“Language classes should be fun.”
That was a student’s expectation about my Chinese class.
He thought we needed to be playing a lot of, dare I say, rather pointless games.
But he was only 12. He didn’t have the perspective I did as a Chinese language teacher.
I wanted to observe best practices in developing students’ proficiency in Mandarin Chinese, and I wanted students to find class enjoyable.
That meant that if my young student and I were both to get what we wanted from class, I needed to find a way to “gamify” a truly comprehensible, holistic language experience, at least occasionally.
Using classroom games to learn language material is common, and games can be great resources for teaching.
However, many language games simply review single words or phrases.
While they may be fun, games of that type do little to help students acquire the whole language.
So I began a hunt for games that were more suited to my goals for my Chinese classes.
One of them has become a regular treat for me and my students alike: Mafia.
Why This Game?
Acquiring Chinese language ability is rooted in comprehensible input—students understanding messages in Chinese, whether heard or read.
Therefore, games that are strong on the need to listen and understand in order to succeed in the game are also promoting students’ language development.
Yet while this game provides plenty of comprehensible input, it’s also a student favorite because it’s engaging and fun. Students ask to play! I tend to make it a special event once or twice a month on Fridays.
This game is also minimal in its need for equipment or setup, which is a huge help for teachers of Chinese, who usually need to prepare for four or five levels of class.
The game content is also flexible enough that you can use recently-introduced vocabulary and sentence patterns as well as review previous language each time you play.
Mafia: A Role-playing and Elimination Game
Mafia is a murder mystery role-playing game. A very similar game is played in China, called 天黑请闭眼 (tiān hēi qĭng bì yăn — It’s dark, please close your eyes).
I grew up loving to play Mafia with friends at summer camps. I got the idea to apply this game to language classes from Spanish teacher Martina Bex, and it’s brilliant!
For my Chinese classes, I have called it 黑手党 (hēi shŏu dăng — mafia) as well as 刺客 (cì kè — assassin), after a fellow Chinese teacher pointed out to me that “assassin” fit Chinese history more than literally translating the word “mafia.”
Goal of the Game
Each student has a role only they know: Most are townspeople: 大家 (dà jiā) or 老百姓 (lăo băi xìng). A few get a special role as mafia, which I call assassins, or 刺客 (cì kè). Other roles include 警察 (jĭng chá — police) and 医生 (yī shēng — doctor).
The goal for the townspeople, assisted by the police and doctor, is to find and apprehend all the mafia as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the mafia’s goal is to “kill off” the other players, one by one, without anyone figuring out who they are. It’s a game more about enjoying the process of playing than getting a clear winner.
Be sensitive to your students’ age, maturity level and any other relevant factors in choosing what terms you use in playing the game.
You can easily adapt the language: Instead of assassins, police, doctors, townspeople and “killing,” you could have dogs who pick one student’s homework to eat each night, and teachers and parents in the roles of police and doctors respectively. Townspeople would then be students.
Or, include a more authentic Chinese feel by using characters from “Journey to the West”: Instead of assassins, demons. For police, use Sun Wukong and Pigsy. For the doctor, Tang Seng.
Setup and Materials
Have everyone sit in a large circle on chairs or the floor—not too close together, and not too far apart. One aspect of the game is listening for who moves in the “night.”
You will need a deck of playing cards or notecards you label with the roles in the game. These will secretly tell each student their role, so the number of cards needed depends on the number of students playing. I use playing cards: Ace for mafia, King for police, and Queen for the doctor. Number cards mean regular townspeople. The game works best with at least nine students. Here are suggestions for how many of each kind of card you may need:
- 9-12 students: Cards for 2 assassins, 1 police and 1 doctor; remaining cards for townspeople.
- 12-18 students: Cards for 2 assassins, 2 police and 1 doctor; remaining cards for townspeople.
- 18-25 students: Cards for 3 assassins, 3 police and 2 doctors; remaining cards for townspeople.
- 25 students and up: Cards for 4 assassins, 4 police and 3 doctors; remaining cards for townspeople.
The teacher takes the role of the narrator who facilitates the steps of the game. I find it very helpful to write down what happens during each round on notepaper. I write who the assassins are, who the police are and who the doctor is. Then, each round, I write who gets “killed” in the night and who the doctor “rescues.” Without those notes, I have been known to forget and have to start that round over again, much to the students’ dismay!
