How to have less awkward conversations in your target language (5 tips for keeping a conversation going smoothly)

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Բարև! !שלום עליכם

Welcome back, language learners, to Adventures in Language! In this episode, we’re covering 5 tips for how to make your conversations in the target language less awkward. If you’re like most language learners, you probably get a little nervous talking to native speakers and would like to learn some simple strategies for making those interactions go more smoothly. If so, then read on, because by the end of this article, you’ll be equipped with the tools to speak more confidently — and comfortably — in your target language Wellsin más preámbulos, let’s get to it! The 5 actionable tips that we’re covering in this episode are as follows:

1. Use filler words (this one is to to cover up your thinking pauses)

2. Use circumlocution (you’ll use this when you don’t know a particular word)

3. Guess your way forward (this is for when you aren’t sure of the grammar)

4. Listen to understand, not to respond (use this when you’re getting totally lost)

5. Identify your core linguistic insecurity (this will help you feel more confident))

Now, let’s break those down…

#1 Use filler words

You’re in the process of learning the language, so it’s inevitable that you’ll experience long thinking pauses when trying to speak. It takes time to find the right word and construct sentences on the fly! Still, it can sometimes feel awkward or uncomfortable when the native speaker is staring back at you expectantly, waiting for you to continue your sentence. A fun way to make those “thinking pauses” feel more natural is to use filler words in the target language! Filler words are expressions like ‘um, okay, well, so, hmmm, yeah, like, sure, oh, you know – you know?’ We use them all the time in our native languages, and they can serve to help you not only sound more like a local but also to fill the silence while your brain is hard at work constructing your next sentence. At some point, they become muscle memory – and you may even find they slip into your native language (which is a fun feeling!). While filler words are an easy way to smooth out your conversations, remember that it’s also okay to have some silence during a conversation. Thinking pauses are helpful for your learning, so go easy on yourself!

#2 Use circumlocution

Think back to a time when you were in the middle of a sentence and all of a sudden you came to a word you couldn’t remember how to say. What did you do? Best practice is to give yourself a few seconds to come up with it. You can use the filler word strategy during this time! If the word doesn’t come to mind, try circumlocution, which is a fancy way of saying “describe the concept using other words you do know – even if it means doing so in a more long-winded way.” For example, if you didn’t know the word for squirrel in English, you might say “the little rat with the big tail.” There are two hidden bonuses to using this method. (1) Usually the other person is able to understand you – and will even provide you with the word you were looking for. (2) Depending on the language, your circumlocution might end up being right! For example, if Mandarin Chinese were your target language and you found yourself in a conversation wanting to say the word for wallet – but had never learned it – how might you use circumlocution? If you guessed to put the words ‘money’ and ‘bag’ together (qián + bāo) – that’s actually the word for wallet in Mandarin: 钱包 (qián bāo)! Of course – another strategy in these situations is to simply ask another speaker ‘How do you say…?’ Successful language learning requires confronting your knowledge gaps – so don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

#3 Guess your way forward

Imagine you’re having a conversation in your target language. You don’t know if the grammar in the sentence you’re about to say is right. What should you do? Take a risk, go with your gut, and try it. Will you always get the order of your nouns and adjectives right? Probably not! Will your verb tenses always be perfect? Not likely! But will the person you’re speaking to likely get the gist? Probably! While it may feel uncomfortable to guess your way forward when speaking, it’s important to keep in mind your end-goals. Research suggests that language learners with higher levels of risk-taking typically demonstrate better grammar mastery outcomes than those with low level of risk-taking (Isnaini & Asib, 2014). Being overly concerned with your accuracy in the language will create more of those awkward silences that you want to avoid. Plus, we even make mistakes in our native languages. So, we shouldn’t be overly concerned with doing this in our non-native languages. Long story short, when it comes to grammar hesitancy — take risks, go with your gut, and guess your way forward. It’s the most effective way to get fluent fast.

