3 approaches to language learning that need to be reconsidered at the high school level

I don’t mean to offend anyone who is currently dedicating part of their life, or some, their whole life, to this field of work. It is not an easy job and many teachers take on the job heartlessly.

That being said, I have some criticisms of how high school classes are often structured. The traditional foreign language instruction at the high school level often does students a disservice in understanding true language learning.

All too often we hear the same story: “I took four years of Spanish in high school and I don’t remember a thing.” Enter here all of the following clichés about language learning: “If you don’t start early then you’ll never be able to know a language,” “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” etc.

If we are hear these comments as commonly as I have throughout my seven years of teaching, then, we really need to re-evaluate what we are doing in the classroom.

#1: Learning language discretely instead of holistically
The traditional curriculum does not focus on language holistically. Language is not viewed as a whole, but is broken down into discrete parts and segments. The result is that many students leave the language class with an inadequate view of the language and therefore they don’t retain it after a few years. They don’t retain it because they don’t have the full picture.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and compare language to a lofty yet integral concept in Eastern religion: Zen. Zen is the practice of seeing and experiencing life in the moment.  Everyone wants to be Zen, that is, everyone wants to proficient in a second language. But, the minute that you try to adapt to a certain regimen, follow a set of instructions, guidelines, or procedures, or listen to a guru, or if I can incriminate myself, a teacher, in order to achieve Zen – it is no longer Zen.

The Zen of language is that it is here in an instant and gone the next. This is the mindset that we need to adopt when teaching languages. It is constantly adapting and growing. It is always in motion. Words are created and destroyed. Words change their meaning in certain contexts and after a certain period of time. Words are melded together. Language comes up with rules and then breaks them. It is a disservice to students to study language in discrete parts. It bypasses its beautiful constant fluctuation and adaptation to the culture and to reality.

The analogy here is achieving Zen (which is a goal and creating a results-oriented mindset, and therefore, restricts this achievement) is the same as attaining a certain level of proficiency in a language. Instead of spending class time using, observing, creating, and enjoying language, we spend most of our time talking about the language. We talk about how the rules do this and this. We are asking students to follow a certain set of rules, acronyms, guidelines, procedures, and numbered lists so that they will eventually become “proficient” in a language. We break down concepts into a discrete set of rules and laws, and then make students practice the difference between them. If you spend all your time thinking about language, instead of just doing language, you’re missing the point. Likewise, if you spend all your time thinking about achieving Zen instead just observing/being Zen, then you’re just thinking about it instead of just doing it.

The major structure of the high school classroom is to teach a “theme” around a distinct, chapter of grammar. Teachers with good intentions provide acronyms, songs, mnemonics, and games to help students remember these rules to the language. That’s all good for about a chapter. Students feel confident and we are on our way. But then, there is a complete “irregular” section of the grammar, because of course, despite all of our efforts to teach these rules – which we teach as absolute – there are always exceptions. Then, magically students continually challenge the teacher and say “well wait a minute, I thought that this verb did this, under these circumstances. It says so in the acronym we learned!” The teacher shrugs and says “that’s just how language works, sometimes it doesn’t like to play by the rules.” Maybe the exception is that the rule is wrong in the first place. View language more holistically in the classroom.

#2: X = Y approach to defining vocabulary
We also have a terrible tendency to teach students that there is only one definition per word. This is a myopic approach to language instruction. We give them a vocabulary list with the L2 (classroom language) definition on the left and the L1 (native language) language on the right. “Oh, well, that word means this.” But then, undoubtedly, students will encounter that same word in an article, recording, YouTube video, textbook, sentence and say “I thought that meant y.” It said so on our vocabulary sheet.

The teacher then responds: “Oh, wait, in this article means z.

Then the students will remark with some cliché response: “This language is so annoying, they have so many words that mean multiple things.”

We are setting students up for frustration because we don’t acknowledge the fact that every language does this. Words often carry multiple meanings in a variety of contexts. The truth is that words are simply vessels for meaning. Instead of focusing on the meaning of the message behind the words – the ideas – we focus on literal translation. This reductionist approach to vocabulary instruction is insufficient.

Just think of the word “get” in English.  Think of how many different meanings this word has in everyday interactions:

“he needs to get a life,” “it gets harder, let me tell you,” “will that get me a good grade?”  “why did he got an A on his test but I got an F,” “get a life,” “get me a soda,” “get outta here,” “get off me,” “get to the point,” “on your marks, get set, go!” “it was a loss from the get-go” “he really gets to me,”  “she really gets me,” (past tense) “you got a guitar yesterday?,” dude, you totally got me,” “dude, get this,” “girl, you really got me goin’, you got me so I don’t know what I’m doin’.”

