"Where Are Your Keys?" a language fluency game

"Where Are Your Keys?" is an open source, high-speed language game that uses sign language as a "bridge" to learn any spoken language. The sign language supposedly keeps you from thinking in your native language while allowing other players in the game to know what you are thinking.

The game, according to its creator Evan Gardner, is based partially on another language teaching technique called "Total Physical Response," where you talk about things that are actually around you. "Where Are Your Keys?" takes "Total Physical Response" to a "ridiculous end" where every word has a sign so you can "build a muscle memory of the word and act out what we are trying to say."

Has anyone tried "Where Are Your Keys?" to learn a language? I'd love to hear what you think.

"Where Are Your Keys?" a language fluency game



  1. Why is this being called “open source?” Because he tells the rules on a website? Is chess “open source” because everyone knows the rules? How about poker? This is ridiculous — can we agree as a society to only use “open source” for code and not for shit like this?

    1. Is chess “open source” because everyone knows the rules?

      No. It’s public domain because it’s ancient. Is Monopoly open source, just because everyone knows the rules?

  2. As a side-note, this game sounds interesting. I have no problem with it, just with the phrase “open source” being thrown around in dumb contexts where it has no meaning.

  3. trippcook,

    I think the use of the term “open source” is just to indicate that not only are the rules free for everyone to learn, but to MODIFY. The rules as stated are really only guidelines, the power of the game really comes when new users extend and modify the basic ruleset to create something new. It’s really a learning technology that is used not just in language learning, but in learning all kinds of skills.

    Evan and Willem have come to our clinic, Watershed Community Wellness, many times to run games. We have played the game in Cantonese, in Mandarin and using Chinese herbs as props. I have begun to extend the rules of the game (in that, maybe appropriately termed, open-source way) to innovate in teaching Chinese herbs at National College of Natural Medicine. Because learning something like herbs is really learning a new language, and because the game also teaches people to be hunters of skills and knowledge, it adapts quite well to this purpose.

    I’ve also enjoyed playing it just for language purposes and see the immense power possible in using it this way.

    So, if the “open source” term is inappropriately used, certainly we could find another term that means something similar. But many people get what it means when it is discussed in this way.

    Eric Grey, LAc
    Portland, OR

  4. The idea of the muscle cpomponent is pretty siolid. In learning theory, a case can be made that little if any learning takes place without muscle movement (and it does not really seem to be a requirement that the movement be related to what’s being learned). An everyday example is what you do when you do not remember how to spell a word. You grab a pencil and write it because your hand knows how.

    There is recent work on mirror neurons that may suggest that simple observation (vicarious learning) is enough (although your muscles are, technically, never not moving).

    It seem very clever and I’d also be interested to know how well this works.

    (I kind of agree about open source -it’s meaning may be diluted as new terms often are. I have seen an appropriate use, I think, in open source hardware like the Arduino open source processor platform.)

    1. The idea of the muscle component is pretty solid.

      At my yoga teacher training, most of the students could not remember any of the Sanskrit names for the asanas. I had them do cross-crawls before the session and look down (to engage the kinesthetic sense) while performing the asana and speaking the name. Every one of them had fifty Sanskrit words memorized by the end of the day.

  5. Actually, from the site it doesn’t look like it’s the game that’s being called “open source” but rather the curriculum: “The “Where Are Your Keys?” Language fluency game embodies… an open source curriculum project…”

    This makes a little more sense — if one makes a curriculum, particularly one with materials such as written guides or videos, one retains the rights to it, unless otherwise specified. So in this case I get the meaning of “open source,” but I agree that it should have been called “Free content” or “Copyleft” or something else — “open source” does imply source code.

    I can’t actually see whether it is copyleft, actually. There’s no licensing information visible, and one can purchase a year’s subscription to the videos (although the fact that one can purchase a subscription doesn’t imply that it can’t also be copylefted).

    … also, what arkizzle said.

  6. Earlier this year Willem Larson & Evan Gardner flew down to Albuquerque to teach the game to my community here. We’ve since been playing it to teach ourselves Spanish. I’ve also been extending the game to teach the regular stream of volunteers I have on my farm. we have a set of things that needs to be done regularly, and I have to teach a new person how to do them every few weeks or so.

