Learning Part 8: Deep Learning Revisited (2 of 3)

I’m at it again!  Another post on learning.  Sorry everybody, I hope you don’t mind!

But I’m not quite finished with deep learning!  I’d like to give you another group of practical questions you can ask to deepen your learning, improve your memory and get even more out of your studies.

This time, the question word is


Ask how!

You can get by with just asking what for many things you learn – like, “What is a screwdriver?” for example – but for many of the more challenging ones, you’ll need to know how.  How-questions are for English learners who want to take their learning to the next level and really get deep inside the language.  How-questions are for English learners who want to understand a question the way a native speaker does.

How questions are important because, unlike native speakers, most English learners do not learn English in context.  They might know what a word means, or what part of speech it is, but not how to use naturally and appropriately.

I can think of many examples of my own students or Japanese friends of mine who used an unusual word, expression or idiom and didn’t realize how rude or strange they sounded.  I remember this very short exchange I had not too long ago with one student:

Me: Sorry for rescheduling our lesson so suddenly.

Student: It’s no skin off my back.

My student seemed so happy he finally had a chance to use an interesting idiom, and I’m glad he did, but at the time I was just stunned.  I had no idea what he meant.  It took us awhile to figure out he meant “No problem” or “It’s okay” or “I don’t mind.”

In addition, how-questions are great for learning more about grammar, especially with verbs!  Verbs conjugate, so they are even more difficult to use.

Here is a list of How-questions (or similar questions) you can ask your teacher or any native speaker next time you learn something new:

“How do you use that?”

“How do I collocate this word?” or “How do I use this word in a sentence?”

“How do I conjugate this verb?” or “How do I say this in the past/present/perfect tense?”

“How does this word/expression sound to native speakers?”

“How do I say this as a verb/noun/adjective?”

“How do I say this more politely/formally/kindly/positively?”

Similar questions might be:

“In what situations can I use this?”

“When can I use this?”

“When is this appropriate?”

As you can see, asking these types of questions will help you understand new words and expressions much more deeply so that not only can you understand them when they are used, but you can understand their nuance and you can use them naturally as well.

Let’s see how we can use those in context:

Student: Teacher, I found this word ‘elaborate’ in a book I am reading.

Teacher: Oh, elaborate!  That’s a useful word!

S: Really?  What does it mean?

T: Basically it means ‘explain in more detail’.

S: I see.  So it’s a verb?

T: Yes.

S: How can I conjugate it?

T: It’s a regular verb, so the past tense is ‘elaborated’ and the past participle is ‘elaborated’, too. [writes it down]

S: I see.  How can I use it as a noun or an adjective?

T: The noun form is ‘elaboration’ and the adjective is also ‘elaborate’, but we don’t use that very much.

S: How can I use the noun?

T: Well, let’s see.  For example, you could say “Your elaboration was very helpful, thank you” or “I need some elaboration”.

S: How do you use it as a verb?

T: We usually use it after someone explains something, but we don’t understand it very well or we want to hear more.  We say “Please elaborate on that” or “Could you elaborate on that?”

S: So it’s an intransitive verb?  You have to say “elaborate on” something?

T: Yes, that’s right!

S: When do you use it?

T: We often use it in a business situation, but you can use it any time.  It’s a little bit formal, but not too much.

S: How does it sound in an informal situation?

T: Pretty normal, not too strange, but we usually say something like “tell me more about that” or “explain that more” or something like that.

Now this student knows a lot about the word “elaborate”!  Can you imagine how much she would have missed if she just asked “What does this mean?”

So next time you have the opportunity, ask “How?”  Try just asking the first question – “How do you use this?” – at first, and then ask you get comfortable, try adding more questions, little by little.  Good luck, and I’ll see you next week!


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