from the ILR scale used in government language assessment) we have run across.

Introduce this after the first game or two, once players have tasted what Language Hunting feels like. Introducing TEA WITH CHARLIE usually takes from 5 to 10 minutes.

Rule: TEA WITH CHARLIE. There are four levels. Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior. Novice - Words, Intermediate - Sentences, Advanced - Paragraphs, Superior - Speeches. Novice - Memorized Words and Phrases, Intermediate - Full Sentence Q&A. Advanced - Stories in the Past, Present, and Future about a specific moment in time, Superior - Discussion about Political, Social, Economic, and Cultural themes.

You can also address these iconically, through US TV shows: Novice - Sesame Street, Intermediate - Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Advanced - Larry King Live, Superior - Charlie Rose. Note that Charlie Rose is at the end - he’s where we want to get to, having a conversation with him. But if we’re not ready for him yet - we say SORRY, CHARLIE. Any time someone engages you with a question that is higher, even just a tiny bit, than where you are currently fluent - just tell them SORRY, CHARLIE. Rule: TEA WITH CHARLIE, and SORRY, CHARLIE.


Child of SIGNAL STRENGTH, NEEDS GAP, TEA WITH CHARLIE, etc. ASL Sign - “Arrive Party”.

Our first, big picture benchmark in Language Hunting is to get our survival needs met, as quickly as possible. This is a description of the Intermediate proficiency level, and therefore we want to become fluent at that level. We aim for an ability to fluent ask and answer, relatively richly, every question that the language can ask. The who, what, when, where, why, how of journalism - or as we term it, in seven sequential questions: What, Who, Where, How Many, Why, When, How. This is, of course, a LINKED LIST.

Introduce this rule when players are committed to learning the craft of language hunting, and are looking for their first big goal.


Child of ALIVE, SIGNAL STRENGTH. ASL Sign - none.

These four props, the black and red pen, the rock and the stick, along with the full and empty cups, are the core generic props for language hunting in the modern world. Each one is used for a different reason, and all can be used at once, depending on context. You’ll use rock and stick alone when the language you’re hunting feels surprisingly different or complex, in accord with NARROWED SCOPE. Black and red pens are for when your confidence is a bit higher. Full and empty cups, the most complex of the basic props (with the least NARROWED SCOPE), are also the most connected to a true NEEDS GAP (feeling thirsty). They are also not as portable as the other props. Plan accordingly!



We take a cue from film and video production, and tend to use tablecloths that are either blue or green (as in the bluescreen/greenscreen technology). I use a table-cloth made out of real casino table fabric whenever possible, because it encourages game-thinking and play.


Child of DESIGNED ENVIRONMENT, WARM/FED/RESTED/SAFE/WILLING. ASL Sign - contract sign, hunch over and hug the space in front of you.

We run language hunt games around a 25-30 inch high table (the height of most folding tables for card games). Any players with their knees touching the table, i.e. sitting at the table, belong to the INNER CIRCLE. Place one prop per player in your INNER CIRCLE, to start with.

Introduce this when you need to contrast the table zone with the EXTENDED FAMILY, in order to distribute responsibility for self-care per PRESSURE RELEASE and FULL.

Rule: INNER CIRCLE. If your knees are touching the table, you’re part of the INNER CIRCLE, and you have a prop and can trade objects back in forth in play. If you’re not in the INNER CIRCLE, you’re in the EXTENDED FAMILY, supporting the play going on there by PULLING US THROUGH IT. Rule: INNER CIRCLE.


Child of INNER CIRCLE and FULL. ASL Sign - INNER CIRCLE contract sign plus ASL “Full”.

Whenever energy gets sludgy in the game, you have a few big options for “stirring the pot” and getting players energized. The simplest is playing a kind of musical chairs, calling FULL for everyone in the INNER CIRCLE, and changing seats. Sometimes folks from the EXTENDED FAMILY jump in and replace tired players, sometimes people just rotate randomly around the table and find a new chair. For extra “pot stirring”, do this IN THREES.

Rule: INNER CIRCLE FULL. To mix things up and give others a chance to play, everyone in the circle calls INNER CIRCLE FULL. Now find a new chair!


Child of ALIVE, LET’S PLAY, and DIAGNOSTIC WHEEL. ASL Sign - “Energy”.

Like INNER CIRCLE FULL, this rule provides another way of re-energizing players to keep play going. Run a few rounds of your favorite warm-up game or children’s game, for example “Zip-Zap-Zop”, “Boppity Bop Bop Bop”, “Beware of the Scare”, and other short games that can be played right at the table.1 Once players are laughing and re-energized, dive back into play. For even greater energizing, play a game the requires standing up, such as “Sound Ball”.

Introduce this rule just before language play begins to no longer feel fun.

Rule: ENERGIZER. We need some more pep for our game, so we’re going to pump up our energy with a warm-up game. Rule: ENERGIZER.


Child of PRESSURE VALVE, MUMBLE. ASL Sign - contract sign, somewhat like “the wave” but performed all at once.

Many rules in the Language Hunting kit have lineages - this rule is no exception. We first encountered this tool for venting tension and frustration via a PopTech talk by Benjamin Zander2. It also clearly has roots in the “failure bow” tradition of improvisational theater. So this is a good example of “stealing” tools that work from other fields and trying them out in the laboratory of language game play, at the table.

Introduce this rule whenever a player frowns, furrows their brow, or displays other body language of tension and wanting to “get it right”. Also introduce it when you’ve hit a benchmark that you want to celebrate, a “good for us!” moment.

Rule: HOW FASCINATING. Call HOW FASCINATING whenever you “make a mistake”, tense up, or see someone furrowing their brow trying to “get it right”. Also call it when we hit a goal, or reach a milestone worth celebrating. Both of these are learning moments. Rule: HOW FASCINATING.


Child of ALIVE and FLUENT EDGE, among others. ASL Sign - Egg.

This is a rule you don’t introduce until the players are beginning to become game leaders. Essentially, by breaking SAME ROTATION, START AT THE BEGINNING, or any rule that has SET-UP a rigid game flow, you can release vitality and playful energy, that will fuel the game further. Do this carefully, in BITE-SIZED PIECES, but essentially, if your players need more play to absorb the current bite-sized piece, but are getting bored, breaking a rule to add variety will refresh the further play that you need to do until you can introduce another BITE SIZED PIECE.

Rule: BREAK A RULE. Any time you need to work further on a BITE-SIZED PIECE before adding a new one, but the energy is getting sludgy and stagnant, try BREAKING A RULE, just one, like SAME ROTATION or START AT THE BEGINNING, just enough to refresh play. Rule: BREAK A RULE.



Array chairs around the central game table, like the petals of a flower. You want everyone in the EXTENDED FAMILY to be able to see what is happening at the table. This is the entire point of THE LOTUS.

Introduce this when you are re-setting up the space after a break, to begin distributing responsibility for maintaining the learning environment.

Rule: THE LOTUS. We SET-UP chairs like petals of a flower, so that every one can see. Rule: THE LOTUS.



It’s important to disconnect the Language Hunting system from any one language, as soon as possible; otherwise players will struggle with applying it to other languages down the road. Therefore give new language hunters the mission to hunt ten “What is that?” “Make Me Say Yes/No” exchanges from ten different speakers of ten different languages3.

Introduce this once players have a solid sense of the basic TRADING GAME and pairing sign with spoken language.

Rule: TEN TINY HUNTS. To start training your ability to language hunt in the field, and to make sure you don’t connect language hunting to one language too strongly, go hunt ten short exchanges of “What is that?” “Make Me Say Yes/No” from ten different speakers of ten different languages. Rule: TEN TINY HUNTS.


Child of ALIVE, MUMBLE. ASL - “Correct Response”.

When hunting live language from fluent speakers, you purposely guess at, or say “wrong”, what you are hunting, to explore the borders of the language and get corrected by the fluent speaker. Don’t shy away from saying things incorrectly; dive right in. You want to make the speaker a little uncomfortable, so that you can spot when you’ve wandered off the map, or inspire them to actually correct you (the ideal scenario).

Introduce this once players have experimented with TINY HUNTS and have expressed questions about upsetting speakers, saying things “wrong”, etc.

Rule: CORRECTION RESPONSE. Purposely guess at language you want to hunt, so you can get the speaker to correct you. Get it wrong, make their ear hurt a little bit, so that they’ll respond with the right way of saying it.



Once you’re ready for interacting with texts, such as dictionaries, phrasebooks, and so on (i.e., once you’ve “gotten to the party” at Intermediate level), you’ll need to reframe their purpose. Not only is it is easy to unknowingly run across errors, and thus be misled, in such texts, but these texts cannot fully contain the “live” language you are truly seeking; its song, context, connotation, situational variations, and so on.

Due to modern cultural norms, texts also give the impression that the language, as recorded on the page, has a standardized or “correct” form. Whether or not this is a political or academic goal for the language, the fluent speakers themselves are the true custodians of it as a community trust, and what comes out of their mouths (and pens) is the final word on staying true to any particular lineage of the language.

Therefore, treat every text not as a book of “answers”, but as a book of insightful “questions” to go hunt from fluent speakers. For any particular phrase or dictionary entry, try it out on a fluent speaker, and pay close attention to their response - you’re hunting for a CORRECTION RESPONSE.



One of the most commonly effective SET-UPS for the languages you hunt will be having tea with an elder. Tea is a traditional ritual all over the world, especially in village cultures. By “racing to the party” through a TEA WITH GRANDMA SET-UP you’ll have a reliable back-up hunting strategy that you can always go to.

Introduce this to players once they have a solid grasp on the TRADING GAME, or from the beginning as part of their first language hunt game.



Especially for children, teens, and a large proportion of the male population of all ages, having conversations about taboo subjects, swearing, and off-color jokes are a huge ENERGIZER for language acquisition. Therefore freely provide conversation games with SET-UPS that cover these subjects, according to your own comfort level. You don’t want to offend anyone, but this is such a reliable source of energy that it is worth walking the line and risking minor social conflict.

Introduce this to (mostly male or youththful) language hunters who have hit a plateau in their learning, are struggling with finding FAVORITE THINGS to converse about, are working with children, or just need something to spice up their language hunting.



To strengthen your ACCENT, and for when you are SORRY, CHARLIE-d by fluent speakers’ conversation, COPY-CAT by subvocalizing, aka SHADOWING4, along with them looking for the overall song of conversation. Do your best to keep up, but don’t worry too much about it. Your goal is to say the same thing, at the same time, with a perfect ACCENT. The more you do practice, the more you’ll hear, the more you’ll be able to COPY-CAT.

Introduce this to players frustrated by an environment with lots of SORRY, CHARLIE conversations.


Child of ALIVE, FLUENCY, COPY-CAT. ASL Sign - None.

See the chapter on Memory for more background on this rule. The essence of it is to encourage players to let go of any concern for “remembering” or “learning”. Focus on fluent, playful conversation, even if all you are doing is COPY-CAT. Retention will come in its own time.

Introduce this whenever any player is trying to “remember” anything, and is stopping or slowing down the game to do so.

Rule: BUBBLING-UP. This is a COPY-CAT game, not a learning game. Your job isn’t to remember anything; all you have to do is play along. You’ll never be stuck trying to remember something on your own without us PULLING YOU THROUGH IT. Your recall of the language will come on its own, in its own time BUBBLING UP - you have no control over it. So just let go and play! Rule: BUBBLING-UP.

  1. There are many resources for these kinds of games, if you need them. Deep Fun with Bernie DeKoven ( is a great place to start online.
  2. See Zander’s PopTech talk:
  3. For more detailed instructions see the chapter dedicated to the Tiny Hunt.
  4. We encountered this technique courtesy of polyglot Alexander Arguelles,

10. The Race to Get to the Party

Flowchart for moving through Lap 1 of the Race - there are 4 Laps total

Flowchart for moving through Lap 1 of the Race - there are 4 Laps total

When Language Hunting a new language, we evaluate your beginning progress by trying to “get you to the party”. This is irrespective of the language. In the next two chapters we present an American English speaker’s conception of this language goal.

In order to get to the party, you’ll need to be able to ask all the questions your language can ask; for English, this is represented by the seven conversations asking and answering What, Who, Where, How Many, Why, How, When.

For example, if someone invites you to a party, you may need to ask: “What should I bring? Who will be there? Where is it? How many people do you expect? Why are you having it? How do I get there? When does it start and end?”

Think of these conversations as beads on a necklace; you’ll hunt them in order, but circularly, around the BUCKET BRIGADE “track” over and over again, deepening your fluency each time.

