Connotation vs Denotation in Second Language Learners Conversation

Many language speakers attempt to learn a language by relying on grammar books that utilize isolated context. The problem with this method lies in the fact that language lives and breaths and right doesn’t make you any friends. English speakers possess the ability to communicate with people throughout the world. I didn’t really understand how many people in the world want to speak English and need to speak English in order to be promoted in their careers. I have been certified to teach English as a Foreign Language for almost 10 years. I have worked with English language learners for over 25 years. Yet it is difficult to imagine that so many people in the world want to learn English when so many people in the United States cannot see the value of communicating well in English through oral and written communication. English is one of the most unpopular classes in secondary school in the United States. Yet communicating clearly in English is perhaps one of the most valuable skills one can possess.

Communicating clearly relies on more than mere vocabulary. Emotional intent conveys a meaning and implication in regard to the relationship between speakers. Words may be grammatically innocent yet pregnant with ill intention.   Dictionaries cannot teach you the nuances of a word. They cannot teach you the settings in which certain phrases may be perceived as sarcastic.

Connotation and Denotation are two principal methods of describing the meanings of words. Connotation refers to the positive and negative associations that most words naturally carry with them. Denotation refers to the precise, literal definition of a word that might be found in a dictionary. Words have both denotations (literal meanings) and connotations (suggestive meanings). Denotation clearly states what you mean literally. Connotation alludes to another meaning, something that might be initially hidden. The connotative meaning of a word is based on implication, or shared emotional association with a word.

I don’t use slang in other languages. I don’t use colloquialism if I can avoid them because I really don’t know any other language or culture well enough to become that familiar with words. The connotation of words often leads to hurt feelings and misunderstandings between native speakers and those learning another language. Conversational skills acquired in a structured setting with a native speaker or someone proficient with the culture can help alleviate some of the problems with connotation vs. denotation.

Once I lived and worked in Mexico and communicated primarily in Spanish. One of the students wanted to communicate as much as possible in English. My apartment was vandalized on one occasion and my vehicle license plate was stolen on another. Both incidents frightened me.  It really devastated me because I realized that my safety and rights in another country were not the same as in my own. The student responded to my concern by saying “too bad”. I knew that she was translating a phrase, which meant sorry or too bad in Spanish. At that moment her comment sounded cold and callous as if she enjoyed my misfortune or at the very least had no sympathy for my dilemma.

Even though I knew that it was a language issue, I refused to talk about anything emotionally significant with this person again, because I realized that she didn’t have the linguistic skills to respond in a way that would be emotionally supportive. Thus her lack of understanding of the denotation vs. connotation of words restricted our friendship. I have felt this hesitation with other second language learners as well. I don’t want to be burdened by someone’s linguistic incompetence when I am personally experiencing difficulty.

Language meaning continually shifts is always contextual, and influenced by historical, cultural, and economic factors.  When one does not understand the historical, cultural and economic factors, friendships may be aborted or stunted. I notice the use of “anyways” and “whatever” in my groups. Anyways implies that the response made by the other speaker in the conversation is irrelevant. Whatever implies that the comments responses by the speaker annoy or aggravate the listener. These two words used by American teenagers to mean, “leave me alone” “no one is listening to you” are not words to be randomly interspersed into a conversation with someone you are attempting to befriend.

Knowing the difference between denotation and connotation leads to understanding definitions and how concepts are used. These terms can be used in two different ways: grammatical and logical which makes establishing a relationship on a personal or business level problematic and can lead to ridicule.  Both uses are worth keeping in mind and both uses are relevant to project logical, critical thinking. In grammar, a word’s denotation is whatever the word directly refers to, roughly equivalent to its lexical definition. Thus, the truth is that we don’t say what we really mean in a polite society most of the time. We infer meanings from words.

Separating grammatical denotation from connotation becomes significant because one might assume that a word’s denotation is fully intended, whether a word’s connotations tend to be difficult to determine. Connotation, emotional in nature, tends to be used to sway person’s emotional reactions rather than the logical evaluation of an argument.

If there are misunderstandings about how a person is using a word in a particular conversation, the source of that misunderstanding might lie in the word’s connotations.

People might be seeing something not intended or the speaker may be intending something people don’t see. I overlook a lot when communicating with English learners. I give them the benefit of the doubt and consider conflicts as language issues. If I speak the other person’s language, I will switch to their language and check my interpretation before responding. I take responsibility for the relationship because I am the native speaker.

In conversations with native speakers, look at what your words denote, and also what they connote. When learning a language, participate in a structured conversation class to learn how to avoid misunderstandings and miscommunication. You might make a lot more friends if you understand connotation and denotation of words.



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4 responses to “Connotation vs Denotation in Second Language Learners Conversation

  1. Another great post, Darleana. I find this topic extremely interesting and, in a way, I connect it to another typical problem among learners: pronunciation and intonation. Native speakers are willing to “forgive” the first but the second also sways emotional responses and it´s more difficult to rationalize.

  2. Excellent post! For me it brought up the problems I see with written word as well. The meaning of each word and phrase can be interpreted in different ways so it makes it even harder to write than it is to speak. Slang, sarcasm, and jokes are hard to convey without speak.

    So yes, it is very important when learning to speak a language to understand everything you mentioned because communication even at it’s basic level can be difficult.

  3. Sylvia Guinan

    I feel that these nuances in language are what make teaching and learning worthwhile – language is not just a tool; it’s a humanistic device to bring into play intuition, empathy, and smooth the wheels of social dynamics.

    Teachers could do great things by adding essences of role play, acting, drama, emotional intelligence and NLP into their lesson plans.

  4. this did not help me at all

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