Note: This is a part of a larger series on Smart Polyglot called “Introducing”. I’ve decided to interview CEOs, entrepreneurs, project creators and small business owners who are trying their luck in the world of language learning. These are completely voluntary and not sponsored. The goal of this series is to take a break from the most famous apps we already know (and that are constantly getting reviewed online), all while giving some visibility to other interesting products you might enjoy! Let’s dive in! Yours, Maria Inês.
1. Hi, Matthew! It is such a pleasure to meet you and receive you here on Smart Polyglot. Please tell us more about yourself: who are you, what do you do and what drives you?
Hi, Maria! The pleasure is all mine. Thank you for having me!
My name is Matthew Boyle. I’m a language learning card game designer and I’m on a mission to show people that if they can play cards, they can learn languages.
2. What is Language Card Games and how did the idea for such a store came about?
Language Card Games is not only my company, it’s my oxygen. It’s the greatest dream I ever had spreading its wings. And the spark of insight for LCG came about when I realized two of my interests (card gaming and language learning) dovetailed perfectly. That spark landed upon the much bigger powder keg of my soul, where I had been storing for years my unease about not yet finding what I was meant to do on this Earth.
3. It’s so lovely that you’ve been able to make it come true! Most of us language learners also love multiple topics and have trouble finding our “mission”! Tell me, have games in general (cards, board games, video games, etc) played an important role in your life? How so? What do you think games can do for us?
Oh, absolutely! I grew up playing every kind of game under the sun in a very fun-loving family. I’m confident gaming developed my creativity, strategy, sociability, vocabulary, resilience, and humor, and that’s exactly what I think they can do for others.
4. What kind of games do you offer at the moment and what games should we keep an eye open for in the near future?
Currently, I offer a beginner-level game called Language Guardians, intermediate-level games Leitner Cards and Fighting Flashcards, and expert-level games Othertongue and Chinese Champions. All of the games are designed to enrich any target language you want regardless of the language the cards are printed in, except for Chinese Champions…that one is aimed at Mandarin Chinese. Also, every game is designed for two or more people, except for Leitner Cards, which is designed for one.
I tend to release one or two new games every year and I recently finished Language Guardians 2, so I’m taking a bit of a break from producing new games right now, but during this interval, I will be creating downloadable, print and play versions of some of the pre-existing games.
5. Take us through the journey of what you do. What happens from the moment you get an idea for a game to the moment it is actually ready for sale? What process happens in between?
The first thing that usually happens is I’m staying up late, staring at cracks in the ceiling in the stupor of half-consciousness. For some reason, I can’t go to sleep because my brain is teasing out something that I can’t quite see yet. Ideas twist and recombine in my head like a Rubik’s cube, showing their different sides. Suddenly, I’ll have to throw off the blankets, get up, turn on a light, and start scribbling everything into a notebook, so I don’t forget it before the morning.
I try to translate the mad doodles later, fleshing them out. I come up with names, characters, places, and storylines. Outline some rules. I make test versions of the game to play with and so on. Once I get through that, I start designing on the computer.
Some games have taken me months, some have taken years. It’s just the ebb and flow of the creative process. Each game is unique and has its own evolutionary course. My favorite way to tackle projects is to wake up around 7:30 in the morning, work on a game from about 8:00 to noon, and then have my first meal of the day.
When a game is nearing completion, I buy professionally printed copies for myself to check out and play with for a while, I make some last adjustments, and, finally, when it’s completely cooked, feed it to the hungry cardlangers!
6. I completely identify with that hunger for creating something…that uneasiness that comes with wanting to put something out there. And you’ve mentioned “Cardlangers”: what type of person buys your games and what type of feedback have you been getting? Any positive reviews you are particularly proud of?
Primarily, cardlangers buy our games. Cardlangers are the people who know that card games are an extremely effective Trojan horse for language learning. 99% of what they have to say about the games is positive. As for the other 1%, I always try to address those criticisms in subsequent reiterations of the games.
I did get a deeply satisfying piece of feedback from a young man named Leon just a few days ago. He e-mailed me, saying, “I was beyond excited when I found your website while doing a google search for a related language topic. I regularly attend language exchanges and language meet-ups in my region of the USA. As a regular attendee of these types of language meetings I can truly appreciate what you are doing with creating these card games specifically for learning languages. I bought Language Guardians and was truly impressed with it. It is very educational yet fun and I LOVE that it can be used for any language.”
7. I was inspired by that Instagram post you wrote that says “Fluency without friendship is failure”. It was such a refreshing perspective, because nowadays we are offered new apps left and right that promise to deliver fluency without ever guaranteeing contact with humans. It also seems to me that many apps come to us with the concept of “fun” language learning, but mostly achieve this through points, awards and levels, rather than contact with other people (with the exception of language exchange platforms, of course). Can you explain this idea a bit better and tell us what it means to you?
I’m glad you found it refreshing because I caught a lot of flak for that on Reddit. I wanted to say something provocative… and it worked! A few people skewered me, saying my statement was ridiculous because, for them, they found joy in just studying a language by themselves for the fun of it and they didn’t see a need to engage other people with that language… and I totally get that. I was just overstating my point to make it. My point is we shouldn’t be so overfocused on studying a language to where we don’t even form any meaningful relationships around or through that language. I see now that what I said resonated with you, Maria. And I think our collaboration here today on Smart Polyglot is evidence of what we care about: authentic connection around language learning.