I could go on and on. Imagine the disservice we are doing students if we reduce the meaning of this beautifully versatile verb to a mere “to get = to obtain.” X = Y.

Instead, students need to be exposed to myriad examples of language through listening, reading, pictures, videos, teacher input, and repetition. Students need immense amounts of input to best acquire a language. We need to teach students that language is simply a well-organized and rule-bound tool to communicate ideas and meanings. When we communicate, we are communicating ideas, not words.

#3: Useless Vocabulary
We also learn useless vocabulary in the high school. Case in point: when the hell am I ever going to have to say chores in Spanish? Again, I really don’t want to offend anyone, but let’s get real about our choices of words and topics we decide to teach our students. I’ve never had to talk about doing chores in any real-world, practical interaction in a foreign country. In fact, I would consider it weird if our conversations ever got to that point. We need to be focusing on authentic language – and lots of exposure to it.

Other useless topics usually taught in the high school classroom:
– Daily Routines (have you really ever talked about brushing your teeth with a foreigner?)
– Describing people (this might appear on an ID card, but not likely to be encountered)
– Rooms in a House (maybe renting an Air BNB, but that’s only bedroom and bathroom)
–  Random Vocab (seat belt, etc.)

Many teachers will say: “but I learned the language this way just fine – it worked for me!” They may insinuate that they worked harder and focused more than other students and were therefore more successful. Listen, if you became a foreign language teacher, then you obviously had a knack for it at the start. You are a “super grammar user,” as James Taylor from BYU called it. It is not fair to continue teaching this way simply because it worked for 1% of the population.

I’d like to dig even deeper in this analysis of our focus in traditional high school curriculum. Consider the fact that a majority of our language isn’t even verbal. We communicate with our hands, faces, and bodies. We also communicate with tone of voice. And it’s amazingly subtle. One false step can mean a disagreement, the end of a date, an argument or even a fight. We communicate in cars mostly nonverbally, and it can be the difference between driving safe to work or colliding with another vehicle. Think of how a horn is used to communicate. A quick tap is a polite “hey let’s go, the light is green.” A drawn out horn is rude and provocative. Two quick honks is a hello or a goodbye. Think if we took an X = Y vocabulary approach to the horn when teaching students in driver’s Ed. Oh, well a horn honk (X) means excuse me (Y). Nope.

To give an entertaining example of nonverbal language, the eloquent “guy nod,” as you all know it, is a nod down when acknowledging a stranger’s existence and a nod up if it’s your buddy or pal.  To put it verbally, the nod down is more of a “good morning,” or a formal “hey.” The nod up is like “what’s up, man?

So, to sum up this piece, we need to reorient our focus to a more holistic and practical approach to language learning. We need to explain to students that yes, there is some glue used to hold the language together, but it is best learned through observation and examples, instead of rigid regimens and getting frustrated when there are plenty of irregulars. We need to focus on real-world and authentic language uses. We also need to educate students on the true meaning and use of words. Words do not have one simple definition, but instead they are vessels to convey multiple meanings. If we teach this way, students will be supremely less frustrated and successful.

I will talk about the antidote to these approaches in a separate recording.

Culture/Speaking/Listening – Anticipation of the Situation

Do you have trouble understanding people when talking to them? Do you get frustrated because you can’t understand what someone is saying to you or asking you? This blog post will attempt to address that frustration and will discuss the importance of anticipating questions and responses in any given situation.

Suppose you are in a foreign country and you decide to go to a restaurant – particularly a fast food restaurant (Yes, they exist everywhere, unfortunately).

You arrive at the restaurant and you are about to walk in. It is at this point that you should be anticipating the experience in many ways. Here is a list of the things you should be anticipating:

  • The Environment
  • The Cultural Circumstance
  • The Conversation
  • Specifics and Non-Negotiables
  • Wild Cards

The Environment

Better prepare yourself for the environment by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Does the restaurant look like a popular restaurant? If so, do you think it will be busy? Look inside: is it busy?
  • Does the restaurant look like it’s a sit-down restaurant, or a fast-food restaurant?
  • Does it look like it is a place for casual dining or formal dining?