In this roadmap, we’ll assume your beginning props are a full cup of tea and an empty cup. We’ve narrowed the nouns/ props according to the rules of language hunting play. To truly get to an actual party, you’ll take these same conversations and bring in the additional topics/set-ups that will get you to the party: Food, Transportation, Clothes, Hygiene, Family/People. Keep in mind “getting to the party” is a convenient metaphor for complex question and answer interactions in a target language. You can pick any favorite topic of either your fluent speaker, or fellow players/students, to get started.

The goal of this roadmap is to race you “to the party” as quickly as possible, but you’ll go around that track four times.

The Race to the Party roadmap section of the Language Hunting system is the most quickly evolving - any short-cuts we run across immediately get rolled into this roadmap of getting to the party, and that can change things up quite a bit. However, core elements mostly stay consistent.

LAP 1 around the “get to the party” racetrack is just to get an overall fluent sense of the language - asking and answering simply each question-based conversation, stopping short of HOW and WHEN the first time around the track.

LAP 2 can be the place to put the more uniquely difficult parts of your target language; such as complex prepositional pronouns (Irish Gaeilge), comprehensive object classifiers (as in ASL and Navajo), subtle variations on a single important verb (Tlingit), or whatever your target languages has that offers an unusual challenge. By delaying these till LAP 2, beginners don’t have to deal with them until after they have gained an initial fluent confidence in conversation.

LAP 3 is reserved for becoming a fluent reader. In LAP 3 you read aloud a transcript of a formal version of the 7 conversations, like actors rehearsing their lines in a play.

LAP 4 is focused on writing fluency, through a game of silently “passing notes” - you play through each conversation, writing the requests and responses to move through all 7 Q&A conversations.

Add new props and situations as needed, to keep games flowing, per INTERLEAVING. Though there is a severe, disciplined LIMIT of props to this example English roadmap, it is only an example of what has worked for certain players in certain contexts. Adapt it to your needs, and your target language.

10.1 Lap 1

In the following subsections we’ll run through the order of conversations for the first lap, and the elements that make them up.

10.2 WHAT

[nouns: tea, cup]



Yes/No, My/Your




What is that?

That’s a cup of tea.

What is that?

That’s an empty cup.

  • YES

What is that?

That’s a cup of tea.

Is that a cup of tea?

Yes, that’s a cup of tea.

  • NO

What is that?

That’s a cup of tea.

Is that an empty cup?

No, that is not an empty cup, that is a cup of tea.


What is that?

That’s a cup of tea.

Is that my cup of tea?

Yes, that’s your cup of tea.



What is that?

That’s your cup of tea.

Do you want my cup of tea?

Yes, I want your cup of tea.

Then take it!

Okay, I’m taking your cup of tea.


What is that?

That’s my cup of tea.

I want your cup of tea.

Will you give me your cup of tea?

Yes, I’ll give you my cup of tea.

Now I have your cup of tea!

Yes, now you have my cup of tea.


I’ll give you my cup of tea for your empty cup.

Okay, if you give me your cup of tea, then I’ll give you my empty cup.

Now I have your empty cup, and you have my cup of tea.





What is that?

That is a cup of tea.

Whose cup of tea is that?

It’s my cup of tea.

  • WHO

Who are you?

I’m Willem

Who is she?

She is Maggie.

What does she have?

She has an empty cup.

10.5 WHERE




  • ON

What is that?

That is a cup of tea.

Where is it?

It is on the table.


Where is my cup of tea?

It’s underneath the table.


Where is my cup of tea?

It’s in front of my empty cup.


Where is my cup of tea?

It’s behind the empty cup.


Where is my cup of tea?

It’s next to my empty cup.

  • IN

What is that?

That is tea.

Where is the tea?

It is in the cup.


Where is my cup of tea?

Your cup of tea is right there, in front of you.

Where is your empty cup?

It’s right here, in front of you.

  • THE OBJECT THAT IS… (Relative Clause)

Where is my cup of tea?

Your cup of tea is next to the one that is in front of you.


[nouns: tea, cup, money, dollar.]


Numbers 1-20



How Many/How Much


What is that?

That’s my cup of tea.

What is that?

That’s money.

How much money is that?

There’s 20 dollars.

I want your cup of tea.

How many dollars do you want for your cup of tea?

I want 7 dollars for my cup of tea.

I’ll give you 3 dollars, but we will share it, okay?

Sure, we’ll share my cup of tea if you give me 3 dollars.

10.7 WHICH

[Note: in English, you’ll notice question word “How” comes up; as always, depending on the language and the bite-sized piece progression, you can choose to move this or any other question word to later or earlier in the RACE TO THE PARTY]









As Much As/More Than/Less Than


What is the difference between them?

One is more full of tea than the other.

Which one is more full of tea?

That one is more full of tea.

How are they the same?

They are both cups. They both have tea in them.

Which do you like better?

I like the full cup better.

10.8 WHY






What is that?

That is a cup of tea.

Why do you have it?

Because I like tea

Do you like tea better than water?

Yes, I like tea better than water


The Walk is a conversation that you can begin having as a form of break or change of pace between your table games; via the Walk, your players will absorb important language that is difficult to set-up at the table. This conversation is especially beneficial for parents and children. You can begin having this conversation once you’ve completed the Lap 1 “Where?” game. Keep it going continually during breaks, adding to the complexity, and improving it with culturally relevant outdoor games (remember to Limit!).

Your nouns will dynamically present themselves outside - cars, trees, flowers. As always, remember to Limit.

In the beginning, make sure to keep Walk conversations to 15 minutes or less.


What is that?

That is a tree, a flower, a car.


You (and you all) come here!

Go there! Stop! Come slowly! Now come quickly!

Now it’s your turn; what do you want?

  • WHO

Who wants to go over there?

Who is over there now?

Who is here now?


Where is the tree?

Where are we?

Where are they?

Where do we go?


Take 15 steps that way and stop.

How many steps do I take?

Take 15 steps.

How many people are over there?

There are 3 people over there.


Hide the big red rock, and then we’ll find it.

Okay, now where is the big red rock?

[Encourage the players to find the hidden objects with language. If they can say it, they’ve found it; if they can’t say where it is, they haven’t found it, even they physically can see it. Players can set-up tiny language hunts to get the language they need to find the objects.]

11. The Race: Lap 2

Flowchart for Lap 2 - More complex conversations, plus "What Happened?", WHEN, and HOW

Flowchart for Lap 2 - More complex conversations, plus “What Happened?”, WHEN, and HOW


Run NO-PRESSURE REFRESHERS of all previous conversations, asking “WHAT HAPPENED?” after each one (triggering past tense). Enrich conversation fluency by adding in complex elements you put off till Lap 2, and other player-requested language.

11.2 WHEN





Days of Week

Months of the Year




  • WHEN

When did you take my cup of tea?

Just now, when you were asking him for his empty cup.


How often do you drink tea?

I drink tea every weekday

11.3 HOW






  • HOW (Instructions)

How do I find my cup of tea?

First you need to look all over for it - look under the table, behind him, behind her; then if you still can’t find it, ask them if they know where it is.

Okay, I’m looking under the table, behind him, behind her. I still can’t find it. Do you guys know where it is?

Yes, he has it over there

Aha! Thanks.


Who are you?

I’m Willem

How are you?

I’m mad because I want your cup of tea!

12. Choosing Your Props, Choosing Your Conversation

For any language hunt, whether opportunistically in the field, or directed at a particular language, you’ll need to pick the best props.

Picking props means picking the topic of your conversation. For languages with nouns, it means picking the nouns around which you are going to build complex conversational fluency.

12.1 Portable, Handheld, Common, Familiar, Favorite

The best props are:

  1. Portable (so you can carry them with you)
  2. Hand-held (so it’s easy to pass them back and forth)
  3. Common (so it’s easy to find one if you have forgotten to bring it with you)
  4. Familiar (so everyone knows what it is).

Pay attention to how the cultural environment impacts prop choice. Notice how the following props fit all the guidelines above: pen, dollar bill, keys, rock, stick. However, at Disneyworld you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single stick or rock (we’ve tried). In very remote or rural areas (Siberian village, Amazon jungle) different props again will become either more, or less, appropriate.

All this must be dovetailed with the rule A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS; what energizes you and fills you with curiosity and play? What energizes your fluent fool? Your fellow players? If there is little or no overlap, the most skilled language hunter (probably yourself) will need to make the sacrifice to tackle a subject that they’re not personally connected to. The player or speaker with the most constraints around energy, time, and skill will be the one you prioritize.

This almost always means choosing what energizes your fluent fool; for heritage and endangered languages, speakers are often elderly, can have health or hearing issues, and may ironically be even busier than younger adults due to their community and cultural standing. You want to make it as pleasurable and easy as possible for them to participate in language hunting.

12.2 The Signal Strength Scale

Think of SIGNAL STRENGTH as a volume knob. You’ll become skilled at it most quickly if, when troubleshooting a new application, you picture in your mind starting low and slowly turning up the volume up to greatest strength. You’ll probably have different classroom experiences and learning environments flash by in your mind as you go up through the levels.

Below is 1-10 on an imaginary volume knob for qualifying props (in this case, a “cup”) in Language Hunting.

  1. “Cup” written on a piece of paper. (As in textbooks, phrasebooks, written classroom homework)
  2. Someone saying the word “cup”. (As in CD/audio courses)
  3. A photograph or drawing of a cup. (As in a textbook, on a computer screen, on a whiteboard)
  4. An extremely iconic, vivid photograph or drawing of a cup, free of extra details or decoration.
  5. An toy/pretend cup (i.e. very tiny), unusable for drinking.
  6. A high quality, realistic, iconic toy cup.
  7. A physical, fully functional cup, out of reach.
  8. A physical cup, sitting on the table, within reach, touchable.
  9. An extremely iconic, vivid type of cup, free of extra details or decoration, sitting on the table, within reach.
  10. A personal favorite, iconic, vivid cup, within reach.

There are some wrinkles to this scale; my ASL mentor, proud Deafie, and fellow language hunter, RaVen Sequoia, bought a set of ultra-realistic doll-house furniture, and uses it via Skype video phone for language hunt games. She reports that it triggers a sense of play in her students, and is very evocative. They play a hide ‘n’ seek game with a tiny object, as in a shell game, and it works very well.

This is an adaptation for games over the internet; you don’t have the option to be physically there in the room and move large furniture around. The case could be made that the sense of play that doll-house furniture generates may trump full-size furniture, even when in-person. There is an intrinsic limit with toy furniture - you can’t talk about putting clothes in drawers (and then do it), you can’t actually set the table - but perhaps it at least offers a better starting point for play? My suspicion is that RaVen’s solution works simply because of her Skype constraints, and it is likely one of her student’s FAVORITE THINGS.

But the experimentation never ends.

12.3 The Smallest Difference

Yet another factor comes into play - if you are going to use this prop with multiple players, each will need their own. That means any small difference between them will “pop” out, become obvious, and drive play.

You only want them to be different from each other in ways that you specifically intend. If there is an unintentional difference (i.e., one is white with a subtle, painted flower design, the other is pristine white), players will latch on to that. Which means, the best props are mass-produced ones, all exactly the same, with options for different colors, size variation, and so on.

13. The Ten Tiny Hunts

Flowchart above for playing through a Tiny Hunt with a fluent speaker - note that this diagram only shows the HUNTER's questions and statements, not the responses of the FLUENT FOOL.

Flowchart above for playing through a Tiny Hunt with a fluent speaker - note that this diagram only shows the HUNTER’s questions and statements, not the responses of the FLUENT FOOL.

Once you’ve mastered basic game-play at the WHAT conversation level, it’s important that as soon as possible you begin to hunt your first ten languages. Language Hunting in the field is a parallel track of skill development you want to begin right away, while you learn to play and lead games at the table.

These languages will serve no other purpose for now than to flex your mental muscles; choose languages that you have no personal investment in (for example, your heritage language, or a language you’ve always dreamed of learning). I’ve run into native speakers at gas stations, mini-marts, pharmacies, on planes, buses - be ready wherever you are for a tiny language hunt with no expectations.

On your first ten hunts, stick to hunting just “What is that?” plus “Make Me Say Yes/No”. No more.

Remember to use your hands. Any hunt that didn’t involve you pairing sign with the target language right away, doesn’t count1! This is one of the core skills you need to practice; make your hands do your thinking and remembering for you.

First, ideally you want to find out which language/dialect/accent your speaker carries. Not just “French”, but “Parisan French” from an exact neighborhood. Think of New York City and the wide variety of native English dialects there. Part of the fun of these hunts will be exploring just how much languages connect to particular extended families, neighborhoods, and small-scale geographies.

This also armors you to be prepared when someone tells you that you’re speaking French (or Unangam Tunuu, or Chinook Jargon, or English) incorrectly. You are probably not even speaking their dialect. To this comment you have two responses - “I’m speaking the such-and-such dialect - which do you speak?” or “Oh, I’d love to learn how you speak it. Would you like to play a little language game with me?”

