The Dumb/Smart Question

Learning another language in the community  is always a challenge and so today I want to offer a quick language learning activity that you can take with you to the streets.  It is called the Dumb/Smart Question.

The Dumb/Smart Question comes from Dwight Gradin of the PILAT training and is one I really love. I love it for a couple of reasons.

First, it has no limits. You can use it any where, anytime, with little preparation and at any level of language learning.

Second, it gives you the chance to hear a lot of different ways to say the same thing. We all realize that too often we learn a set phrase for a situation and then use it to death.

Dumb/Smart questions offer the possibilities of hearing the many ways native speakers might answer the same question. In many ways, dumb/smart questions are a “live” version of ‘narrow listening’ as featured on this site.

How Does It Work

So how does it work? Basically you start with a question you already know the answer to. Then ask a native speaker the question and listen to their answer.

For example:

  1. Walk down the post office.
  2. Walk around the corner from the post office and then ask the first person you meet, “Excuse me, but could you tell me where the post office is?”
  3. Thank them and then pretend to go in that direction.
  4. Then find your next victim. Ask them the same question. Listen to their answer.
  5. Now go to the other side of the post office, or further away.

Repeat it over and again, listening to how people answer. Are there basic patterns? Some special expression that is routinely used?

Another way to use dumb/smart questions is in strategic shopping. I needed a new watch about a year into my time here in Turkey. I gave myself an extra half an hour and then stopped at every store that sold watches as I walked home, asking the same questions to each merchant. By the time I stopped and shopped for a watch at my sixth or seventh store, I was feeling much more confident and had a better understanding of what was going on, the names of watch parts, and how sales people sell watches.

In the initial stages of your learning, this can really help boost your listening comprehension. Later, it can be a way to widen the scope of the language you use. I have been stopped and asked directions twice in the last week. Both times I felt like my Tarzan Turkish was on full display. This week, I plan to head out with my pocket notebook and ask directions a lot and write down the many ways that people give them to prepare myself for giving directions next time.

Dumb/Smart questions do what I think we need to work hard to do in all of our language learning – they give us a chance by giving us control of the input we are hearing.

When the pump is primed, things flow more smoothly, quickly and it sticks.

[Here is a link to the TLL Coach YouTube post about the Dumb/Smart question.]

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4 Responses to The Dumb/Smart Question
  1. brentsears
    February 3, 2011 | 7:32 pm

    >Aaron,
    This is a great language tip! I had never heard it before and I will do it next time I am out in a Spanish speaking country. What a great way to meet new people, interact and learn the language.
    When I first saw the title I thought of how many people feel dumb or stupid when trying to learn a language. I think the problem is the thinking that is reinforced in our school systems:

    Stupid to Smart
    1 to 100
    So a 34 is stupid and a 97 is smart. 65 is passing and so on.

    Many people get stuck on the fact that they are stupid and will always be stupid.

    The paradigm shift comes when you think:

    Ignorant to Educated

    If someone starts out comfortably knowing they know nothing about a topic and takes small steps to become educated, then they finally reach their destination…much like you described in this post on how learn from responses. If they can get over the fear of being ignorant the world opens up.

  2. [...] the email, the teacher told of taking a learning activity I’d written about here on the blog, the Dumb/Smart Question, and working to adapt it from the independent learner environment to the teacher/classroom [...]

  3. SamB
    August 23, 2012 | 9:09 am

    This is such a good idea – it sounds so obvious and now I’m wondering why I’d never thought of it before! :)

  4. [...] much greater chance of understanding what the person says and thus, receiving comprehensible input. Read More. [...]

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