Finding your way out of conversation difficulty in a second language
“Yes, you have…, ahhh, yes, you can, ahhh” and Roberto was done. He had run out of English.
At this point, Roberto had been studying English with me for just over 6 months.
In today’s class, we were simulating a job interview, where he was interviewing me for a new position. He had done great with the questions, but at the end, he asked me: “Do you have any questions?”
So, as all good interviewees should, I asked one — “Does this position have the possibility for growth or advancement?”
And the fluid answer never came.
He looked to the sky, he rubbed his eyes, he opened his mouth, he looked at me hoping I would give him the answer. But in this moment, I was not his teacher, I was the interviewee.
And so he squirmed and said, “Yes, you have…, ahhh, yes, you can, ahhh!”
Sometimes, even in the middle of a fluid back-and-forth conversation, our brain locks up. Our vocabulary runs out. Our thoughts freeze.
So what do we do? What can we do? And how?
When the brain block happens, usually it is because we are thinking in our first language. And we want to express our thoughts in the same fluid, natural way that we feel the idea in our first language.
Unfortunately for us language learners, not all languages share the same sentence structure. Not all languages share the same vocabulary. And not all languages share the same expressions for similar ideas.
So then, what can we do?
Stop trying to force a response.
Most of the mistakes I hear students make is when they are nervous, flustered, frustrated.
This is normal. But, you have to remind yourself to slow down.
When you feel at a loss for words, you can always say to the other person, “Give me a moment” or “One second please”.
This not only communicates to the listener that you intend to respond, but it also provides you with a moment to stop and breathe.
If we allow ourselves to stop when we hit the “brain block” and think of the idea we want to convey, we usually will find a way to continue the conversation.
Thankfully for my student Roberto, he was not conducting a real job interview — he was just practicing his English speaking skills.
So, we talked through a few possible responses.
“Yes, all our positions have the possibility for growth.” or “Yes, you can move up in the company.”
Or when all else fails because of the block, go for a simple reply:
“Yes, that’s possible.”
Roberto understood the question I had asked him. That was good.
I had used some new vocabulary that was new for him. That was challenging. But he was still able to follow the idea in context.
What he didn’t do was pause and take a moment for himself.
So when you feel like Roberto and hit your language block, remember to first Breathe, Pause, and then —
Change direction. Find a new path.
Forcing your thought process straight ahead when you can’t think of the correct words is like getting your car stuck in a muddy road and hitting the accelerator over and over.
All you do is run your car into a deeper rut. When what you really needed to do was to turn the steering wheel and gently try a new direction.
Your brain works the same way.
If you don’t have the correct ideas in one sentence structure, try a new one.
There is always a way to communicate your ideas.
It may take longer.
It may use simpler words.
It may not sound as fluid as you would like.
It may be completely different than how you would express the same idea in your native language.
But in the end, none of that matters. What matters is the communication.
Effective communication in a second language takes more effort. Your brain is working twice as much. And in high pressure situations like job interviews or talking with native speakers, you may trip over a term or find yourself blocked.
The next time that happens, remember —
And find a new way out of that rut.
Just because brain blocks happen, that doesn’t mean we have to get used to them. We have the capacity to try a new path, a new idea, a different word and keep the conversation going.