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Let's suppose that a learner asks a question (on this site) about something which would be immediately relevant to any person living in a primarily English-speaking community, and does not provide any information about their current grasp of the English language.

If someone wanted to leave a comment on the question asking the learner to clarify the question or to provide additional information, how can they choose their words and word order to assure that their comment will be understood by the largest possible range of English learners?

I am a native English speaker but I know nothing regarding the fundamentals of teaching English, so it would be helpful if someone could answer with:

> biological laws regarding secondary language acquisition (such as "humans must learn x before they can learn y)
> conventional lesson plans (the order that topics are typically taught in)
> experience from teachers and learners

If it helps at all I am particularly concerned that a comment or an answer might be written in a way which might intimidate an English novice and deter them from coming here for help.

migrated from ell.stackexchange.com Nov 17 '16 at 4:31

This question came from our site for speakers of other languages learning English.

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A question of great complexity. My take, from experience of teaching, is simply this:

Firstly, phrase your comment in a manner that doesn't cause a loss of face.
In cultures where face is important, this shows courtesy and encourages a positive response. A comment that denegrates the original questioner can cause them to simply walk away, offended.

Secondly, use short simple sentences. Try to reuse the words from the original question, use simple vocabulary. Obfuscated polysyllabic verbiage is counter-productive. Use simple tenses, avoid the passive.

Thirdly, try to hint. Do you mean...?. That gives an opportunity to bring out the question. However, always leave an option to be corrected without saying no. Do you mean... or something else? As many cultures will not answer no as that will cause you to lose face. You will get an answer yes even though that is not what the questioner actually meant.

I have assumed that the level of English in the question indicates something close to a beginner. It is always better to underestimate ability than overestimate.

It is a very complex question and this is a very simple answer. Just remember that, you can't always get the tone or the comment right in all cases. Especially when you only know the questioner, their culture and ability, from a couple of paragraphs of text. You may have no idea of their native language and its linguistic structure.

We all get it wrong. Misjudging the tone and inadvertently causing upset. The fact that you have asked this at all indicates a desire to help. That desire is the greatest asset.

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The late developmental psychologist Jean Piaget determined that learning is a 2-stage process whose stages can be called "first-fit", and "adjustment" (he called them "assimilation" and "accommodation" but I can never remember which is which).

All knowledge is associational, i.e. we understand everything in terms of their relationships to other things.

So, "first-fit" requires that we relate new things to things we already know/understand. It doesn't matter how poor the first-fit "fit" is, just so long as we have some place to attach the new thing. It's important to understand that this stage cannot be avoided. If we cannot find a place to hook the new thing, it remains a total mystery to us and we'll never be able to learn anything about it. (This is one of the reasons Chomsky argues that we have an inbuilt facility for language-learning. It also leads to the psychologists' in-joke that we can never learn anything new.)

The "adjustment" phase involves our using new information (generally provided by experience) to make additional attachments to other things we know, so that our understanding becomes more accurate.

A trivial example of how important first-fit is would be my saying "brokofitz". There's nothing you can do with it. Is it a verb, a noun, a whole sentence? Was it a question? Or did I just burp? You've no clue, you can't do anything with it. Without more information, it will forever remain a meaningless sound.

So, to tie this to language learning, we can ask a questioner to "please say more". People usually learn the politeness words first, because they have a huge social value, followed by yes/no, the basic, really old verbs (the ones that have a vowel change, and/or change form), and simple comparatives. "Please say more" taps their existing knowledge in a polite, easily-understood way. Their response should tell us whether we should stay at the same level (archaic verbs, comparisons, common nouns) or can move up a notch.

To be maximally helpful, we should provide associational information to help with first-fit. We can do that with positive and negative examples. We should avoid overloading, because first-fit takes a lot of effort and humans don't have a lot of short-term memory within which to manipulate information. Nominally we have between 5 and 9 "slots" to work with, but it's more often 5 than 9, and when it's tough information, we doing well if we can manage 3!

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