Question Tags, are they dispensable in ESL teaching?

Tag questions are considered to be a noticeable feature of modern spoken English. A tag questions is short question attached to a statement. The understanding of tag questions is vital in Second Language Learners effective communication. Despite the presence of tag questions variants in other languages (in German nicht wahr?, French n’est-ce pas?, or Spanish verdad,)  some Second Language Learners are still finding some difficulty in understanding the form , the use, and the meaning of tag questions. Factors like polarity, affirmative versus negative, and intonation add an extra challenge for non-native speakers. Therefore, and in the course of English as Lingua Franca, or English as an international language, many linguists consider tag questions to be a disposable element for Second Language Learners. R. Quirk (1982) proposes the concept of Nuclear English in which he introduces simplified forms of native Standard English. Those forms help easier learning of English, especially after stripping off features which can be “dispensable” and “disproportionately burdensome.”

One of the challenges that Second Language Learners usually face is the first language (L1) interference, or transfer, in their learning process. When it comes to tag questions, many languages lack this element, or they have a different way in expressing the meaning intended by tag questions. For example, Arabic uses totally new items in the tag question in order to express different meaning of the tag questions. Learners may cease to use structures learned before because they are not fully integrated into their interlanguage systems[i]. They may even rely on one highly frequent tag question (isn’t it? For example) and over use it in most cases to produce ungrammatical utterances[ii]:

* You are coming today, isn’t it?

The technique of making tag questions is not a simple one. It requires a full understanding of forming questions, understanding the operator function, awareness of the difference between affirmative and negative tag questions, marked and unmarked tag questions, polarity, and the placing of a new lexical item which may not exist in the original statement.

Probably the most important element regarding the use of tag questions is intonation. The meaning of tag questions differs as there are two possible intonations patterns. The rising-falling intonation pattern is the most common one as it is used to seek confirmation, making a point, agreement, or sure of the statement:


The rising intonation is used when seeking to elicit a no or yes answer, being unsure, or seeking further clarification[iii]


Second language learners have some difficulty controlling the intonation. Thus, the whole purpose of question tag, which is better communication, can be lost easily.

There is no shred of a doubt that when linguists consider question tags “dispensable” feature in teaching English as a Second Language, they take into consideration the complexity and the intricacy of their use, meaning, and the difficulty of forming them.  Nevertheless, using tag questions can enhance the communication between English speakers, and I think that this element should be taught at a certain stage where the English learner is able to fully command them and use them in the proper way.

[i] Lightbown, P.M , Spada, N. (2006) How Languages are Learned Oxford University Press

[ii] Celce-Murcia, M. Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999) The Grammar Book Second Edition, Heinle and Heinle Publishers

[iii] Shepherd, J. Rossner, R. Taylor, J (1985) Ways to Grammar Macmillan Publishers LTD