Home Advice Navigating the Conversation: What to Do When Your Vocabulary Stops Short

Navigating the Conversation: What to Do When Your Vocabulary Stops Short

by Marisa Serrano

It’s a familiar scene for a language learner: You’re in the middle of a great conversation with a native speaker and then suddenly you find yourself stuck. 

Sometimes it’s that you know exactly what you’d like to say, but don’t have the words for it yet in your new language. Other times you’ve asked a question and don’t understand the response. 

As you’re learning a new language and practicing it more and more, this is completely normal—in fact, it’s bound to happen. Let’s walk through a process for navigating these situations so you can get past the roadblock and continue conversing. 

Overall process:

  • Take a minute
  • Think of a creative way to say what you mean
  • Think of something else you can say instead
  • Ask for help

Take a minute 

Remember that there’s no need to rush—you are still learning. The key is to keep the conversation going so you can practice. So if you know what you’d like to say and just don’t have the right words yet, give yourself some time to think it through. 

Here are a few phrases that are helpful to know so that you can politely request the time you need to consider your response.

  • “One moment”
  • “How do you say [word]”
  • “I don’t understand” 

Get creative with your communication

When your vocabulary stops short, some creative problem-solving comes into play. While you may not be able to communicate in exactly the same way you would in your native language, there are often ways to get your meaning across.

Sometimes, we’ll feel unable to say a phrase because one word is outside of our vocabulary. Is there another way you can describe that word? Is there something you can reference in your environment to help you communicate what you mean? 

Often, it can be helpful to ask how to say that specific word before continuing on with the conversation. It’s great to already be familiar with the phrase “how do you say” and “what’s the word for” in your new language, so you can ask accordingly. 

For example, perhaps you don’t yet know how to say “library” in your given language, but can easily ask, “what’s the word for the place with many books.”  

Or, perhaps you’re chatting with another patron in a coffee shop, and don’t know the specific word for “cashier.” You can gesture to the cashier, and ask “how do you say the person who sells the coffee.”

Asking how to say something is a great way to expand your vocabulary. Once you learn the new word or phrase, practice using it a few times as you continue your conversation to quickly cement it in your vocabulary. 

Come up with an alternative response

Sometimes, we’d like to communicate a complex thought that includes several words or phrases that we don’t know yet. 

In these instances, it may be best to make a note of what you’d like to say, and remember to learn those words for next time. Keep in mind that reaching our limits is how we learn! Now that you’ve realized how useful that phrase is, you’re more likely to remember it in the future. 

In the meantime, try to simplify your response to say something that is within your current vocabulary. For example, maybe you can’t yet tell the in-depth story about your dog that you had in mind, but you can share that you have a dog as well as their name and age. Challenging yourself to keep the conversation going, even when you don’t have all the words, will help you learn faster.

What if you don’t understand what they said?

During a conversation, it may be another person’s response that ventures outside of your vocabulary, rather than yours. 

First, you can take this as a compliment—they believed that you’d be able to understand! This is a sign that you’re communicating effectively.  

The next best step is to ask for help. Make it clear that you didn’t understand, and need some additional assistance to figure out what they mean. There are many phrases that can be helpful here:

  • “I don’t understand”
  • “Can you repeat that”
  • “Can you say that more slowly, please”
  • “Can you say that in a different way”
  • “I’m still learning [language]”

Once you’ve asked, they will likely repeat themselves more slowly, and may even simplify their vocabulary so that you can understand. 

Overall, remember that it’s okay not to know every word in your new language. Nobody expects you to! And each time that you encounter a new word or phrase, keep in mind that it’s a valuable opportunity to learn more.

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