As a language hunter, you are the one with the experience, the generosity, and the skill to accommodate all kinds of languages and dialects. For non-hunters, their paradigm will likely be one of one-right-way-to-speak or pursuit of a standardized dialect.

In the end, who’s having more fun? The person who is battling over which way is the “right” way to speak (and worried about sounding ignorant or incorrect), or the one who is respecting and discovering all the lineages of speech available?

There’s no mystery about beginning the game; to hunt “What is that?”, first thing, just ask your fluent fool, “how do you say ‘What is that?’ in your language?”

Yes, this “kills a fairy” 2 by approximate translation, but it’s also the last fairy you will ever kill in that language. It gets things rolling. Later on you can experiment with the more difficult set-ups and mime required to elicit the game-starting phrase “what is that?” from a native speaker, with no bridge language. In the beginning, this one small sacrifice will get things rolling (apologies to all the fairies who will give their lives in this way.)

You can use English as a bridge language to ask the speaker to repeat what they’ve said and so on, but as much as possible, stay immersed in the language during your tiny hunt. You’re training for the most difficult (and most rapid) learning scenario, in which you have no bridge language to fall back on.

13.1 The Paradox of the Bridge Language

Why does the lack of a bridge language make for both a difficult and a rapid learning scenario? Language hunting requires skill and experience - the lack of it will make things difficult, until you gain enough practice. But an even bigger obstacle to language acquisition is having a bridge language that your native speaker keeps falling into.

Every moment spent in that bridge language (probably English) is a moment lost from language acquisition, and opens the potential for fairy-killing!

Quite simply, this is why people commonly become fluent while immersed in a language, in the country where it’s spoken, but rarely if ever become fluent in a classroom. It’s the bridge language that is the problem (along with some other factors you’ll learn about later).

  1. There are exceptions to this, as noted in the “Sign and Gesture” chapter.
  2. KILLING FAIRIES, one of the rules of accelerated learning, refers to the effects of translations.

14. The Rules of Accelerated Learning

This is a non-exhaustive list of the primary rules that drive our design of learning environments. Though these rules stay fairly consistent, in accord with feedback from live game play and learning, we’re constantly tinkering with this list.

Where did these rules come from? Some are observations of the core assumptions of different accelerated learning methods; others are extrapolated from thousands of hours of language game play, patterns that we’ve noticed and given a name to. This process never ends; we’re always looking for new patterns that we discover, intentionally or accidentally, that will improve learning.

14.1 Alive

Alternate names: Aliveness

If you’re working to accelerate your learning (or teaching) as much as possible…

It’s difficult to learn skills or new competencies from reading books, verbal explanations, or standardized curricula.

  • Hypothetical skills are difficult to sort out and disentangle from value-based opinions (you’re doing it wrong!)
  • It’s easiest to understand a process when you can observe it or experience it for yourself.
  • Skilled practitioners, even if poor conventional teachers, communicate volumes simply through role-modeling.
  • Learners and learning styles vary widely; learners are easily overwhelmed or bored by a standardized curriculum.
  • The most engaged and successful learners are those experiencing a flow experience of full engagement in the moment.
  • Learning is strongest in playful, energized, heartfelt exchanges.

Therefore, always look for situations where you can observe or learn from skilled practitioners through playful interaction, and gauge your success by the degree of engagement of the participants.

  • Prioritize real-life, in-person experiences: see, touch, hear, feel the skill being practiced.
  • If written or explanatory resources are the only ones available, prioritize researching accounts of the skill in practice, rather than explanations on how or why it works.
  • Abandon abstract value judgements of the rightness or wrongness of any particular expression of the skill, as long as it is being performed by a competent live practitioner. The more points of view, the more organic your understanding of how the skill is expressed by different people in different situations.
  • Observe closely the energy of learners; are they bored? Are they overwhelmed? How full of life are they?
  • Adjust the environment to create the fullest engagement amongst all participants, from moment to moment.
  • Make play central to the learning process.

If you focus on ALIVE, you’ll spend a lot of time pursuing and courting skilled practitioners and very little time speculating or puzzling through what it might be like to become skilled in your target area. There is a limit to how much time you can spend searching for a fluent expert. You may need to NARROW SCOPE according to START AT THE BEGINNING by choosing only to learn or teach skills according to what experts are available. You will also spend more time observing and responding to the level of learner engagement. This tighter feedback loop will demand more energy and participation from instructors and students, and require more breaks and rest.

14.2 Fluency over Knowledge

When you are pursuing accelerated learning, and know you will be judged by the level of your performance (not your knowledge)…

Even after much training, it can be disappointing how little you are able to do (or remember.)

  • A broad understanding of a topic takes a while.
  • Theoretical understanding doesn’t mean you can apply what you know in the real world.
  • People learn by doing; experience is the best teacher.
  • You don’t know whether you can do something until you’ve done it.
  • Hidden problems and questions emerge only once you’ve had the real-world experience.
  • Although there are diverse learning styles, all (or most) of these are accommodated in a real-world experience.

Therefore, prioritize doing over knowledge-about.

  • Do something, anything, rather than speculating on how you might do it.
  • Observe and make use of your experience as you experiment with doing your target skill.
  • Interact and collaborate with other learners who are focused on doing over knowledge.
  • Measure your success in applying this rule by counting the number of seconds (without rushing) between choosing the skill you want to learn, and doing it for real (except insofar as you invest in a DESIGNED ENVIRONMENT).

Err on the side of doing something, anything, immediately to explore your chosen skill. Planning and creating a DESIGNED ENVIRONMENT are important but they can easily draw you back into bad habits of speculation and talking “about” doing. By focusing on doing you will accumulate experience and insights into the skill. Discuss these with your fellow learners, and journal it for your own learning. This has produced new knowledge for you, but now it’s knowledge born of experience rather than hypothesizing or speculation. You will commit more mistakes and feel more awkward during these early learning stages; implement strategies like PRESSURE VALVE (i.e., HOW FASCINATING!) to accommodate this increased personal challenge.

14.3 The Fluent Edge

When you are pursuing fluency in a skill, and trying to keep your momentum and energy as high as possible…

It’s easy to be bored by the amount of repetition needed to become fluent, and overwhelmed by the complexity of what you want to learn.

  • You can become exhausted by what is boring and easy, just as easily as you can by being overwhelmed by too much challenge.
  • Numbers like “10,000 hours to mastery” are interesting, but how do you spend those hours?

Therefore, perform your skill at your current level of fluency, and then increase the challenge by a tiny bit more - taking you to your FLUENT EDGE.

  • Maintain this sweet spot between boredom and overwhelm, by adding or removing BITE-SIZED PIECES of challenge, while continuing to practice your target skill.
  • This is the place of fullest engagement; if participants fall off this edge, they can only fall towards overwhelm on one side, and boredom on the other.

Like with all the Rules of accelerated learning, finding and maintaining your (or another’s) FLUENT EDGE is a skill that will require practice, no matter what you are learning. By approaching all skills this way, you are learning how to learn any skill. Staying in that “sweet spot” of fullest engagement will also require more energy and focus then you may normally expend, requiring you learn to monitor your (and others’) needs for breaks, rest, and pace change closely, through rules like FULL, PRESSURE VALVE, THE WALK, and so on.

14.4 Let’s Play

Alternate names: Play On, Game-ification, Fluency Game

You want to accomplish something with maximum speed, energy, skill and engagement…

The importance and seriousness of a goal can be self-defeating by causing paralysis and fear of failure.

  • Seriousness kills vitality - learners are inclined to feel watched, judged, and unsafe.
  • If something is so important that “failure is not an option”, then learners will easily assume that mistakes on the road to success are also not an option.
  • A positive mindset is the greatest source of creativity, flexibility, and adaptability.
  • “Play” describes the state of the most accelerated learning, common in the animal kingdom.
  • Play has many shapes; it can be focused and quiet, or silly and loud.
  • Group play builds trust and communication, creating a community of allied learners.
  • Play with “rules” is called a game.

Therefore, always bring play into the center of even the most serious of activities.

  • Look for ways to inject energy into an activity, through warm-up games, ice-breakers, engaging storytelling, or just outright silliness.
  • Mine other traditions of play and games, and adapt what already works to the context at hand.
  • Make play central to the learning process.

LET’S PLAY allows you to err on the side of energy. If you’re not achieving your current learning goal, but play is still at the center of your activity, you have lots of energetic room for further experimentation. Managing play and keeping the energy fresh is a skill that has a path to mastery, but is also immediately accessible (watch any child for an hour).

14.5 Continuous Improvement

Alternative names: Kaizen

When you have found your FLUENT EDGE in your target skill, have been practicing for a while, but are not seeing your competency increase…

Learner performance often plateaus as one becomes more skillful.

  • The solution to previous learning challenges may not apply to the present one.
  • Doing what worked before is easy and comfortable.
  • New learning can often feel uncomfortable and inconvenient.
  • It’s impossible to keep environments and learners from changing.
  • New opportunities are found by new experiences.
  • Regular tiny increments of improvement add up over time.

Therefore, continually improve your learning process, especially when you experience your learning slowing down or plateauing.

  • Introduce new DESIGNED ENVIRONMENTS and SHARED EXPERIENCES that may recharge your learning.
  • Bring ALIVE PLAY back into the center.
  • Make a habit out of finding the FLUENT EDGE of your learning process too, a constant stream of BITE-SIZED improvements.
  • Collaborate and CONTRACT new RULES OF PLAY with other learners.
  • Have NO-GRIEF DEBRIEFS after learning sessions to examine what happened, what you’d like to do again, and what you’d like to do differently next time. Turn insights into new RULES OF PLAY.
  • Pay attention to the tiniest BITE-SIZED PIECES of improvement, as you would value each penny in a piggy bank. They add up to enormous improvements over time, as in Toyota’s famous Kaizen improvement process.

A constant examination of your learning process has many benefits, but will also feel very inconvenient in the beginning. It’s easy to rest on your laurels, and to feel you’re doing “good enough”. Remember that environments can change at any time and invalidate all your current strategies. Accelerated learning is a process for responding to what is happening right now, not an answer that can be written down and left unchanged.

14.6 Signal Strength

Alternative names: Obviously!, Signal Reception

When you are trying to transfer a competency to another learner, or gain it yourself…

It’s easy to overlook how much amibiguity, guessing, hesitations, confusion, and trickery slows down or derails the learning process.

  • Many learners belong to cultures which, in spite of evidence to the contrary, assume that the more challenging the learning environment, the better the learning.
  • The human brain is designed to appoint part of its capacity to unconsciously filter or de-emphasize environmental “noise” experienced by all 5 senses, but these parts of the brain are then unavailable for learning.
  • The stronger and clearer a signal, the less brain work required to receive it, the more brainpower left to interpret and absorb it (this phenomenon is known as “signal to noise”.)
  • Iconic, vivid, physicalized communication is stronger than generalized, flat, representative (written, drawn, etc.) communication.
  • Culture and language strongly influence what a learner pays attention to and cares about.
  • Learners exhibit fairly clear body language when they feel confused or disengaged.

Therefore, boost SIGNAL STRENGTH in all learning environments.

  • Prioritize the highest degree of iconic, vivid, physicalized communication whenever possible. Think of SIGNAL STRENGTH as a volume knob, with numbers going from 1 to 10, and look for ways to keep turning the knob up.
  • Reduce or remove visual (distracting colors, patterns, movement), auditory (electronic hums, extraneous conversations, white noise), kinesthetic (uncomfortable furniture, cold, heat) and other “noise”.
  • Adjust your DESIGNED ENVIRONMENT to not just accommodate, but take advantage of cultural values and ways of thinking.
  • Adjust the learning environment, from moment to moment, in accord with the engagement of the learners by reading their body language and facial expressions.
  • Fully successful SIGNAL STRENGTH

There are constraints in every environment. For example, in a high-school classroom, the available furniture may be uncomfortable; the lighting glaring; the heating system loudly humming; students may be shy and exhibit a “flat affect” in general. Simply pay attention to SIGNAL STRENGTH and make the best of every situation, as allowed by the constraints. Even one tiny change can make a difference (KAIZEN).

14.7 Designed Environment

Alternative names: Set-up, Set the Stage

When you are fluently sharing learning amongst participants, looking for more acceleration, and are ready for an expanded focus…

The human brain is masterful at inducing tunnel vision and unconsciously filtering out most environmental distractions.

  • Any part of your brain engaged in filtering distractions is unavailable for the learning at hand.
  • Conscious of it or not, humans are “instruments played by the environment” - the environment drives human behavior.

Therefore, design your learning environment to reduce environmental noise and drive the learning behaviors you want.

