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4.1 Questions – the door opener

This blog addresses a critical skill for progressing at speed in a foreign language: asking questions. 


Questions provide us with a sharp albeit ill-acknowledged, overlooked, usually taken for granted and often poorly used tool. By contrast, lawyers, journalists, investigators or politicians harness their power with dexterity; linguists need to also.


A major effect of mastering such a competence is its impact on the ability to engage in a discussion with relatively limited vocabulary. As a result, the number of opportunities generated and their quality lead to a substantial increase in your progress rate.


Although at first sight, the competence may appear obvious, numerous hidden reasons contribute to it remaining insufficiently addressed.


For example, given the likely confidence deficit beginners experience, they are likely to unintentionally avoid asking questions. Secondly, in response to this latent inhibition, language trainers may overcompensate, fill the gaps and utter most of the questioning. A third potential barrier is the acquisition of the competence visually through reading and writing as opposed to through sufficient speaking practice leaving learners with only a semblance of the ability.  This state of affairs leads to ill-optimised engagement in the target language but can be easily counteracted. 


Beyond highlighting the vocabulary, learners need to hone and master vocally as a matter of priority. The following lifts the veil on how to communicate and access information in the desired language.  It provides an insight into the architecture of thinking. For example, it shows what little words, such as ‘how’ or ‘why’, innocuous in appearance, can do for you when used purposefully. It describes how these items of speech are logically organised and deliver a simple model for all to use daily.


Dexterity at operating the mechanics of questions opens the gates to others, their language and culture, their belief systems, preferences or any matter of interest to you. 


Once you master the wording and timing, you start to open doors and engage more competently. A strong ability brings you closer to fluidity quickly. However, don’t be fooled by the apparent ease of grasping the basics. To acquire a lawyer-like inquisitive, exploring mind requires a set of routines and extensive practice.


The knowledge required is the easy part. There are two key techniques we can deploy: the first one may deliver a narrow limited answer whereas the second can generate a comprehensive response. These are commonly termed closed and open questions.


Yes or no – closed questions


Closed questions can offer a limited scope for response. From this point of view, they may be ideal for complete beginners. In a strict sense, they strongly lead to two possible options only: ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  Whatever your level, such a response is clear and easy to grasp.


This style also reflects the natural tendency in a conversation between two individuals who know each other well. However, unless the speakers rely on well established communication between them to impart information, the closed question style does not contribute to a rich exchange.  Of course, when the interlocutors are adept communicators, the answer may flow beyond this limited format and lead towards a free flowing undirected exchange.


For strangers and when starting in a foreign language, although easy to implement, closed questions may not lend themselves naturally to rapport beyond a ‘yes/no’ answer.  To expand usually calls for an existing rapport or smooth ice-breaking techniques. The following questions clearly pave the way for a more elaborate answer than ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.


‘Is chocolate your favorite addiction?’  Y/N


‘Will you finish tonight before 8 pm?’ Y/N




Linguistically, in English the wordstructure opens either with a verb like ‘do’, ‘can’, ‘will’ etc, followed by a subject. In other languages like French, it can be constructed slightly differently and open with a neutral question tag such as ‘Est-ce-que’.  Whatever the language you choose, be it Urdu, Thai or Chinese, you need to ensure you rehearse such question techniques very early on and master fully the basic routines so as to quickly take part in conversations. Reassuringly, the answer – ‘yes’ or ‘no’ does not call for a high level of understanding.


The open questions: who, why, how, when, what, where. 


Open questions establish a large platform for communication. They allow for exploring any avenues you may choose.  They help the respondent be as imaginative, creative or accurate as she may wish.


What happened at this point?


Where should this take place?


Given the potential length and depth of each answer, your ability to ask such questions contributes strongly to the quality of the interaction you may instigate and nurture.  Of course, when asked an open question, you require a larger set of routines to answer fully.


The following table illustrates the relationship between each question and presents a way to approach thoroughly any issue. As shown in the graph below, each question may be naturally related to the others hierarchically. ‘Who’ stands at the top of the chain. The arrows indicate that each level contributes to the next or previous stage. Such logical sequence may inform and guide your thinking when you are not yet as fluid as you aspire to. If you feel somewhat shy or inhibited in your target language, memorising and applying the following will help you follow your sequence of questions through.












Defines the subject, the person in charge of the action or the event, etc.










Assesses the reasons or motives for a choice, the call for  action or set of activities


Probes the process, identifies the mechanics, the order of an event, etc. 


Clarifies the timing of actions. Note that once repeated, a process or habit is formed


What Investigates or sets out the specifics of an action or event


Explores the environment where the above takes place.




Blog 2.4 on Attitude and 2.8 on Expanding Vocabulary Exponentially shed light on ways to improve vocabulary quickly.


After reading this document, I advise readers to observe journalists on TV as some display a high level of skills in orientating their interviewees. Very soon, you realise that some questions come selectively forth whilst others remain unasked. 


Once you build an awareness of the technique, you realise the importance of the competence to bring elements to light as well as to keep other parts in the dark. 


About the author of this blog


The author started off with a passion for and frustration with how languages were taught and built the expertise and techniques obsessively over the following three decades. He spent over thirty years researching related discoveries emanating from psychology, neuroscience or NeuroLinguisticProgramming, as well as tested and refined them through training individuals in several languages.  He now operates in five languages and also specialises in the highly related field of Cross-culture (ie how different cultures interact)


Communicate with the author


This material is designed and planned as a conversation with language students.  The objective is to understand further the blog readers’ learning frustrations, barriers and requirements. A new page addressing a specific topic will be loaded every month or so. If you have a question or request related to the material please contact

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