Use Simple Language

You won’t be able to speak as elegantly in your new language as you can in your native language.  But often you can get your basic point across using simple language that you have already learned. 

It’s better to say something in a simple way and be understood than to try to make a more complicated sentence and not be understood, or to freeze up altogether because you just don’t know enough of the language to form a more complicated statement. You can simplify both the words you use and the grammar/sentence structure.  For example:

  • Maybe you don’t know the word for “calculus” but you can say that you have “math” class on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
  • Or perhaps you don’t know the word for “gigantic” but you can say “big” or “very big.”
  • Instead of “On my drive to school every morning, I pass by the chocolate factory, where I have always dreamed of working as a taste tester,” maybe you can say, “Every day I drive to school.  I pass by the chocolate factory.  I want to work there someday.  I want to test the chocolates.”

Dealing with Words You Don’t Know

When you run into a word you don’t know, you can also try to work around it by giving a description or example: 

  • If you don’t know the word for “submarine” you could explain that it’s like a boat that goes under the water, or for “hypocrite” you could give an example of a person who says they care about the environment but always throws trash on the ground.
  • Gestures can often be helpful as well.

Think in the Language, Don’t Translate

You should try as much as possible to think in the language you are learning.  Try to avoid thinking in English (or another language) first and then translating your thoughts into the language you are learning:

  • If you think in your native language, you will probably think in terms that are too complicated for you to express in the language you are learning, requiring vocabulary and grammar that you haven’t learned yet.
  • Also, because grammar and sentence structure differ between languages, you may end up forming sentences that sound awkward or even unintelligible because you are trying to use English grammar instead of the grammar of the language you are learning.  (For example, you cannot translate a sentence such as “I really like ice cream” word-for-word into Spanish, because the Spanish version is more like “The ice cream pleases me a lot” (“Me gusta mucho el helado”).)

By thinking in the language you are learning and sticking to simple vocabulary and grammar, you can use what you know to communicate more effectively.

(These suggestions are based in part on Boris Shekhtman’s book How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately:  Foreign Language Communication Tools)