What to do When You Forget a Word in Another Language

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We’ve talked about what to do when your vocabulary stops short. But what about when we flip the conversation—what can you do when you hear a word or phrase you don’t quite understand? 

The advice we have is simple. We recommend committing these tips to memory before your next speaking opportunity so you can move from confusion to clarity with ease. Here’s how to do that, from start to finish: 

  • Ask them to repeat the word or phrase
  • Ask for a definition 
  • Consider a game of 20 questions
  • Plug it into a trustworthy translator
  • Study up to prepare for the next conversation

Why not save yourself the headache and skip to step four? To really deepen your understanding and flex your conversational skills, it’s best to delay the easy answer and approach the troubleshooting process as a learning opportunity. Let’s dive in. 

Ask them to repeat it 

When you hear a word that doesn’t quite register, the knee-jerk response of what was that? or can you repeat that? is the perfect fail safe. It buys you time to identify the source of your confusion. Is this a new word, or were you just zoning out? (Happens to the best of us.) Were they saying it too quickly or in an accent you’re not yet familiar with? 

When asked to repeat, it’s likely that your conversation partner will repeat words louder and slower, so you can hear the word clearly. Consider memorizing the following phrases in the language you’re learning: 

  • Sorry, I didn’t catch that! 
  • Can you repeat that? 
  • Can you say that slower, please?
  • What does that mean? 

Perhaps you’ll get lucky and recognize the word as a cognate! Whatever it is, don’t be afraid to take a minute to process it. If it’s still sounding foreign to you, it’s time to move on to step two. 

Ask for a definition

Let’s pretend you’re learning English, and your conversation partner used the word “monument.” If you’re unfamiliar with that word, there’s not much you can glean from it. But after asking for the definition, your partner says it’s a tall, important statue or piece of art made out of stone, like the one in Union Square. Now you have a wealth of descriptive information that can help you get to the heart of what they mean. 

It’s also a great way to practice your listening skills and flex your vocabulary knowledge! 

Consider a game of 20 questions

This is a fun one—albeit, a step you’ll be more inclined to take in a casual setting. If the initial word’s meaning is still cloudy after hearing the definition, dive into a game of twenty questions. What’s it made of? Who typically uses it? Where is it located? You’re here to practice speaking after all, and what better way to do so than by practicing your accent, grammar, and ability to phrase questions all in one! 

This is a common activity for classroom learners, and a great way to learn while having fun. With so much back-and-forth, you’re sure to pick up new vocabulary in the process!

Plug it into a trustworthy translator

Leaning too heavily on a translator can impede your learning—they’re often touted by language teachers as the easy way out—but when you’ve exhausted other options, they’re immensely helpful in providing the answer you need. Make sure the translator you’re using is accurate, and have your conversation partner say or type the word or phrase. 

By seeing the word in its written form, you can file that visual cue to help you remember it better in future conversations. It might help to add it to an ongoing vocabulary list or study guide. And if you’ve followed the steps above, you’ll likely never forget it. 

Study up to prepare for the next conversation

Which takes us to our last step: studying up for next time. By working around gaps in a real-world situation, you’ve learned a lot about the kind of questions you can prepare (can you say that again?) and what kind of vocabulary you’re most likely to encounter in conversation. You also have a list of new words and phrases that you can jot down, review, and practice in future conversations! 

Use this as a learning experience to brush up on politics, religion, pop culture—whatever it is that your native speaker friends enjoy most. This goes beyond the vocabulary you’re missing, too! Whether you encounter a new accent or a fast talker, it’s an opportunity to find listening activities, including podcasts and movies, that can help you acclimate and build your confidence. 
With 25 languages to choose from, Rosetta Stone can help you tackle that next conversation with ease. Check out the subscription page to start learning today!

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