I also refer to a list of the steps in the game. Those are written in Chinese, and I read from it as we play. Those steps will be listed below.
Preparing Students for Playing
The whole game will be played in Chinese, both by the teacher and the students. I have found it worthwhile to use a minute of class before our first time playing to list the steps in English and ensure everyone understands. I then repeat the game steps again in Chinese, slowly and clearly.
I write any new words needed in the game on the board in pinyin with English next to it. If the words are already known to the students, I use characters to write those, and double-check that the class understands them.
After the first round, students tend to get the feel of how each round unfolds.
Here’s some Chinese language they will need to understand while playing:
- 睡觉 (shùi jiào — Go to sleep)
- 醒一醒 (xĭng yì xĭng — Wake up)
- 把人杀了 (bă rén shā le — Choose someone to “kill”) (Or soften to “steal someone’s homework” as mentioned above. This is an awesome way to introduce 把 bă phrases.)
- 谁是刺客？ (shéi shì cì kè？— Who is an assassin?)
- 你要帮助谁？ (nĭ yào bāng zhù shéi？— Who will you help?)
Plus the names of the roles in the game, already mentioned above.
The students might also benefit from a refresher on sentences and phrases they might use when someone is suspected and accused of being an assassin:
- 我想／我觉得是。。。 (wŏ xiăng／ wŏ jué de shì… — I think it’s…)
- 就是他！就是她！ (jìu shì tā！ — It’s him! It’s her!) (This is a good way to get a feel for using 就 jìu naturally.)
- 我听到了。。。 (wŏ tīng dào le… — I heard…)
- 不是我！ (bú shì wŏ！ — It’s not me!)
- 不对！ (bú dùi！ — That’s not right!)
- 我想告。。。 (wŏ xiăng gào… — I want to accuse…)
How to Play
The teacher narrates game play. Once the game is understood, a heritage language student with strong oral skills or another advanced student could be the narrator.
First, the narrator randomly gives each student a card to find out their role. No one should see any card except their own, since the secrecy of the roles is a major part of the fun.
Once they know the game, 10 minutes is enough to play, but 45 minutes isn’t too much time, either. If you run out of class time before the game ends, allow the assassins to announce themselves (which will probably get a lot of groans and smiles from their classmates!).
These are the steps I use to play:
- 大家睡觉。 (dà jiā shùi jiào.) “Everyone go to sleep.” Students all close their eyes and stay silent.
- 刺客，醒一醒！ (cì kè, xĭng yì xĭng. ) “Assassins, wake up!” Only the students with that role open their eyes and look around silently.
- 刺客，把人杀了。 (cì kè, bă rén shā le. ) “Assassins, ‘kill’ someone.” The assassins silently agree by pointing to one person.
- 刺客，睡觉。 (cì kè, shùi jiào.) “Assassins, go to sleep.” The assassins close their eyes again.
- 警察，醒一醒。 (jĭng chá, xĭng yì xĭng.) “Police, wake up!” Those with the police role open their eyes and look around.
- 警察，谁是刺客？ (jĭng chá, shéi shì cì kè?) “Police, who is an assassin?” The police agree by pointing to one person. If that person is an assassin, the teacher silently nods yes. If that person isn’t an assassin, the teacher shakes their head no.
- 警察，睡觉。 (jĭng chá, shùi jiào.) “Police, go to sleep.” The police close their eyes.
- 医生，醒一醒！ (yī shēng，xĭng yì xĭng.) “Doctor, wake up!” The doctor opens his or her eyes.
- 医生，你要帮助谁？ (yī shēng, nĭ yào bāng zhù shéi?) “Doctor, who do you want to help?” The doctor points to one person to rescue if the assassins have “killed” that person. Doctors may save themselves, too!
- 医生，睡觉。 (yī shēng, shùi jiào.) “Doctor, go to sleep.” The doctor closes his or her eyes.
- 大家都醒一醒！ (dà jiā dōu xĭng yì xĭng.) “Everyone, wake up!” Everyone opens their eyes.