  • Rather than tolerating the noisy environment in which you find yourself, prepare for learning by reshaping as much as possible to support exactly what you want to happen.
  • On the fly from moment to moment, respond to learner engagement by modifying or removing distractions. Resist the “we can deal with it for now” disease.
  • Design the environment for ALIVE PLAY, meeting human needs for comfort and belonging.

Applying DESIGNED ENVIRONMENT can often, perhaps more than any other rule, bring up the sense of inconvenience and frustration with the energy required to effectively design accelerated learning. Participants may feel more like furniture movers and caterers than skilled instructors and learners; learning is an essentially embodied activity, and yet we rarely consider the role of our bodies in supporting what is culturally defined as a “mental activity”.

14.8 Start at the Beginning

When you are trying to choose from among new skills, starting a new skill you’ve chosen, or in the middle of the process of learning your target skill…

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scope of a skill - where does one start? How does one start? What do you do when you get lost in the middle of working on a new skill?

  • Competency can’t be built on a shaky foundation.
  • If you skip the basics you’ll end up having to go back and relearn the skill later anyway, from the ground up.
  • There is an organic, situationally relevant, and often subtle starting point for any skill - finding it can take insight and experience.

Therefore, find a common beginning, and return to it whenever you get lost.

  • Start at the lowest level of complexity, doing something meaningful.
  • Proceed in BITE-SIZED PIECES from this beginning, and recognize moments that indicated NESTED COMPLEXITY.
  • Choose your skills and adjust your starting points based on the greatest opportunity for ALIVE PLAY amongst the participants in front of you - follow the energy present in the moment.
  • When in the middle of play and you get confused, or simply don’t know what to do next, START AT THE BEGINNING with the most basic chunk of skill.
  • When in doubt of what to do, START AT THE BEGINNING!

Your first beginning may not be stable; it may take some experimenting to find out the true beginning that stands the test of time. MUMBLE your way through these beginning stages. You may also realize that any beginning you choose is really in the middle of a larger process; always adapt to the situation at hand, and the most relevant starting point.

14.9 Imitation

Alternative name: Copy-cat, Coupling

When you’ve chosen your desired skill and are observing a skilled practitioner performing it, or you’re an instructor demonstrating a skill for your students…

You can’t know how well you’re understanding and absorbing something until you try it for yourself.

  • No matter how much your head knows, your body is the final arbiter on whether or not you can do something.
  • Every skill, even the most technical, has a physical element; humans are embodied learners.
  • Imitation is a skill in its own right; it takes keen observation and self-awareness.

Therefore, imitate fluent experts (or at the very least, someone who can do well what you want to learn), and improve your ability to imitate through practice.

  • Do what the fluent expert is doing, in real time, right along with them, as they do it.
  • Observe and adjust your learning environment according to how well you or your students are imitating - IMITATION is the surest boost to SIGNAL STRENGTH for finding your FLUENT EDGE. If you are struggling with imitation, you’re struggling with the skill.
  • For any practice that they don’t try first in your presence by IMITATING you, it’s extremely unlikely they’ll do on their own.
  • IMITATION and “coupling” (of complex systems sciences) are the same thing; start out with tight coupling (real-time IMITATION along with you), move on to loose coupling (players trying it on their own, in your presence), then decoupling (players trying it outside of your supervision).

By doing IMITATION you’ll often find you are instantly overwhelmed; you’ve chosen too big of a piece of skill to tackle. This is great information; NARROW SCOPE accordingly, until you’ve found a truly BITE-SIZED PIECE. You may also find that you simply can’t tell what the fluent expert is doing at a particular moment; boost SIGNAL STRENGTH, get closer, ask them to slow down according to SLOW/FAST, request they only perform BITE-SIZED PIECES - however much they are willing to accommodate you, make the most of it. This is the back and forth dance of applying CONTRACT and the rules of play - according to context; this the skill of FLUENCY HUNTING.

14.10 Contract

Alternative names: Rule, Rules of Play, Game Rules

When you are beginning to collect and cohere successful learning strategies, for self-clarification and collaboration…

If a tool doesn’t have a name, it’s difficult to think about, talk about, understand, improve, or collaborate with.

  • Techniques for shared learning can have different names in different places.
  • Names can vary in effectiveness; the best names are sticky, funny, evocative, in-jokes.
  • Communities themselves decide whether names stick.
  • Effective techniques can often just seem like good ideas, or suggestions, and may be discarded or modified by novices in practice, before they are understood and mastered.
  • The idea of “Rules” can, in the right playful context, be a stronger force for encouraging the use of effective learning techniques.
  • “Rules” can also feel restrictive, or authoritarian, and therefore perhaps worth breaking on principle.

Therefore, as a community, agree on common names for your strategies for success, call them Rules (to encourage adherence), and refrain from modifying or discarding them until you can fluently apply them.

  • Call for a CONTRACT when a new Rule is suggested or seems needed.
  • If a sticky in-joke name doesn’t jump to mind, MUMBLE a good-enough-for-now substitute. Names can always be changed later.
  • Emphasize the game environment; these are Rules of play, not restrictive commandments.

Players often have their own preferred theories of learning, and are conditioned to other tools of collaboration. Accelerated learning can create culture shock in new players. There is indeed a learning curve to mastering self-directed learning; accelerated learning requires more energy, and more commitment. By agreeing to the CONTRACT of the rules of play, you can short-circuit discussion and debate that players may be initially inclined to - in the face of objections, shrug your shoulders; games have rules, and these are just the rules of play for this game. Once players can fluently apply them, they are invited to improve or discard old rules and CONTRACT new ones.

You may find yourself and other players CONTRACTING one new rule after another, and sometimes this can slow a game down rather than accelerating learning. Your rule of thumb: if the time it takes to share a new rule of play, exceeds the amount of acceleration that it creates, then don’t share it. Role-model it and make it implicit through play if you still want to use it, but its effect on learning isn’t significant enough to make it part of the overall rule-set and culture of play.

14.11 Mumble

Alternative names: Close Enough is Good Enough, 100 mistakes

When you are adding a new piece of ability to your current fluency, whether at the very beginning, or deep in the middle of your journey to proficiency…

The quest for perfection is the surest way to paralyze learners.

  • Learners, new to a skill, simply do not have the observational skills to even see, hear, or feel all the subtle elements involved in performance.
  • Skillful learners avoid censoring themselves, diving right into experimentation and play.
  • A fluent expression of the general structure of a skill is far more important than perfecting the details.
  • Mistakes and fumbling are the grist of learning; “An expert is [someone] who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.” - Niels Bohr
  • Expertise is expressed by a mastery of the details and adaption to context.

Therefore, practice diving right into playing with your new skill and pay careful attention to your experiences.

  • Harvest and gain insight from “mistakes” or awkwardness in NO-GRIEF DEBRIEFS.
  • “Close enough is good enough”; in the beginning, when absorbing a new BITE-SIZED PIECE, abandon all concern for getting things “right” or “perfect”.
  • Use your PRESSURE VALVE to release tension, for example, by calling HOW FASCINATING! regularly when feeling overwhelmed by awkwardness.
  • Aim to express an overall FLUENCY with the general shape of the skill you are working on - don’t worry about looking good while doing it. Fluency is enough - later, expertise comes with a mastery of the details.

MUMBLE is a very new way of looking at learning; culturally, many people in the modern world are principally concerned with being “correct”. MUMBLE instead drives us to get messy, stir things up, see what happens by making lots of mistakes. This can invite a lot of criticism from those unfamiliar with accelerated learning; you’ll need to have your PRESSURE VALVE resources close at hand to deal with this kind of social pressure. MUMBLE, though effective, is only a strategy for initially encountering a piece of skill; as you become more familiar and fluent with what you’ve absorbed, your goal switches from MUMBLE to mastering the details, and perfecting your ACCENT.

14.12 Gesture

Alternative names: Sign, Hand Sign, Sign Language

When you are communicating with participants in a learning environment…

Speech, completely by itself, is a very limited way to communicate, and often causes misunderstandings.

  • Non-verbal communication comprises a substantial portion of an overall message; research has found it trumps speech through phenomena like the McGurk effect1, and when it comes to communicating emotional states.
  • Speech only accommodates a single learning modality.
  • Gesture is the first and most accessible human language, both in terms of evolution, and in terms of a single human life-span.
  • Noisy environments can render speech communication impossible.
  • A need for silence to perform certain skills can render speech inaccessible.
  • A need to avoid interrupting another speaker can render speech unusable.
  • Deaf and hard-of-hearing youth, adults, and elders are marginalized by the emphasis on speech, and the lack of fluent signers, in mainstream society.
  • Adults who culturally identify as Deaf have a rich store of fluid, expressive mime and signs, and are great role-models for those wanting to use non-verbal communication more effectively.
  • Gesture can easily connote play, and add fun to communication, increasing ALIVE PLAY.
  • Gesture can boost SIGNAL STRENGTH to any other form of communication.
  • Gesture is “sticky”; it’s easy to recall via muscle memory.
  • Gesture/sign language is the only language that can commonly be used simultaneously with a spoken language.

Therefore, in any communication, use GESTURE to increase SIGNAL STRENGTH.

  • Create a sign along with a name when CONTRACTING a new rule of play.
  • Learn some sign language; consider even becoming fluent in your local signed language (or multiple signed languages!)
  • In any verbal communication, use signs and body language to increase the SIGNAL STRENGTH.

New learners can often be shocked that signed languages, just like spoken languages, are complex and require lots of engagement and practice to master. They are not “dumbed-down” versions of “actual” language. However, through the rules of accelerated learning, they can be quickly and easily acquired (just like spoken language.) Some cultures, for example Americans, have a very flat “affect” in communication, known by the Deaf as “paper face”. Members of these cultures need more training than others to increase their level of expressiveness. But even for expressive people, its possible to increase SIGNAL STRENGTH even more, according to the rule OVER-DO IT.

14.13 Nested Complexity

Alternative names: Russian Dolls, Concentric Circles, 4+ levels

When you are progressing through successive stages of proficiency in a target skill…

There are many models of learning out there, but they are often too general, abstract, speculative, or based on knowledge-about rather than FLUENCY.

  • It’s common when learning something new to have to go back to the beginning, and relearn things all over again, in the light of a new understanding you’ve gained. By avoiding this in the first place you can save tremendous amounts of time.
  • To really learn or teach how to do something, you must start at the most basic level of performance and rise through ever-increasing levels of complexity, becoming fluent at every step along the way.
  • Delaying fluency until you’ve had an overview of an entire skill-set only means you have to start all over again to actually learn it, this time doing it for real.
  • ‘Maturity”-type models of learning (such as the Dreyfus Model) don’t actually tell you what to do at any particular point in your learning.
  • There are fewer ways to learn something quickly than there are ways to learn something slowly.
  • Finding a narrow path through a skill-set, that you can then share with other learners/teachers, allows you to collaborate on making it even faster and more effective.

Therefore, observe your target skill at all the levels of proficiency, and map out the fastest route to fluency accordingly.

  • Rough out 4-5 main levels of proficiency, and tag them to fingers on your hand according to GESTURE.
  • When you reach a ‘fork in the road” along the way through the rising levels of proficiency, and both paths are equally effective, choose just one to collaborate on.
  • If there is no one who has organically learned the target skill, you’ll need to establish the levels of proficiency much later by first FLUENCY HUNTING your way through it on your own. By looking behind you, you’ll then see the path that you’ve left, and can share it with others.
  • Be aware of the overall path to mastery, but don’t engage in discussion or speculation about higher levels; focus in on the one you’re working on right now.

New teachers and learners experiencing accelerated learning often want to jump levels due to curiosity or impatience, to get more of an overview or exposure to the skill. This is of course the slippery slope back to knowledge-about rather than fluent mastery; call the rules of play and keep on hunting!

14.14 Warm/Fed/Rested/Safe/Willing

You are designing your learning environment, and recruiting your fellow players…

We commonly think of learning as a mental activity, and in the modern world, the mind is mythologically separate from the body and the emotions.

  • Discipline is therefore culturally perceived to be the main driver of success in learning - “you can always try harder”.
  • The brain is a biological organ, and has many constraints - its need for oxygen, rest, nourishment, and a fine chemical balance.
  • “Decision fatigue” - the slow wearing-down of mental capacity (“willpower”) over a period of difficult decision making, is an excellent example of the biological constraints in which the mind operates.
  • The state of the body - blood sugar levels, fatigue, discomfort - profoundly impact the ability of the mind to focus and perform.
  • “Fight or Flight” and “Tend and Befriend” (two major instinctual responses to stress) easily overwhelm so-called higher functions, such as learning and decision-making, causing the subject to stay in the rut of old habits, whether or not they’re working.
  • Play, the highest level of creativity and learning, is far more likely to happen in a positive, nourishing, safe environment. Play is consensual; coercion is the opposite of play.
  • Crises and survival situations require you to rely on everything you already know to deal with them; there’s no time for learning new skills in such environments.