The Cultural Circumstance

Different cultures have different expectations as to how everyday situations should be handled. For example, in Germany you generally set money on the counter instead of handing it to somebody. However, in Spanish-speaking countries, it is generally considered rude to place money on the counter and is expected to be handed to somebody (I’ve learned both uncomfortably). Do you know how long it usually takes someone to order? How long it usually takes to receive your order without cause for concern? It might be wise to walk in and observe a little bit if you are uncomfortable or unsure.

Some cultures tend to be more relaxed/take your time (Hispanic cultures) and others are more hurried/get out of my way (American culture). What has your past experience or your studies taught you about these expectations?

The Conversation

You walk in and figure out what you want to order. You then approach the cash register. The cashier rambles something off and you have no idea what he or she just said. Now wait a moment: did you anticipate what he or she was going to say? What do you think he/she said?

A reasonable assumption would be any of the following: “can I take your order,” “how can I help you,” “[formal greeting]”, “what would you like,” or “what do you want?” or some variation of any of those. When you anticipate the scenario and the conversation about to happen, you narrow the parameters of discussion and possibilities. This makes it easier to expect what to hear and therefore, easier and more likely to comprehend.

You must anticipate the conversation before it even happens and you must anticipate what you will say in response. Repeat this process back and forth. You will find yourself having an easier time communicating.

Specifics and Non-Negotiables

Before going into that restaurant, make sure you know how to communicate any specific needs or non-negotiables. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  • What specific needs do you have? Are you disabled in any way?
  • What specific questions will you need to ask?
  • Do you absolutely hate onions? Do you have a peanut allergy? How will you communicate these needs effectively?

Wild Cards

Suppose you say hello to a guy and he starts talking to you like you’re about to have a 30 minute conversation (and you have a train to catch in 10). Suppose something bad happens. Suppose a fire breaks out. Suppose the cashier starts rambling at you in a very quick, angry tongue and you don’t understand why. Although instances like this are quite rare, it is good to have a backup plan and be prepared by having your survival phrases ready to pull out of your linguistic holster at any given moment. Examples of survival vocabulary:

  • I don’t understand.
  • Sorry.
  • Please repeat.
  • Please.
  • Thank you.
  • Help.
  • Emergency!

Writing – Shopping Lists in Target Language

One great way for you to integrate language into your everyday routine is to make a shopping list in the language that you’re learning. Don’t know how to say it? Look it up. Don’t write the English on the list- don’t give yourself the option of cheating and learn it!

Here is a picture of what I do each time that I go shopping (granted I wrote one specifically for this occasion to make it legible…)


That takes too long! Hogwash. It’s as easy as this:


Type what you want to say in English on the left, then simply change the language on the right. Bam! You might want to double check with an online dictionary, however I found this website to be sufficiently accurate.

But it doesn’t stop there! Read below to find out how else you can utilize this tool to really learn food items.

Speaking tasks:

  • Say all of the food items before you drive out. Or, put the list on your passenger seat and say the words out loud alone in the car!
  • As you’re shopping, say the words out loud as you find them and identify them. Don’t shout it – people will think you’re crazy! But, you can say it in your head or really quietly. Associate the word with the food item that you’re buying – skip the English! Think in the language.
  • Once you’re done shopping, identify the food items as you take them out of your bags and put them away. Later, keep the list to identify the items in your kitchen!
  • Read below in “writing tasks” for another speaking task that will help you build proficiency with some useful phrases.

Grammar tasks:

  • If the language that you’re learning has grammatical gender, then you can choose to identify the gender as well if you like (like I did with the German words in parenthesis). Say the gender with the word, if you like!
  • Develop a linguistic eye that notices: What do almost all of the plural forms end in for Finnish? (Answer: “t” – which happens to be the plural ending for nouns in the nominative case). Can this pattern be applied in other instances? Find out!
  • Both languages have agglutinative and fusional qualities. Look at how in English the words like “almond milk” are separated, but in both German and Finnish they are fused together.
  • What other similarities do you notice between either the two languages and/or English?

Vocabulary tasks:

  • What similarities and differences do you see between the two languages? German and Finnish are completely different languages and come from different language families, but they share the same root word for “coconut,” “avocado,” “almond,” “pecan,” “olive oil.”
  • Develop a linguistic eye that notices: What part of the word means “almond” in “almond milk” in both languages? What part of the word means “oil” in both languages?
  • Both of the words for “broccoli” and “kale” have the word “kaali” in it in Finnish. Why do these words share that ending? What’s the connection? (Hint: it’s not their color).

