One of the many red flags I dismissed at my peril when I was dating the man who would become my ex-husband was his refusal to engage in conversation, unless, of course, it was about his work. He did not engage in the spirited conversation I enjoyed and relied upon with my friends and loved ones, nor did he ask me questions about me, which I found off-putting and a sign of disinterest.

I wanted us to get to know each other, but unless I initiated personal questions--or questions of any kind (except work-related) — there was dead air. The crypt-like silences I endured especially whenever he and I traveled were emotionally anesthetizing.

I wondered if playing 20 Questions or other question-answer games might serve as an ice breaker that could be a springboard to authentic conversation. If I thought he would have been game to play, I would have tried it, but his disdain was palpable. Twenty Questions is a common game of deduction and critical thinking that is often first introduced to children but which has many uses for all ages, and there are many resources and variations available.

Although there is dispute about when the game was developed and who developed it, it has been used and can be used to encourage analytic skills, to teach or underscore vocabulary, and even to play "getting to know you."

When I was in Russia teaching English language pedagogy, research and writing skills, and American conversational rituals to graduate TESOL students, I adapted 20 Questions by adding a component, 20 Words (aka Wordplay). While I was pleased with the lesson and students’ engagement, I was eager to develop it.

I had the opportunity when I taught university Short Composition students in South Korea. The students, most of whom were Korean but a couple of whom were Mongolian, all had high levels of English language skills and were already keen thinkers, and a number were polyglots; therefore, I wanted to robustly challenge them. The course is an elective taken by those who both appreciate the usefulness of English proficiency and those who want to broaden and deepen their knowledge of English.

When the course had begun 13 weeks earlier, we examined the term "composition," beginning with "What is composition?" and "What is a composition?" It didn’t take long for the students to acknowledge that composition is a broad term not confined to English courses though it is regularly associated with writing.

In my Short Composition course, students discovered that they would be examining and creating a variety of short compositions in various genres. The course met twice a week, one day for 50 minutes and one day for 110 minutes.

When I introduced the activity, which I had developed into multiple parts to be implemented throughout several class sessions, I paired students, trying to partner those who were not accustomed to working together, their first challenge. Next, I explained that each pair would create a language of only 20 words: What words would they choose, and why?

I emphasized the need to explain why they had chosen the words they had. I instructed them to make a list of their words and their reasons, and I gave them plenty of time, at least until the exuberant exchanges had stopped.

While they held their confabulations, I roamed, as unobtrusively as possible, from group to group, keeping within hearing distance but not too close, listening to students discussing and debating their choices. When students’ animated deliberations quieted, I asked for questions and promised students we’d return to the activity in our next class. I wanted students to have time to consider the question and their word choices.

In the next class, I had students meet with their partner and re-examine their choices. After that, I had pairs leave their lists on their desks and move around to see what words and reasons other pairs had. The animated discussions resumed, and I heard a number of "ooohs" and "ahhhs" as students acknowledged choices they’d overlooked.

Students had the opportunity to briefly chat with their classmates to suss out more about their choices. With the exception of one pair, students wrote practical words, a mix of nouns and verbs that would allow them to complete tasks and communicate with others. One pair, however, chose words that held particular meaning to them, words that symbolized their values: love, family, friendship, generosity, honesty, trust.

While I was delighted with their ingenuity, they were immediately overwhelmed with doubt and shame as they saw their classmates’ words, and chagrined, they began to explain to me that they had misunderstood the instructions as they quickly tried to change their answers.

Just as quickly, I responded. There was no "right" answer, I explained, their words were as valuable as all the others. "You don’t have to change your words," I assured them. "If you do, think carefully about why you are changing them. This is your language. It is your language. You can do whatever you want."

Next, students returned to a large group, and each pair told their classmates the words they chose and their reasons for the choices. Although students had reviewed other pairs’ lists and chatted with classmates, the large group activity provided a chance for all students to hear what their classmates had to say. Then, we put all the words on the board and eliminated duplicates: To include everyone, each student wrote 10 of their 20 words on the board, and I erased duplicates and took a picture of the master list.

For the next class, I prepared one copy of the master list for each student and a pack of cards numbered one to five for each student. Students sat in a large circle and wrote their names on each of the cards in their stack. Then, I gave these instructions:

  • Today, as a group, you will decide which 20 words will create your language.
  • Each student must put down a card in the middle of the table before speaking.
  • No student may speak while another student is speaking. Speaking includes whispering to other students, talking to other students, or asking questions of or debating with the speaker. If you break the rule, you will lose a card (lose a turn).
  • You may take notes as you listen.
  • You may use your cards at any time you choose.
  • Each student must use all of their cards before the activity can end.

I took a seat outside of the circle, opened my notebook, and watched, listened, and took notes.

Occasionally, a student would turn to me to ask a question, and the answer was always, “It’s your language. You decide.” I wanted them to be self-reliant and self-confident, to negotiate and resolve their disagreements, to think analytically and profoundly and to articulate their positions in well-formulated English.

With enormous personal restraint, I kept myself from gasping in awe at what transpired. I watched strategies unfold: MJ took copious notes, listed and counted all the words students offered, and said nothing, saving his cards until the analysis and debate was long underway. CY couldn’t stop talking, broke the "no speaking" rule many times, and became petulant and nasty when I enforced the penalty.

