What’s circumlocution? Why is important? How can I teach it?

Vladimir was a great student I knew in Russia. Vladimir had terrible grammar (“For me very to like football.”) Vladimir knew maybe (but probably not) 500 words of English. Why was Vladimir a great student? Because Vladimir had great circumlocution skills and that was all he needed.

Circumlocution skills allow a student to find a way to speak despite missing important vocabulary or grammar. Vladimir, when asked what he’d done yesterday evening, replied “I went…big box of water.” Swimming. Got it. “You went swimming?” “Yes, I went swimming.”

Vladimir has a shaky foundation of English, and he won’t be able to express his views on the downfall of the Communist state unless he expands his grammar and vocabulary, but Vladimir can do more with what he has than a lot of students who do have better grammar and vocabulary.

In short, circumlocution lets students get the most out of what they already know.

One other note: Sometimes, you’ll have lessons that are primarily about speaking. The students don’t want to do homework (maybe they’re too busy). Circumlocution is an excellent thing to work on. It might be the only thing worth working on.

Twelve Ways to Teach Circumlocution

First and foremost If students are practicing circumlocution, they need to stop using translating dictionaries during a speaking exercise. The whole point is to get by with what you already have.

Guess the Word Put words that you’ve previously studied on slips of paper and then into a hat. Divide the class into teams. Students should pull slips from the hat and try to get their team members to guess the words. They can do anything short of actually saying the words.

Draw the Word One student should describe a picture and the other student should draw it.

How do you do that? There are some things that we’re all familiar with, but which are really hard to explain in a foreign language. How do you change a light bulb? How do you make eggs? How do you unclog a toilet? These can be essential skills, so they’re even better to practice.

How’s that work? Everyone is familiar with some pretty complex things. See if you can get any of your students to explain stuff like “how does a car engine work?” or “why is the sky blue?” or some other such questions. They’ll have real trouble, but eventually they’ll get there.

Create a Dictionary This is a good long-term project, but the more time students spend writing definitions, the better their circumlocution skills will be.

Favorite Songs Someone once said that writing about music is like dancing about art. They meant it’s really hard to do well. So, why not have your students try this impossible task? They’ll be grasping for words and circumlocuting like mad.

High-Low Pairs Rather than letting your students work with a partner of a similar level, put them with someone who is very far from their level. Give them a set of questions they have to ask. Then, make them report on each other. The high level student will have had to speak more simply for the low-level student to understand. The low level student will have to use circumlocution to report on their partner.

Guess the Movie Have students describe well known movies until their partner guesses the movie.

Hidden Object Bring in a bunch of objects on a theme (kitchen, sports, etc.). Have one student hold the object where the other students can’t see it. They should describe the object until the other students guess what it is.

First Say This Ask the students simple questions like “what’s your favorite color”. They should answer, but the first thing they say should be a line you hand them like “My mother makes the best cookies” or “I’ve never been to Paris”. They should go from the line you hand them to the answer to the question.

Keep It Going Create two characters and put them in a situation. (e.g. a divorced doctor and a hungry businessman are at the zoo). In front of the class, have two students talk to each other as the two characters. After two minutes, two other students should replace them. Repeat it many times.

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