By Ela Britchkow, Speech Therapist, American Accent Specialist
I just wish my mouth had a backspace key.
Thinking before acting is wisdom, but acting before thinking is regret.
Have you ever felt frozen when you couldn’t think of the right word to say? What happened? Were you able to continue the conversation?
Many people, when someone asks them a question in English, they don’t know what to say. They’re stuck. They lost their words. Maybe it was a question that was difficult to understand. Maybe they needed time to think about it. Maybe they don’t know what they want to say. But they’re stuck.
In the home I grew up in, four languages were spoken. When I used to talk with my mother and sister we would choose a word that expressed what we wanted to say from whichever language that lent itself the best. Outside our family, it’s not the same.
If I start speaking in French, inevitably I will block or freeze because I can’t think of the word to express what I want to say. Sometimes this happens to me in English, also.
In another scenario, a person is sharing his ideas in English and then –Poof! He has lost the word he wants to say. The next word is gone. Or he has forgotten it.
He can’t find the right word. He’s not sure about the expression. So he’s searching. He’s trying to find the right word. And the other person is waiting for him to continue. He feels stuck.
The bad news is, these situations happen. And honestly, it’s a terrible feeling. The good news is, this happens to native speakers too. And that means we have some common strategies and some common expressions to use to help us in these situations.
When you know the right thing to do and say in those moments when you feel stuck in English, it can take the frustration away. It can overcome the fear. It can help you feel less nervous, less stressed and more confident. Most importantly, it can help you continue the conversation.
Here is some strategies native speakers use when they lose a word, get stuck while speaking or don’t know what to say:
One possible explanation is that similar-sounding words compete for our brain’s attention. Since bilinguals know twice as many words as monolinguals, there’s more chance for tip-of-the-tongue experiences. Often when we’re having “tip-of-the-tongue” experiences, words that sound the same come to mind,” Pyers says. “There’s a sense that you do know the first letter; there’s a sense that you might know how many syllables it is.”
· I forgot what I wanted to say! Hopefully, it will come back to me in a moment.
Infrequently used words are often the culprits, as are proper names, says Abrams, who has been studying the phenomenon for 20 years. When words aren’t used often, connections to their sounds become weakened and make retrieval more difficult. Luckily, we can strengthen weakened connections to a word’s sounds. To prevent spacing out on a co-worker’s name in a meeting, Abrams suggests using names more often.
Someone asks you a question in English and you don’t understand, what do you do? Many of us freeze. We don’t know what to say. The conversation stops. And we feel silly.
I know that happens to you sometimes. So let’s talk about how to fix it.
So the next time you’re at a business meeting, networking with English-speaking colleagues, or simply making friends, I want to help you feel confident when having a conversation.
When You Don’t Understand Someone, The questions below are always polite and professional to use in a conversation when you don’t understand someone or didn’t hear them clearly.
· I’m sorry, I didn’t catch what you said. Could you repeat it (more slowly)?
· I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that? Would you mind repeating it?
· I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you clearly. Could you say that again?
· I’m sorry, what was that?
· Could you say that again, please?
· Could you repeat that, please?
When a Word or Expression is New
Use these questions below when you don’t know the meaning of a specific word or expressions.
· I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understand what you meant by [insert word or expression]?
· That’s a new word/expression for me. Could you explain it?
· What does [insert word or expression] mean?*
3. Circumlocution (sir-cum-low-cue-shun) It is a common strategy used by individuals with word finding difficulties. When at a loss for an intended word you can often describe the word to get the message across (and at the same time try to cue the word you’re looking for). It is the act of describing, giving the listener information about what the thing looks like or does. Any extra information can help them know what you’re talking about. It may even help you to say the word. Do you have those things that cut? Scissors!”
4. Association: See if you can think of something related. Even if it’s not quite right, it may prompt the word or convey the meaning. “Do you have any… they’re not knives, but like that?” Think of a word that means the same or something similar. “Do you have any…clippers?”
5. First Letter: Try to write or think of the first letter of the word. Scan the alphabet to see if each letter triggers anything for you. “Do you have any… (traces an S in the air)… scissors?”
6. Gesture: Use your hands or body to act out the word, like playing a game of charades. Even gesturing with your hands in a non-specific way or tapping the table may help activate the brain.
7. Draw: Sketch out a quick picture of what you’re trying to say. You don’t have to be an artist to use drawing to communicate. “Do you have any… (draw scissors on a notepad)?”
8. Narrow it Down: Give the general topic or category. Is it a person, place, or thing? A family member or a friend? Stating the topic can help your listener predict what you might be trying to say by providing some context. “Do you have any…oh…they’re office supplies.”
And now I want to hear from you.
When you feel stuck in English or when you’re searching for a word in English, what do you usually do?
I’d love to hear from you and learn about your experiences! Please share your stories and advice in the comments sections below:
Do you have a useful tip you could share with others in our community?
If you find this article helpful to you, please let me know.