A Breakability Judgment Task

Shun Morimoto, Tokiwa University

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: Vocabulary, basic words, core meaning
  • Learner English level: Beginner to advanced
  • Learner maturity: Junior high school to adult
  • Preparation time: 30 minutes
  • Activity time: 45 minutes

In learning L2 vocabulary, learners often seek for one-to-one correspondence between a given L2 word and its L1 translation-equivalent, as in “break = kowasu.” This strategy can be effective as long as the semantic ranges of the two words overlap. In the case of basic verbs such as put, take, and break, however, the use of this strategy leads to their under-generalization since all of them are polysemous, and their meanings cannot be fully captured by a single translation-equivalent. The aim of the task is to raise learners’ awareness of the limitation of the “L1 = L2” strategy and turn their attention to the core meanings of the L2 words.

The task deals with the basic verb break, which is often associated with kowasu in Japanese. While there are some objects for which kowasu can be used, such as computer, there are other objects such as window, one’s arm, and bread for which kowasu cannot be used. In addition, break can be used in the ‘discontinuation sense’ as in break one’s promise, break the silence, break the world record, and break one’s habit of drinking, all of which cannot be understood in terms of kowasu. In order to make full use of the verb break, learners need to understand its core meanings, which can be described as “to impair the shape or the function of an object; or to put an on-going process to an end.” The image-schema of the core meanings is found in Appendix B.


Print out the worksheets found in the appendices.


Step 1: Ask students the meaning of the verb break in Japanese. The typical response would be kowasu or kowareru.

Step 2: Distribute the handout (Appendix A) and ask the students to judge whether or not one can break each noun. Ask them to circle the word if it can be broken, and cross it out if it can’t. 

Step 3: Put the students into pairs and ask them to compare their answers.

Step 4: Check the answers together. Ask the students whether or not each noun can be broken. As there would be a multiple number of nouns judged to be unbreakable at this point, tell the students that there is only one noun which cannot be broken (my stomach).

Step 5: Have the students discuss their answers again.

Step 6: Check the answers together, and tell the students that my stomach is the one which cannot be broken, though one can say onaka-wo kowasu (break my stomach) in Japanese.

Step 7: Explain to the students that the meaning of break cannot be fully captured by a single translation-equivalent, kowasu, but has to be understood in light of its core meanings.

Step 8: Explain the various usages of break to the students, referring to its core meanings and the image-schema (Appendix B).


The format of the present task can be used for teaching other basic verbs as well as prepositions. The procedures are easy to follow, and learners can actively participate in the discussion. I have found this activity to be effective not only for beginner-level learners, but also for advanced-level learners. I hope this task can serve as an eye-opener for learners and help them make full use of the basic words at their disposal.


The appendices for this article are available below.