3.4 Communication strategies

Whilst it is useful for students to concentrate on a core of key language for any given topic, it is impossible to predict all the linguistic elements they might meet when reading and listening to authentic French, or which they themselves might need to use.

For this reason, the student will need to develop communication strategies as part of the teaching and learning process, which will greatly increase their ability to cope successfully with unknown words.

There are two main types of strategy: those that relate to understanding (reading and listening) and those that relate to production (speaking and writing).

Strategies for understanding

Ignoring words which are not needed

Many tasks contain words which are not essential for an understanding of the main points of the text. What is important in the text is often presented more than once, in different ways: the student may not understand a point in one form of words and understand it fully in another.

Using the visual and verbal context

The skilled reader can find many clues about the purpose and content of a text from a study of the layout, the title, the length, the typeface and any related pictures.

When reading and listening, students can learn to infer the meaning of new words from the verbal context. For example, someone who did not know the word chêne might be able, after some appropriate practice, to deduce from the following context that it is some sort of tree: Il s'est assis sous un chêne: dans ses branches, un oiseau chantait.

Making use of grammatical markers and categories

Students will be helped to master all these strategies if, when reading and listening, they learn to use such clues as the plural forms of nouns and verbs, the way verbs change to form tenses, word order and other such features to help them recognise to which category (verb, noun, adjective etc) an unknown word belongs. This can be a considerable help in making intelligent guesses about the meaning of the word.

Making use of the social and cultural context

Another aid to the drawing of correct inferences is for the students to bear in mind that there are regularities in the real world which make it possible to anticipate what people may say or write about it. The ability to predict occurrences in the real world makes it possible to anticipate words, and their meaning, in a given context. This is one reason why it is important for a French course to develop awareness and understanding of countries and communities where French is spoken.

Using common patterns with French

Knowledge of the following patterns of word formation in French can help to understand a text.

  • re prefix (eg commencerrecommencer; fairerefaire)
  • the eur ending applied to verbs (eg employeremployeur) and applied to adjectives (eg grand, grandeur, etc)
  • ette ending (eg maisonmaisonette; tartetartelette; camioncamionette)
  • able ending (eg laverlavable; mangermangeable)
  • aine ending (eg quinzequinzaine; centcentaine; douzedouzaine)
  • ending (eg bonbonté; beaubeauté)
  • ier ending (eg épicerieépicier; policepolicier; fermefermier)
  • in prefix (eg actifinactif; connuinconnu; cassableincassable)
  • ion and ation endings (eg réparerréparation; inventerinvention).

Using cognates and near-cognates

A few 'false friends' (eg expérimenté, sensible, large) make it necessary to use this strategy with care and in collaboration with the strategy of using the visual and verbal context above. However, for each 'false friend' there are very many 'good friends' of which anglophone learners of French can make good use. These fall into two main categories: cognates and near-cognates.


There are many words which have the same form and essentially the same meaning in French and in English (eg innocent, justice, muscle, rectangle). When such words occur in context, students can be expected to understand them in English and French.


Students will be expected to understand words which meet the criteria above but which differ slightly in their written form in French, usually by the addition of one or more accents and/or the repetition of a letter (eg création, hygiène, mâle, littérature).

Using common patterns between French and English

There are thousands of words in French which, although not having exactly the same form as the English word, can easily be understood with the application of a few, simple rules. When words which can be understood using the rules below occur in context, students will be expected to understand them.



The French word adds an 'e'

branche, liquide, signe, vaste

The English word adds an 'e'

futur, masculin, paradis, pur

Words which end with 'e' or 'é' in French and with 'y' in English

beauté, liberté, mystère, armée

Words which end with 'i' or 'ie' in French and with 'y' in English

économie, parti, tragédie

Words which end with aire in French and with 'ar' or 'ary' in English

grammaire, militaire, populaire

Words which end with el in French and with al in English

individuel, officiel

French adverbs ending with ment which end with 'ly' in English

complètement, généralement, spécialement

Verbs which add 'r' or 'er' in the infinitive in French

admirer, confirmer, inspecter

Verbs which end with er in French and with 'ate' in English

assassiner, cultiver, décorer

Words where 'o' or 'u' in English is replaced by ou in French

approuver, gouvernement, mouvement, bouddhiste

Words where a 'd' is added in English

aventure, avance, juge

Present participles ending in ant in French and 'ing' in English

dégoûtant, commençant, nageant

Students will be expected to understand such present participles where the infinitive of the verb is a listed word