    Applying the game to teaching daily farm maintenance has been extremely successful, My volunteers are more engaged with the process and find it easier to retain information. It has helped me systematize the work we need to do.

    Our language learning group has been a lot of fun. It has been running for a few months, though we only formally meet once or twice a month. One fantastic aspect of the game is that you don’t have to all meet at once in the same place. Our playing group is roughly twenty people, and we’d never get all of us in the same place at the same time. Whatever subset of us meets can play, however.

    It is really important, when playing “Where are Your Keys?”, to have someone with a good handle on as many techniques as possible. The set of skills you learn to play the game are the same ones you use to manage a running game, but managing a game takes a slightly different focus.

    I’m really glad I was able to arrange for Willem & Evan to come down and teach the game in person. We haven’t trained anyone in our local group to the proficiency that Evan has with teaching the game itself, but there are clearly a few people in the group that have naturally assumed that role, and it really helps keep a game moving.

    Oddly enough, I also have fun playing the game alone. It doesn’t have any of the social dynamic group play does, but works just as well for practice.

  7. In one hour I learned a surprising amount of ASL from Evan through the game, and still retain it all in spite of having very few opportunities to ask anyone to give me a black pen using ASL. The method works better than any learning system I’ve used.

  8. Evan and Willem (and our friend RaVen) have been giving me private tutoring lessons in sign language for a few weeks now using these techniques. The best part for me is that I’ve always had trouble learning in a classroom environment, and what I remember about my high school spanish classes has made me never want to go through the trouble of learning another language. WAYK is insanely fun because it more or less feels like hanging out and having fun. Our “classes” involve us going to a restuarant to eat and talking in the target language for an hour or so. It’s amazing. Finally, a fun and comfortable way to learn a language!


  9. I’ve played this game a couple of times with Willem facilitating. Once was learning sign language and the other was learning Japanese.

    It really was a lot of fun, and, as bad as I am with learning languages, I found myself learning.

  10. Um, how do I say, this is specious bullshit in where-are-my-keys so-called ‘sign language’? Me no comprendo.

    1. The sign language being used is mostly legit. As he says, it’s largely based on ASL — American Sign Language — signs and the manual alphabet. Where he’s cheating is not requiring “proper” ASL grammar; that’s what downgrades it to PSE, Pidgin Signed English (ASL words, English sentence construction). PSE is a slower and more awkward solution than true ASL, but does work, will be understood by ASL speakers, and teaches you enough sign to follow the essence of a simple ASL conversation.

      The addition of ad-hoc signs isn’t unreasonable if you really need to make up a new word on the spot — just as we invent jargon for many other purposes — but it would be better to first try to find the “proper” sign for the concept, or to come back and fix it later, if the goal is to be able to play/speak with folks from other communities.

      As to whether using ASL as a mode-breaker in order to facilitate learning other spoken languages is a good idea or not… I’m not a linguist nor a psychologist; I don’t pretend to have the expertise to validate the idea. But given that everyone does agree that the hardest but most important step in developing fluency is to stop translating every word and start actually thinking in the new language, I can see that forcing folks to begin by separating themselves from their native language might not be a bad idea, and sign might be sufficiently different to help achieve that.

      Of course if you want to learn _full_ ASL, that’s a longer and more complicated course of study. In order to get its data rate up to equivalent to spoken languages, ASL uses a lot of “layering” of signs — like compound words all spoken at once — together with facial expression and (if I remember correctly) a few other cues. And its sentence structure is different from almost every spoken language — the exception being Navajo (again, if I remember correctly).

      My knowledge of sign is limited. Many years past, I attended introductory sign classes taught in MIT’s psych department. Alas, I remember only enough to apologize for not knowing more. Limited vocabulary, nowhere near enough practice; I’d be doing well to struggle along in PSE. I can fingerspell, but I can’t read fingerspelling at speed for more than a few letters; I picked up the CL that he was using to indicate the “Craig’s List technique” — whatever that is — but probably would have gotten lost fairly quickly if he spelled his name.

