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Using Codenames and TV series to Boost Your Vocabulary

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

In our previous post, Emily and I wrote about our struggles with acquiring vocabulary.

Emily hates to get stuck in the middle of a sentence and just could not find the right word. Also, keeping using the same cluster of basic words makes us sound like a 6-year-old.

Then, Chinese TV series and Codenames came to our rescue.

TV series serve as an abundant reservoir of colloquial and trending expressions. At the same time, it is so natural for us to discuss intriguing plots and charismatic characters.

In other words, there is an authentic motivation to acquire specific vocabulary that matters.

Motivation and Goal

Inspired by Playing Codenames to learn Chinese written by Hacking Chinese, in the past two months, Emily and I watched Meteor Garden and played Codenames, hoping to collect more advanced words, acquiring them in a fun way, as well as applying them to support real audiences.

What Is Codenames?

Codenames is originally a board game that can be played by two or more players. Players can choose to play in either a cooperative mode (duet) or competitive mode (team VS team). Regardless of the mode you choose or the number of players you have, the game always presents you with 25 words. However, the words each team needs to guess right are different.

In the Team VS Team mode, each team has a spymaster, who knows the words for both teams and a taboo word. The spymaster must give hints to their team to help them guess all the target words, while avoiding the taboo, the words of the other team and yellow words. If the team guesses a yellow word, the round ends, and if they guess a black word, the game ends, if they pick the word of their opponent, well, thank you so much.

In the Duet mode, both sides only know their own green, yellow, and black words. Side A must use their descriptions to help side B guess out their green words, vice versa. You win together by finding out all the 15 words within 9 rounds!

Emily and I use the online version and you can check the rules on their website. If you want more information on the board game, you can check this instruction video for Team VS Team mode. If you are interested, you can check my explanation in Chinese for the duet mode.

Why Do We Use Codenames To Practice New Vocabulary?

First of all, as mentioned earlier, you will be surrounded by 25 words throughout the game. In fact, to support your language learning, you can select words that you are not familiar with or the ones that you want to practice more.

Secondly, describing and connecting the word with related information will deepen your understanding of it. Since you can’t say the word out loud, all you can do is to give out keywords. For example, if the target word is “apple”, you might need to describe its color, shape, taste, and so on to help others make sense of it.

Thirdly, you need to guess 15 words within 9 rounds, which means you can’t describe only one word at a time like in Charades. You need to establish connections among those target words. When you think about how they are related, you may find things in common, you may want to create a story and thread them in. All of this brainwork unconsciously deepens your command of them.

Finally, this is a GAME! You don’t need to review by rote memorization, or looking at flashcards. You are learning by playing, having fun and engaging with others.

How To Collaborate Codenames Duet And TV Series

Emily and I played with the Duet mode because there were only two of us and we wanted it to make the game less intense. It is up to you which mode to play with since the processes are pretty similar.

  • First, watch an episode that you are interested in. You can use any materials, e.g. an article, a movie, or lyrics. Interest and difficulty are important factors!
  • Next, select a 1-3 minute clip from this episode, or choose a character you want to discuss. You can pick a paragraph from a book, a scene from a movie, a few lines from a song, or a character you’re fond of.
  • Then, select the words that you want to continue practicing from this clip or the words used to describe a character during the discussion.
  • Finally, here comes the game:

Step 1: Once you have prepared at least 25 words, add these 25 words to the game.

Step 2: Read these words out loud together.You might encounter words that you totally left behind, which is an authentic and motivating learning moment.

Step 3: Decide who will start first, then you will know your target words. Our description method for words is different from the official Codenames rules. The official rules suggest that only one or two keywords can be used, but I encourage Emily to tell a story or a long sentence to describe the word. Our goal is not to describe the word concisely, but to explain its meaning as clearly as possible.

Bonus Time!

Emily chose a short summary of her favorite scene from Meteor Garden. If you happen to be a fan of this TV series and your Chinese is at an intermediate level, feel free to try out the game. You can also watch our demo video in Chinese to get a gist.

Read Emily’s summary:

杉菜从道明寺的大家门口走出来。在大雨中,她拉着她唯一的一个行李箱,自己走回家。“杉菜!不要走!” 道明寺喊。不过,杉菜没回头看,继续往前走,她的心已经碎成了百万片。

道明寺在他房间里呆呆地看着墙壁, 一直想着杉菜永远离开他了。 如果杉菜是把他凝聚在一起的一块碎片,他怎么能没有她呢?杉菜是道明寺的世界。如果生活没意义,那为什么需要继续活着呢?

杉菜走时,想着道明枫说的话。“你不能继续跟我儿子约会。你们的生活太不同了,你们几乎生活在两个不同的宇宙。你们怎么能约会呢?” 这些话不停地在杉菜的脑海里重播,困扰着她。



  • Choose 25+ words you want to practice more
  • Follow the 3 steps introduced above and have fun!

author headshot

TY (Yue) Tang and Emily

Chinese Teacher, Student

Emily has been learning Chinese all her life. TY enjoys exploring various ways of acquiring a new language.

Speaks: Mandarin Chinese, English, French, and Korean

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