Why Language Learning is a Game (And How to Break the Rules)

What makes some people successful at language learning, and others not?

What separates the on-again, off-again dabbler from the most consistent, practiced polyglot?

There are many factors, but I believe one of the most meaningful differences between consistent and inconsistent language learners is how each plays the game.

What game?

The game of language learning!

There's a field of mathematics known as game theory that studies how we human beings make decisions, and why we make them the way we do.

Within that field are a couple of key concepts that can shed some light on why some language learners find long-term success, and why other learners do not.

If you've not managed to find the language learning success you seek, read on; the ideas I'm about to share could spark a major mindset shift that sees you become a dedicated language learner for the rest of your life.

Let's get started!

Finite and Infinite Games

According to game theory, there are two categories that all games fall into: finite and infinite games.

Finite Games

Finite games are the types of things that you'd normally consider to be, well, games.

Things like soccer matches, hockey games, rounds of Call of Duty, and bouts of rock, paper, scissors all qualify as finite games. Even more serious things like political elections and wars can count as finite games, too.

Finite games are characterized by their structure, and boundaries. All finite games, for example, possess the following:

  • Pre-defined, stable rules which are agreed upon by all players
  • A fixed, known number of players
  • A finite start and end time.

The goal of a finite game is, quite simply, to win—to achieve some measure of victory over the other players. Once someone wins, the game is over, and play stops.

Infinite Games

Compared to finite games, infinite games can be a lot more abstract, and open-ended. You may not think of them as games in the traditional sense, but they involve rules, players, and competition, just like finite games do.

Examples of infinite games would be business, culture, marriage, and evolution.

These infinite games all share the following characteristics, including:

  • Unstable rules that evolve over time
  • An unknown, ever-changing number of players
  • No time limit.

The goal of a infinite game is not to win, as with finite games, but just to keep on playing, for as long as possible.

Hybrid Games

Some games can be played as both finite and infinite games, depending on the mindset of the players.

Chess can be played as a finite game, for example, in the context of a single match. You can beat your best friend in a chess match and indeed “win”, but that doesn't mean you can count yourself among the chess grandmasters of the world.

Why? Because you're not playing the infinite game of chess.

Chess as an infinite game, is played for the purpose of playing chess. Infinite players are not concerned with winning just a single game; they want to be as good as they possibly can be, so they play chess again, and again, and again. It doesn't bother them if an opponent beats them one day, because they'll just aim to beat them right back the next.

Language learning is similar to chess, in this regard.

Language learners can choose to play the game of learning in a finite or infinite way.

That goes for you, too. The way you choose to play will make a world of difference, and could determine how successful you ultimately are at language learning.

Why Finite-Minded Language Learners Will Often Fail

Finite-minded language learners can:

  • Focus on achieving short-term goals (like reaching fluency in 90 days)
  • Aim to win and "beat" other players (by performing better in a language challenge, or ranking high on the Duolingo leaderboards, for example.)
  • Busy themselves with arbitrary rules (like having to “know” more words than other learners).

However, focusing on these things will almost never equate to long-term success.

Once a finite learner hits his or her goal, he or she will often have little idea of where to go next, since they've already "won" the game that they set out to play.

Even worse, if they don't hit their goal, they'll drop out solely because they feel like a loser. These feelings become particularly pronounced when a finite learner witnesses the success of an infinite learner, who will ultimately seem like more of a "winner" than they are, even though all the infinite learner did was keep learning.

Why Infinite-Minded Language Learners Will Always Succeed

Learners who play language learning as an infinite game carry little of the emotional baggage that frustrates other learners.

Infinite language learners understand several fundamental concepts that strengthen their mindset as they learn:

  • There are no 'winners' and 'losers', just fellow language learners
  • It's okay to fail, because there will always be more chances to improve
  • The goal is to keep learning, for as long as possible.

Furthermore, as author and speaker Simon Sinek describes it:

“Infinite players play to be better than themselves. [...] You are your competition. And that is what ensures you stay in the game the longest, and that is what ensures you find joy. Because the joy comes not from comparison, but from advancement.”


What Kind of Language Learner Will You Become?

Understanding the concept of finite and infinite games truly helped me answer the question of why some language learners succeed, and others fail.

When I see learners finish a three-month language learning challenge, only to never practice the language ever again, I now understand that they're just playing the finite game.

When I see learners lament that other people are just plain 'better at languages' than they are, they're playing the finite game, too.

The truth is, most language learners fail because they focus on “winning” and “losing” instead of  continually improving their own skills.

I urge you to adopt the mindset of the infinite player, as nearly all successful language learners do.

Compete with yourself. Get better, every day. 

Worry not about what kind of skills you might have in three months, but the kind of skills you want to have in the next one, five, or ten years. And then work to get there.

As long as you keep playing, the game of language learning has no end. So don’t worry about the failures, the slip-ups, and the mistakes, both big and small. Because in the long term, they won’t matter one bit.

Just focus on learning the language, and becoming a better language learner, and the rest will take care of itself.

Written by Kevin Morehouse

Kevin Morehouse is a language coach and teacher who is on a journey to make the world a more multilingual place. A member of the LucaLampariello.com team since its inception, Kevin's principal role is that of writer, editor, and content developer. He is currently learning Korean, his primary language focus since mid-2017.

  • This is a really great piece. Training our minds to be infinite helps us to learn other languages and that we shouldn’t focus on winning or failing since having a finite mindset doesn’t translate to long term success.

    • Kevin Morehouse says:

      Hi Garvon!

      Thank you for your kind words! Yes, it is very important to stay focused on long-term learning, and not short-term failures and successes. What languages are you focused on right now?

  • Manel Álvarez Bolaño says:

    Mind opening article.

    “The goal is to keep learning, for as long as possible.”

    That is exactly right! Is not about goals or winning it is about developing a lifestyle in which you constantly grow as a person and develop yourself. 😉

    “joy comes not from comparison, but from advancement”

    What are you going to do once you reach your finite goals? Give up and stagnate? Noo way. That said, having short term goals or playing “finite games” (just to use the parlance) can be motivating when walking down the long road of learning a language or any other learning project for that matter. Infinite games must be played within the infinite game of personal development.
    Great article!

    • Manel Álvarez Bolaño says:

      *finite games must be played within infinite games

    • Kevin Morehouse says:

      Hi Manel!

      Thanks! I agree that both types of “games” can be useful. I’ve done many (finite) language challenges, for example, and they’ve played a huge role in my success. However, I always try to remain aware that no matter how those challenges go, I’ve got a lot more learning to do beyond them, in the years ahead.

      (By the way, Luca tells me you’re a great student. Keep up the good work!)

  • Martin says:

    Interesting article. I believe that the capacity to keep on studying and not give up so easily is a trait that reflects someone’s personality in everything that they are doing. I do not believe that one person can just apply it for language learning. I think that the most important is that the learning path is as pleasant as possible and it should fit the learning style of the student. For example I love the IPA notation which is amazing for helping me pronounce correctly. I learned Romanian here: https://www.learnro.com/common-romanian-words
    But I fully respect the Duolingo style where you are shielded from all the languages that fits other types of learners.

    What I find equally important is to reach that sweet spot where you start enjoying learning a language, because it’s not a burden anymore, and that you understand the meaning of an article even if you can’t fully grasp the nuances.

    I speak and write 3-4 languages every day, and occasionally 2 other. In total I speak and write languages from the Latin, Germanic and Slavic families.

    As I mentioned above, according to my experience it’s not that easy to apply what you are saying, to just think about it as an infinite game.

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