About the apps, I couldn’t put it better than you. What you said there really grabbed my amygdala. I never thought about it in quite that way and I think you’re right. Oftentimes, the language learning apps sell us down a one-way street away from real human connection, and the benefits they give us in return do not make up for that.
Alternatively, when you come to the table and are surrounded by other people, everyone’s eyes, body language, tone of voice, energy level, and more, enter into a profound dance, a synergy that creates something larger or greater than the sum of the parts. I hope the games I make fuel those types of real interactions at language exchanges, game nights, and study sessions.
8. You have also claimed that knowledge is power, particularly when it comes to language learning. How so?
A comedian I admire is George Carlin. He was without question a master of language. And he spoke many times on how the government would make moves to restrict what could be said on national television, radio, etc. To paraphrase part of what he was saying that I never forgot, “If our leaders can control what words we know, they can control how we think. And if they can control how we think, they can control how we behave.”
His argument struck me so hard. You see, words are like doorways into concepts, belief systems, attitudes, and ultimately behaviors and actions. If you don’t know certain words, you will simply not have the idea of that word to act upon, so you will miss out on a potent source of potentially life-altering energy and information. You will not take action because you are without the word that introduces you to an idea and scaffolds you to an action.
Another example I can give you comes from my own life. As a young boy, I loved animals and I had a lot of pets. I was naturally very compassionate and gentle towards them, yet I always went to the dinner table and ate animals without thinking about what that meant at all. I didn’t even think about how strange that was, that I would care for animals with one hand and eat them with the other. Yet that dichotomy existed within me in perfect harmony.
Later in high school, however, I came across the word ‘vegetarian.’ I learned that word and it laid bare my hypocritical harmony all by itself. I learned there are people who protect animals from torture and death simply by not eating them. For me, that single word was transformative. That word set me on a completely new path in life. It unlocked a power within me. At that moment, I knew exactly what to do. I would heal that ironic dichotomy inside me and rise to become someone who I was always meant to be… something I didn’t do before because I simply hadn’t known a word.
Since that time, I always sought to capture new words and concepts, contemplate them, and let them change me for the better, bringing me fresh perspectives, insights, and power. In fact, these days, I’m kind of OCD about it. I can’t see or hear a new word without noting it down. Maybe I have a word addiction and I’m in need of an intervention at this point? Haha.
Anyways, the moral of the story is, words act upon me and then I act in the world in a more effective way. That’s why I say that words are power and by extension, languages and knowledge are power.
9. As a passionate language learner, can you tell us what languages you are interested in, as well as the biggest struggles you’ve faced to date?
I’d love to! I’m most interested in learning English and Mandarin. It’s hard to say which one I’m more into, as they are both super relevant to my life. With regards to English, I use that to communicate with friends and family, conduct business, and I also teach it. As for Mandarin Chinese, I live in China, so I use that to get around in daily life, make friends with people who don’t speak English, and read some philosophy or poetry in their original forms.
I’ve also started to study Cantonese after moving to Guangdong province a couple years ago and I get a kick out of it. The Cantonese people were always intrigued and happy that I could speak Mandarin with them, but their follow up question would always be, “Can you speak Cantonese?” I realized if you really want to connect with a certain group of people, you have to start learning their mother tongue. Even a few words will light them up and endear you to them.
The biggest struggle I ever faced to date with language learning was definitely in high school. I was required to learn a language, so I just picked Spanish. I didn’t see the point. I struggled in the class. I found it really hard. I survived Spanish 1 with a C, and then got a D in Spanish 2, so I had to retake it for another whole year. After three years of Spanish, I had understood and absorbed precious little. Worst of all: I started to develop a notion in my mind that I was not the kind of person who could learn languages. A demoralizing start, wouldn’t you say? Luckily, later, I underwent a complete metamorphosis and stacked up some major wins with American Sign Language, Arabic, and Mandarin.
10. Talk about a win! I think many people experience the same as young students. They don’t like the feeling of being forced to learn something they’re not interested in, having to follow a schedule they don’t want and being evaluated in a way they don’t feel is fair. But as we grow up and choose what we want to learn, we start loving the process and learning for the sake of learning becomes a joy. If you had one single piece of advice to give us language learners, what would that be?
Pursue language learning in your own crazy way, with all your heart, and share the results with the world!
In my case, I just wanted to help myself with my games, and later my friends and students. Some people just didn’t get it or they criticized it. They didn’t understand why I was spending so much time on learning languages in this specific way, with card games, but I kept going and a business grew out of it. Today, I’m having an interview with the lovely Maria Inês about it! I can’t believe it! (Oh my goodness, thank you for this compliment! I’m blushing!)
So where could the special way you learn languages lead to? To a new vlog? A new job? A new business? A new relationship? A new country? A new way of seeing the world? Any of those are possible, but you won’t find out if you don’t keep working at it, and you won’t keep working at it if you don’t start.
Thank you so much for your time and for giving us such a creative product like Language Card Games. It is great to see such a refreshing, alternative way to keep practicing language. Also, I’m very glad you didn’t give up when people criticized your initiative. That would’ve been a tragedy. You’re truly an inspiration for us all!
It’s been an honor, Maria, and thank you!
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