      On the other hand, I’ve found that I *do* retain enough ASL to appreciate good sign-singing, at least when I know (or am hearing) the song in English.

      Summary: I’m a great appreciator of ASL. Whether it can be used as a bridge to teach spoken languages, I don’t know. The theory behind Where Are Your Keys may be wrong, but it definitely isn’t bullshit.

  11. I’m intrigued but wary.

    On one hand, I’m a novice language teacher and student of foreign languages, working in a restrictive and innovation-resistant environment not always particularly conductive to language learning, and I have a really strong interest in learning effective, creative, and interesting teaching techniques. From what I can see, the principles of the game are solid.

    On the other hand, there’s not much of an outline of how the game is actually planned, no real info on how it was developed or background info on the creators, and most of what I’ve seen in the videos is talking about the “game” itself in English, accompanied by signing of some variety. Also, to echo another commenter, that IS a lot of ponytails in that room.

    I don’t mean to pre-judge, haven’t had time to properly consume those videos yet. I hope the game creators are able to come up with some more concise documentation, more substance, less “this is the best way to learn a language EVER” hyperbole.

    Like I said, I’m really intrigued by the promise and would like to learn.
    I’m willing to take their word that the game is best learned by direct interactive instruction. Wonder if the creators or some other proficient instructors would consider teaching the interactively by webcam, for those of us who are geographically distant from the US?

  12. A tangent, but my late mother-in-law was a proponent of TPR, co-authored a well-received book on using games in learning foreign language and ESL back in ’89, and a book on comprehension-based lessons in ’86, and was co-recipient of an ACTFL award. I only wish she were around to see this and tell me what she thought of it.

  13. Given I have to teach myself German and can’t find a good traditional source of lessons here outside of universities and children’s courses, this intrigues me..

  14. As other have noted, Where are your Keys? is “open source” because anyone can modify or contribute it. For example, in my experiences using it with young kids, we have learned that explaining HOW the game works and WHY it works that way drives kids away. It works much better to just start playing with them. So, that’s a new element of the game: with kids, just play.

    The game works best face-to-face. Most of the world’s population doesn’t live close to Evan Gardner, so they’ve been working on online content. http://whereareyourkeys.wordpress.com/ is where it’s at right now. The content is still pretty rough, but very much worthwhile. If you want a polished product to work from, then wait a year. If you want something right away, then be prepared to work your way through the content a few times to get the hang of it. That’s what I’ve done.

    I’m amazed how much of my daily communication I can sign. Maybe that says more about me than about WAYK, though. :-)

    If you use WAYK to learn a new spoken language, consider making a video of the event. As part of the “open source” nature of the game, your recorded videos can be very helpful to the effort. I plan to do this with my grandmother when I visit her over the holidays.

  15. Hello, this is Evan Gardner creator of Where Are Your Keys?

    I would like to clear up one issue…

    Yes, that IS Labamba sitting to my right!

  16. The “open source” piece of WAYK is really important, because there are so many ways it can be extended to foster creative learning and communication.

    Without reservation, I would say that WAYK is a huge step forward to capture an old way of communicating across tribes. Just watch that iconic video of “Tea with Grandma” where a man bridges the generations by using WAYK to reinforce a real, engaged conversation with his grandmother in her native tongue and the value is clear.

    One project that will grow out of the “open source” nature of WAYK is the integration of WAYK into Human Trigonometry, which is my tool to help mediators engage more fully without injecting themselves into a dispute. Even just watching a short video will give people in conflict exposure to signing techniques that can broaden their options at conflict resolution time.

    By activating more of the body, we can re-activate the mind.

    When we engage the mind more fully, we can become more authentic.

    Finally, I wish I had had access to WAYK when I taught Japanese many years ago! We did a short session in Japanese at CRN last year and I was amazed at how quickly people who didn’t know a word of Japanese could now cover week 1 of a college course in a few hours. How handy it would be when dealing with Japanese who don’t speak English well!!

  17. If anyone is still following this thread, you might be interested to know that the Where Are Your Keys website has undergone a massive overhaul. Hopefully, it’s a little easier to understand the core concepts and overall goals of the Where Are Your Keys team, now. http://www.whereareyourkeys.org

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