Writing tasks:

  • Learn/look up some crux expressions useful for learning food items. Practice writing the expressions with the food items on your shopping list and read them out loud – confidently and in your best accent! Here are a few good ones that I can think of:
    • I like…
    • I don’t like…
    • I like to eat…
    • I don’t like to eat…
    • Do you like to eat…
    • I prefer…
    • …are my favorite!
    • What else can you think of?
  • Write them on your shopping list so you can express yourself as you’re shopping!

Listening tasks:

  • Have Google translate pronounce the words for you! It will at least give you some idea of what the word sounds like.

Listening – 2 Comprehension Tasks (Novice)

This post will discuss a couple of tasks that you can do once you find a useful recording or video to work with.

Once I stumble upon or find a recording or a video, I usually do the following activities with the resource that I have found:

In short, I…

  1. Listen to/watch it twice and scribble down words or phrases that you understood.
  2. Write the main idea of the recording or video in English (or in the target language if I’m feeling spunky).

Additionally, make sure you pay attention to:

  • The visuals in the video
  • The title of the recording or video

Take this recording in German, for example, from the website Audio Lingua (great website!)


Here is what I did when I listened to this recording:

  1. Looked at the title: “Ich wohne in einem typisch deutschen Reihenhaus” –  I live in some kind of typical, German house or structure
  2. Listened twice and wrote down words or phrases that I heard (with one listen): I wrote these down on a notebook first.
    • Ich wohne in…
    • ein
    • da gibt es
    • Keller
    • 3 Räume
    • Raum
    • drittens, meistens,
    • Hobbykeller
    • machen – Musik, Sport, dann…
    • eine Gestetoilette, links
    • gibt es die Küche, grosses Wohn und Esszimmer, dann geht man hoch
    • 2 oder 3 Zimmer
    • manchmal
  3. Write the main idea in English (or not-so-perfect German):
    1. Der Mann erzählt uns die Dinge in seinem Haus. Er beschreibt sein Haus und erzählt uns wieviel Zimmer gibt es und was gibt es im Haus.
    2. (The man tells us about the things and rooms in his house. He goes into detail about what items there are and what and how many rooms there are).

Motivational Upkeep – Learn the language you love

This post will discuss a tip on motivational upkeep.

The first key to motivation with learning languages is to make sure that you learn a language that you are naturally attracted to. If you learn a language that you have little or no interest in, then you are going to have a difficult maintaining your motivation in the long term. Whenever I study languages, I do so because I enjoy it because I naturally like the language.  I can’t imagine struggling through the Finnish language if I didn’t have a strong desire to learn it. I probably would have moved on a while ago.

How do you know what language you like? Pay attention to its vocabulary, its vowels and consonants, its intonation, its cadence and rhythm, its written language, and its culture. What aspects do you like or dislike? Answer those questions with each language you encounter and you’ll slowly move towards one that you want to learn.

Do you want to learn a fluid language like Italian or Spanish, or a more guttural language like German or Icelandic, or an exotic language like Finnish? Do you want to write with the Latin alphabet, or make chicken scratches like Japanese, or write right to left like Arabic or Hebrew, or write an alphabet where “H” is pronounced like an “N,” like Russian? (They use the Cyrillic alphabet). Do you want to communicate through the actual tone of your voice like Chinese or Vietnamese, or do you want to learn a language that is completely unrelated to all of its neighbors, like Hungarian or Basque?

Most people in their lives have said “I’ve always wanted to learn _______, because I just think it sounds cool.” Find that language for you and focus on that to start. You’ll benefit in the long run as it will serve a strong motivational boost throughout your studies.

Reading – The Power of Advertisements

This blog post will discuss a reading strategy and the usefulness of reading advertisements in your target language.

Why are advertisements so useful?

Advertisements in the target language (the language that you’re learning) are quite helpful to pick up on good vocabulary and grammar. Advertisements are useful because they often contain all of the following:

  • Strong visual support
  • Contextualized and colorful (interesting) vocabulary
  • Interjections (Oh! Yeah! Woo! Hey! Ouch!)
  • Useful verb forms (plural command, informal you command, polite command, “let’s” command)
  • Economic terminology (money, number, prices…)

Additionally, advertisements are generally short, sweet, and to the point. Short advertisements are easier for novices to read because it’s not a lot of text input and it’s very focused.

How do I find advertisements in my language?

Another advantage to advertisements is that they are pretty easy to find on the Internet. Just use Google Images!

