Overview on Referential Communication

Referential Communication

Referential communication occurs when two speakers exchange information. A speaker refers to entities (things and people) and their location or movement, by naming or describing them clearly so that a listener can identify them (which one?), their locations (where?) and movements (what did they do?) (Yule 1996, 1997). Acts of reference are evaluated in terms of their communicative effectiveness, not their grammatical accuracy: is the speaker successful in referring the listener to the intended entity or action?  Certain linguistic forms in every language are useful as tools that enable speakers to refer to entities and actions clearly.

Header Image In English for example, if you want to look more closely at one of the toy cars to the left, and the salesperson asks 'which one?' you can refer precisely to the one you want by using linguistic devices that help make acts of reference effective. In English, these devices include:

  • names (the Corvette)
  • noun modifiers, like adjectives (the light green car)
  • prepositional phrases (the car in the upper right-hand corner)
  • relative clauses (the car that you just put on the shelf).

Old and New Information

In effective referential communication in all languages, the speaker indicates to the listener whether what is being referred to is given (or old) information—information the speaker assumes the listener already knows—or new information, something the speaker assumes the listener does not already know.

Communication Strategies

It is common for learners of a language to have difficulty with referential communication. For example, they may not know the words for a great many things they want to refer to. But their lack of exact words doesn't have to shut down communication. Communication strategies (Tarone & Yule 1989) rely on the fact that there are multiple ways to say the same thing; in other words, they offer communicative flexibility. For example, if you don't know the word for 'convertible'' in English, you can try communication strategies like: 'a vehicle', 'a car with a folding roof,' 'a buggy-car,' 'a car that opens to let the wind blow in,' 'a car with no head' -- and of course gestures help with any of these.

There are names in the SLA literature for different types of communication strategies:

Circumlocution: describing an entity in terms of its elements, function or purpose (e.g., a 'crutch' is 'something you lean on when your leg is broken')
Word coinage: making up a word (e.g., 'airball' when you don't know the word 'balloon')
Approximation: using a word that is generally equivalent to the desired word (e.g., 'stick' instead of 'crutch')
Literal translation: translating word for word from the native language (e.g. 'a removable head car' from 'decappottabile' in Italian)
Appeal for assistance: asking for or looking up the word or phrase

If we can give learners opportunities to use such communication strategies, we can support their creativity and improvisational skill in using the language forms they know, engaging others in conversations that provide them with additional input and maybe even corrective feedback to fuel the acquisition process.

Learning More

For more on referential communication, read Yule (1996, 1997), and for more on communication strategies, read Tarone & Yule 1989.

Multimedia Activities focused on Referential Communication


Graphic used with Creative Commons permission, from: 

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