Therefore, rather than focusing on discipline or effort, foster environments filled with warm, fed, rested, safe, willing players.

  • Provide food, as in FEED YOUR MIND.
  • Invite only players who are willing to play - don’t try to convince or coerce players - for those who are unwilling that might benefit at least from observing, there is always the MEADOW.
  • Make sure the learning space is clear, bounded and safe.
  • Pay attention to heat, cold, and other factors that may affect the comfort of players.
  • For players that need rest or a break, offer a PRESSURE VALVE - FULL, THE MEADOW, HOW FASCINATING, and so on.
  • For players nervous about tackling new material, try NO-PRESSURE REFRESHERS, BITE-SIZED PIECES, and so on.

You may find yourself pulled between honoring the unwilling students right to not play, and a compulsory educational environment. You may also find there are players who claim willingness, but are undermining or distracting factors. See THE MEADOW for more on this. The better you get at this rule of play, the more you’ll feel like a host, rather than an educator. In truth these are inextricable roles - they are one and the same.

14.15 The Diagnostic Wheel

You’re in the middle of the learning process, when suddenly energy lags and players begin losing engagement.

You cannot force someone to enjoy themselves - and play is fundamental to accelerated learning.

  • When you continue with an activity, in spite of negative feelings, those negative feelings become linked to that activity.
  • Players may want to “be good students” and continue going, but in this case willingness can get in the way of true accelerated learning.
  • Paying less attention to your emotional and physical state in order to continue trains the opposite mindset to that required for fluent learning - self-care, PRESSURE VALVE, and so on.

Therefore, when energy lags, add more energy, and when energy peaks, add more focus.2

  • To add energy, take a break with a vitalizing activity such as playing a silly game (i.e. Zip Zap Zop), singing a song, changing the environment (THE WALK), meeting needs for food, water, and self-care, and so on.
  • Once energy peaks - meaning that the environment has just become a tiny bit chaotic with upbeat, positive energy - dive back into play, and add BITE-SIZED PIECES until energy lags again.

Players often want to take on blame for lagging energy, rather than focusing on solving the issue systemically, via the rules. Use every change in energy as an opportunity to redirect attention back to the systems-level awareness, rather than individual fault-finding.

14.16 Needs Gap

In the middle of play, your players are showing insufficient urgency or emotional engagement in an otherwise well-designed interaction.

The most common questions by students when faced with something complex to learn, outside of their personal interest areas: “When will I ever use this?” “Why do I need to learn this?

  • To stretch students into new fields of interest and skill, you need a bridge to get them there.
  • Students and fellow players are your team members, your allies and assets; in order for you to benefit fully from them, they must be self-directed and dedicated to the learning at hand.
  • The easiest way to understand the utility of something new is to experience the real need for it.
  • There are many human needs, represented in models such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
  • Needs can be culturally or environmentally contextual.
  • The satisfaction of a need, and the relief it engenders, carries great mnemonic force.

Therefore, in otherwise well-designed learning environments (per core rules such as FLUENCY, NARROW SCOPE, SIGNAL STRENGTH), to increase engagement and urgency create a NEEDS GAP.

  • Start with biological needs; food, drink, excretion, companionship.
  • Use props and environments involved with meeting these needs; foods, cups and tableware, bathrooms, other players.
  • Later, explore less fundamental needs such as creativity, problem-solving, achievement, and so on.

Caution; if you apply this without due attention to WARM/FED/RESTED/SAFE/WILLING, you may be perceived as manipulative or a bully. You can always turn down the SIGNAL STRENGTH of such NEEDS GAPS (less raw and real) to make them more in accord with a safe, comfortable, playful learning environment.

14.17 The Conversation

You’re setting up the core exchange that will define most of your skill practice.

Impatience and frustration are always present when we resist engaging in a true conversation.

  • The safest conversations have clear guidelines and boundaries, especially important in times of stress or new learning.
  • Every skill has primary elements that must be learned first.
  • For any skill, there are the conditions where it will be used most commonly, for most people, most of the time.
  • New materials, tools, and conditions are unknown to us, and will therefore respond in ways we cannot predict.
  • Partnering with another human being is a complex activity, and will also create unpredictable results.
  • In the best conversations you speak when it’s your turn, and listen when it’s the other’s turn.
  • In the worst conversations, when you are not speaking, you are waiting for your turn to speak again (rather than participating in a back-and-forth exchange).
  • We love to return to things we care about over and over - you will hear and see people do this all the time.

Therefore, choose one CONVERSATION (literally, or figuratively, depending on the skill) to focus all your practice into, with one set of conditions.

  • Make the initial, NARROWED SCOPE conditions of this CONVERSATION your START AT THE BEGINNING that you will return to over and over.
  • Build THE CONVERSATION from the players’ FAVORITE THINGS.
  • Expand on this CONVERSATION only in BITE-SIZED PIECES.
  • Establish a back-and-forth rhythm to the CONVERSATION; keep the players responsive to feedback as it comes up.
  • Include action, and reflection in your CONVERSATION through NO-GRIEF DEBRIEFS.

Players will initially be on their FLUENT EDGE with the new experience, and have little cognition available for attending the subtler elements of this rule. As they grow more familiar, you can remind them (and they each other) to make their practice a CONVERSATION, not a one-way expression of ability. For example, learning to chop wood in the beginning, most may simply think they need do no more than lift and swing an axe. After they become familiar with this motion, they’ll notice every block of wood is different (some have knots, unusual grain, etc.), and reacts differently. Also the axe itself has opinions about how it wants to move through space. Chopping wood then becomes a conversation with the axe, and the wood, not just bossing around objects in space to meet human desires.

14.18 A Few of My Favorite Things

You’re working to further improve a well-designed learning environment, or applying it to a new context…

In the end, we most enjoy talking about ourselves and interacting with the familiar and favorite things that we love.

  • We all have favorite qualities, subjects, people, and places.
  • We already get intrinsic satisfaction from our favorite and familiar things; this is free energy that takes no effort to generate.
  • We understand and engage even more deeply when we can clearly see how something connects to the things we most care about.
  • We love being spoken to in the familiar language of our home, both figuratively and literally.
  • Curiosity about others opens up endless discoveries of these “wells” of energy.
  • Truly seeking to understand someone is always received as a great gift.

Therefore, inquire both in yourself and others about the things you love, and weave your learning goals out of this fabric.

  • Language Hunt the heritage languages of those who differ from you.
  • Ask others to tell stories about what they love, high-points of their life, their favorite qualities, subjects, people, and places.
  • Involve these elements when designing learning environments in which they’ll participate.

There’s a danger of being too intrusive and mechanistic about this search; balance your inquiry with WARM/FED/RESTED/SAFE/WILLING, and empathize with others through IMITATION - what would someone in their position care about?

14.19 Pressure Valve

When you notice that players are getting overwhelmed or burnt out too often or too soon…

Guessing and “mind-reading” what other person needs, and when they need it, is very difficult.

  • If you try to keep complete control of a learning environment, you receive both all the credit and all the blame.
  • The more eyes on a problem, the better.
  • Tension, struggle, fatigue, and anxiety are major learning inhibitors.
  • Any negative (or positive) emotions experienced in an activity will become associated with that activity.

Therefore, distribute responsibility for maintaining a WARM/FED/RESTED/SAFE/WILLING environment to everyone participating.

  • Offer them self- and peer-care tools, such as FULL and HOW FASCINATING!.
  • DESIGN THE ENVIRONMENT to have spaces players can escape to (i.e., THE MEADOW), to sleep, rest, relax, get their center back.
  • Remind players that they have the right and the responsibility to take care of themselves - the more they do so, the more they are “playing by the rules”.

Though you have distributed responsibility for self-care, players will still have a long learning curve in managing their own emotional and physical state. Most of us are extremely unskilled in noticing how we’re feeling, and why we’re feeling that. It will take a while before a new player can be both deeply engaged in play, and also apply tools like FULL on-the-fly. In the meanwhile, you and other experienced players will need to compensate accordingly by making observations (“You look overwhelmed”) and asking questions (“Are you FULL? Do you need to FEED YOUR MIND? A nap in THE MEADOW?).

14.20 Full

You’re in the middle of play, and you or someone else is beginning to feel fatigued or simply overwhelmed.

Our upbringing and schooling often inspire us to respond to fatigue or struggle by just trying harder.

  • The “bad stress” loop (tension, anxiety, fatigue, overwhelm) is a positive feedback cycle - the more you struggle, the worse you feel, the worse you feel, the more you struggle and feel overwhelmed.
  • The psychological reaction to “bad stress” is falling back on old habits and ruts, the exact opposite of the flexible play and creativity required for accelerated learning.
  • Once you finally hit bottom in a learning environment, and cannot go on any longer, you will avoid that same subject or activity in the future - it has been painted with the negative feelings you experienced.
  • By managing your fatigue, taking many brief rests and returning to play, you play for much longer time than if you had just “pushed through” - and you build in the emotional-padding necessary for excelling in truly “do or die” situations where you cannot take a break.

Therefore, manage your physical and emotional state by calling FULL early and often.

  • Define the state of being FULL as still enjoying yourself, but being just about not to. Aim for quitting while you’re “energetically ahead”.
  • Observe others and help them to notice and call when they’re FULL.
  • Respond to being FULL by retreating to a less demanding level of engagement or radically changing pace, via the EXTENDED FAMILY, THE MEADOW, going for THE WALK, or just ending for the day.

FULL has many shades to it - there is an art to calling FULL on time, while you’re still having fun. This takes a long time to master. In the beginning players will regularly call FULL when they are clearly overwhelmed and fatigued, and haven’t been truly enjoying themselves for some time. They’ll need your help and the help of other players to continue self-monitoring and practicing the vital skill of calling FULL.

14.21 Slow/Fast

You’re observing an expert performing their skill, and trying to IMITATE, or you yourself are performing for another new player.

There are limits to the human ability to observe; without previous experience, new learners often simply cannot see or hear what an expert is doing, from moment to moment. Their minds can’t keep up.

  • Observation is a skill unto itself.
  • Once you have experience in a skill, you’re able to increase the amount of detail you notice when observing a more skilled practitioner.
  • Slowing down allows your brain more time to process what is going on, from moment to moment.
  • The physics of slow-motion often don’t match the physics of fluent, full speed (slowed-down speech loses its song, slowed-down juggling has a very different flow, etc.)
  • Super slow-motion has the added advantage of adding a feeling of PLAY.

Therefore, slow down performance to allow cognition to catch up, but then increase it up to full speed as soon as possible to accurately reflect what it looks like in real-life.

  • Give players the right and responsibility to call SLOW when they need you or someone else to slow down.
  • Once players are keeping up, dial up the speed to FAST as soon as possible to reflect the actual functional performance of the skill.

SLOW is very powerful; you must balance it out with a corresponding application of FAST (meaning full-speed action, not rushed or hurried). In the beginning, finding the balance between these two extremes, you’ll notice the players performing the skill haltingly, in a robot-like fashion.

14.22 In Threes

When you know more repetition is necessary for the players to absorb the most recent bite-sized piece.

There is no way to avoid repetition in learning; but it can easily become boring, or feel like a chore.

  • Every time you repeat something, you’re strengthening physical structures in the brain.
  • If you are doing repetition unnecessarily, or at the wrong moment, the brain can overbuild and become exhausted.
  • For any one set of performance, twice can feel like too little, and four times often feels like too much.

Therefore, repeat any bite-sized piece in sets of threes.

  • Give players the right and responsibility to ask for things IN THREES.
  • When more than three times is necessary, repeat set of IN THREES.
  • A good example of layering would be three sets of IN THREES.

Mark and share this rule early and often. Players, by thinking of this as “a rule”, maintain a different relationship to repetition. Their expectation of “three times” for everything is instrumental in allowing them to naturally play along with repetition without becoming frustrated (i.e., “oh no, not AGAIN!”).

14.23 Consecutive Meets

Alternative names: Sleep On It

You’re scheduling regular, TIMEBOXED learning sessions…

When you have limited time to set aside for your learning, how do you schedule it most effectively?

  • Scheduling regular sessions (i.e. 1 hr/day every week on Monday, Wednesday, Friday) makes it difficult to build new habits, as you’ve also regularly scheduled “forgetting”/”distraction” days (i.e. Tuesday, Thursday, Sat/Sun).
  • Some percentage of every session is “lost” through review of material you’ve already gone over.
  • Longer sessions with longer spaces between them shrink the amount of necessary review time (i.e. 3 hours every Monday, you only do one review/week rather than three).
  • Longer sessions can be more tiring than short sessions, but also allow you to build ability much more strongly.
  • A brief break or change of pace is often just as sufficient as a long one.
  • Vital integration of new learning happens every night, during REM sleep - learners wake up with substantial new capacity in the morning, ready to build on it further…

Therefore, schedule CONSECUTIVE MEETS

  • Schedule long sessions, with short breaks in the midst of them, and longer breaks between them…
  • Err on the side of scheduling two days in a row/week (1 hour each on Monday/Tuesday), rather than equally spaced (1 hour each on Monday, Wednesday, Friday), allowing learners to “sleep on it”.
  • Check-in the next morning, looking for insights harvested overnight or upon waking.
  • Err on the side of scheduling consecutive meets 3 hours in one weekly session, rather than 1 hour in 3 sessions per week.
  • Schedule sufficient breaks, but make them as small as possible.
  • Accommodate beginners’ endurance; there is a natural limit on how much they can absorb in any one day.

