I read a scholarly article (that I have since misplaced in my digital hoard) that highlighted that native Spanish speakers employ the use of circumlocution because of the linguistic variety and different dialects.  As I thought about this, I realized that I also utilize circumlocution frequently (in both languages that I speak).  I decided to implement this process (baby steps) in my classroom.  I started it a few years ago with my Spanish 2s.  Last year, I simplified it to teach it to my Spanish 1s.  At this point, all of my students know how to describe something, even if they don’t know the proper word.  

I introduce this concept with my students by introducing it in Spanish.  In the parenthesis you will find the translation into English.

Circunlocución: Cómo hablar de temas que no sabes (Circumlocution: How to talk about themes that you don’t know)

We get started by breaking things down into 3 categories (you can break it down further, I just start with the 3 to ease them in).

  • ¿Qué es?  ¿Cómo es?  ¿Quién es? (What is it?  What’s it like?  Who is it?)

  • Es una cosa que es / tiene… (It is a thing that is / has)
  • Es una persona quien es / tiene… (It is a person who is / has)
  • Es un lugar donde tiene ... (It is a place that has)

  • Por ejemplo: Es una persona quien es muy grande.  Él es verde.  No es amigo de Thor.  Él le pone enojado fácilmente.  ¿Quién es?  (For example: It is a person who is very large.  He is green.  He isn’t a friend of Thor.  He gets angry very easily.  Who is it?)

  • Es Hulk (It’s Hulk)

Once we get the hang of that, we are able to expand upon other concepts.

Here is the generic handout that I provide for my students:

  • Es una cosa que… – It is a thing that …
  • Es una persona que… – It is a person that …
  • Es el opuesto de …. – It is the opposite of …
  • Es la acción de… – It is the action of ….
  • Es lo que haces/comes/dices/usas … – It is what you do/eat/say/use ….
  • Es una comida… – It is a food that ….
  • Es un lugar donde… – It is a place that ….
  • Es como … – It is like …
  • Es algo/alguien que … – It is something / somebody that …
  • Tiene – has
  • Necesita – needs
  • Puede ser – can be

(Adapted from here: http://profehanson.weebly.com/uploads/1/7/9/9/1799974/circumlocution_level_2_examples.pdf)

An example of a more advanced circumlocution:

  • Puede ser roja, verde, amarilla, y/o rosa.  Es un tipo de fruta.  También puede ser un tipo de jugo.  Es deliciosa con caramelos o con crema de cacahuate. ¿Qué es? (It can be red, green, yellow and/or pink.  It is a type of fruit.  Also, it can be a type of juice.  It is delicious with caramel or with peanut butter.  What is it?)

  • Es una manzana. (It’s an apple.))

Eventually, we are ready to play the “Juego de Tarjetas” of “Game of Cards.”  The card game is when each student receives an index card.  They think of a person, place or thing (IN SECRET).  They then have to describe that concept on the index card, using the phrases and circumlocution phrases.  They do have to say what they are describing on their card (as well as their name for credit).  Once we are all ready, they read their clues to another student (or have it memorized and can recite it to a classmate), the other student has 1 chance to guess the concept.  If they guess correctly, they then get the card.  If they guess incorrectly, they carry on to another opponent.  The entire object of the game is to end up with the most cards.  If you have the most cards, you get an awesome price (usually in the form candy or stickers).  This game gets intense.  The competition gets cutthroat.  I will suggest that as a teacher, you need to have a few extra cards that you made yourself (or recycle from other classes). This is for the students who lost their cards, or the students who struggle.

I know that this activity is “staged” and wouldn’t be considered authentic.  However, I feel as though the skill of circumlocution far exceeds this.  My hope that if/when my students do find themselves in an authentic situation and aren’t able to explicitly state the word, they can work their way around it and still converse.  Additionally, I know it is how you bridge the gap between a novice learner and an intermediate learner. You have to start somewhere, right?

*Quick side note, I do allow my students to use WordReference (either the app or wordreference.com).  I have scarred them for life as to what Google Translate can do with this video: Fresh Prince: Google Translated by cdzaTherefore, I would rather them look up a word and use the infinitive than using Google Translate.  

What do you do to help bridge the gap between novice learners and intermediate learners?

Jaime Basham is a high school Spanish teacher who enthusiastically incorporates humor and authentic realia in her classes.…