Whenever I meet someone who’s learning a new language, one of the most common questions I hear is some variation of ‘Why?’.
“Why is it pronounced like that?”
“Why do we have to use this word instead of that one?”
“Why can’t I say this?”
But this really isn’t the right question to be asking when learning a language. The only real answer to ‘why’ something is or isn’t some way is simply “That’s just the way it is.”
It’s important to understand that languages are hardly ever logical, and that native speakers don’t make conscious decisions about how to express something in any particular way. Speakers of a language simply learned how to use the language from the adults and peers around them, who learned it from someone else, and so on. Even though language is always changing, the process is slow, and for the most part, the way people speak their language was something that was passed down from generation to generation, not something that is deliberately designed to be logical like math.
When you can accept this, you’ll be able to learn the language as it is spoken naturally as a way to communicate with people. However, if you’re constantly asking ‘why’, it will only hinder you from learning, because it means that you already have an idea about how the language should be used, and you’re challenging the reality of how the language is actually used. This happens when learners filter their target language through their native language, assuming that what is true for the latter must also hold true for the former. But this would be a grave mistake.
So, if we shouldn’t ask ‘why’, what are the right questions to ask?
Instead of asking “Why can’t I use this word?” you can ask “Is it also correct to use this word?”
Instead of asking “Why can’t I use this word instead of that one?” you can ask “What’s the difference between this word and that one?”
Instead of asking “Why is it pronounced like that?” you can ask “Are these letters always pronounced like that?”
Instead of asking “Why can’t I say it this way?” you can ask “Are there any other ways to say that?” or “Is this also correct?”
Native speakers have a hard time answering the question ‘why’, but can more easily answer the alternatives. When you ask the right questions and listen to the answer without any assumptions, you’re much better prepared to learn the language.