How can I speed up my thought processes in a foreign language?
December 22, 2006 10:31 PM   Subscribe

How can I speed up my thought processes in a foreign language?

I have a problem with thinking in foreign languages. I have to pause a lot to come up with an expression. That means that while I talk, my thought processes become very intensive. The two problems that come from this situation is not that I get very mentally exhausted, but also that I have to make people wait for me to come out with what I have to say. Is there anything I can do to speed up my thought processes and have faster, more reliable access to the vocabulary?

Unfortunately the way it works so far is that I have to be slow and thoughtful to speak correctly and with appropriate vocabulary. I don't want to revert to simpler vocabulary or worry less about grammar because my goal is to challenge myself to speak to the maximum of my abilities. Being less conscientious about what I say would not achieve my goal of speaking the language to the best of my ability.

I am looking forward to your suggestions. (BTW I do have conversation partners to practice with.)
posted by gregb1007 to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Time and practice.

The more you speak/write in your second/third/fourth/whatever language, the more able you will be to speak in that language.

Do you have multiple friends who are polyglots? I'd suggest what was a weekly ritual at a friend's house when I was in school: half a dozen people for dinner, half a dozen languages. You, for example, may only speak in Spanish, while the person to your left is Russian, and the one on your right is French. It's great for all of you, especially because it encourages you to think on your feet and not translate back into your native language before responding. Also helps with translating.

(Please note I always sucked at those dinners, as my grasp of French is sadly limited and I had not yet taken any German classes)
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:38 PM on December 22, 2006

I speak English (not my native language), French, Russian, Hungarian and German, as well as a reasonable amount of many others . . . so I have been through this many times.

I have to disagree with you. Being less concientious about what you say would, in the long run, help you achieve your goal. Make mistakes, don't worry! There have actually been studies which show that people willing to get out there and talk regardless of their abilities (strange as it may sound) actually become fluent faster than people who strive for perfection at every moment. Chatter away, then go home and ponder your mistakes, look up what you didn't know and fix your language piece by piece after the fact. By being willing to make mistakes, you are creating a better pathway to your abilities. And it's got to drive people crazy to engage in a halting, uneven conversation.

Trust me, isn't my English good?
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:41 PM on December 22, 2006 [2 favorites]

I have to agree with Dee Xtrovert; don't get hung up on technicalities, just get it out there. Making a few mistakes is a good excuse for a laugh, too.
posted by Wolof at 10:59 PM on December 22, 2006

I agree with Dee Xtrovert. I know you don't want to hear this, but if you talk smoothly using basic vocabulary (even if you make some mistakes), you will come across as much more fluent than you will if you pause a lot and stumble over your grammar.

I suggest that you start with basic vocab and grammar, work on speaking fluidly and naturally, and add new expressions/grammar points/etc as you go. You need to set down a solid base on which to build your future fluency. The most commonly used words and grammar in any language are the most important, as they're the ones you must master naturally in order to speak fluently later on.
posted by vorfeed at 11:06 PM on December 22, 2006

I'll fourth Dee.
I also find if I've been cheerfully chatting with some stranger and suddenly find myself out of my vocabulary depth, they're no less patient than they would be with a native speaker if you say, "I can't remember how to say that" and then look for a different way to express your idea, once you're both fully engaged in the conversation. That engagement happens most easily if you leap in from the start.
posted by Abiezer at 11:11 PM on December 22, 2006

Agreed with everyone else. Ever had that experience where you've been a little tipsy and spoken your foreign language of choice leagues better than you do while sober? I know this happens to me, and I'm pretty sure it's because having a buzz makes me *less* about speaking "correctly" and more about communicating, since the liquid courage makes me more confident in my abilities to do pretty much anything!

So, the solution to your problem is obviously to make sure to be drunk anytime you might find yourself in a situation where you need to speak your foreign language. Or, barring that, just try to be more confident and don't worry about making mistakes! You can try to learn the grammar and vocab basics as mechanically as you want, but real fluency and comfort come from practice and experience, which you'll only get by speaking as much as possible.
posted by solobrus at 11:37 PM on December 22, 2006

"*less* about" should be "*less concerned* about"
posted by solobrus at 11:38 PM on December 22, 2006

Response by poster: Response to comments so far: All the advice about relaxing and speaking with the vocabulary you have available may be worth considering, however it doesn't address the question of what to do with the "takes-quite-a-bit of time to remember" vocabulary that slows me down.