#4 Listen to understand, not to respond

One of the biggest struggles for language learners in real-life conversations can be listening to understand, not to respond. When you listen just to prepare your response, you’re not setting yourself up for success in understanding what is being said. This may sound like a small, philosophical shift, but once you start doing it – it’s amazing what you’ll find you can understand. We’ve all been in a conversation where the other person is speaking and we are just utterly and completely lost. If you’re like most language learners, you kick into survival mode. You give up on understanding what exactly they’re saying, you might nod to pretend you’re following, and you start desperately listening for a familiar word or two just so you’ll be able to respond about something related once it’s your turn to talk. If you’ve experienced this before, you may have more options that you realized in the moment. For starters, when someone is speaking quickly and beyond your proficiency level, it’s okay (and in fact, most efficient) to intercede and let them know you’re not following. For this very reason, it’s really important that you know how to say “I didn’t understand – can you repeat more slowly?” in your target language. To this end, did you know — the Mango Language app dedicates portions of several chapters towards learning how to negotiate for meaning by making requests for input, clarification, and modification through a variety of phrases. In this way, the app empowers you to continue building your language skills in real-life conversations. To explore the app, click here!

But what happens when you’ve already asked them to repeat themselves twice and you’re still not fully understanding? What then? You can help move the conversation forward by driving the ship. For example, if all you caught were the words ‘lunch’ and what sounded like a day of the week, you could guess their intended meaning and say “What I understood from you is that you want to get lunch on Wednesday – is that right?” Even if you guessed incorrectly, now you have a jumping off point.

#5 Identify your core linguistic insecurity

This one is all about looking inward. Reflect on what exactly about the conversation makes you feel anxious. Do you notice yourself feeling anxious when speaking with anyone – or only with native speakers? Do you always feel awkward conversing in the target language – or is there a particular source you can identify? Is it because you feel you need to be perfect? Feel you need to sound native? Are worried you’ll be judged for not understanding? If so, here are some words of wisdom. Remember that you’re learning and you won’t be perfect. Remove that expectation from yourself. Truth is – most people will be happy to work with you and take on the communicative burden to have the conversation. At the same time – keep in mind that you have no control over their perceptions of you in the target language. Worrying about how they might be perceiving you is energy wasted.

To reflect more on those underlying insecurities that might be holding you back on your language learning journey, check out our FREE Setting Good Goals worksheet (a worksheet that’ll get you to check in with your ambitions, perceptions, and progress in your target language).

Regardless of the source of your linguistic insecurities, naming them can be really relieving. It’s like a whole weight gets lifted from your shoulders and you can actually start having fun again in the language. But remember – having this realization now doesn’t mean you won’t need to check in and revisit it every couple months. Language learning is like anything — it’s got peaks and valleys — and our approach to it and our relationship with it is dependent on our mental state and where we are in life at that point. So, if you notice yourself getting more uncomfortable in spoken interactions again in the future, come back to this episode or even just this question in your own mind – and remind yourself it’ll pass. Do you have other tips & tricks you use to make your conversations go more smoothly in your target language? Share with us in the comments!

Thanks for reading!

Ցտեսություն! !אַ גוטן טאָג Happy language learning! Want more engaging language content like this? Sign up here for more FREE language learning content! This starts with getting your free copy of the Setting Good Goals worksheet mentioned above! Make your language learning an adventure by joining the Mango fam!

Wondering what languages were used in this article? 

  • English (recording language)
  • Armenian Բարև (ba-REV) and Ցտեսություն (tse-te-soots-YOON) are ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’
  • Yiddish | שלום עליכם (SHOlem aLEYkhem) and אַ גוטן טאָג (a GUtn tog) are ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ The former translates literally to ‘peace upon you’  and the latter to ‘a good day’
  • Spanish | Sin más preámbulos means ‘without further ado’ (literally translates as ‘without more preamble’)
  • Interested in learning English, Armenian, Hebrew, Spanish, or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click here to learn more!
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Meet The Author:
Author - Emily Rae Sabo
Emily Rae Sabo
Linguist at Mango Languages
Emily Sabo (Ph.D., University of Michigan): A travel-hungry content creator with a Linguistics Ph.D. in bilingual language processing, Emily has studied 7 languages and loves getting to use them to connect with people around the world. When she’s not creating content for the Mango community, you can find her dancing, yoga-ing, or performing some good ole’ fashioned standup comedy.

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