Wanted: techniques to overcome language barriers

Posted by Athena Parthenos

Having spent a lot of time abroad for both studying and working reasons, I have always been fascinated by how communication in a foreign language works. I have often noticed the difficulty caused not only by a poor command of the language, but also by a lack of awareness of the dynamics related to language use. Therefore I started to pay attention to how people coming from different countries and cultural backgrounds manage to hold a conversation in a foreign language such as English, which is often used as a lingua franca. My main interest was to find out how and if people normally manage to bypass communication problems when speaking in a language other than their mother tongue.


I soon found out that people (often without being aware of it) make use of communication strategies. This simply means that people try to find ways to overcome communication breakdowns. One strategy people adopt is transfer from the native language: the speaker may transfer a sound from its native language to the target one or make use of a native language rule which does not apply to the target language.

A second communication strategy is that of overelaboration; in this case the learner, in an attempt to produce precise expressions, actually employs an inadequate vocabulary. This strategy therefore implies a lack of awareness of the context from the learner’s side, who employs forms which would normally be deprecated in casual speech, such as full forms rather than contracted ones.

With the topic avoidance the learner decides to avoid dealing with topics which would require the use of forms or patterns he is not able to use properly. For example, a speaker may avoid a discussion about what happened the previous day since this would imply the use of the past tense or avoid discussions about technical topics since they would call for the use of a specific vocabulary.

The strategy called appeal to authority is used when the learner asks for the correctness of a form, when he asks someone to supply a lexical item or decides to check it, for example looking it up in a dictionary.

Another type of avoidance strategy is the message abandonment. In this case the speaker, not being able to complete his message, may therefore stop in the middle of a sentence leaving it unfinished due to difficulties with a target language form.

Another kind of avoidance strategy is the language switch. Here the learner takes an untranslated native word or expression from his native language and makes use of it within an interlanguage utterance.

The last type of communication strategies are non-linguistic strategies. In face-to-face communication, speakers have the possibility to resort to strategies such as mime or gesture.

However, when applied to real-life cases, such communication strategies tend to show limitations. The latter are due to the fact that providing a framework which is able to encompass every single aspect of speech is a difficult task.

It is important to point out that these strategies should not be considered as plain “mistakes” or even as incorrect speech. It is quite interesting to note how speakers, in an effort to fill gaps in their knowledge of the foreign language, follow some universal patterns in order to achieve what is everybody’s primary objective when speaking: a successful communication with other people.

author: Laura Delia, translator at Athena Parthenos srl

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