Stephen Greene

Language Acquisition: Communication Strategies

Like father, like son

When I grow up, I want to be just like my dad. Pascal CC-BY-2.0

It is a source of pride when a child takes after his or her parents.  The little boy who wants to be a teacher like his mother, or the little girl who develops a laugh just like her father.

Of course, it can also work the other way as well, so the little boy can also pick up the colourful language of his mother or the girl can learn how to burp just like her dad.  In these situations, perhaps it isn’t so much a source of pride as shame and regret while also opening a little window into the parent’s own behaviour.

In my case, it isn’t a pride or regret, more like amazement when I see some of the stages my 3-year-old son is going through as he learns to speak English and Portuguese.  Most recently, I have been intrigued at how he is employing exactly the same communication strategies to get his meaning across in his limited language as I do in my limited Portuguese.

Small But Mighty

Mighty Mouse

Mighty Mouse is here to save the day – Wikipedia

I don’t have the widest vocabulary in Portuguese, but what I have got I am able to make go a long way.  It may not be all that precise and definitely lacks in sophistication, but I am successful in getting my meaning across without too many blunders along the way.

My son also has a limited vocabulary, even more limited than mine at the moment.  But this doesn’t stop him from talking all the time and, despite one or two confusions and frustrations along the way, he seems to be able to communicate what he wants, especially to a sympathetic and patient listener.

Intonation is king

Of course vocabulary isn’t the only way to get your meaning across.  Whenever I go to a workshop on intonation there is invariable a point in the session where somebody mentions how ‘intonation is responsible for x% of communication’.  The x% can be anything from 10% to 75%, but whatever the actual figure, if there is one, it is clear that we can convey a lot of meaning just through intonation.  As a speaker of a second language I have learned to use my intonation to convey meaning when I don’t necessarily have the right words.

My son learnt this very early on as he is able to communicate very subtle differences in meaning while only saying ‘uhu’.  He can use it to agree, disagree, pretend he is agreeing so that he can keep playing with Batman and I might go away, show that he is extremely happy with something or that he thinks the blue lollipop I have in my hand is the best thing he has ever seen in his life.

Ignore Grammar

When it comes to making grammatical mistakes in Portuguese I don’t really mind.  Obviously, I would prefer not to make any mistakes at all, but given a choice between using the wrong conjugation or the wrong word, I’ll take the wrong conjugation every time.  At 3, my son is too young to even realise there is a thing such as conjugations, but he takes a similar view to me and so regularly comes out with phrases such as ‘Eu vai pegar malvados’, ‘Ele achei Lanterna Verde’ and ‘Você gosto do Superman daddy?’  But once again, we both succeed in communicating.

The good news for my son is that he is only 3 so has plenty of time to learn both Portuguese and English well enough so that he won’t need to use these communication strategies quite so much.  For me, on the other hand, I fear I am destined to use them for a long time to come.

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Stephen Greene

Stephen is a freelance teacher, trainer and editor. He has been teaching for over 20 years all around the world, but has been living and working in Curitiba, Brazil for the last 6 years. He writes self-indulging articles about all things associated with languages at

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