Learning Spanish Is Like… Playing Chess?

Finding an appropriate analogy for language learning, and why it matters

Many times when I attempt to stress to my students that a serious dedication to studying Spanish can lead to advanced proficiency in the language, thereby leading to personal fulfillment and cultural understanding, I’ll compare the learning process to the acquisition of another skill. More often than not, I’ll use a sports analogy, like playing basketball. “If you want to be a good basketball player,” I’d say, “it’s not enough simply to go to your team practices. You should spend as much as your free time as possible doing things that will help you improve, like: watching the game being played at a high level, talking to people knowledgeable of the game, working out on your own, finding open gyms, eating healthy, getting sufficient sleep, etc.” Studying Spanish at a high level can require similar dedication, I would argue. It’s not enough simply to go to Spanish class during the week. It’s also important to study on your own, talk to people who know a lot about it, and make it a part of your life, in general. That’s the pitch I typically use.

I used to think that sports metaphors were used primarily by Americans. Interestingly, however, one of my good friends, Juan Jesús, who is from Spain, once used basketball to refer to the main Enlightenment thinkers in Spain; “Benito Jerónimo Feijoo was the point guard of the group,” I believe he said, which made me smile. So, the sports metaphors may be more universal than I once believed. Most of my students are American, and the comparisons of sports to learning a foreign language seemed to me like they would be relatable, at least.

These days, however, I’m less convinced that this type of analogy is helpful for most students who want to achieve fluency. Firstly, not all students want to be a great basketball player. In fact, most of them have no aspiration of being a professional athlete, so they can’t relate to it. Also, although all really great basketball players are hard workers, they also are blessed with genetics that are of great advantage to them. If someone is 6′ 9″ tall and muscular, they are going to be a much better player than me, no matter how much I study the game and work out. I’ll never make the Milwaukee Bucks, unfortunately. Of course, there is an uninformed belief that one has to be born with a “language gene” in order to learn a second language, but most of us know that it’s a huge myth.

So, I’ve been on the lookout for a better analogy. Recently, my Covid quarantine has led me to the discovery of some TV shows I might not otherwise be able to watch. And a few months ago, my wife and I watched “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix. Based on the novel of the same name, it’s a fascinating story of an orphan named Beth Harmon, who discovers she is a chess prodigy. Her journey involves grappling with her demons – drugs, alcohol, and family baggage – while trying to reach the highest levels of a game dominated by men. My interest in the show subsequently led me to renew my own interest in chess. My brother Andy taught me to play when I was a kid, but I hadn’t played a game in many years. I dusted off a chess set I have at home – a beautiful one with Chinese influenced pieces that’s more decorative than practical – and retaught myself the movements. Then, my curiosity took me through a rabbit hole on YouTube, where I discovered who the current best players in the world are, the sizable online chess community that exists, different strategies that new players could use, and so on.

My research into chess merged with my love for Spanish when I discovered a video by a chess journalist – who knew such professions existed? – at El país, one of Spain’s most important newspapers. In the video, this journalist, named Leontxo García, gave something like a TED Talk, the major difference being that he took questions from the audience. In his presentation, he discussed things like the history and evolution of chess, why everyone should learn to play, and why even schools should facilitate opportunities for kids to learn the game at a young age. In short, I found the whole talk fascinating, in no small part because of Leontxo’s own passion and ability to communicate effectively. As a Hispanophile, I was particularly interested in his discussion of Spain’s influence on the game. He explains it much better than I do, of course, but apparently chess was brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors during the Medieval Period. It was in the land that would later be known as Spain that the game evolved with the creation of the first (and only) female piece, the Queen, who is the most powerful. The game had such a hold on the Iberian Peninsula that even Alfonso X “el Sabio” (“the Wise”) – King of Castile, León, and Galicia – wrote a work called The Book of Games, in which chess plays a prominent role. I’ll embed Leontxo’s talk (in Spanish) here:

The title of Leontxo’s speech, “El ajedrez es el mejor gimnasio para la mente” (“Chess Is the Best Gymnasium for the Mind,”) caught my attention because I’ve always been of the belief that learning a second language was the best activity for the brain, capable of helping the learner to think critically, problem solve, engage with members of other cultures, be creative, and improve knowledge of other disciplines. There’s even research that shows that learning a foreign language can help to prevent diseases related to old age like dementia and Alzheimer’s. As it turns out, chess can do a lot of this, as well.

Alfonso X “el Sabio” in an image from El libro de los juegos, in which he is depicted wearing the symbols of his kingdoms in a chessboard pattern

In short, Leontxo’s talk persuaded me that chess is immensely beneficial to those who learn it, and I started to wonder if this game could be a better analogy than traditional sports for foreign language learning. Here are a few specific things I came up with that the two have in common :

