It is normal to have difficulty expressing yourself well when you speak English as a second language and get stuck every once in a while. Having trouble putting together a sentence when you are speaking, or getting stuck, can be very frustrating. And frustration can kill your motivation to continue learning. So, you need to avoid this frustration by using some strategies that will help you when you can’t come up with the right word or sentence.
Strategy 1: Use filler words and phrases
When we speak, there are some little sounds, words, and phrases that we use to indicate that we’re thinking or we’re trying to say. Everybody does this in their own language, mostly unconsciously. The funny thing is that those little sounds or words are “idiomatic,” that is, different in every language. They are part of each culture and language communication system – much as non-verbal communication. These are called filler words. There are some filler words, sounds, or phrases, that you can use to buy time when you go blank.
In English, we use sounds, words, and phrases such as these:
- The thing is…
- Let me rephrase that…
- What I wanted to say is that…
- I’ll try another way to say this…
Sometimes words just won’t come out in English as they would in your own language. It is normal to have difficulty expressing yourself well when you speak English as a second language.
Strategy 2: Rephrase what you wanted to say
Our next best option is to rephrase what we want to say. It is important to use our own resources trying to express ourselves, even if it doesn’t come out perfect. Here is an example:
Correct Sentence (What we want to say):
I wish I could spend some time in New York.
Your Tentative Sentence (A simpler way to say it, even if it’s not exactly what you want to say):
I want to go to New York and live there for some time.
These two sentences do not say exactly the same thing, but they are close enough to give the main information so your listener can understand what you mean. Don’t be afraid to make grammatical mistakes – what matters is that you make your point across. Then you can ask your teacher to give you feedback or corrections to make sure you learn how to say it correctly.
By doing this you will push yourself to use what you know. Then, if you are curious enough, ask for the right way to say exactly what you wanted to say, or research it on your own. The next step will be practicing this new material the as soon as you have an opportunity, so as to consolidate it and keep improving.
Strategy 3: Ask your conversation partner for help
We all do it, even in our language. Just ask for help! When we are having a verbal conversation, speaking to someone face-to-face or via a phone call, sometimes we can’t come up with the right word and automatically say something like “I can’t come up with the right word,” or “I mean…what’s the word?”
Here are some phrases that you can use to ask for help to say something in English:
- How can I say this?
- I don’t know the word. What I am trying to say is … (Rephrase, then ask “What do you call this?” or “What’s the right way to say that?”)
- What do you call…? (Describe the object, situation, etc.)
- Can you help me? I don’t know how to say this. (Then, use one of the above phrases)
- I’m trying to say… (Use gestures while saying: “something like this”)
Strategy 4: Translate it using an app
If all else fails, use the internet to translate what you are trying to say. There are many free resources you can use.
This should be your last resort unless you are in a foreign country and in an emergency.
However, if you are in a safe environment, such as a class or language practice session, strategies 1, 2, and 3 will allow you to become stronger in the language that you’re learning, because they force you to try to think quickly and to continue using your English, using the words and grammar you already know, but also to make the effort to learn whatever you need in that very specific situation – which is more likely to stay in your memory since the new knowledge is used right away and serves a purpose.
When you use these tricks, you won’t get stuck as much and you will avoid getting too frustrated. Now, go and practice!