The key to applying this rule is accommodating the constraints in the environment (such as beginner endurance, scheduling limitations, and so on). This is a necessary rule because it contradicts the common wisdom that the regular exposure to learning a skill is better than widely spaced, but more immersive exposure.


You’re adding new challenge and information to your learning, but finding that your retention of it is unpredictable.

We are used to thinking of human learning as a linear, controllable process; but the brain process the world in an organic, highly complex fashion.

  • We often learn things, only to “forget” them later.
  • We often have memories, assumed long-forgotten spontaneously bubble-up, seemingly out of context.
  • The human body only repairs and expands itself (such as building muscle) during rest.
  • Similarly, the human brain seems to integrate new capacity during rest.
  • Neuroscientists say “forgetting is the friend of learning”, yet we solely think of retention as the marker of progress.

Therefore, change your expectations with your learning - expect to learn, and re-learn, the same thing over and over again, as you integrate that new capacity on a deeper and deeper level.

  • Plan rests, as in SLEEP ON IT and CONSECUTIVE MEETS, in order to drive integration as quickly as possible.
  • Plan to START AT THE BEGINNING over and over, to double-check your fluency and drive the “re-learning” process.

STRETCH AND FOLD introduces a profoundly new way to think about the success, or failure, of your learning process. It gives you permission to relax into the only way your brain was ever going to learn anyway. New language hunters often resist giving up “retention” as the main benchmark to their progress - as they learn to hunt language, they will begin to accumulate experience to their own satisfaction, in the phenomenon of STRETCH AND FOLD.

14.25 No-Grief Debrief

You’re done with play and want to improve the process.

A single person has little insight into a group experience.

  • Without a conversation of all stakeholders, you cannot know what worked or didn’t, and for whom.
  • For improvement, action and reflection are inextricable - if you don’t reflect, you’ll make the same mistakes over and over.
  • It’s easy to over-focus on a goal; it’s difficult to take time for something that doesn’t directly reflect to getting there.
  • People get positive energy from talking about successes, rather than failures.
  • It’s necessary to be aware of hazards.
  • People are more able to integrate learnings about “what to do different next time”, rather than “what they should’ve done last time”.
  • All observations are grounded in sensory reality.

Therefore, periodically, and at least after every game, hold NO-GRIEF DEBRIEFS.

  • Ask your players three questions: What happened?, What patterns do we see/what does that mean? What do we do different next time?.

These questions may grow stale, you may need to vary your phrasing, or add others. For more resources on this kind of reflection, see the book Agile Retrospectives, by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen.

14.26 Aha!

Alternative names: Riddle-me-this, “Aha!” Generator, Eureka!, Fruitful Void

When you are zeroing in on what aspects of your skill to bring up in play.

When there is nothing to discover for themselves, learners lose interest.

  • Narcotics do not trigger a “pleasure center” in the brain, but a “discovery center”.
  • We become addicted not to “pleasure”, but to new insights, new connections, new ways of experiencing the world that we discover ourselves.
  • This kind of “aha!”-based learning has an intrinsic reward, and is very addictive.
  • There must be room for discovery, on the learners’ own terms, in any learning space. Insights spoon-fed to students by a teacher do not count as real discoveries.
  • Over-explaining is epidemic in modern schooling - little or nothing is left for the students to discover, their sole role is to repeat the “right answer” that has already been given to them.
  • Moments of discovery cannot be coerced or faked, and they carry tremendous mnemonic force.

Therefore, carve out a part of your skill as the AHA! space, an empty space that learners will fill on their own.

  • Build the learning environment so that everything else, besides the AHA!, is crystal-clear, and that there is the tiniest leap possible (but still a leap) to be made from the known to the implicit.
  • Protect the AHA! moments - any one that “dies” (as in KILLING FAIRIES) is a lost mnemonic opportunity, a lost opportunity for truly powerful learning, and a theft from the player.

To new players, this rule can make the game leader seem arrogant or whimsical. Players used to institutional environments are used to learning the “right answer”, and they can become very nervous when one isn’t provided to them. It can take quite a while to make this transition, hence the importance of paying attention to the CULTURE CLASH.

14.27 Just in Time

You’re designing the order in which learners will encounter new material.

You can’t coerce or fake a teachable moment, but you can plan for it.

  • Learning is integrated with the deepest impact in the exact moment that it is needed.
  • The longer the gap between being taught a skill, and using it for real, the slower the learning.
  • A learner’s request for relevant information is an important sign that they are ready to absorb it.

Therefore, design learning so that everything participants learn is encountered JUST IN TIME.

  • Design NEEDS GAPS so that learners will feel the urgency to solve them.
  • Stack one NEEDS GAP after another so that each feeds into the next.
  • Give players BITE-SIZED PIECES when they ask for them, changing plans when appropriate.

You may confuse satisfying players’ requests for new information, with giving them anything they ask for; remember to focus on FLUENCY, and NARROW SCOPE. Satisfy only relevant requests for new information. Keep the game going in the right direction, building more and more complex fluent ability.

14.28 We’ll All Get There Together

You’re filtering who is an appropriate participant in the learning environment.

Due to institutional learning and work, age segregation has become the norm in learning environments.

  • People have little experience working and learning with a wide-age range (children to elders).
  • Children are assumed to be chaotic distractions.
  • Teens are assumed to be limited by their lack of maturity.
  • Elders are marginalized, taken out of the center of mainstream work and activity.
  • Children and the cues of childhood (toys, games, etc.) have been shown to have a profound impact on prosocial adult behavior (trust, play, collaboration).
  • Teens still have the playfulness of youth, and the brain plasticity, combined with an emerging adult ability to think technically and “meta” (i.e. process, the “rules of play”).
  • Elders have long experience, are often the masters of target skills, and have been shown to have greater perception when it comes to seeing the big picture and efficiency of learning.
  • Parents’ learning is connected to what their children need - that is their natural NEEDS GAP.

Therefore, bring all ages and whole families whenever possible into the learning environment…

  • Design the space so that it is safe and comfortable, meeting the needs of all age groups, from babies to elders.
  • Fill the room with the echoes and cues of childrens’ play.
  • Give elders the opportunity to observe the whole process from a big-picture vantage point.
  • Prioritize bringing parents and teens into the center of learning.

It’s easy to stereotype different learners, according to their age (or any aspect of their background). These guidelines are rules of thumb, they allow you to make room for any vital contributor that will show up, but they aren’t an excuse to pigeonhole who can do what. Observe learners on an individual basis and design accordingly.

14.29 Over-do It

You have a well-designed learning environment, and you want to add even more SIGNAL STRENGTH

Many modern cultures, especially Americans, minimize emoting and the overall strength of communication, in order to not conflict with social norms.

  • The Deaf community calls the lack of facial expression “paper face” - it is extremely difficult to read. The contrast is shocking when the face is fully used.
  • Nonverbal communication is a crucial tool for effectively communicating emotional states.
  • Emotional states are a central element in NEEDS GAPS - emotions are almost the sole flags for needs that you have.
  • The human mind and body, by itself, has many tools for boosting the SIGNAL STRENGTH of communication - hands, face, posture, and so on.
  • Over-done communication also boosts play, thereby increasing collaboration and creativity.

Therefore, use your whole self in communication by OVER-DOING IT

  • Employ pantomime and GESTURE.
  • Use over-the-top facial expressions.
  • Make yourself ridiculous.

Like the rest of the rules, this is a skill; many players, at first, will be surprised at how “flat” they are used to being. YOU GO FIRST, role-modeling and showing the level of SIGNAL STRENGTH you want the group to achieve.

14.30 Initiation

Alternative names: Culture Classh, Culture Shock, Kaikaku

It is vastly more difficult to change a system or culture from within, than simply starting over from scratch.

  • Cultures have many and varied ways to reinforce traditional behavior.
  • Cultures have hidden sets of values and beliefs that can be difficult to uncover.
  • What is “obvious” and “common sense” for any culture is the unquestioned inheritance of that culture; any fundamental change runs counter to this common sense.
  • A new system (or culture) provides little benefit by being assembled piece by piece; its value comes from the emergent properties of all its parts working together.
  • The most effective change happens when participants are wholly removed from an old context, and placed in a completely new one.

Therefore, for any change, apply new rules as a complete set, and simultaneously, not piece by piece.

  • Enforce every small rule of the system, as a representative of the importance of the whole system.
  • Make no exceptions; change or modify rules only once the basic system is mastered, not as a way to ease participants into the new culture.

New players of accelerated learning can easily find themselves bewildered at how “counterintuitive” it is; the rules system runs counter to everything they’ve been told about why and how they learn, institutionally. With sufficient awareness, they may recognize that it does correspond to how they learn outside of institutions, in family settings, in play with peers, and so on, but this is not recognized as true (otherwise known as “formal”) learning.

14.31 Same Rotation

Alternative names: Clockwise/Widdershins

You’re cycling through a group of participants, each imitating a bite-sized piece of the target skill…

Responding accurately to a question involving information you have just learned is difficult enough without the added stress of not knowing when or if you’ll be asked.

  • There is an arousal response just before we think we need to respond to a particular stimulus.
  • If we can’t predict when the stimulus will happen, or which one it will be, we stay in a constant state of arousal until it happens.
  • This constant arousal burns up energy and attention that could otherwise be used for self-directed learning.
  • Regularity and consistency accelerate new habit formation.

Therefore, build in repeating cycles of experience, that happen in the same order, over and over.

  • In a group, cycle through each participant in the same order, over and over.
  • For a set of questions, ask them in the same order, over and over.
  • Design experiences in terms of these fundamental, repeating cycles, at every level.

Randomness and trickery can easily be mistaken for “challenge”, or upping the level of play. Players will naturally signal when they are ready for a looser, more on-the-fly style of play (called FREE PLAY). Until they show this confidence by initiating more random play, err on the side of consistency and habit.

14.32 The Meadow

You’re accommodating a wide range of energy and age levels in your learning environment.

It’s easy to feel disempowered, claustrophobic and trapped in a conventional classroom.

  • Energy levels vary widely, for unpredictable reasons (missing a meal, missing sleep, family drama, etc.)
  • Different learners have different needs for safety and engagement - some need to watch first without participating, some jump right in.
  • Young children (and some elders) need naps throughout the day.
  • Those recuperating away from learning play, need to feel this choice is honored, or their consent to participate is undermined.
  • The most accelerated learning requires full consent from all participants - at its highest level, learning must be committed and self-directed.
  • There are many social benefits for having a space for conversation away from the center of learning.

Therefore, set aside and furnish a very comfortable space for napping, conversing, and “observing from afar”: THE MEADOW.

  • Set-up large, comfy furniture: a long plush couch, plus easy chairs.
  • Provide a low table for reading materials relevant to the subject at hand.
  • Decorate the walls around THE MEADOW with informative or attractive posters and maps relevant to the learning.

Hosts of learning environments may worry that everyone will retreat to THE MEADOW, leaving the central space for learning play empty. This is extremely unlikely - but even when it has happened, it has freed those fully committed to play from the sluggishness of players with far less commitment. Also, those that retreat to THE MEADOW spend much of their time rubber-necking and observing play, often even copy-catting from afar. This kind of behavior is a testament to the value of consent and honoring a variety of participation levels.

14.33 Feed Your Mind

You’re designing a space for extended learning.

Food is often banned from learning environments; learners often pay little attention to what and when they eat.

  • Food is required for life and learning.
  • Food is connected to emotional states of trust and contentment; traditional foods even more so.
  • Intermittent snacking provides both an opportunity for refuel, and an easy short break.
  • Modern foods are extremely non-nutritious.
  • Sugars (complex sugars too) create mental/emotional boom and bust cycles (the infamous “food coma”).
  • Sugar is very damaging to the health of many peoples, especially indigenous populations with diabetic tendencies.

Therefore, provide nearby food in any learning environment, and avoid sugars, breads or starches.

  • Focus on protein, fruit, vegetables, nuts.
  • Prioritize traditional foods.

