No matter if you are new to language learning or you're a certified multilingualist, I bet you know the conversational wall. It's that feeling where you just don’t know how to say something. It could be a missing word, and sometimes you can’t find words for what you’re even trying to say.
The wall creates that awkward moment with your conversation partner, where you just stall the whole thing. You’re running on empty, grasping around for words, and in fact you’re feeling like an idiot. How frustrating it is for an articulate adult to fail when it comes to saying stupid basic things like “I don’t like boiled potatoes” or whatever. How far you have to go!
In today’s blog article, I want to introduce you to the different ways that you can handle that wall. Trust me, some of these are a lot more beneficial than others. And in fact, I would say that this is where fluent speakers are made. Knowing how to handle a conversation breaker means knowing how to keep things flowing, and it’s the only way for you to approach fluency.
What you have tried before
The following three options might all feel pretty familiar and perhaps even helpful to you if you run into one of those walls. But are they really the best way of dealing with the problem?
Hit more Books
Many people who are new to language learning feel like their only way of dealing with the wall is to give up trying to have the conversation and return to the books. The logic is that if you don’t know how to say everything, you obviously haven’t studied enough yet. But in reality, this is a sign that your learning mindset needs a breath of fresh air.
A student once told me “I’ve always been used to excelling at the things I put my mind to. Law exams, university grades, that all didn’t feel so hard to me. So why can’t I ace this language!?”. As his language coach, it’s my duty to remind him of several trap doors that he’s opening up with that kind of thinking.
Firstly, believing that first time mastery is the only way to be a good language learner is a way of closing a door to true growth in your own mind. And moreover, it’s important to recognise that language learning is not only graded by what you remember and express correctly. Creativity, flexibility and conversational confidence play a huge part in fluency and form part of the learning experience.
The key is to understand that you’re not failing when you run into a wall. You are actually succeeding at discovering your skills. Keep on exploring.
Change the topic
Changing the topic may help you save face, hide that panic and manoeuvre your conversation back onto safer ground. Overall, it’s a pretty solid option and one you can try if you are feeling particularly embarrassed. Remember that everyone loves to talk about themselves, so your sneaky way back from the conversation wall is to put the focus back on the person you are talking to. With a little bit of luck, they may even say exactly what you were thinking - and they’ll show you how to express it in your target language.
If this is a good option, why isn’t it the best one? The answer is simple. How many times are you going to change topic before you realize you still haven’t said what you need to say?
Look up words in an app or a dictionary
The part of you that considers herself a solid and obedient learner will want to do this. The part of you that wants to demonstrate that you are truly accomplished will want to do this. The easy way out of not knowing something is to look it up. Of course! And yet I urge you to consider the negative effects of looking up words every single time.
First of all, your smartphone battery isn’t going to last forever. Secondly, it’s not actually all that polite to keep your conversation partner waiting while you whip out a phone and start googling for an answer. They’re right there! They might just be dying to help you. And thirdly, you’re training your brain to know where to look, but not to remember anything that you are learning. Neither your brain nor your mind will thank you for relying on a lazier way of thinking.
So with all those kind-of-okay options ruled out, what could be the way a truly fluent learner approaches the conversation wall? From my observations in lessons and in my own language learning experiences, it comes down to a few significant shifts in attitude. Remember that Growth Mindset I’m so very fond of? Here is where you use it. Here is where you show your head who’s boss!
Here's how to be fluent in Conversation
Step 1: Walk through the Awkwardness
If you’re a perfectionist or someone who holds themselves to high standards you’re not going to like this option at all. A way through? You mean I’m telling you that you should admit when you don’t know something and sit there all awkwardly looking like an idiot? Yes. That is exactly what I am telling you to do. There are so many learning benefits from finding your way through that awkwardness. First of all, you’ll quickly realise that missing a word in foreign language conversation is a pretty common thing.
Lindsay Dow and I discussed this on the podcast recently and she referred to the British nursery rhyme We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. In the story, the brave bear hunters encounter all kinds of obstacles. Mud, snowstorms, rivers, everything is in the way. There’s no way under it. There’s no way over it. So they decide to go the only way that they can: through it! When you are facing your own linguistic obstacles, remember that you can’t go over or under. You’ve got to get through it. That awkward moment when you feel restricted and stupid because you don’t know how to say what’s on your mind? That’s normal. Just notice it’s happening, take a breath and continue to Step 2.
Ideal Step 2: Accept the Challenge
The idea of accepting a challenge sounds like this is a big thing, but I assure you that this is an attitude shift that will become your best new habit within a matter of hours. So you don’t know a word. So someone’s looking at you and waiting for you to say something and you don’t know how. So WHAT! What can you do next? How are you going to go from awkward to outspoken?
Ideal Step 3: Describe what you want to say
Okay, here is where you flex your real fluency muscles. A confident foreign language speaker is not intimidated by gaps in her vocabulary. Instead, she will embrace the learning opportunity and look for a way around the gap. The first step to take is to prepare a set of useful fillers in your target language. These filler lines should become as comfortable to you as hello and thank you. You will need them for ever and ever - trust me, I’m so fluent in English and words still fail me on a regular basis.
Good filler expressions include the following:
- “I don’t know how to say, but I mean a thing that…"
- “Help me out here…how do you say…?"
- “You know, it is a little like…"
The key component in a good filler line is that they all allow you to describe the thing you are trying to express. No matter if it’s a noun, verb or expression you are searching for, the key to fluency is in opening yourself up to learning the word from your conversation partner.
It’s absolutely essential to remember that these moments of hitting the wall are where you really show your skills in language learning. Not because you are measured by how many times you encounter the wall, but by how many times you get through it, over it or under it. This is the way that you will have confident conversations in weeks, not years.
So are you ready to start having truly fluent conversations?
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