When you move across the Atlantic armed with only one year of self-taught Portuguese and a joie de vivre that’s been chewed up and spit out by two years of a pandemic, things in your day-to-day life can start to feel a little … desperate. One day you’re laughing at your own confusion and the next you’re, I don’t know, sobbing comically in a café bathroom because you ordered a latte and got bread instead.
Let’s face it—regardless of whether or not you’re feeling a little lost in Europe’s westernmost country, big wins are few and far between for any of us these days. In comes Wordle, a simple game with predictable rules, daily wins, a mediated dopamine rush, and a lighter reason to check in with your loved ones. And God was it a hit. Multicolored blocks peppered every corner of Twitter, and suddenly, for the briefest of moments, that hellscape of a website was awash with peace. Finally there was something that everyone could agree was good. And we all know how rare that is.
At first, I played Wordle because it made me feel like I was still on the same team as everyone back home—doing American things, as Americans do. But there comes a time to put away such American things. I must have been zoning out into a pastel de nata one afternoon, or waiting to board Porto’s ever-timely metro, when it occurred to me that there might be a Wordle in Portuguese.
I searched, and there it was: Termo.
Wordle has taken the internet by storm, but the great thing about the internet is that it’s wider and deeper than the English-speaking world alone. Web developers all over the world have adapted the game to fit their own languages, with versions for everything from Arabic and Thai to Cymraeg and Gitksan.
For language learners, linguistic nerds, and polyglots everywhere, the emergence of multilingual Wordles is a delight. But it’s more than that—it’s useful. Ohioan Betsy Ramsey plays the English and Spanish versions. Alongside the free Spanish classes she takes online, she plays Wordle ES as a kind of supplemental “extra credit,” thinking of it as a chance to reinforce vocabulary and look up unfamiliar words. Clearly, she’s on the right track: Jamie Thomas, assistant professor of linguistics at Santa Monica College and a self-professed fan of word games, describes Wordle as a great “scaffold,” a tool that’s not-so-ideal for vocabulary acquisition but great for practicing words players already know.
Part of what makes Wordle an effective tool for language learning is that, plain and simple, it’s a game. Pedagogist Marc Prensky, who coined the term “digital native,” argues that games are effective learning tools because they have goals, outcomes, feedback, and victories, all of which affect motivation and ego gratification. “The rules and color-coded cues provide structured learning and encourage success with word-guessing, and this is what Marc Prensky would likely appreciate,” Thomas adds. Beyond the linguistics element, though, games give us pleasure. And because games give us pleasure, they move the onus away from vocab acquisition, lowering stress and inhibition on the part of the learner—and in turn, helping them acquire even more.
Apart from the game aspect, Wordle’s efficacy lies in what it does to your brain. Thomas explains that playing Wordle activates “sight words”—as we predict words in real time, we connect probable letter sequences to the words that we already have in our vocabulary. Guessing more and more letters correctly elicits different combinations of possible five-letter words in each player’s mind, and each of these words is “linked in lexical retrieval.”
If you’ve ever learned a language past childhood, you’ll know that retrieval is a muscle. Flexing makes it stronger over time, and eventually, it gets strong enough to pull out the words you need, when you need them. If you’re not fluent in a language, retrieving words takes more effort—and, therefore, more conscious thought. Merel from the Netherlands, who requested her last name be withheld, is fluent in Dutch and English but is learning Italian and Spanish, and she plays Wordle in all four languages. “I find that I’m more diligent the less familiar I am with the language,” she says. “With Dutch and English I can always think of another word to try, but that isn’t necessarily the best strategy. I have a higher success rate with Italian and Spanish.”
To Antonella Sorace, professor of developmental linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and founder of global information center Bilingualism Matters, Merel’s experience makes perfect sense. Sorace outlines that while bilinguals playing Wordle have a disadvantage due to a smaller vocabulary and slower retrieval in their second language, they also have the advantage of using feedback strategically to improve their next guess. When bilinguals of any level use one language, the other languages they know are still active in the brain. So when multilingual players do each Wordle, “They have to push away the words that are completely irrelevant to the other language,” Sorace explains. But that “pushing away” also works as oversight when it comes to words that are the same across language families. “For instance, today the Spanish word was civil,” Betsy Ramsey says. “I think of that as an English word, so while somewhat easy, it took me five attempts to get, trying things like carta, cinco, and cielo along the way.”
It’s unsurprising that some languages work better than others when it comes to fitting Josh Wardle’s template. The five-letter structure of the original Wordle is an obvious limitation, because different languages have different vowel-consonant patterns. Take English versus Swahili, for example. “There are about seven patterns in English, including CVCC, as in ‘ramp’ and up to CCCVCCC, as in ‘strengths,’ ” Thomas explains, “while in Swahili, most words can be broken down into CV units, as in ‘maji (water),’ all the way up to ‘kujitambulisha (to introduce yourself).’ ”
Depending on the language, there are fewer—or way, way more—five-letter words to choose from, making the given version of Wordle easier or harder to play. Italian grammar is more regular than English, for example, which makes it easier to solve the Wordle. Croatian, on the other hand, is harder: With more grammatical endings than English, the number of possible variations may cause you to lose the game anyway, even if you enter the right word in theory. And for other languages, the template very necessarily goes out the window. Chengyu, Chinese Wordle, is idiom-based instead of word-based, and has four slots for Chinese characters instead of five.
Of course, more than anything else, there’s the obvious limitation of fluency. This means that at some point, if you’re not fluent in the language, you’re probably going to have to play with words you don’t know. To do this, knowing the linguistic limitations for each language you’re playing with is key. When we deconstruct words, we lean on the knowledge of typical syllable patterns of the given language. If you know what particular letter combinations your language does or doesn’t use, you end up with a pretty good foundation for making educated guesses.
That’s how I play. One of the more recent Termo words was sogro (father-in-law): I opened the game with saúde (health) to knock out some vowels and started my third guess with S and O squarely in the first two positions. I asked myself: What combination of letters and sounds would make a plausible Portuguese word?
Here, Word Reference (which accounts for semantics) and Google Translate (which accounts for conjugations) were my friends. With S and O squarely in the first two positions, I tried different combinations of the last three letters until I got some words. My guesses ended up being solto (loose), sorvo (sip), sofro (suffer), and sobro (cork).
I lost! But even losing is a win. Now I know how to say, o sogro sofre do sobro solto—the father-in-law suffers from the loose cork. (Is the father-in-law an alcoholic? Was it just a bad cork to begin with? Did the wine spoil? We’ll never know, but I sure do know how to say it.)
Learning words you didn’t know before reframes a loss into a success. And the flip side is true, too: You could feel bad about not knowing a certain word in the first place, but that word you pulled out of thin air could end up winning you the game. Low-stakes word games like these create a circumvented kind of confidence. If I win, I’m left saying, Huh. I know this language better than I thought I did.
When you’re learning a language, it’s really all about the little wins. On some days, that win will look like ordering breakfast without your voice shaking. On other days, it looks like having a conversation with an elderly Portuguese woman whose accent you barely understand, but you hold on, and maybe you finally—finally—use that one vocab word you’ve tried so hard to remember. But if nothing else, your daily win can be learning a new word or two with Wordle—and sometimes, that’s enough.