What if traditional foods are starchy, unhealthy, “food coma” triggers - like indian fry bread, a pot of spaghetti, cookies, etc.? You have to find the balance - when in doubt, avoid starches if at all possible, but if you accommodate anything starchy, make sure it’s a truly traditional food (i.e., fry bread was a product of limited food rations on native reservations - flour, sugar, salt, fat - and its traditional history doesn’t go back farther than that).

14.34 Teach a Teacher

You want to distribute responsibility, and ability, to run (and improve) learning environments you have created.

The most destructive division in learning is the imaginary line between teacher and student.

  • The best way to solidify knowledge is to attempt to teach it to someone else.
  • The best way to test whether you know something, is to attempt to teach it to someone else.
  • The person you’re teaching has the same needs for you.
  • For any one problem, the more experienced eyes available to examine it, the more and better solutions will be found.
  • If you can do, but not teach, you endangered any skill you’re carrying.
  • If you can teach, but not do, you can’t honestly participate in the passing on of skill.
  • Knowledge and skill attains maximum longevity when carried by skilled practitioner-teachers - those who can both do a thing, and pass it on to others.

Therefore, don’t just train skilled students, but simultaneously train them to be teacher-trainers.

  • Aim for a viral spread of skill and knowledge via an ever-expanding network of skilled teacher-trainers.
  • Make the RULES OF PLAY carry the most effective tools for teaching, along with the most effective learning tools.

Some new players may balk at the implied responsibility for not just learning how to learn, but also how to teach others. When it comes to the vitality of skill, any player not learning how to teach is simply learning for themselves alone. Energy invested in them is a “dead-end”. Prioritize who you bring to the center of play, and who belongs in outer zones like THE MEADOW, by how invested they are in receiving the whole knowledge of the target skill, accelerated learning tools, and accelerated teaching tools.

14.35 Smallest Difference

Alternative names: Same and Different, Minimal Deviation

The easiest way to learn something new, is to attach it to something you already know.

  • In the brain, the retention of new knowledge and ability is increased by the number of neurological connections to previous knowledge and structures .
  • You most efficiently absorb new information when it is experienced nested within a familiar context - more of your cognition is available for processing the new.
  • The larger the scope of new information, the more effort it takes to absorb. The smaller its scope, the more easily it integrates.

Therefore, add new information in small BITE-SIZED PIECES as variations on an already existing theme.

  • Keep environments, objects, and interactions completely consistent and unchanged, expect for small aspects which you intentionally want to “pop” in the awareness of players.

This rule is one that most new players may apply superficially, unless they are OCD - and then it shines. The more exacting the consistency, the more unvarying and the same, down to the smallest details, the more powerful the impact of this rule. Any small new variation (intended or not) in an environment will practically shout itself at players, impacting their cognition and behavior, whether they are aware of it or not.

14.36 Linking

Alternative names: Linked List, Chain Links, Craig’s List, Themed Listing

You’re structuring a larger chunk of interconnected new information that will be quickly applied in the next interactions, in whole or part.

Listing is a primal human mnemonic.

  • Countless human behaviors and cultural elements can be seen as expressions of lists: counting, a series of way-points creating a roadmap, verses in a song, scenes in a story.
  • Lists are easy and intuitive ways of planning and remembering, regardless of culture.
  • As long as each item in a list is intentionally linked to its neighbor, one only needs to remember the first item in the list to retain the whole list.
  • The most effective lists are a series of linked items.

Therefore, create and share interconnected information as lists of linked items.

  • Practice the art of linking itself, rather than focusing on static lists to be memorized.
  • Criss-cross lists of linked items in multiple ways, playing with how they can fit together, and connect with different sets of information.

It’s easy for new players to think of LINKING as a thing: static lists that are learned and swapped. Refocus them again and again on the activity of LINKING itself, and juggling different linked lists, especially during FREE PLAY.

14.37 Goal Conversation

You have a mid-term goal you’d like to reach for your primary skill CONVERSATION.

Every one needs to know how what they’re doing right now fits into the larger picture.

  • Seeing a reachable destination inspires people to action.
  • Seeing the bigger picture of fluent ability makes it easier to understand how pieces fit together moment to moment.
  • True consent requires being fully informed as to where we’re going - and consent is a cornerstone of accelerated learning.

Therefore, begin learning play by first demonstrating a GOAL CONVERSATION - what, once the next large chunk of skill is absorbed, players will be able to do.

  • Use a series of GOAL CONVERSATIONS as benchmarks for keeping track of your progress through a skill.
  • Build each GOAL CONVERSATION off of the last one, according to NESTED COMPLEXITY.
  • Demonstrate them at full, fluent ability, not slowed down, for the best effect.

Players new to the skill may feel intimidated at too showy a display. Make sure not to show off during the GOAL CONVERSATION, but don’t dumb it down either. You want a balance, more inspiration than intimidation.

14.38 Bucket Brigade

You have a room full of CONVERSATIONS at different levels, and are looking to accelerate play by structuring them better…

It’s all too easy to feel stuck in a learning plateau.

  • No matter where you are, there is somebody you can learn from, and somebody you can teach.
  • Anyone who has mastered anything, has experienced every level of skill leading up to mastery, including knowing nothing at all.
  • There is no intrinsic value to being at any one point along that line - the only value is continuing to progress.
  • The most successful learners, learn just as much from their students, as their students learn from them.
  • Clear structure and SIGNAL STRENGTH as to how to progress up the chain of CONVERSATION busts through blocks and plateaus.

Therefore, organize your learning environment into a series of CONVERSATIONS, a BUCKET BRIGADE.

  • Place the first CONVERSATION nearest the door so new players entering the room will know where to go.
  • Place your FLUENT FOOL in the last CONVERSATION, so that the most skilled players will benefit from them and make the most of their time.
  • Have players ask questions “up the chain” - each CONVERSATION of players only talking to the next CONVERSATION in line.
  • In the beginning, each CONVERSATION in the BUCKET BRIGADE will require its own “gatekeeper”: an experienced player who knows how to play through each CONVERSATION and keep the BUCKET BRIGADE flowing smoothly.

New players will resist the “chain of command” when they have questions, and want to skip right toward monopolizing the time of the FLUENT FOOL. Encourage all the players to enforce the rules of play to keep the BUCKET BRIGADE flowing smoothly.

14.39 Pull Me Through It

Players are hesitating and lacking in confidence during learning play.

Any hesitation or confusion will not only slow down learning, but players will begin to associate these negative feelings with learning play, slowing it down even further.

  • Hesitation and confusion are the opposite of FLUENCY.
  • Knowing the right answer, in any case, is not as important as responding FLUENTLY.
  • The state of highest learning, the flow state, is marked by a feeling of knowing exactly what to do next, in every moment.
  • A call to IMITATION provides constant clear information on what to do in any moment.

Therefore, ask players to IMITATE fluent action, and PULL THEM THROUGH IT by providing clear leadership with sufficient SIGNAL STRENGTH.

  • Gauge your actions in accord with their ability to follow, going SLOW when necessary.
  • Distribute responsibility; encourage players to PULL EACH OTHER THROUGH IT.
  • Any hesitation or confusion is feedback that a player was not PULLED THROUGH IT soon enough. Get there just before they need you.

New players may think that they need to “remember” on their own, and may actually shut their eyes, or wave off help from others. This is part of the old paradigm of learning. Remind them that FLUENCY comes from IMITATION, not memorization, and refocus on the rules of accelerated learning.

14.40 My Turn/Your Turn

You want to remove the divide between teacher and student as quickly as possible.

When it comes time for meeting the edge of what you can do, nobody ever feels like they’re ready.

  • In the quest to TEACH A TEACHER, those used to the student role often procrastinate, claiming “they’re not ready yet”.
  • The initial conditions of a learning environment determine the long-term effects; the longer you wait to transform a student/teacher relationship, the stronger the old paradigm gets in that environment.
  • If you know one thing, you can teach one thing.
  • Even for experienced teachers, leading a learning environment can be very adrenylating and draining.

Therefore, pass off the responsibility for leading rounds of IMITATION and PULLING THROUGH IT early and often, in brief opportunities.

  • Once a BITE-SIZED PIECE has a foothold, say MY TURN - YOUR TURN! and pass off the next round to a player next to you. Continue this in a SAME ROTATION, until it gets back to you, and then add another BITE-SIZED PIECE.
  • Don’t let the next leader hesitate or feel confused - PULL THEM THROUGH IT, just before they need you.
  • This creates a kind of paradox; who is really leading the round? Do you ever really pass it off to others, if you are PULLING THEM THROUGH IT? In the end, it doesn’t matter - the players feel the impact of the responsibility, and that’s all that matters.

It’s easy to make the mistake of completely handing off the turn to the next player; remember, as a game leader, to stay focused and in the game. Continue to PULL THEM THROUGH IT, in spite of the odd paradox of “who is really leading the game then?”. They only need to feel the responsibility of leadership; the actual ability will take time and practice. But if you don’t start right away, before they are really ready, then they’ll never feel ready - and you’ll never hand off teaching.

14.41 Angel on Your Shoulder

You’re looking to accelerate learning by finding new ways of distributing responsibility for the learning environment.

We will never be in control of a learning environment; every player in that space has something to contribute.

  • Every person has a different vantage point, and thus different information about what is happening, what that means, and what needs to happen next.
  • Players may not have the energy to lead games, but that doesn’t mean they can’t support in other ways.
  • If a player in the INNER CIRCLE can clearly see you, then you are part of their cognition and are either helping, or hindering, by what you do (or don’t do).

Therefore, give the right and responsibility for skilled players among the EXTENDED FAMILY to pick struggling players to PULL THEM THROUGH IT.

  • Even skilled players in the INNER CIRCLE will benefit from being PULLED THROUGH IT, even if it is just to echo and affirm what they are already doing.

The EXTENDED FAMILY is not necessarily a place to hide, especially closer in the action. The closest rings of EXTENDED FAMILY are reserved for ANGELS - this is because dead, flat expressions and body language in visual range of the core players will deaden and flatten their energy, and make play far more difficult.

14.42 Extended Family

You have many people to wrangle, and widely varying energy levels and commitment.

Highly constrained, homogenized learning environments, like institutional classrooms, are extremely de-energizing.

  • Humans thrive in environments that accommodate a variety of people, in accord with WE’LL ALL GET THERE TOGETHER.
  • Spaces that can accommodate such variety need a structure that protects and nourishes different levels of energy and commitment.

Therefore, create a general zone around the core of learning play, called THE EXTENDED FAMILY, and give everyone the right and responsibility to freely move there and back as needed.

  • Subdivide this space into further zones - a place to FEED YOUR MIND, get deep rest and conversation in THE MEADOW, continue to play but at a lower level of commitment amongst the ANGELS, and so on.
  • Children are especially able to move amongst these zones and benefit - likely they’ll be playing off in a corner, periodically IMITATING the learning play going on at the center.

Self-managing one’s commitment in a learning environment can be challenging; in the beginning players may not only be unaware of how much energy and focus they have available, they may also not believe that you will “allow” them to freely move where they need to. Regular reminders of the rule of play will be necessary to build trust that this rule is indeed one we follow.


After establishing a very safe learning space free of ambiguity or distractions, play is becoming stagnant; players don’t have enough FLUENCY for another BITE-SIZED PIECE, but are becoming bored with the current one.

In every learning cycle, there is a time when the learner needs to leave the nest, or suffocate in the safety of it.

  • Learners must achieve FLUENCY for each BITE-SIZED PIECE, in order to build on top of their current skill and move through increasing levels of proficiency.
  • Learners will usually need a lot of repetition for any particular BITE-SIZED PIECE, to achieve FLUENCY.
  • Repetition without variety can drain energy and the quality of ALIVE from the learning environment.
  • Per DIAGNOSTIC WHEEL, using energy games to increase ALIVE may not be sufficiently relevant or connect energetically with the chunks of skill that the learners are focusing on. Learners may begin to yearn for the energy games rather than further focusing.

Therefore, increase ALIVE energy within the Focus cycle, and BREAK A RULE of the highly controlled learning environment.

  • Reverse or randomize rotation, rather than SAME ROTATION.
  • Change the DESIGNED ENVIRONMENT - move to another setting (move outside!).
  • Break NARROWED SCOPE - change topics, tools, objects, etc.
  • Play FAST rather than SLOW, inserting a speed round.
  • If you have built a strong sense of trust through WARM/FED/RESTED/SAFE/WILLING, your learning community may be ready for advanced tools such as competition, fear, or other edgy adrenaline-fueled approaches. Proceed cautiously and collect regular feedback!

Rules truly are made to be broken; they are deep understandings of context that also come bundled with an array of exceptions. BREAK A RULE can be a powerful way to introduce more ALIVE to your learning. Remember however, for the very next BITE-SIZED PIECE of skill, you’ll need to collapse back to a highly controlled learning environment all over again, with sufficient SIGNAL STRENGTH and NARROWED SCOPE.