  • Both chess and foreign languages can be learned in a group setting and practiced individually.
  • Technology can assist leaners of both chess and languages to complete drills when alone at home, but more is learned when practicing with another human being, face-to-face.
  • Both endeavors require a great deal of concentration and study.
  • There are rules to both chess and languages that must be followed if one is to meet his or her goal, either comprehensible communication, as in languages, or capturing the opponent’s king, as in chess. And unlike traditional sports, like basketball or soccer, there is no way to flaunt the rules in chess, pretending that an opponent fouled me, for example, then pretending that I’m hurt. In languages, you could not follow the rules and still be understood, I suppose, but eventually someone is going to correct you.
  • One has to be creative in using language, finding the right combination of words and tenses to express oneself effectively, just as one has to find creative ways and combinations of moves to capture the pieces you want in chess.
  • There is strategy involved in chess, and players need to anticipate the consequences of their moves and the strategies employed by their opponent. In languages, I have to anticipate what my conversation partner will say, and come up with various “moves” I can make when the other does or says something unpredicted.
  • Conversations, like variations of chess games, can be long and drawn out, requiring time to formulate appropriate responses, or they can be fast, requiring improvisation. Regardless of the strategies used, there are different paths that can take you to the same destination.
  • A chess game has different stages – openings, middle games, and endgames – in which different approaches to the game are taken, just as foreign language learners go through the beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels in our classes.
  • Chess and conversations both have gambits, or opening (often memorized) series of moves, which are used to gain a tactical advantage, as in chess, or to steer the conversation where you want it to go.
  • There’s a misconception that chess and foreign languages are reserved for only the most intellectual ones among us. In other words, they’re intimidating to novices, when in reality anyone from any background can become proficient in them.
  • While you can start to study a foreign language and learn to play chess at any age and get a lot out of the experiences, the earlier you start, the more fluent you will be, or the more natural it will come to you.
  • Early on, there are a lot more failures than successes in both chess and languages. Novices in both make constant mistakes, but more is learned from the errors than from the achievements. Both endeavors require large amounts of humility.

I could go on, but certainly, there are significant differences, too. One difference that I grappled with was that chess, like traditional sports, is a competition. I’ve watched and read interviews with Grand Masters of chess who talk about wanting to punish and even humiliate their opponent, even though etiquette requires that they shake hands before and after their matches. In foreign languages, communication is generally more cooperative than competitive, although I suppose that when we negotiate meaning with others both sides could try to manipulate the situation to get what they want from the other. But I certainly don’t want the people I talk to in Spanish to feel humiliated when we communicate. I get around this possible flaw in the analogy by recognizing that the fierce competition in chess is only really experienced by the greatest players in the world, for whom the game is not a mere hobby, but a serious profession that could allow them to accumulate wealth and prestige. For most people who play it, however, chess is simply an entertaining, albeit occasionally frustrating way to pass the time. And if the participants are evenly matched, the result in chess is often a draw (or stalemate) anyway, with no winners or losers.

Stephen Krashen, a well-known researcher in the field of second language acquisition, helped me to understand an important aspect of my chess analogy. His idea that written and oral input must be comprehensible to the language learner and at a level that is just a little bit beyond his or her current level of understanding makes sense to me. Our first year Spanish students shouldn’t be listening to hour-long podcasts about the Spanish economy, for example. It would be too difficult to get any real meaning from it. This idea is relatable to chess, too. If I want to be a better chess player, it wouldn’t help me to play against Magnus Carlsen, the best player in the world and maybe the best player ever. He would demolish me in just a few moves and I would never want to play again. Instead, I should look for opponents who are just a little better than me. I will be challenged, and I’ll improve over time if I practice and reflect on my mistakes.

In fact, I would argue that the best opponent in chess for me is like a conversation partner. Together, we’re creating something unique. There are no two exact chess games, just as there are no two conversations exactly the same. Every game, like every conversation, can be different, interesting, and even beautiful. If I lose a game of chess, afterwards my partner will (hopefully) talk with me about what I did well and what I can improve. I do the same with my Spanish students after an oral exam. Players in chess can have a rating that reflects their current abilities, and language students who study in a traditional environment will receive grades, too. Nonetheless, your grades and ratings are secondary to the learning experience and the development of skills that will help you be more successful in the future.

So, I think I’ve developed an analogy that makes sense to me for where I am in my life. Would this analogy make sense for my students? If I had to guess, I would think that most of my students don’t actually play chess, so maybe my analogy doesn’t work for them. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an analogy that would make sense for them that I can help them to realize. To do this, I have to know them, what they like to do, what their aspirations are, etc.

“The experience of learning foreign languages can seem so foreign to some people, that it’s useful to have something to compare it to, so it seems possible. Hopefully, whatever analogy we settle on reflects not just the necessary work, but also the fun aspects of language learning, so that it doesn’t seem like a chore that we’re forced to do.”

Why does any of this matter? Do we have to have an analogy for language learning? I don’t know that it’s absolutely essential that we do, but I think that at some point it’s helpful for some learners to understand the necessary work and dedication required to improve fluency. The experience of learning foreign languages can seem so foreign to some people, that it’s useful to have something to compare it to, so it seems possible. Hopefully, whatever analogy we settle on reflects not just the necessary work, but also the fun aspects of language learning, so that it doesn’t seem like a chore that we’re forced to do. This is why I like the chess analogy. Like learning Spanish, chess is not easy and it can even be frustrating, but it’s also a lot of fun… for me, at least. After our Coronavirus quarantine ends, I look forward to playing chess games in person with my Spanish-speaking friends, thereby multiplying the required brain power!

What do you think about the chess analogy? Does it have any flaws that I overlooked? Is there any analogy that works better for you? Tell me about it in the comments below.

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