In the summer of 2015, New Zealander Nigel Richards won the French-language world Scrabble championships despite not speaking a word of French. I heard this story on a Radio Télévision Suisse news show repackaged as a podcast (probably Le 12h30, but I can’t remember exactly) and wrote myself a note that if I ever got a chance to teach a class on games and learning, I would use this story in it. Since Spring of 2019, I’ve been teaching a once-a-year class for LIS students on games, literacies, and learning, and I’ve assigned this article from The Guardian every year that I’ve taught it. It regularly blows students’ minds when they read the headline and the first few paragraphs:
Nigel Richards’ command of the language of Molière, as the French like to call it, stretches to “bonjour” and being able to count. However, the New Zealander who has been called “the Tiger Woods of Scrabble” certainly has a way with words – even French ones. Despite his linguistic handicap, Richards has just won the francophone world Scrabble championships after reportedly memorising the entire French Scrabble dictionary in just nine weeks.
“He doesn’t speak French at all – he just learned the words,” his close friend Liz Fagerlund told the New Zealand Herald. “He won’t know what they mean, wouldn’t be able to carry out a conversation in French, I wouldn’t think.”
Richards, 48, who has won the English world Scrabble championships three times, the US national championships five times and the UK Open six times, beat a rival from French-speaking Gabon in the final held at Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium on Monday. During the match, which he won by two games to nil, he even successfully challenged his rival Schélick Ilagou Rékawé’s use of a form of the verb “fureter” (to snoop). He was given a standing ovation by the mainly French-speaking crowd.
However, what the article goes on to explain (and what Stefan Fatsis arguably explains even better in his excellent 2001 book Word Freak), is that when you’re playing competitive level Scrabble, language stops working the same way it does in the real world. Words become arbitrary combinations of arbitrary symbols that are completely divorced from any semiotic significance. Their value is in the number of points that they can deliver to a player given the tiles in front of them and the situation on the board. Elite Scrabble players memorize dictionaries but not definitions—indeed, this is how Richards walks away with the championship despite not being conversant in French.
I love assigning this article, and I love seeing what students have to say about it. This year, one of my students helped me realize something that’s always been implicitly in the background of this class activity but that I don’t think I’ve ever put so concisely. This student took issue with the portion of the second paragraph above that describes Richards as having “learned the words.” Can you say you’ve learned French words if you don’t know their meaning?
The reason I assign this article every year is to emphasize that what a game teaches (in the parlance of our class, its literacies) is not necessarily what we want players to learn from it. In previous years, it’s been paired with the second chapter of James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy to serve as a sort of counterexample to what Gee talks about in that book. Of course, Gee’s writing is heavily influenced by sociocultural theories on learning—ones that emphasize that learning is a socially situated activity. It’s still never really occurred to me to connect those two and think about the way that Richards’s victory invites us to ask ourselves what it means to learn something.
In fact, I think this story is very helpful for emphasizing why my preference is for sociocultural (rather than cognitive or behaviorist) theories of learning. To quote from my response to my students’ Hypothesis annotations in the Guardian article:
As a former French teacher, I strongly agree with [the student who raised this question]—Richards hasn’t learned French, not even in the slightest. Yet, if we accept learning as something that happens in communities, I can’t argue that Richards learned “Scrabble French.” It’s just that Scrabble French and French are two different things to learn, and he only learned one of them.
Even setting aside learning theories, though, there’s a lot that Richards’s victory can get us thinking about in the classroom. It’s obvious that someone can walk away with a French-language Scrabble championship without really ever learning French, but it’s sometimes less obvious to us the way that our grades, assessments, and other measures fail to capture what we’re actually trying to capture with a class assignment or research instrument. Some of this is inevitable, of course, but I would be concerned if we started using Scrabble as a high-stakes assessment of students in French classes, and I think it would be good for us to pay more attention to where those gaps are and how much they matter.
Learning is important, and it’s also surprisingly difficult to conceptualize. How we understand learning affects how we teach, how we grade, how we organize education institutions, and how we talk about education as a whole. It’s always worth puzzling over what it means to learn, and I think I might bring up French and Scrabble the next time I get a chance to talk about it.
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