I try the following things to find these useful pictures:

  • just type “[Finnish] advertisements for [McDonald’s]”
  • Look up how to say “Finnish advertisements” in Finnish (suomen mainokset) and search with those words.
  • Look up how to say words like “food,” “car,” “mall,” and look for those terms as well with your searches.

How do I read and learn from advertisements?

Let’s take this advertisement in Finnish:


Here’s what I do with a picture like this:

  1. Read it out loud, to myself, slowly and in my best accent.
  2. Guess on what it could mean. Looking at the visuals, my guess is it will have something to do with a cheeseburger and eating it. I do see the word “ham” at the beginning of the second word – possibly alluding to a hamburger.
  3. What do I know already? I happen to know that “juusto” means “cheese” in Finnish.
  4. Look up the meaning using Google Translate or another useful dictionary. I look up “juustohampurilainen” and GT tells me it means: “cheeseburger.” I also see 1 Euro in the picture. How do you say “one” in the language that you’re learning? (yksi in Finnish)
  5. Now take apart the words/phrases. I take out “juusto,” and “hampurilainen” means “burger.” I happen to know that the ending “-lainen” means to come from somewhere, so I take off the “-lainen” ending and look up just “hampuri.” “Hampuri” means “Hamburg,” the supposed birthplace of the hamburger (although I don’t think this is true).

So from this ad, we’ve learned that “juusto” means cheese, “hampuri” is Hamburg, and “-lainen” we know already to come from somewhere.

Say the whole word again, out loud, in your best accent, with this new context and meaning in mind.


Reading – The Power of Children’s Books

This blog post will discuss how to utilize children’s books to learn languages.

Reading children’s books is a crucial staple in my language learning routine. My study sessions are often centered around reading these texts, learning the vocabulary, pronunciation, and associated grammar. Children’s books give you the opportunity to absorb just about every aspect of the language that you’re learning – and sometimes the culture.

Why are children’s books so helpful?

Children’s books are powerful in their ability to teach a foreign language because they often contain all of the following:

  • A simple story line – beginning, middle, and end. This aids in capturing our natural curiosity.
  • Highly-contextualized and simple vocabulary.
  • Repetition of phrases and ideas – sometimes rhyming.
  • Useful, simple, and high-frequent past tense verbs (said, got, was, were, went, thought, saw…).
  • Supporting visuals to aid comprehension.

Where can I find children’s books? 

There are a surprising number of children’s books available online for free or cheap. I’ve provided some links  to websites that I use below:

  • Children’s Library (use the top-right drop down list where it says “show [any language] books” to find your language.
  • Children’s Books Online
  • Children’s Books Forever (books available in Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Indonesian, Japanese, Norwegian, Spanish, Swedish)
  • Amazon! (search for the language you’re learning and “children’s book” and you’ll be surprised what will pop up. If you have a Kindle, you can buy them for 2 – 3 dollars usually!)

Which ones do I choose?

  • Choose short and simple
  • Lots of visuals
  • Something interesting to you. Look up the title and decide if it’s something you can read enjoyably.
  • Ideally, your book should be written by a native speaker for a native speaker (authentic resource). However, I use translations often and it’s not a big deal (some people might not agree with that). The important thing is that you’re reading, learning vocabulary and structure, and engaging the language. However, as you get more advanced, authentic resources will become more and more important.

OK, I have a children’s book. How do I learn with it?

So you’ve got your hands on a children’s book. Now what? Here’s what I do when I read a children’s book.

  1. Cold read first. I read the first page. I read it slowly, word for word, out loud in my best accent. I do not look up any words. I utilize the visuals in the story and my own prior knowledge.
  2. Re-read the first page – out loud, slowly, in your best accent. (Have fun with it!)
  3. Go back and look for what I know. Make meaning from the text and say what it’s saying in English.
  4. Look for nuances of the language – are endings changing? Is word order changing? What agreement (or lack of agreement) do we notice? Why do you think it’s happening?
  5. Guess the meaning of words – can you tell what some of them might be? Make a list on paper.
  6. Look up what you don’t know. Check your answers through translation. Google Translate works just fine for this – or an online translator. Some of you may hate me for saying that, but it works for our purposes here.
  7. Keep track of your new words/phrases on a piece of paper.
  8. Re-read the first page again – attaching meaning the new words using your new words. Act out what the story is saying as you read it out loud, visualize what is happening in your mind, say it loud and proud, and have fun!
  9. Read the second page. Repeat steps with each page.
  10. At the end, add new vocabulary to a vocabulary set on Quizlet and practice with that context in your mind. Quiz yourself the next day and see what you remember. I hope you’re as surprised as I am!

