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In the shoes of a newcomer with no language


In the previous post, Z is the first letter of their alphabet, three English-speaking children talked about their experiences of being students for 4 years in a Russian school in Moscow. Initially, none spoke any Russian nor new much about the culture beyond Matryoshka (“Babooshka”) dolls. It was only their experiential learning that afforded them increasing insight, both culturally and linguistically. “It was kind of like solving a code. Every day there was something new you had to say and some new way you had to act.” (Danya)

For most of us, this extreme learning situation rarely plays out in our lives. Yes, many of us have taught abroad, thrust into languages and cultures we have little experience with, but built-in support networks of other teachers in the same boat can lessen the burden.  Even if we are alone, more rarely are we full-time students, learning content in another language day in and day out. What must this feel like for a true beginner studying in an English-speaking country very different from their own? Imagine you went to McDonald’s and found it sold tires. It’s very important the we, as language teachers, do our best to be aware of how our students may be feeling, and what expectations and barriers may be affecting their ability to adapt to our classrooms.

As a teacher training exercise on intercultural awareness,  I strongly recommend trying Barnga (Thiagarajan & Steinwechs, 1990), a brilliant activity, which in a very short time, simulates for its participants a first-hand, highly effective glimpse into the types of experiences these American kids likely had. And where much individual awareness arises from independent events throughout a trainee’s career, as Fowler (1994:469) points out, Barnga’s approach ensures all participants experience the same conditions at the same time, making it easier as a basis for discussion. It’s very easy to administer and learn to play, while useful for groups of any size.

The basic game is a tournament cards. Groups of 4 – 6 players sit at a designated table and are given very simple rules to play the game. If you played our popular, mindless, teenage game of “Asshole” during your lunch in high school, you’ll already be an expert. In a nutshell, the player who plays the highest card wins the trick. This repeats five times until the round is declared over.

Players are given 10 minutes to practice a few rounds to familiarise themselves with the rules and then the tournament begins. During the tournament, all oral communication is forbidden. Players can only communicate through gestures or drawings. This simulates the lack of language available to true beginners. At the end of the round, the player with the most tricks move to the next table to play with other losers of the previous round. This rotation continues to occur at the end of each round.

Download a sample of rule sheets.
Download a sample of rule sheets.

This all seems straight-forward. Where is the cultural training, you say? Ahh, it stems from the rules. Though the majority of the game appears very similar to everyone, unbeknownst to the players, there are small variations in the rules from table to table. For example, at one table, Aces may be the highest card, while at another, it is the lowest. At one table, the suit of diamonds may be used to win a trick over high cards of another suit, whereas at the next table, Kings may be wild.  These sneaky, minor variations coupled with the lack of oral communication, results in uncertainty, frustration and confusion between confident previous winners and their new opponents. 

After a round or two, players often start to realise that the rules they began with are not valid at the other tables and begin to adjust their expectations of gameplay. This can bring about much fruitful (yet often incorrect) prediction.

Once finished the tournament, the class comes together to have a debrief of their experiences using a guided survey. Players discuss how they felt at their home tables, the confusion and sometimes anger they felt at the tables they moved to, especially towards the other players whom they sometimes believe are cheating or not playing by the rules, and the frustration that accompanied their inabilities to communicate with the other players. Others move on to the insights into how they felt as they became aware of the potential differences between the games they were playing.

How this game is particularly important is raising teachers’ awareness of the barriers their students may face–both linguistically and culturally–while in and out of the classroom and the expectations they bring that colours their perceptions of the classroom itself. Beyond this, Gallavan and Webster-Smith (2009:6) note it provides teachers themselves with self-assessments towards their intercultural sensitivities that affect their reactions to students, a much needed reflection.

Check out Vicki Hollett’s follow-up post for more resources.


Fowler, S. (1994). “Two decades of using simulation games for cross-cultural simulation training”, Simulation and Gaming December 1994.

Gallavan, N., & Webster-Smith, A. (2009). “Advancing cultural competence and intercultural consciousness through a cross-cultural simulation with teacher candidates”,  Journal of Praxis in Multicultural Education 4/1.

Thiagarajan, S., & Steinwachs, B. (1990). Barnga a simulation game on cultural clashes. Yarmouth, ME, Intercultural Press.


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Diane Ramanathan

I love Barnga. Really opens your eyes to a new experience.

Vicki Hollett

I’m a big Barnga fan too Tyson and I haven’t played it for a while – thanks for reminding me of it. Readers might like some of Thiagi’s other free games on his website.

[…] reminded me of Barnga today – a terrific game for exploring cross cultural issues. Check out Tyson’s post and if you haven’t already bought a copy of the Barnga rules (and some packs of playing […]

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