Words which end with e or eux in French and with 'ous' in English

énorme, précieux, religieux

Words which end with que in French and with 'c', 'ck', 'ch', 'k', or 'cal' in English

automatique, attaque, physique, risque

Words which end with f in French and with 've' in English

actif, adjectif, possessif

Words which end with eur in French and with 'our', 'or', or 'er' in English

boxeur, empereur, vigueur

Words which end with e or re in French and with 'er' in English

ministre, ordre, interprète

Words which end with e in French and 'a' in English

drame, propagande

Words where 'u' in English is replaced by o in French

fonction, prononciation

Words where 'oun' in English is replaced by on in French

annoncer, prononcer

Words which have a circumflex accent in French and an 's' in English

forêt, honnête, intérêt, tempête

Words where in French is replaced by 'dis' in English

décourager, dégoûter

Words where é or es in French is replaced by 's' in English

espace, éponge

Strategies such as those outlined above will generally be more easily applied in reading than in listening, as reading offers more opportunities to slow down, look at unknown items at leisure and study the context. Words which look the same in two languages may sound quite different.

Also, in French, there are many sound features which are not word-based (eg elision; whether or not 'e' is sounded; stress; intonation) and so make the application of some of the strategies for understanding unknown words more difficult. In particular, it must be remembered that grammatical markers in the spoken language are often quite different from those in the written one. The most obvious are the plural forms:

  • nouns and adjectives frequently have no plural forms: plurality is shown by a change in the pronunciation of the article or some other related word:

    le grand pontles grands ponts;

  • Verbs either have no plural form at all:

    il donne/ils donnent: il chantait/ils chantaient

  • or add a consonant:

    il vend/ils vendent: il finit/ils finissent.

To hear accurately, students should have the specific differences of the spoken language brought to their attention. However some of the general strategies for understanding listed above can be used successfully in listening. For example:

  • ignoring words which are not needed for a successful completion of the task set
  • using the (visual and) verbal context
  • making use of the social and cultural context
  • using common patterns within French.

In addition, the following strategies are included for listening and understanding (in place of reading the above strategies regarding cognates and common patterns between French and English).


Strictly speaking there are no French words which sound exactly like their English equivalents. There are a few near-cognates which are relatively easily recognised. They are often words imported from other languages eg whisky, ski.

Some words which in reading cause no problem can be unrecognisable in speech. For example, spécialisation has seven distinct syllables in French and five in English, it has five specific pronunciation differences in French and a complete change of stress pattern.

However, provided that certain relationships between sound patterns in French and English are recognised, then French words with a clearly 'different' pronunciation in English can be understood. Examples of patterns where a communicative strategy can be applied include the following:

  • the sound [i] will always involve a French i, which in English may be a diphthong eg pipe, mine
  • the sound [a] will always involve a French a which in English may be a diphthong eg nation
  • the termination [œr] is always eur which may be English -or or -er eg acteur
  • the termination [siɔ] is always -tion or -sion and therefore English [Ÿen], eg nation, passion
  • the termination [if] in French is -if and in English is often "-ive" eg actif
  • the termination [ik] in French is -ique and ic and in English is often "-ic" or "-ical" eg physique
  • the initial [Ÿ] is usually the English ch eg chapelle, charme.
  • the termination [mα˜] which can be added to many of the adjectives in the lists to form the adverb eg complètement
  • the termination [α˜] which can be added to the stem of listed verbs to give the present participle eg mangeant, gémissant.

Strategies for production

Research and experience show that people who communicate effectively in a foreign language tend to make good use of systematic efficient verbal and non-verbal strategies to get meaning across, in spite of their imperfect command of the language.

Individual students may fail to learn – or forget – language items required by some tests, or they may wish to attempt to go beyond the demands of the specification in completing the task set. In these circumstances, the following strategies can prove useful. They fall into two main categories: non-verbal and verbal.

Non-verbal strategies

Pointing and demonstration

This may be accompanied by some appropriate language (eg "Comme ça…" "Qu'est-ce que c'est ?" "Ça fait mal ici").