If I speak more comfortable relying simply on what I know, I won't get a chance to practice those hard-to-remember words and make them into a more permanent part of my vocabulary.

It's in that aspect I see the problem. If I were to drop the additional vocabulary that takes too long to remember, how would I ever actually get myself to use it comfortably? That is the goal.
posted by gregb1007 at 12:28 AM on December 23, 2006

Best answer: would I ever actually get myself to use it comfortably?

Once you're able to speak fluidly and naturally with the more basic vocabulary, slowly start working in a little of the more advanced stuff. Put together a list of words and phrases that are a step above your current comfortable vocabulary level, and make a point to work them into conversation, one at a time. You can continue to repeat this with more and more advanced lists as often as you like, but the key is to get comfortable with each step before moving on to the next.
posted by Spike at 1:38 AM on December 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

What Dee and everyone else said. Give up on the "I want to speak fluently from the start" garbage.
"how would I ever actually get myself to use it comfortably?"
You change what the definition of "comfortable" is. If you don't go out there and use what you know, you're not going to think it, you're just going to ride around with training wheels.

Take the training wheels off. Go out there and make an idiot of yourself. Talk about stuff, and if there's a word you don't know, just throw the English one in there.

This is from personal experience. When I first came to Japan I had been studying the language, but always had to think about what I said. People got tired of having stilted conversations, and frankly a dialog where there are giant pauses where one person ponders grammar or word choice, isn't a conversation, it's a chore, and more than you can expect the average person to tolerate. That trip was incredibly frustrating.

My next trip a month later I put on a much less shy and more outgoing persona (two beer also help) and while I knew almost the same number of words and grammatical structures, I was much more successful at communicating. Which is that communication is all about. It's not grammar or spelling or even the words, it whether people understand the meaning. And you can do that with horrible language skills. I made huge, often stupid or hilarious mistakes (still do), but I'm talking with people, getting valuable experience speaking and listening to the language, which I didn't get on the initial trip.

Once you're actually talking to someone, then you can work on fixing it up properly. If you're not saying anything, there's nothing to correct, nothing to learn from.

We always learn more from our mistakes.
posted by Ookseer at 7:21 AM on December 23, 2006

Immersing yourself into the language is helpful. I spent a few weeks living in Cuernavaca, Mexico going to school. The rule of the school and the family I was staying with was simple: No English. It was difficult for the American, Asian and Europeans in my class to stick to this rule outside of class, but we did try. But when the newspaper, the TV and all of the interaction you do is in that other language you have to learn it. I still try to immerse myself in Spanish without leaving town -- I have a movie on in the background in Spanish right now. I live just 200 miles from Mexico so I have countless TV, radio and print vehicles to choose from. You may have more trouble finding media for the language you want to help. But there's tons of stuff on the internet.

And the idea of trying to communicate versus being well-spoken is important. When back in Mexico, I will sometimes forget the word but will blurt out the point of thought using other words. The people hearing me get my point and will sometimes correct me. Sometimes they will laugh. But we're talking. People that are poor English speakers will do the same with me. We have fun. We both learn something. When you get home, think about the conversation and how you could have said what you said better.

Lastly, when I was in Paris last summer, I couldn't understand much but found myself thinking how I'd say the phrase in Spanish and started thinking in Spanish. Although most people I ran into would speak English, I'd ask a few if they spoke Spanish and I was able to talk to them! I used the same trick when I was in Germany earlier this month. Met a wonderful woman from Madrid. In other words, try and use your other languages everywhere you can.
posted by birdherder at 8:07 AM on December 23, 2006

I had the same problem that you did when I was first learning Spanish. The family that I lived with encouraged me to explain the word or phrase I was having trouble with in Spanish rather than fixating on it. For example, if I couldn't remember the word for lemon, I would explain that it was a small, yellow fruit that grows on trees using the vocab that I did know. Then they would tell me the word I was looking for. It helped me practice the words that I did know, taught me new ones, and helped me to stop attempting to translate phrases word-for-word in my head.