Typically quiet and reserved students had their chance to contribute equally. JP asked, "Why do we have to have 20 words? Why can’t we use signs, like deaf people do?" CW suggested that survival and not emotion words should be the focus. YS wondered how to indicate past and future.

HS wondered, "Do we need 20 words or twenty meanings? If we need 20 meanings, then we need to be selfish (judicious) with what we choose." JB asserted that there was much more to discuss because each person has values that may and often do vary from person to person, and language is value-packed.

"What kind of society is this? Is it modern? Primitive?" JP asked, and all eyes turned to me. "It’s your society, it’s your language, you decide," I said. With that, CY said that yes, there was much more discussion to have because they needed to decide on the type of society they were creating. Round 1 ended.

Round 2 began with a discussion of what type of society they wanted to create and why. "When is this society?" someone asked. JP wondered, "Why can’t we use words for every common society?" After significant discussion about which words to keep and which to eliminate, there was a breakthrough: "You’re thinking too deep," N said.

"It’s our culture, our society, so we can give meaning to it. We can have random words. For example, ‘ahhh’ can mean love." N offered that language is nothing more than a code, a representation that could mean anything they decided it would mean.

CW, picking up on N’s train of thought, said, "How about ‘jelly’? Jelly can mean ‘happy.’" Jellies in South Korea are popular candies, akin to gummies elsewhere. "Why don’t we choose random words, dangerous words?" JB asked.

And then, O: "We don’t need to choose a society. This can be a language for our classroom. Language isn’t only for survival. It’s for communication." And then, quiet. Quiet. Long, long, quiet. Necessary long, long quiet. I cannot stress enough how essential this quiet time was and is.

Too often, teachers are too quick to break quiet in favor of activity because the quiet can be awkward and even intimidating. Please don’t interrupt it. The students were deeply engaged in critical thought, contemplating the weighty assertions, insights, and suggestions they’d heard.

"Jelly can have many meanings," someone said. "It can mean bad, as in ill, or cool as in sick, like the slang, ‘He’s so sick.’" JP asked MJ, who had been tracking the number of words on their list, how many they had. Not wanting to use a speaking card, MJ used his fingers to create a sign for the number. As one who has studied and used American Sign Language, I sat gobsmacked. With each student’s contribution, my heart leaped, and once in a while, it stopped.

My heart stopped when O noted that tone of voice needed to be considered. One word may have many meanings depending on if we say it loudly or softly, she said. HS responded, "Why don’t we find a word that has a lot of meanings?” to which N replied, "Why don’t we MAKE a word with a lot of meanings? Why do we have to find them? Language is for communication. We can choose random words, and we give them meaning." The self-appointed notetaker, MJ, said, "Meaning is important. The word isn’t."

And the list began to form.

MJ chose "friend." O chose "paper," "all paper related things" and "jelly. It means happy and good and is for presents, gifts." CW, a cat lover and English major, chose "cat, which means love, cute, soft, Debra (all my students know I am a feline fan), and street" because cats often live on streets.

SY suggested that they "figure out the important words first." CH’s choice was "‘water, and everything related, like liquid, thirsty, and shower." SY contributed "home" to mean "comfortable," "to go home," and "clothes," and should be used with gestures to differentiate meanings. N said that "fire" should mean "passion," "yellow," and "red."

YS offered "darkness" to mean "a big problem, a personal problem, a negative thing in our life." HJ said "blood" could mean "sick," as in ill. CW wanted to know all the words on the current list and thought they could finish; others agreed, and MJ read the list while classmates wrote.

Then, a student proposed that “more” could mean "future," and SY said that Korean numbers made using fingers could indicate "past" and "future." YS asked, "Is there anyone who suggests a greeting word? Otherwise, we’ll be a brutal society." No one did. JP, not thinking about greetings, said, "Rain. It can mean ‘gloomy,’ ‘sad,’ ‘cold,’ and ‘I have no idea.’" CY wondered about "green" to mean "safe."

Eventually, the linguists-in-making decided upon their vocabulary. Round 3 was about to begin.

"Now, use the language with each other," I said. And they did. We did. I joined the group, and we successfully communicated: We used the vocabulary the students had chosen, bolstered the words with gestures, and following dialogues, we translated them into English to double-check our intentions and be sure if we had conveyed them.

What did my students learn from this activity? My plan to gather their course self-reflections and recommendations for course improvement was upended — literally — when I slipped on black ice on campus and broke my proximal humerus on my way to my final class with them. I never saw my students again.

What did I learn from my students? I would have learned much more had I gotten their self-reflections and recommendations, so I re-learned the value of not waiting until the last minute to gather them. I learned that the students were good-naturedly willing to rise to challenge upon challenge, to push their intellectual limits, and to surprise themselves.

It is common knowledge in the TESOL community that many Asian countries’ approach to language teaching is archaic, stuck in the grammar translation and lecture approaches, which inhibits students’ critical thinking and speaking skills and prepares them for little more than taking summative, standardized exams (I learned this not only from my students and research but also from my first-hand experience studying Korean in Seoul at what was advertised as a first-rate language school with lively, interactive classes).

After years of teaching students who despair because they are required to slog through curricula emphasizing testing-taking strategies, I was heartened to learn that there are still students who are excited to participate in and can and do thrive in authentic educational environments. Hope is one of my 20 words.