Do you see how much I take my time with it? You need to attach meaning to the story for it to be useful. Don’t rush – what’s the hurry? Enjoy it!

** A corresponding video featuring me going through this process will be posted in the near future. **

Vocabulary – Forming a Communicative Task

OK – so you want to learn some new vocabulary. You’re sitting at your desk saying “OK- bring it on.” What do you learn next? What do you learn first? What’s useful? What’s relevant? What will help you in the future? What words should you focus on?

In order to maximize retention and usefulness, the vocabulary that you learn should be centered on some kind of communicative task. What do you want to do with the language? What do you want to be able to accomplish with these words or phrases?

You do not want to just make a huge list of words and commit them to memory. Textbooks and outdated guides are notorious for illustrating with ridiculous examples and memorizing useless vocabulary. You need to stray away from that and make sure that the vocabulary that you learn is contextualized and useful.

Here are some examples of communicative tasks:

  • I want to introduce myself.
  • I want to order a simple meal.
  • I want to talk about what my hobbies are.
  • I want to talk about my family.
  • I want to ask questions about someone else’s family.
  • I want to express my opinion on the state of the environment.
  • I want to talk about the political problems in my town.

All of these topics lend themselves to a related, contextualized, and distinct set of vocabulary. Additionally, you may have noticed that they increased in difficulty and complexity going down the list. The words you learn will be meaningful to you and the world and they will serve a communicative purpose. All of these are crucial in ensuring good retention, solid practicality, and serving you in the world.

Let’s start with the simple example: talking about family.

So you want to be able to talk about yourself and your family. What are some things you say to talk about your family? Open up your mind and think practically and creatively. What vocabulary phrases and words do you need to accomplish this? Here are some things that come to mind for me:

  • In my family…
  • there is / there are
  • I have
  • a, an, some (indefinite articles)
  • I have a mom
  • I have a dad
  • Do you have brothers?
  • Do you have sisters?
  • brother
  • sister
  • grandma
  • grandpa
  • her name is
  • his name is
  • he’s ___ years old
  • she’s ____ years old
  • I’m ____ years old
  • dog
  • cat

Start simple and easy – then branch out once you have those words underneath your belt. Decide what is most important to you and focus on those.

I recommend making a new flash card set in Quizlet and centering that set on that communicative task. Label it “Finnish – Talking about Family”

Lastly, your communicative task will open the door up for studying grammar as well. You may notice that in these phrases there is the verb “to have” (super useful) and “indefinite articles” (a, an, some). This is your opportunity to get your head around the grammar surrounding this topic and apply it in other circumstances.

Speaking – Automatic Phrases

One great way to build proficiency (that is, useful functioning with a language) is to focus and cue in on a few, what I like to call: ‘automatic phrases.’ This is not a novel or new idea. This is just my own twist and definition to it.

What are automatic phrases?

By my definition, automatic phrases are at least three (ideally four) things:

  1. A group of words that are learned together, remembered together, and said together.
    • Don’t isolate the words – don’t need to know meaning of individual word.
  2. Phrases or expressions that are memorized to the point of automaticity.
    • This phrase is something that is engraved in your language arsenal.
    • This phrase, expression, or question is something that should spill right out of your mouth without thought.
  3. Serves communicative purpose – express need, desire, opinion, emotion, clarification. Don’t memorize useless phrases.
    • Can owls turn their head 360 degrees?
    • What is the distance of the sun from Earth?
    • Do you build snowmen in the winter?
  4. Ideally, these phrases are questions or expressions that can be applied in various situations – but not necessarily.

Can I get an example, please?

For example, in Spanish there is the question “a qué hora?” It means “at what time?” This is a group of words that are learned together, remembered together, and said together.  In my Spanish 2 class, this question is memorized to the point of automaticity – they shouldn’t have to think about this question. This phrase should be locked away in their language arsenal and easily accessible in any situation without thought. This question is useful in all kinds of different situations: What time does it start? What time does it end? What time are we meeting? What time is it?

I know them in all of my languages: At what time? A qué hora? Um wieviel Uhr? Mihin aikaan?

What are some other good ones?

Examples of good automatic phrases:

  • Who, What, Where, When, Why, How
  • Do you need?
  • I need
  • What do you want?
  • I want
  • Do you have?
  • I have
  • At what time?
  • I don’t understand
  • Repeat, please
  • What do you like?
  • I like…
  • Where is…