When you’re speaking, there are several things going on at once. You’re busy forming your ideas into (hopefully) coherent utterances.
For language learners, productive skills (speaking and writing) are far more challenging than receptive skills (reading and listening). It’s easier to recognize a word in a foreign language and translate it into your first language than vice versa.
Circumlocution allows you to talk around a particular topic or vocabulary word if you have a knowledge gap, if you’re missing a particular word or expression in your vocabulary.
Circumlocution is the smoke and mirrors strategy of language learning.
Using circumlocution is not limited to when you need to overcome a vocabulary gap. In fact, I hear advanced speakers using circumlocution frequently, even when I know that they have the necessary vocabulary.
Why do second language speakers circumlocute even when they don’t have to?
In general, language users (all language users-not just second language learners) do many things with language to conserve energy and brain power.
Advanced learners can get into the habit of using circumlocution when they fail to push themselves to try to remember a particular word or phrase.
In English, I frequently see evidence of circumlocution as a conservation strategy (as in conserving the learner’s brain power) in 3 different ways: (1) an increase in pronoun usage, (2) inconsistent use of high-level vocabulary in spoken language, and (3) when there’s a strong discrepancy between spontaneous written and spoken language skills.
What do I mean by this?
If a learner uses high-level vocabulary in many utterances, but then I notice that the learner starts using pronouns (he, it, they) or more general collective nouns (many, some) and common adjectives (big, slow) instead of a more specific phrase or vocabulary word, then it’s time to look a circumlocution as a crutch.
Or, if a learner can come up with beautifully complex sentences with highly precise vocabulary in spontaneous written work (without the use of a dictionary), then I know that this language learner has the active vocabulary necessary to convey his/her ideas precisely. This learner should not need to circumlocute in most instances.
For example, if my student says, “And then they all place calls to their representatives, these people. There are so many of them that they can shut them down through their efforts.”
Now if I stop the learner for a moment and ask, “What’s another word for these people?” This particular learner would be able to come up with the word ‘constituents’ with a little more effort.
The learner has the vocabulary but is circumlocuting because it’s easier to do than slowing down and recalling precise vocabulary for a particular phrase.
This is an example of Stephen Krashen’s Monitor Hypothesis, which requires that 3 conditions be met in order for a second language learner to use a term: (1) the learner knows the meaning of the word; (2) the learner is thinking about using the term correctly; and (3) the learner has enough time to apply his/her knowledge.
In speaking, when a language learner meets condition #1 but still circumlocutes, it can be argued that conditions #2 and #3 aren’t being met.
As a learner, can you think of anything you can do to help decrease your dependency on circumlocution as a strategy?
Read more about speaking strategies:
7 Ways To Rate Your Foreign Language Speaking Skills
Reduce My Accent
Get The Most Out Of Your Language Exchange Partner