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“Twenty Questions” for Irish Beginners

“Is it bigger than a breadbox?”

“Is it smaller than a mouse?”

Chances are you’ve played the game “Twenty Questions” at some time in your life. It’s a great way to keep children (or adults!) occupied on long car trips.

Know what else it’s good for? Practicing your Irish!

Not just for kids!

A few years back, an enterprising friend of mine in Ireland named Amy de Buitléir worked out a great way to involve participants on an internet forum in a game of Fiche Ceist (Irish for “Twenty Questions”).

In fact, we still play it on ILF, using the guidelines Amy devised, which you can see here.

In addition to being a lot of fun, it was quickly apparent that playing Fiche Ceist was helping a lot of us with our Irish. In addition to increasing vocabulary, it helped a lot of us sort out some of the unique features of the language that people often struggle with.

Basic rules

If you’ve never played “Twenty Questions” or a similar game, here are the basic rules:

  • One person is chosen to be “it.”
  • That person tells the group he or she is thinking of something (an object, a person, an animal, etc.)
  • The rest of the people in the group take turns asking questions of “it” in an attempt to figure out what the “something” is. But here’s the deal: They can only ask questions that can be answered by “yes,” “no,” “sometimes,” “often,” “almost,” or “it’s difficult to say.” For example, you CAN ask “is it green?” “is it made of metal,” or “is it used indoors?” but you can’t ask “what color is it?” “what is it made of?” or “where do you use it?”
  • Someone keeps track of the number of questions that have been asked and what the answers have been. In some versions of the game, the person who is “it” can be required to give a hint if the group reaches ten questions without figuring out what the “thing” is.
  • If at any time someone thinks he or she knows what the thing is, he or she can ask “Is it a…?” If the answer is “yes,” that person becomes “it,” and starts the next round. If the answer is “no,” that person is “out,” and can’t play again until a new round is begun.
  • If the group gets to 20 questions without guessing what the “thing” is, the person who is “it” must reveal the answer. He or she then has a choice…to continue as “it,” or to choose someone else at random.
  • The game continues as long as people want to play it! There is no “winner” or “loser”…it’s all about the fun of guessing.

So, aside from having fun, what are the benefits of this kind of game for the language learner? Here are just a few to consider:

Yes and No

If you’ve been learning about the Irish language, you probably already know that Irish doesn’t have words for “yes” or “no.”

That would seem to make “Twenty Questions” a non-starter, wouldn’t it?

Ah, but just because Irish doesn’t have words for “yes” and “no” doesn’t mean you can’t SAY “yes” or “no.” You just do it a bit differently. You listen for the verb used in the question and answer with its positive form (for “yes”) or its negative form (for “no”).

For example, if the question began with an bhfuil (un will) — the interrogative form of one of the verbs for “to be” (Yes, there are two. More on that in a minute) — you know the answer needs to be  (taw) or níl (neel).

Not surprisingly, this is one aspect of the language new learners find especially daunting.

In “Twenty Questions,” MOST of the questions are going to be answered with “yes” or no”!  This really works to get people thinking past the “fear of questions” that afflicts more than one new Irish learner!

A matter of being

Another interesting feature of Irish is that it has two different verbs that can mean “to be”…one of which is used primarily when describing something and the other when saying what something is (you can read more about that here).

For example, both the verb and the answer to the question will be different if you’re asking “is it a mouse?” rather than “is it smaller than a mouse?” The answer to the former would be is ea (shaa) or ní hea (nee haa).  An answer to the latter would be tá or níl.

Because the questions in this game naturally progress from asking what something is like to asking what, exactly, it is, players get practice using these different constructions.


“Is it bigger than this?” Is it smaller than that?” Is it taller than a house?” “Is it lighter than a feather?” Learning how to express comparisons is an important part of learning a language…and an important part of playing “Twenty Questions.”

The sky’s the limit!