- 昨天晚上。。。 (zúo tiān wăn shang…) “Last night…” Tell a simple, silly story about the “victim.” For an English example, which in class would of course be in Chinese: “Last night a pretty girl was walking at the stadium. Suddenly, an assassin ran up and hit her with a steamed bun, so she died. [Student’s name], sorry! You died.” If the assassins chose the person that the doctor later chose to save, include how the victim was rescued at the last minute by a doctor and stayed alive. If the victim “died,” he or she can no longer speak, but gets to watch rest of the game—that, too, is a lot of fun!
- 大家，谁是刺客？ (dà jiā, shéi shì cì kè?) “Everyone, who is an assassin?” Players suggest who they heard or suspect. The teacher asks follow-up questions, and allows suspects to defend themselves. This part of the game can be a bit chaotic! Keeping a list of Chinese phrases students may want to use will help them stay away from using English.
- 你们要告。。。？ (nĭ men yào gào…?) “You all want to accuse…?” The teacher notes a trend of someone being accused, and asks for a vote. If a majority of students still playing—not those who are “dead”—vote to accuse one student, that student is also out of the game. Look at that student’s card to reveal whether or not one of the assassins has been captured.
- Repeat until time runs out.
One easy way to incorporate more Chinese language into the game is to describe what happened when everyone was “asleep” in richer language based on your students’ comprehension. Keeping the student’s name unstated until the end of your story helps build suspense, and therefore, greater eagerness to hear whether or not someone was “killed” in the night, and how. I keep these descriptions cartoonish and not at all realistic; again, sensitivity to your students is important.
If you would find it difficult to come up with a story on the spot, you can also think of a few options in advance and use those as you play.
Another way to add language variation is to modify how you say the directions within each round. However, be sure your students will understand fully. Since this is a game, they will not appreciate it if they cannot understand you and therefore don’t know what step of the game they are in!
For example, instead of simply “go to sleep,” you might add details like “quietly go to sleep and sleep well through the night,” or ask the doctor, “Whom will you cure?”
Mafia is a great game for Chinese classes when you have a fair amount of time. But what if you have only a few minutes left in the class period? Students can become restless. How can you continue to provide meaningful Chinese language learning even for the last few minutes of class in an engaging way? Here’s another elimination game you can use as a quick alternative.
Elimination: A Bonus Quick Review Game with a Twist
I learned this, another very low setup game, from a former colleague and Spanish teacher, Nan Caldwell. Students in grades 4 through 8 at her school sometimes ask her daily to play this game, and they got me started playing it in Chinese, too. She calls it silla (“chair” in Spanish, which also sounds like “See ya!” in English). Here is my modified version, which I call Elimination.
All you need is something you can toss around the room: I use a small stuffed animal of the Chinese zodiac from that year. I have students all stand up at the beginning of the game.
I hold the stuffed animal and make a statement in Chinese. Then, I toss the stuffed animal to a student, who needs to state the English meaning. If he or she cannot answer, a classmate can volunteer to “rescue” him or her by giving the answer instead. However, if the classmate chosen to rescue also cannot state it correctly, both students are out of the game and sit down. Keep the mood light and do not dwell on any mistakes; the goal is not pointing out student errors, but celebrating all that they know.
Instead of asking students to hear Chinese and give the English meaning, you might also ask questions in Chinese expecting students to give an answer in Chinese. Or, statements can be made that students need to evaluate as true or false. An illogical or inaccurate answer would eliminate that student.
The game continues until class time is up or only one student is still standing.
Mafia is an easy-to-set-up game that my students love.
It contributes to my goals for class by creating enjoyable, comprehensible language experiences that lead students to greater proficiency in Chinese.
I hope you enjoy playing it with your students, too!
Diane Neubauer is a high school Chinese teacher who has taught five-year-olds through adults. Besides learning and teaching Chinese language, she enjoys raising laying hens and spending time with her husband. You can watch video of her Chinese classes playing Mafia here.
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you liked these fun teaching ideas, you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom. FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.
It’s got a huge collection of authentic videos that people in the Chinese-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities.
You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.
All the videos are sorted by skill level and topic, and are carefully annotated for students.
Every word comes with a definition, image, audio and example sentences. Students will be able to add words to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
FluentU’s Learn Mode turns every video into a language learning lesson.
The best part is that FluentU always keeps track of each student’s learning progress. It suggests content and examples based on what the student already knows, creating a 100% personalized experience.
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about Chinese!
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