No language in common? No problem. by
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Prompted By Games People Play

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Board games were a popular activity in my childhood, most often after a big meal at a family gathering. Checkers, Clue, Sorry, Parcheesi, Scrabble, and Racko are the ones I remember playing most often. Sometimes we would play Monopoly but those games never concluded because we all used our normal, frugal money habits of preserving the cash. Only after I was an adult and understood the point of the game did I play it aggressively and wipe out the opposition with my high-end monopolies. The game does demonstrate good lessons from its origin during the Great Depression, but that was not the lesson I learned from tales of the Depression – don’t take too many risks and stay solvent.

Facial expressions, body language, joviality, and many gestures can go a long way.

My side of the family has continued the board game tradition into the next generations. These games include some of the oldies and many new ones. The common feature seems to be long discussion and disagreement about the rules of the game. Actual playing of the game often is an anti-climax. As soon as the boards come out my husband finds a book from the nearest bookshelf and disappears.

While browsing through catalogues he once pointed to an end table that had boards and pieces for Checkers, Chess, Backgammon, and Scrabble and suggested that I order it. Since he never wanted to play any of these games, I was surprised. His reason – “We can take it to our vacation house and your relatives will enjoy it when they borrow the house.” I am not sure how often they have played the games but I do remember one of my best game nights ever with that table. My nephew was visiting with his wife and her parents whose language is Romanian with hardly any English, at least back then. Backgammon was always on the back of any checkers board I ever used, but I had never played it. No problem – father in law will teach us. There followed my backgammon lessons from a man who is better at communicating without a common language than anyone else I have ever met. Facial expressions, body language, joviality, and many gestures can go a long way. Plus, a little broken English and Romanian words that have similarity to other Romance languages, such as Latin and French, which I had taken.

We had a fun time, certainly the best I remember while playing a board game.

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Characterizations: well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Jean, you make wonderful points that playing those board games can be the common language to cement a family together, regardless of the different ethnic backgrounds or real languages spoken. Great way to facilitate communication.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Games are a universal connection between generations and across cultures and language barrier. My late mother used to play bridge online with people from all over the world. I guess the language of bidding was universal. Thanks for sharing this, Jean.

  3. Suzy says:

    Jean, this is great! I love your description of Monopoly – never could finish a game because everyone wes too frugal, until as an adult you got the point of the game and wiped everyone out. Perfect! The common feature of family games being a long discussion and disagreement about the rules reminded me of my family. I always try to keep the original rule sheet in the box, for resolving disputes. And did you know you can find the rule sheet for many games online? That has come in handy for us once or twice. Of course your main point, that you could learn backgammon from a man who spoke almost no English, is inspirational. Thank you for telling this story.

  4. Jean your husband was so right about games and vacation houses. A house – the local nomenclature was “camp” – that I rented over several years in Lake Placid had the same type of multi-game table you describe. And it got heavy use. I think there’s something about board games and vacations in particular. Televisions tend to be few and far between, oftentimes the lighting isn’t conducive to reading and, well, board games are just fun.

  5. Marian says:

    Jean, I love this. Your vacation house seems like a predecessor to a B&B. It’s revealing that lack of common language doesn’t have to be a barrier.

  6. John Shutkin says:

    As Betsy pointed out, Jean, games can truly be a common language and I loved your story about Backgammon; is there even a name for it in Romanian? And I, too, found the winning strategies from Monopoly both counter-productive for real life economic frugality and guaranteed to tick off everyone else in the game. I almost went into antitrust law because of it.

    Also loved the memories you evoked by naming all those games. But Racko draws a blanko with me. A torture game?

    • JeanZ says:

      I don’t know what they called Backgammon in Romania but they definitely knew the game.

      Once I found the winning strategy for Monopoly the game lost its appeal. I found antitrust economics interesting but also frustrating. The important message was that free markets do not yield optimal results under monopolistic situations, and many markets are monopolistic or at least oligopolistic. Remedies? Hard to execute or even define.

      Racko was a game involving cards and racks. The winner was first to have all cards in order on his/her rack. Some strategy was involved but the combination of chance and skill required provided some satisfaction in winning while allowing a wide range of players to participate. Less torture involved than in monopolies.

  7. Jean, my husband is also a board game outlier, he has no patience and would much rather turn on the baseball game,
    But recently friends invited us over to play Trivial Pursuit and he loved it..
    Of course it was The Baby Boomer Edition!

  8. For some odd reason I never really got into games (other than word games) but I do love listening to people playing them…the bursts of laughter, outrage, groaning, and yes, cursing, this for the most part during televised sports. And even if I never use it, I want that table!

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