Award for Norwegian-Arabic language game

Receiving the European Language Label is a great recognition and a door opener for us, says Lakki Patey. He has developed the board game “New Amigos”, where young people learn foreign languages while they play. Last language out: Arabic.

Author: Runo Isaksen.

Published: 22.11.2016

Magnus Thue, Lakki Patey and Harald Nybølet

Lakki Patey receives the European Language Label for the board game “New Amigos”, where young people learn foreign languages while they play. The award was presented by State Secretary to the Minister of Education Magnus Thue (left) and SIU director Harald Nybøl (right). Photo: Peter Klasson/SIU

“There are Arabic speaking pupils in many Norwegian schools. With New Amigos, they can immediately become a resource. Remember that we are talking about a major world culture,” said Patey when he was awarded the European Language Label.

The award was presented at The Internationalization conference for basic education, organized by SIU in Bergen 8th – 9th November. Around 300 participants found their way to this year's conference.

Meeting as equals

“Syrian refugees in Norway are a resource, if we can only see and relate to the opportunities they present. The British Council says in a recent report that Arabic is the most important foreign language to learn, after Spanish. Meanwhile, the UK lacks both Arabic teachers and ESL teachers for Arabic speakers,” says Patey.

“In this situation our main idea is: We simply connect these two groups. Instead of a classic top-down situation with teachers and students, we enable them to meet as equals.”

Creating mutual understanding

The European language award European Language Label is awarded every year to innovative projects that help promote the learning of languages. SIU is responsible for the award in Norway.

SIU director, Harald Nybøl, together with State Secretary to the Minister of Education, Magnus Thue, presented the language award, which consists of a certificate and 50 000 NOK.

“The New Amigos board game creates meeting places between Norwegian and Arabic speakers and is a motivating and inclusive alternative to regular language tuition. The premise is that everyone has a valuable resource in the form of their mother tongue and that learning goes both ways,” said Thue.

“It creates balanced relationships and mutual understanding. These are very important elements of good integration.”

A reciprocal resource

The board game New Amigos covers far more than just Norwegian and Arabic. The game is now found in 29 different language combinations. German-English is the most popular, followed by German-Spanish and German-Russian. Worldwide, sales of the game have passed 400,000.

“Using New Amigos as a tool, two people can help one another simply by using their mother tongue. This is the basic idea,” says Patey.

“The game requires no prior knowledge. That's the secret. The only requirement is that you can read your native language.”

In Norway, the game has sold 58,500 copies. The first releases were in 2002, with the major languages: Norwegian-English, Norwegian-German, Norwegian-French, and Norwegian-Spanish. Some years later, these were followed by Norwegian-Italian, Norwegian-North Sami and Norwegian-South Sami. These are all currently sold out, but a new edition of Norwegian-Spanish is expected next year.

“This award will open more doors for us in Europe. In September, the Norwegian-Arabic version was launched. Now we are looking at the possibility of German-Arabic, Swedish-Arabic, English-Arabic and perhaps even more,” says Patey.

Entertainment and Learning

In 2006, New Amigos was nominated for "Game of the Year" in the Netherlands, as the first educational game ever.

“In 2006, we received kudos for the entertainment value of the game. Now, with the European language award, we’ve been given recognition for the linguistic value. This duality has always been my main idea: The game must be entertaining as well as educational. With this award, this has finally been confirmed,” says Patey.

Learned French in a rush

The idea started years ago, when a young Patey was going to French Guyana and needed to learn French in a hurry. At the library, he found textbooks, but they were not very functional. He ended up buying a small pocket dictionary, but realized that even that contained a much larger vocabulary than he needed.

“I got help from a friend to choose the most important words. This is how I ended up with a French "survival kit" of 400 words. I wrote them out phonetically in my native language, i.e. Norwegian.”

On arrival in French Guyana, Patey found that his strategy worked well.

“Then the idea arose: This concept should be shared with others: A game that makes learning fun and entertaining. And with learning going both ways, we could achieve a valuable exchange, regardless of social standing and prior knowledge of foreign languages.”

However, several years would go by before Patey revisited the idea, and decided in 1999 to pursue it full-time. Today, 17 years later, the game is used across Europe in schools, cafes and homes.

Mind the gap

In working on the development of the game, Patey drew inspiration from a mathematician’s proof that if you master the 100 most frequently used words in any language, you can understand 50% of a conversation in that language.

“There is a hierarchy of importance in language learning: Some words are more important than others. If you start with the most important words first, you will quickly be able to hold a conversation and gain self-confidence. Later, you can focus on improving grammar and pronunciation. In language learning we all experience a huge span: From zero knowledge - to holding our own in conversation. This is where so many people drop out,” says Patey.

“Therefore, it is important to cross this bridge as quickly as possible. We start at the final destination of other language tuition: in conversation.”

An online version is underway

Patey and his colleagues are working on an online version of the game. He expects that testing will continue for a long time.

“We tested the board game for over two years, in schools and in homes. We got a great deal of constructive feedback. What we finally launched was a completely different game than what we originally made. The game, as it is today, is largely developed by the players themselves.”

Fact: From the jury

New Amigos uses board games as an educational tool and as a driving force for language learning. The project's primary strength and innovation is the reciprocity that the game offers, and which is very important in integration.

New Amigos is an outstanding example of how informal learning helps to increase multicultural understanding and good language learning. Equally important is that the board game also creates favourable conditions for friendship. Hence the name New Amigos.

The project has a high transfer value as it can be applied to any language combination and adapted to many different contexts. The European languages award is therefore not only a recognition but also encouragement to New Amigos to develop the board game and make it accessible to even more people in even more language combinations.

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