Today I just wanted to focus on something I see way too often, and that makes a huge difference in the way you express yourself in your target language, whether you are speaking or writing. Like the other things I discussed in my previous articles, it can sometimes be hard at first, but you’ll eventually get used to it.
Very often I’ll hear people talk in their target language until they need to say a word they don’t know. They will stop and think and it will completely break the flow. There’s nothing wrong with that from time to time, but at some point, if you want to speak smoothly, then you will have to find a way to prevent this from happening on a regular basis.
« But Laetitia, if you don’t know a word, you cannot invent it! ». True, but you can use tricks.
There is a very very very simple way to avoid that : when you don’t know a word, rephrase it like you would in your mother tongue.
You might be thinking « Well, DUH, who needs such a no-brainer », but you’d be surprised to know how many people don’t do it. Especially people who are fluent in only one other language. Not because they are stupid, but because their brain is used to work this way.
I’ve also seen people stop, think for a bit and just say the word in their mother tongue, even if the other person doesn’t know anything about it.
If you come across this kind of struggle then I assume you are talking with a native speaker, or at least someone fluent. And when you start applying this simple itsy bitsy technique, not only the conversation will be smoother, but you will learn the words. Because it is more than likely that the person will say the word out loud once they figure out what you are trying to say. It’s a reflex.
Sometimes, it will take a bit longer but there is nothing you cannot explain through other words.
Let’s take two examples from my own experience in Japan. One day I forgot how to say « colleague ». I just said « the people who work with me ». My interlocutor got it right away and told me the word I was looking for. The conversation did not stop a minute, it was very smooth.
On another occasion, I was talking with my teacher. I had been in Japan for a week or two and I remember we were talking about differences with France. I don’t remember why but I was trying to find the word that designates the refrigerated section in the supermarket but I just couldn’t find it. So I tried saying « the cold place of the supermarket ». My teacher was confused. I tried « the cold shelves » and she still wasn’t getting it. So I added « the cold place to keep fresh food ». And by adding details, by describing and rephrasing, she went « aaaaah! « Hiyasu » is the word you are looking for ». To this day, I still remember it.
Did I struggle ? Yes, sure. But the conversation went on. I did not stop for a 5 min awkward silence that would have ended the talk. I gained confidence in my ability to have everyday talks with natives. It was all good.
For a lot of language learners, this will come naturally, especially if they are already bilingual. For some, it doesn’t and more often than not, these people struggle longer to improve until they start doing it.
So why is it?
When we learn a new language, especially if you only speak only one at the time, your brain needs to make connections with what you already know. And what you already know is your mother tongue. So what always end up happening in the beginning is that we think in our mother tongue and then try to translate it in the target language. While it is not a big deal at the beginning stages of the learning process, it can very quickly become a huge obstacle between you and the fluency you’re trying to attain.
To be honest, I can now tell right away when people do that.
coming soon : how other foreign languages help you learn other ones & why you should never neglect your mother tongue
When you are thinking in your mother tongue and then translating it, you are more likely to translate what you want to say word by word which is very bad. Also, people that speak a different language think in a different way. That is because language is not built the same way and because of cultural differences. Of course, nobody expects you to be an expert right from the get go.
By doing this, in addition to any language mistakes you might make, you will also be more likely to make translation mistakes which will make what you are trying to say even more confusing. It doesn’t matter if you are writing or talking, I’ve seen the damages of this practice in both.
When I mean to think in your target language, don’t mean think the sentence you want to say then say it out loud (like you would by translating it). Just speak. No mother tongue in your head, straight up target language words out of your mouth. If you are too embarrassed, start by talking to yourself this way, or to your friends. Try at school. Because in the long run it will make a difference. You’ll reach a level where thinking in your mother tongue will just not be possible anymore. It doesn’t mean that you will have to make a conscious effort about it all the time. It will become a habit. As I’m writing this article and as I am thinking about what should come next, words come to me in English. My brain is used to switching languages all the time, and that is because I trained it. I put the extra effort at the beginning, and now I don’t even have to bother about it anymore.
Although you might make mistakes (we all do) and not see the difference, others will. Not all good changes are right -in-your-face-big changes. You just CANNOT, and that’s a fact, speak fluently by doing this.
I hope I don’t sound too harsh, because once you get the hang of it, it’s really not a big of a deal. But you have to get the ball rolling and the sooner, the better.