To Be a Better Language Learner, Stop Asking “Why?”

One of the basic skills holding you back from really learning your target language is simply accepting the language on its own terms. In a word, stop asking “why?”

Why is “hand” in Spanish feminine? Who knows. Who cares. It just is, and the sooner you stop complaining about it the sooner you can start using it.

Why are there so many tenses and conjugations in French? Does it really matter? Are you okay with speaking like a toddler, or are you willing to just accept that this is the way the language is and then move on?

As interesting as it would be to watch beginner French speakers the world over wage war against l’Academie Française over the subjuctive mood, I don’t think it’d be a very good use of anyone’s time.

Why do people fall into this bad habit?

People like to ask about the inner workings of the language because they’re stuck. The “why” question often leads to interesting academic knowledge, which is comprehensible to them because they’ll be doing the research in their native language.

Why is “night” spelled with “gh?” Because of the interesting etymological heritage of the language from German and then Scottish orthography, the latter of which was maintained even when the former’s pronunciation influece faded. But if you were to research that at the beginning level when you’re learning “night,” you’re spending a lot of time reading in your native language researching etymology when you could be doing something far more useful like having basic conversations with other language learners.

It’s not that the “why” question is useless, but “why” will only help you learn a language from its linguistic roots. You’ll have a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the language, but you’ll invest a lot of time and energy doing things other than reading/writing/listening/speaking your target language in the process.

What would you like to learn?

In Beginner’s English, we often teach the phrase “I would like (…)” very early on. Why? Because it’s useful and natural functional language. It’s the phrase native speakers use for almost any kind of request.

What would you like to (…)? I’d like to (…).

It’s actually a really advanced contruction. “Would like” is the English conditional used not for its conditional purpose but for politeness.

But if a beginner were to ask me why we use “would” or why the “l” in “would” is silent or why we use word order inversion for the question or any other target-language minutiae, any full answer would honestly be far beyond their current language level to understand. And what’s more, it would be a huge waste of time and energy. Time spent explaining is time not spent practicing and producing the language.

The “why” doesn’t matter. What matters is this: “Would you like to learn to use the language sooner or later?”

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N.G. Rees

N.G. Rees

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Teacher trainer and ESL instructor based out of Morocco. Head of Training and Development, Resilient Communities NGO. hmu @rees_is_