Circumlocution and Vocabulary in Foreign Languages

Image property of: Defensive Cycling.

Speaking in a foreign language it comes to mind that there is always a bare minimum vocabulary necessary for effective communication.  With the accumulation of languages comes the ability to shortcut this procedure by asking more effective questions.  Why make language learning blunders again on your third language?

If I could start again I would try to work on this skill--along with another which is very helpful--called circumlocution:

a roundabout or indirect way of speaking; the use of more words than necessary to express an idea.
a roundabout expression. (

  While it might sound like something bad, circumlocution is a necessary evil when speaking a foreign language.  When you don't have the word do you simply not speak it?  Not an option.  You must improvise--this improvisation is called circumlocution.  In Spanish it's called verborrea, which I really like because it sounds like diarrhea, giving us an accurate, albeit disgusting, image (wordreference).

Anecdote: While visiting Chile for the first time, while my Spanish was still very bad, I talked with my Chilean house mother for nearly an hour trying to explain the word "the manner/way".  One misunderstanding led to another, and before we knew it there were sentences requiring recursion to determine the original word.  Simply put, I needed to define several terms in the sentence before I could ask the question I really wanted to ask.
I had to ask her with what I knew.  I knew how to say "the way", but it was more like "the path".  El camino.
I asked her using these sentences: "El camino en que se peina."  "El camino en que camina."
The way in which she (combs her hair/walks).

I told her it was a metaphorical extension, and after a few minutes she exclaimed: "LA MANERA!"  Sometimes the word we're looking for is not far off at all; we often already know it.  All I needed to do was to say: "The manner in which..." instead of  "The way in which..."  Sometimes it's not this easy, but we still need to know how to ask better questions.

In order for us to ask meaningful questions we often have to ask for parts of speech, but some general words are particularly helpful, such as:
  • Word
  • Verb
  • Place
  • Thing
  • How do you say _____?
  • How do you say ___ in ___ (language)?
  • If ____ then ____.
  • What is ______?

Of course there are a great many things that make communication more useful and effective, but I've found that words, such as these, often help the listener understand what it is we need to know, or the idea that I'm trying to communicate. 

Part of Speech.


  1. Hehehe "El camino en que se peina". I'd be a terrible teacher, but I saw what happened there. And yes, those are useful things to have down. I suppose when (and if) I start travelling, I'd use those to my advantage.

  2. recursion...see recursion.... :D

  3. Sounds just like me when I try and speak with my Grandmother in Cantonese.


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