It’s the thing you use when you don’t know how to say the word you want

Generally defined as the unnecessary use of a large number of words to express an idea – when fewer, more direct ones would do – circumlocution seems to bear a somewhat negative connotation. It is often frowned upon by literary critics who tend to attach greater value to a more pragmatic approach to writing. In the ELT world, however, this Latin-derived word, which means literally “around a speaking”, holds a more privileged position: It is defined as a strategy learners make use of when they need words they don’t know, especially during an exchange of thoughts and ideas by spoken words (a.k.a. conversation).

The effectiveness of teaching students to use such “prêt-a-porter” questions as “How do you say ____ in English?” (and its variants) seems to be common knowledge. As teachers, we all want to maximize the use of English during classes so that the students become used to their new communication code: the English language. Care must be taken, however, to ensure that students don’t become addicted to this type of spoon-feeding technique. The more they progress to higher levels and become better users of the language, the less they should rely on their teachers as (one of) the main sources of acquiring knowledge (e.g. learning new words). Here comes the point where you have to draw the line between what’s really necessary and what’s not. It’s when you have to decide whether your students would really benefit from your intervention or if they would be better off on their own. During fluency activities, I usually tell my students to make do with what they have: I tell them explicitly not to stop the conversation to ask me how to say this or that word in English. Why do I do that? Wouldn’t the students be missing out on a great opportunity to learn a new word, one that they are likely to memorize there and then because they need it? Maybe. Maybe not.

Research seems to indicate that in order for students to acquire – in its broadest sense – a new lexical item, they have to review it/be exposed to it several times. Not to mention the fact that further aspects of the word such as meaning, form, use, collocation, connotation and appropriate contexts of use, to name a few, need to have been learned. This said, can we really expect our students to “learn” a new word during a fluency activity, when the message they are trying to communicate is very often more important than that very specific word they want to use?

Finding a way around a word (because you don’t know it or because you can’t remember it) is a legitimate strategy often used by native speakers of any given language. Think of a time when you’ve said something like, “Can you hand me that, you know, that whatchamacallit you need to remove staples from paper?” because you couldn’t think of the specific word. Naturally, using ‘staple remover’ would be a much more economical and faster way to get your message across to your interlocutor. However, if one thinks of the same situation happening during a fluency-focused conversation class, the students’ attempt to prevent communication breakdowns by explaining what they mean (as opposed to turning to the teacher and asking him/her to provide them with the word they need) seems to be a bit more sensible. Is this to say that the students should be left to their own devices every time they are engaged in fluency-oriented activities? Absolutely not.

During a webinar that I’ve recently attended, I had the chance and privilege to ask an ELT heavyweight to share her thoughts on the subject. It gave me immense joy to learn that her reflections and mine seem to be in tune with each other. Providing the students with the word(s) they need on the spur of the moment may in fact be a better choice if you sense there is no plausible substitute or paraphrase that would be as impacting in order to communicate, let’s say, a strong feeling the student is trying to convey (e.g. “answer with asperity). But then again, how do you decide what is more important? To let the students find their way around the word or to provide them with it? Owing to the very subjective nature of certain utterances, pinpointing the ‘right’ answer is barely doable. Throughout the years, however, classroom experience has taught me that making a compromise with students might do the trick. “Whenever” your students ask you how to say a certain word in English, try asking them, “Supposing I wasn’t here and no one else spoke or understood Portuguese. What do you think you could say in order to communicate what you want?”

Be patient. Don’t fear some initial silence. Invite more students to help if you find it appropriate. You will be surprised and feel rewarded by the student’s ability to find their way around the word(s) they had intended to use. Finally, reward your students:  Tell them they did a great job and present them with the word they had in mind. And bring them chocolates.



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Edmilson Chagas

Edmilson is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials designer. He has been involved with ELT for 32 years and and currently works for B.A. English School in Goiânia, where he teaches advanced levels and preparation courses for international exams. Former president of Braz-Tesol Goiânia Chapter, he is now a board member of Braz-Tesol Teacher Development SIG. His interests include reading, writing, translating and CrossFit.

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