6 junio, 2024

Semantic barriers in communication: what they are, characteristics, examples

What are semantic barriers in communication?

The semantic barriers in communication They are, in general terms, obstacles that distort the spread of a message, hindering or preventing its effective understanding. Usually, these occur when, in a communicative exchange, the sender and the receiver handle different meanings for the same sign, word or expression.

The causes of this phenomenon are related to various linguistic processes and cultural differences. For example, there are words that are pronounced in the same way (homophones) and that can cause some kind of semantic barriers in communication. Such is the case of the words bello (beautiful) and vello (body hair).

Regarding cultural differences, even when it is the same language, there may be differences regarding the use of different signs, terms, phrases or expressions.

Spanish, to name a case, is the official language of 21 countries, each with its dialectal differences. Even within each nation there are regional variants.

For example, Mexican Spanish has more than 120 million users throughout the country. Its variants are defined by sociocultural practices and by geographical area.

Among them are the western north, the peninsular north, the lowlands and the central. It is not surprising that in many cases there are semantic barriers in communication.

Characteristics of semantic barriers

The main characteristic of semantic barriers in communication is that they are the product of differences in the handling of the linguistic code between the participants in a communicative exchange. These differences result in a misinterpretation of the message that is intended to be communicated.

Generally, communication takes place mainly through words, whether spoken or written. However, the words are polysemous; that is, they are capable of carrying a variety of meanings. Thus, if the receiver of the message does not assign the same meaning to a word as the sender, there will be communication failures.

In these cases, the context plays a crucial role in determining what meaning should be assigned to a particular word. However, due to different social, economic, cultural and educational backgrounds, people may also interpret the context differently.

On the other hand, linguistic codes, like society, are constantly evolving. Each temporal or geographical variation introduces a possibility of the appearance of semantic barriers in communication.

In addition, another characteristic of this type of barrier is that it occurs more frequently in the field of verbal language, and can occur between people of a different nationality, a different age group, or even a different gender.

Examples of semantic barriers

Use of colloquial language

The word colloquialism comes from the Latin colloquium, which means «conference» or «conversation.» In linguistics, colloquialism refers to the use of expressions typical of informal or everyday language. These are generally geographical in nature, as a colloquial expression often belongs to a regional or local dialect.

Thus, native speakers of a language within the same geographic area understand and use colloquialisms without realizing it, while non-native speakers may find colloquial expressions difficult to understand. This is because many colloquialisms are not literal uses of words, but idioms or metaphorical expressions.

For example, in Argentina and Chile the colloquial expression “hincha pelotas” is frequently used. It is used as a qualifying adjective to describe a person who is constantly annoying others.

Use of technical terms

In these cases, the semantic barriers in communication are presented by the use of a specific terminology of a professional area or trade. The main difference between technical language and everyday language is the use of jargon: words or expressions used by one profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.

Thus, if someone talks about “midrash in the Talmud Bavli”, the only ones who are likely to understand are Jews who know a little about the interpretation of the holy texts in Hebrew.

Different names for the same object

It is common to find the case of the same object having different names in several countries, even when they share the same language. This is the case, for example, of the american persea. In Spanish, this fruit is called avocado, avocado, aguaco, ahuaca or pagua, depending on the geographical area.

However, the phenomenon is not exclusive to the Spanish language. The British and American variants of English can be mentioned as an example. The words flat-apartment (apartment), lorry-truck (truck) and biscuit-cookie (biscuit) illustrate some of these differences.

significant age differences

Languages ​​are constantly evolving. Semantic barriers in communication arise when the parties in the communication process belong to ostensibly distant generations.

For this reason, among many other cases, the original version of one of the literary jewels of Spanish, Don QuixoteIt is quite difficult to understand. The following snippet is proof of this:

… «the rest of her concluded a tunic to veil you, fleece leggings for the holidays with their slippers of the same, the days between she honored herself with her finest fleece» (Miguel de Cervantes, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quijote of La Mancha1615).

Different levels of education or training

This type of semantic barriers in communication occurs frequently in the technical area. In these cases, professionals from the same area, but with different levels of education or training, handle knowledge and terminology differently.

In this way, communication failures can occur even if the interlocutors belong to the same workplace. Among other cases, we can mention the barriers that can arise between a civil engineer and a bricklayer. Chances are they don’t share exactly the same terminology.

Use of multiple meaning words (polysemy)

In these cases, confusion occurs when these words are used without accompanying them with the necessary semantic context to acquire the desired meaning.

For example, the words point, line, and band can have different meanings depending on the context in which they are used.


Communication Theory. (2011, May 04). Semantic Barriers. Taken from communicationtheory.org.
Businesstopia. (s/f). Semantic Barriers of Communication. Taken from businesstopia.net.
Chepkemo, J. (2017, August 1). Countries Where Spanish is an Official Language. Taken from worldatlas.com.
González Zunini, M. (s/f). homophony. Taken from anep.edu.uy.
Smoke, CH (2005). Company Officer. New York: Cengage Learning.

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