14.44 Directed Inquiry

When you are are looking for the “correct answer”, a standardized approach, or written documentation.

We belong to a culture obsessed with the idea of a “right answer” and to written truth over actual experience.

  • “Right answers” smother discourse, blunt curiosity, and discourage experimentation.
  • Questions open discourse, sharpen curiosity, and define the direction of experimentation.
  • Thinking in terms of “right” and “wrong” conflates moral thinking with experimental thinking.
  • Thinking in terms of “degrees of confidence” keeps you squarely in the world of experience.

Therefore treat all “answers” as a direction in which to investigate and gain experience for yourself.

  • Treat texts and guides as books of questions, not answers. Test their claims one by one.
  • Treat strong opinions other people hold about “facts” and “truths”, what is “correct” and “incorrect”, as directions of inquiry, as “what ifs” - and investigate accordingly.
  • Interview others for the stories of their experiences, not “facts”, “truths”, and so on.
  • When someone requests an “answer” from you, respond one of four different ways: tell the story of your experience, point them to a better resource, design and share an experience for them, answer their question with a question of your own.

This is another powerful tool that can be abused if disconnected from the web of other rules of play. Constantly answering questions with another question, regardless of the needs and comfort of the questioner, can seem arrogant and unkind.

  1. An optical illusion where the shape of the speaker’s lips trumps how the brain interprets the voice.
  2. See the chapter on “the Flow of Learning” for a lot more information on this dynamic.

15. The Science of Language Hunting

In this section you can read a few examples of the research available that supports the language hunting approach.

15.1 Limit

There is a lot of research illuminating the biological limits of human cognition, and how that manifests in learning and decision making.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America: Michael N. Tombu, Christopher L. Asplund, Paul E. Dux, Douglass Godwin, Justin W. Martin, and Rene Marois, “A Unified Attentional Bottleneck in the Human Brain”; Accessed October 24th, 2011

Mental “bottlenecks”, characterized as constraints on what we can perceive and act on, result from attentional limitation in a multitask setting.

The New York Times: John Tierney, “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?”; Accessed October 24th, 2011

“Decision Fatigue” occurs when excessive decisions deplete the finite store of mental capacity.

15.2 Killing Fairies

The following article gives an insight to the amount of mental labor that is taxed when using more than one language in the brain.

Canadian Modern Language Review: Joshua Thoms, Jianling Liao, Anja Szustak, “The Use of L1 in an L2 On-Line Chat Activity”; Accessed November 1, 2011

Learners of a second language often revert to their native language when given a challenging task.

15.3 The Walk

The body and the mind can’t be separated when it comes to accelerated learning. There are many rules of play that incorporate this, but most significantly in the Walk.

American Journal of Physiology - Regulatory, Integrative, and Comparative Physiology: Jennifer L. Steiner, E. Angel Murphy, Jamie L. Mcclellan, Martin D. Carmichael, J. Mark Davis, “Exercise Training Increases Mitochondrial Biogenesis in the Brain”; Accessed October 26th, 2011

Exercise increases mitochondria in the brain, therefore, increases brain endurance by making it more resistant to fatigue.

15.4 We’ll All Get There Together

This rule emerges from the social nature of humans; as the following articles illustrate, humans are social animals, and so, human learning is social as well. Stacey Wood, Kerry McBride, “Single-Sex Schools Rate Poorly in Study”; Accessed November 1, 2011

Same sex schooling offers no benefit and may be socially harmful.

Harvard Business Review: Sreedhari Desai, “Adults Behave Better When Teddy Bears Are in the Room”; Accessed November 2, 2011

Adults behave better when reminders of children are present in the room, such as teddy bears and crayons.

15.5 Race To The Party

The following articles describe different crucial ways that goal setting and intention play in accelerating the learning process.

New Directions for Adult and Continuing Learning: Craig Swenson, “Accelerated and Traditional Formats: Using Learning as a Criterion for Quality”; Accessed November 2, 2011

Program participants are more likely to work together for their achievement when objectives are clear, measurable, explicit, and communicated to everyone. Author Not Listed, “Team Learning is Not Random”; Accessed February 10, 2012

Team learning requires intent.

15.6 Start at the Beginning

Repetition builds a safe environment; safety and emotional security are critical factors in effective learning environments. Rick Nauert, “Rituals Help to Relieve Stress”; Accessed Sept. 20, 2011

Repetitive behavior, especially that which is ritualistic-like, relieves stress and produces calm feelings.

15.7 The Meadow

THE MEADOW hands the responsibility for self-care to the players; self-care is critical in learning, as shown by articles like those below.

Neuron: Arielle Tambini, Nicholas Ketz, Lila Davahi, “Enhanced Brain Correlations during Rest are Related to Memory for Recent Experiences”; Accessed November 10, 2011

Taking an awake rest after a new experience increases memory consolidation and strengthening. Derek Thompson, “Why Summer Vacations (and the Internet) Make You More Productive”; Accessed January 21, 2011

Short bursts of attention in conjunction with equally restful breaks produce the greatest capacity to be productive.

15.8 The Language Hunter

Though brain plasticity supports accelerated language learning, increasing adult skills at self-managing the learning process play a far more fundamental role. Catherine de Lange, “Age No Excuse for Failing to Learn New Language”; Accessed November 12, 2011

Adults are better than children at learning language implicitly. Andrea Kuszewski, “You Can Increase Your Intelligence: 5 Ways to Maximize Your Cognitive Potential”; Accessed December 5, 2011

Adults are capable of increasing their capacity to learn new information.

15.9 Twenty- Language Child

Though not a rule of play per se, the vision the Language Hunters organization has for the world includes the common occurence of the Twenty-Language child. The articles below speak to the value of this achievement. Sylvain- Jacques Desjardins, “A Second Language Gives Toddlers an Edge”; Accessed December 14, 2011

Bilingual children display enhanced attention control. Claudia Dreifus, “The Bilingual Advantage”; Accessed December 1, 2011

Bilingual Speakers exhibit a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important. Gretchen Cuda-Kroen, “Being Bilingual May Boost Your Brain Power”; Accessed November 23, 2011

Bilingualism does not cause confusion, but increases mental agility. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, “Two Languages Makes Your Brain Buff”; Accessed January 20, 2012

Bilinguals maintain better cognitive function throughout aging.

15.10 Endangered Language Crisis

Our work in supporting endangered language groups creates a strong cultural identity within themselves which, in turn, creates a strong investment in cultural health and wellbeing. The following articles offer examples of how identity and health are related. ABC News, “Indigenous Language Linked to Drop in Drug Abuse”; Accessed December 10, 2011

Native speakers of an indigenous language are less likely to participate in high-risk drinking and drug abuse than young people who do not speak a traditional language. Janese Silvey, “Students Do Best When Using Native Language”; Accessed December 17, 2011

Students who practice speaking their native language at school scored higher grades than students who were required to speak only English.

15.11 My Turn/ Your Turn

The new mental perspective that comes with alternating a role in a social setting invokes neuroplasticity, as the following example illustrates. Amy Patterson Neubert, “Research Finds Practicing Retrieval is Best Tool for Learning”; Accessed October 3, 2011

Students who used the method of retrieval for studying scored at least 50 percent higher than students who studied with an alternative method.

15.12 Mumble

The neurological and physical process of speech production is what makes this rule significant, as noted in the following article. Jason D. Ozubko, Colin M. MacLeod, “The Production Efect in Memory: Evidence That Distinctiveness Underlies the Benefit”; Acceseed November 11, 2011

Saying the target word aloud increases the ability to recall it.

15.13 Read My Lips

The importance of this rule is due to the perceptual phenomenon of synesthesia, as noted in the following article.

Psychology Today: Daniel R. Hawes, “What You See is What You Hear”; Accessed August 3, 2011

What you see influences what you hear.

15.14 How Fascinating!

Activating this rule keeps the game ALIVE through the fall-out of mistakes that could halt the flow of learning, as the following article illustrates. Jonah Lehrer, “Why Do Some People Learn Faster?”; Accessed November 14, 2011

Acknowledging mistakes and oddities causes us to learn from them. Valerie Strauss, “Telling Students It’s Okay to Fail Helps Them Succeed - Study”; Accessed March 14, 2012

By presenting learning as difficult and that sometimes failure is expected, student’s had a higher working memory capacity than those who were not told that failure is okay.

15.15 Needs Gap

As the following article demonstrates, creating a bridge to the target language heightens the desire and urgency to cross over it.

University of Gothenburg: <i>No Author Listed</i>, “Teaching Non-Language Courses in a Foreign Language Improves Language Learning”; Accessed December 4, 2011

Students who were taught non-language subjects in their target second language in addition to traditional language classes greatly improved in their second language vocabulary and communication strategies.

15.16 Aha!

When the brain is allowed to form its own connections between new information the learning process is ignited by this AHA! moment, as noted in the following article.

University of Cambridge: <i>No Author Listed</i>, “Unconscious Language Learning”; Accessed December 21, 2011

Using tasks that focus attention on the relevant grammatical forms in language helps learners access unconscious leaning pathways in the brain.

15.17 Gesture

The many benefits of including GESTURE in game play form a solid foundation for accelerated learning. The following articles mention it’s strengths. Jewel Topsfield, “Sign of the Times: School Finds Success with New Way of Teaching Languages”; Accessed January 19, 2011

Connecting gestures to words create stronger recall.

The Hyperglot Blog: Author Not Listed, “Wouldn’t You Know It? Hand Gestures Dramatically Improve Language Learning!”; Accessed February 22, 2012

A compilation of scientific studies validate improved language retention with applied gesture.

15.18 Imitation

Though the following article doesn’t directly speak to learning a language, it presents an example of successful learned mental behavior by way of imitation.

Advance Magazine: Author Not Listed, “Imitation and Autism”; Accessed February 21, 2012

Imitation training may improve a broader range of social skills.

16. Falling in Love: A Conclusion

It’s early springtime in Lexington, MA, just a half hour from the city of Boston. The trees are still bare and grey. We’re in the living room of an old house, the floor is covered in an oriental carpet, and knick-knacks line the walls. I’m running a workshop on language hunting for a small group composed mostly of IT professionals. We have participants in a wide age-range - twenties, thirties, fourties, fifties, and one attendee, Rekha has brought her 5 year old daughter Shreya to participate too.

I know to maintain my own fluent edge I need to keep upping the level of challenge; so for this workshop, for the first time, I’ve decided to spontaneously design the entire workshop around a non-English language that someone has brought with them. To hunt whatever language presents itself. I don’t know what it will be until the first hour of the first day - but I do know we have at least a couple bi/multilingual participants.

I ask the room - who is fluent in a language other than English? Rekha speaks up, saying that she speaks both Hindi and Tamil (her mother tongue and language of childhood). We go back and forth - do we hunt Hindi, or Tamil? Rekha is leaning towards Hindi, and I know someone back home with an interest in the language, so we settle on Hindi (though I secretly prefer hunting the language of a person’s childhood, family, and origin).

We play for the next three days. We laugh, discuss, learn. By the end of the workshop, several participants have decided that Hindi is an especially beautiful language - that it has a beautiful sound, structure, way of thinking about the world.

I laugh, agree, but also have to tell them - this is what players always say about the languages that we hunt.

It doesn’t seem to matter which language - they rarely have any prior personal interest in it, and often, they’ve never even heard of the language that we’re about to hunt (frequently the case with with Chinook Jargon, an indigenous language from the Pacific Northwest, one I speak and frequently lead in introductory language hunt games, precisely because I can be sure no one speaks it yet).

I call this the “falling in love” effect. In one sense, yes, it’s all about the language. The language is why we’re here. But in another sense, the language is irrelevant. Language Hunting is a relationship to learning, and to each other. It is a relationship of trust, play, camaraderie, respect, support, and family.

We build this relationship in a group, and put a language at the center, where it will become totally connected with these feelings. This is the purpose of the design - this is why this system of accelerated learning works.

This is why we fall in love with this experience and the language. Love is a process, not a thing. When we court someone, it makes them more worthy of courting, it adds to their beauty, the richness of their being. Language Hunting, in a very real way, is the courtship of language, of conversation, and by default, each other. We take our time, we slow down, we listen to each other, taking turns both leading and following, and when we’re not looking, miracles happen overnight.

I hope that language hunters will storm the gates of everything worth learning and sharing. I hope that this won’t end with language, but rather through transforming our relationship to language learning, we’ll transform our relationship to all learning.

I want you to go out and hunt a language, to become a language hunter, to connect with the speech of another’s most precious memories - of family, home, and tradition. To speak to them in the language of those that love them. And so create an epidemic of friendship, a linguistic pay-it-forward with no endpoint.

May our diverse uncountable languages and dialects, may our differences become that which brings us together.

Good hunting!