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What To Do When You Forget A Word

Forgetting a word in a foreign language (or not knowing it in the first place) doesn’t have to lead to communication breakdown. Here are some tips to keep the conversation flowing.

Illustration by Sveta Sobolev

It’s a problem that every language learner faces: you’re talking to someone in a language you haven’t mastered yet, and all of the sudden you can’t remember a word — or you realize that you haven’t even learned it yet! The flow of conversation stops, your mind goes blank, your conversation partner searches your eyes for whatever you are trying to communicate, but all they see is panic. We all forget words (even in our mother tongues), but that doesn’t need to shut us up. Follow these five tips, and you’ll never be left speechless again.

1. Preventative measures

Here are some tips to help bolster word memorization: Learn new words and their synonyms. Learn how to describe new words in your learning language. Instead of simply translating a word from your native language into your learning language, these techniques help you associate a new word with other words in the same language. For example, to call is llamar in Spanish, but it’s a versatile word whose synonyms include telefonear (to telephone), nombrar (to name, to designate) and vocear (to shout). When describing llamar in Spanish, you’d have to connect it to words like teléfono and phrases like Me llamo ____.

Put these word connections into practice with a little improv training. You and your friends can play games like “who can describe a concept with the fewest words”, or, when you’re by yourself, you can write down as many word associations as possible. This way, when you forget a word in a real conversation, you’ll have plenty of other associations to fall back on. You’re likely to remember one of the synonyms or at least be able to describe what you mean in different words — without having to access your native language for help.

2. Just guess

Over 30% of English vocabulary was adopted from French, so if you’re speaking French to someone and you suddenly draw a blank, take a chance and “Frenchify” an English word. There’s a good chance that what you say will at least be a close approximation of a real French word. This trick also works for the other Romance languages — like Spanish, Portuguese and Italian — since these languages use words with the same Latin roots as French words. Because most of English vocabulary derives from middle German, this trick can work when speaking German and Dutch as well.

3. Make up words

This is especially easy to do with languages like German where many nouns are compounds of two or three smaller words. If you want to say glove, but don’t know how, just take two probable words (hand + shoe) and stick them together. Voila: Handschuh is in fact the German word for glove!

Here’s another example: Oh no, I must have left my wallet in the restaurant. I need to go in and ask, but I don’t know the German word for wallet
Well, I guess a wallet is kind of like a bag for your money
and “money-bag” would literally translate to Geldbeutel, so here’s goes nothing…
You: “Entschuldigung, habe ich meinen Geldbeutel hier gelassen?”
Waiter: “Ja, einen Moment, Ich bringe ihn.”
Oh my gosh! He understood me! It’s actually a real word!

Even if your clever made-up word is totally not a real word, your conversation partner will find it much easier to guess what you mean. For example, a cell phone is not a Taschentelefon (pocket-telephone), but the invented word still communicates the concept accurately enough (the Germans actually call them Handys by the way).

You can also achieve a similar effect with the equivalents of vague words like “something,” “thing” or “whatchamacallit” which allow context to fill in the blanks.

4. Use your body

Seriously, don’t underestimate the power of body language. After all, charades might be a French word, but it’s played all over the world. So do pantomime, make sound effects, gesticulate wildly, make shadow puppets if you need to, try anything! My mom pulls this trick all the time and has been able to communicate with people in 500+ languages. Somehow, it actually works!

5. Say it in your mother tongue (speaking of moms)

This should only be your last resort, reserved only for those instances where tips one through four have failed. Saying the word in your own language is not ideal, but it’s still better than saying nothing. You can even turn it into a learning opportunity by asking — in the target language, of course — “How do you say ____ in your language?” They might not know, but it also might be the final clue they needed in order to understand you.

HOWEVER: be strict with yourself. Only say the word you’re missing in your native language, the rest of the conversation should still be held in your target language!

Bonus tip

According to Paul Grice’s principles of communication, people have conversations with each other (surprise!) — so it’s not like you’re the only person who can make the conversation happen. People are usually happy when you try to speak their language. You can expect them to be a little more patient and listen a little more closely than they would with a fellow native speaker. If you can stumble through most of a sentence in their language, and utilize the tips above for the rest, they’ll probably be able to meet you halfway.

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