Expression and gesture

This may be accompanied, where appropriate, with sounds (eg "Oh !" which, with appropriate intonation, facial expression and gestures, can convey such attitudes and functions as pain, surprise, anger, fear, pleasure and admiration).


This can be accompanied by appropriate sounds and language and can sometimes help communication to be maintained when it might otherwise break down (eg "Je peux vous aider ?" with a suitable mime if one has forgotten the words such as "balayer" and "essuyer"). This strategy has obvious limitations in a speaking test which is recorded and assessed on the basis of the recording.


This can be an efficient strategy with some tasks (especially written) and can convey both attitude and information (eg a diagram showing how to get from one point, such as a station, to another, for instance a home).

Verbal strategies

Using a word which refers to a similar item

Using a word which refers to a similar item to the one the speaker/writer wishes to refer to, but for which he/she has forgotten the word (eg montre for horloge, tasse for verre, fleur for rose or prêter for louer). This is not always effective and its use would be assessed according to its effectiveness in a particular context.

Description of physical properties

This can be used to refer to something when the name has been forgotten (eg "c'est rond... le fruit jaune... l'objet qu'on voit sur la table..."). The physical properties refer to colour, size, material, position and shape. The use of this strategy in an exam would be assessed according to its communicative effectiveness.

Requests for help

These can include requests for rewording (eg "Comment dit-on 'chair' en français…?" "Qu'est-ce que cela veut dire en anglais ?") and questions; which make no reference to English (eg "Comment s'appelle cette machine-là ?"…"Ça s'écrit comment ?"). It is clearly preferable to use such requests for help than for communication to collapse and their use will be assessed according to the context. When requests for help with specific problems occur, the teacher should maintain the role of a sympathetic native speaker and help accordingly. The teacher should avoid taking over from the student and carrying out the tasks set.


This is when a student avoids the use of a form of which he/she is unsure (eg "il faut que je m'en aille"…"je viendrai s'il fait beau") by using a form he/she finds simpler (eg "je dois partir"…"je viens s'il fait beau"). When such simple forms are used correctly and appropriately they will be rewarded accordingly. Correct and appropriate use of more complex forms will also be rewarded.

A systematic use of simplified forms may reduce error, facilitate communication and increase fluency but, if overused, this strategy may result in students failing to make full use of their capabilities.


This is where the student uses words and messages in acceptable French, avoiding the use of words which he/she has forgotten (eg "Elle n'est pas mariée" for "Elle est célibataire", "C'est comme un…" "C'est le contraire de…" "C'est une sorte de…" "Je voudrais une tranche de cette viande-là"). When used well, this strategy communicates the message effectively to a sympathetic native speaker and such use in an exam would be assessed accordingly.

Reference to specific features

Reference to specific features (eg "L'animal aux longues oreilles…" "La jeune fille qui porte des lunettes…") is often quite effective and its use would be assessed accordingly in an exam.

Reference to the function of an object

Reference to the function of an object and the actions that can be performed with it (eg "L'objet qu'on utilise pour ouvrir une bouteille") is a commonly used strategy which is usually effective in communicative terms.

Word coinage

Another strategy sometimes used by language learners is word coinage, the creation of words based either on English or French words. This strategy usually produces words which do not exist in French or, if they do exist, have a different meaning from the one intended. The use of this strategy is rarely effective in promoting communication and students would be well advised to use it only if all other strategies fail.

Topic avoidance

Another commonly used strategy is topic avoidance, when the student avoids or abandons a topic because of inability to deal with it. Use of this strategy in the exam will not allow the student to be given full credit. Use of it in a learning situation will reduce opportunities for the development or expansion of the student's repertoire. It is a strategy which should be discouraged. A basic condition for communication strategies to have a potential learning effect is that they are governed by achievement, rather than avoidance behaviour.

Evidence suggests that the availability of a range of strategies such as those outlined above, and flexibility in their use, represent an important advantage in overall communicative effectiveness. It also appears that the most effective strategies demand some linguistic proficiency and that the more proficient speakers are also better at using communication strategies effectively.

The development of such strategies cannot be seen as encouragement not to develop linguistic knowledge. Strategic competence is not a substitute for vocabulary learning, but a useful supplement. All language users make use of communication strategies, even in their first language, and really successful strategies usually pass unnoticed. It is an important part of the teaching and learning process.