Wh- words for expressing emotion

Looking carefully at language used by relatively advanced  or even advanced learners of English, often through study of a learner corpus,  can suggest ways of ordering instruction in early stages so as to avoid later fossilization of inappropriate usage. This post offers an example that illustrates this point.

A typical feature of Japanese learner English

A very common error by Japanese speakers of English is to produce sentences such as:

*Do you know when is he coming?

*I don’t know when is he coming.

*Did he say when is he coming?

*He didn’t say when is he coming.

I suspect that Japanese speakers and learners tend to not use sentences like,

I’m concerned about when he is coming.

And they most definitely overuse  

How nice you are!

How beautiful it is!


Cartoon provided by cartoon.stock.com

All of the following are perfectly acceptable forms for expressing approval for something that someone has done.

  1. How nice!
  2. That’s very nice of you!
  3. How nice you are!
  4. Nice!
  5. Very nice!

But which one is unlikely to be used by a native speaker? I don’t have any data to back this up, but I am confident that one of them is much less likely to be used by native speakers than the others.

Answer: I don’t think  3 is typically used by native speakers.

Unfortunately, Japanese learn this pattern primarily as an expression of approval or appreciation, and are not  good at using the much more frequent use of wh-words to introduce subordinate clauses:

I am impressed by how nice you are.

Now I know how nice you are.

I’d been told how nice you are.

Nice” may not be the nicest example to make the more important general point for Japanese learners that clauses beginning with wh- words — how, what, why, who, where , when — do not reverse the order of the subject, verb and predicate except in direct questions.

So “It is expensive” becomes, “Is it expensive?” when it is a direct question, but is ordered as,

I didn’t know how expensive it is” or

Nobody told me how expensive it is or

I am aware of how expensive it is

when subordinate to a verb of cognition

(realize, know, understand, think about, believeassess, predict etc)

or communication

(say, tell, communicate, explainaskwrite etc)

or a clause containing a phrase expressing emotion or cognition, such as:

amazed , worried, aware, ignorant, interested, bored etc.


Implications for early instruction

What this suggests about pedagogy is that in the early stages of instruction the wh- words should not be too strongly associated with direct questions, and that direct questions do not need to be or indeed should not be taught in isolation from subordinated wh-clauses.

One argument for the conventional practice of introducing questions early and in isolation or discretely, is that they provide learners with the ability to ask questions early. but as is so often the case, attempts in textbooks or courses to make things easier for learners can end up making them more difficult.

It is easy to imagine and create activities and games where students respond to a set of cards offering different combinations of prompts of four kinds, as in:

Instruction ➡️   WH-Word  ➡️   Subject + Verb  ➡️   Response  

(optionally followed by ) ➡️   Confirmation  ➡️  Further Confirmation

So, for example, one of many possible combinations of cards from an elementary game might consist of:

Show me  ➡️   where  ➡️   the ball is  ➡️   Here it is!  

(optionally followed by) ➡️   Where? Is it here?  ➡️   Yes.  It is here.   

And this could be followed up with another set of cards with prompts of two kinds:

Direct Question  ➡️   Reported speech    ➡️   Conclusion
Where is the ball?  ➡️   I  told you where it is!   ➡️  Oh.  I remember.  It’s here.


Cards are an obvious way to do this, but I suspect that this could be introduced to very young learners as a kind of skit, learning in a very holistic way — that is without any grammar explanation and without reading.

One of the points here is to rethink the idea of what is difficult for early-stage learners.  Rather, the above idea comes from observing what is persistently difficult, even for advanced learners, and finding a way in early instruction to avoid its ever becoming difficult in the first place.


To summarize, observing learner language so-called “difficult” or complex language forms can be taught holistically at an early stage before learners have a chance to associate  these forms with difficulty. Doing so may be a viable strategy for avoiding the fossilizations that typically occur following conventional sequencing in early instruction.


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