I came across this question the other day in an Elementary class:

What are you wearing?

It appears quite straightforward and grammatically of course it is, coming in a textbook unit on present progressive. Usually, that’s as far as it goes. Thinking about it further on an expression plane, however, it struck me that the question can be a lot more complex that it was presented in the textbook (plus, it always seemed like a pretty pointless question – you can see me after all. If not, it’s kind of creepy. I always add the Circumstance to the party). The question does actually have at least three distinct meanings differentiated by expression:

  1. What are you wearing? (focus on clothes in general)
  2. What are you wearing? (that I am not, or compared)
  3. What are you wearing? (tell me the truth)
  4. What are you wearing? (why are you wearing that?)

These meanings are often just put down to ‘nuance’ and seen as unimportant or too subtle/difficult for elementary learners but, personally, I think they are a fundamental part of the ‘meaning’ of the question and, as such, constrain or influence the answer. For question 1. we might just answer factually whereas question 2., with the interpersonal emphasis, might be an indirect request for help in choosing something. Question 4. instead might focus on justifying a choice (why, what’s wrong with it?).

The question for me is whether these differences are, in fact, too difficult for foreign language learners.There seem to be several issues at play. Firstly, with the influence or interference of the L1, do L2 learners construe the expression plane differently and instead use different, lexico-grammatical, resources to express the differing meanings:

  1. what clothes are you wearing?
  2. Are you wearing that? I can’t decide!
  3. Why are you wearing that?

Or is it merely because EFL has not, traditionally, treated the expression plane as a systemic resource for meaning and the students are simply unaware of this?

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