The more experienced with the language the players are, the more sophisticated the questions can be. “Is it in the room?” “Does it eat meat?” “Can it fly?” Etc. This is a game that can begin very simply, for absolute beginners, but that can grow with the players’ ability.

So how do I play?

Well, first you have to find someone to play with! “Twenty Questions” can be played by just two people, but the more people you have, the more fun it is.

If you don’t have a local group with which you can play live, you can certainly play on-line. You’re definitely welcome to join us at ILF! Following Amy’s original scheme, we tend to have both “Beginners’ League” and a more advanced game going at any given time.

You can also set up your own group in an internet forum or chat room. You can even play via email! If you choose to do this, your best bet is to use the guidelines on Amy’s site, following the basic rules I gave you above.

When you’re playing on-line, and you’re not in real time, people have time to look things up in their dictionaries or to ask more experienced learners how to say something, so you can be a little more flexible.

Still, you should keep the overall ability of the participants in mind, and perhaps set some ground rules to make it easier for beginners. One ground rule might be to limit the things to be guessed to very simple things that can be described in simple terms (for example, a tree or a chair).

Playing with a real-time group

If you’re playing with a real-time conversation group, or if you’re a teacher who wants to play this with a class, you might want to play it a little differently.

When you’re playing in “real time,” you, by definition, have limited time available. If you’re dealing with beginners, then, you want to limit things so as to allow for several rounds of the game without overwhelming people or spending an inordinate amount of time looking things up.

You also want to give everyone a chance to speak (since the whole point of the game is to help people get used to using the language in a fun and relaxed manner!).

Here’s how I did it with a class I taught a few years ago:

Category sheets

What you want to do is to make up between four and six “category sheets,” which you will print out and give to every participant in the game. Some of the categories might include:

  • Animals
  • People
  • Plants
  • Buildings
  • Furniture
  • Food

At the top of each sheet, you’ll print the name of the category and its grammatical gender – for example Ainmhí (m) (“Animal” (masculine)).

Below that, you’ll have four or six pictures of different things within that category. Ideally they’ll have several differences between them, so there will be plenty of potential questions to ask. For example, your Ainmhí page might include such pictures as:

  • A black cat sitting on a table
  • A red cow standing  in a barn
  • A grey dog lying on a floor
  • A white sheep running in a field

Under each picture will be the name of the thing and its grammatical gender. For example Madra (m) (“Dog” (masculine)) or (f) (“Cow” (feminine)).

You’ll make a packet of these category sheets for each participant. Attached to each packet will be a print-out of Amy’s Fiche Ceist page, so everyone will know how to ask the questions they want (and so “it” will know how to answer).

If you want to make things even easier, you can make a list of all the adjectives you can think of that could be used to describe the things on the category sheets and attach those as well. Again, how much of this you do will depend on the experience level of the people with whom you’re playing.

For example, with absolute beginners, you might offer only very basic information: colors or physical features such as height or bulk. With more experienced learners, you might include such concepts as “standing,” “sitting,” or “running,” or locational details such as “in a field” or “on the table.”

You’ll teach your first “it” to say tá mé ag smaoineamh ar rud éigin (taw may egg SMWEE-noo air rud AY-gun — “I’m thinking of something”), and the play will proceed from there. In a class situation, you might want to start on one side of the room and have everyone take a turn asking questions.

If you’re dealing with beginners, you may also need to be prepared to help with the correct format of questions and answers.

You may be surprised at just how quickly the group gets into the game! More important…you’ll all be surprised at how much it helps with vocabulary and basic grammar!

3 thoughts on ““Twenty Questions” for Irish Beginners”

  1. mary gilmartin

    Dia Duit Eoin. This is Mary Gilmartin from Computer Systems in UL. Can you shoot me an email some time this week? I don’t have your email address.

  2. Phoebe Cristina

    Now I finally “get” the difference between TA and IS, and when to use each one. Go raibh mile maith agat.

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