Also, drinking a little works to overcome self-consciousness.
posted by B-squared at 8:59 AM on December 23, 2006

i'm a champ in french and spanish-- if i'm tipsy.
when i'm sober i just get red-faced and sweaty.
posted by twistofrhyme at 10:18 AM on December 23, 2006

Try playing a lot of the game Taboo. This will help train your brain to think of another way to say something, and do it quickly. Besides, it's fun!
posted by exceptinsects at 10:21 AM on December 23, 2006

I think part of the point of circumlocution (what B-squared is talking about: "It's that thing that Xs that you use to Y") is that it trains you to keep talking. If you're in the habit of stopping every time you can't remember a word, you're reinforcing the idea that speaking a foreign language requires pauses; force yourself through the pause and just keep talking.

Plus, I do think it helps you remember the vocab word that's on the tip of your tongue. I once launched into a huge monologue, complete with charades-like acting out of what I was saying, in a French stationery store: "Je ne sais pas le mot en francais, mais je cherche la chose dans laquelle on met une lettre pour l'envoyer..." The woman looked at me, delighted, and said "Un envelope!"

Which made me feel entirely stupid, but I have never forgotten the word for "envelope" again. :)

The woman to whom I was talking really was delighted, though; I think she wanted to act out something next to keep the game going. I had similar good experiences in Italy. Just start practicing the phrase "I don't know the word in [language], but it's the thing..."

I think too, that you probably do do this in English a fair bit, you just don't realize it (or, at least, I do it in English a fair bit). Words get stuck at the tip of your tongue, or you misspeak a bit, or you use a word out loud that you've only seen in print and mispronounce it. Doing so doesn't necessarily mark you as a non-fluent speaker.
posted by occhiblu at 10:39 AM on December 23, 2006

My brother said of French, "speak quickly and make everything masculine."

For myself, I have found it helpful to cultivate your inner ham and try to let go of any self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is what makes your inner voice become a translator so you get everything "just right." Let go of that. You don't want to translate, you just want to speak.

Having been semi-fluent in French in high school, I found that two days of immersion was enough to kick start enough fluency to be understood for most day-to-day conversations (although high school French never prepared me to properly say, "excuse me, where can I find the butt cream?" (and for those of you keeping score, it's ecreme foufounes, IIRC). I needed a dictionary or had to ask who I was talking to for vocabulary whenever I wanted to go beyond basic conversation, but that's OK-that's just how you build vocabulary.

I'd be wary of lists of vocabulary. The skills for fluency in writing, reading, and speaking are very different (or so I've been taught). Writing will help you speak to a certain degree, but only lots of speaking will help you speak better.
posted by plinth at 11:09 AM on December 23, 2006

I agree with those who suggest alcohol, and raise the stakes by also suggesting coffee. Too much of either is counterproductive, but a little bit of both lends itself well to being chatty and free.
posted by bink at 11:28 AM on December 23, 2006

This is a great thread! I agree with everyone who says jump right in and yammer away. Muchos años ago I had a Spanish teacher who said, "There's always a way to get into the house. If you can't get in the front door, go in the back door. If that's locked, through the window. Or climb up the wall and down through the chimney." Wave those hands and circumlocute!

And if you’re tolking riolly fest and engoged in the cunvirsotion with oll your spirut and focis no one cares if ivirything you soy is littored with mistokis. Thiy follow whot you’re soying pirfictly wall and all the errars just bacome bockground noise.

That’s....much. um... Better. Than. Trying....(trying? you say trying? ) be.............hmm............perfect.
posted by mono blanco at 1:57 PM on December 23, 2006

Alcohol helps a lot. I've been known to speak fairly fluent Spanish when drunk and again later when dreaming...
posted by limeonaire at 3:24 PM on December 23, 2006

Also, practice thinking in the language. Try to think to yourself when you're just randomly doing things around the house in your target language. Think about what you're doing as you do it, go look up things as necessary, and just work on keeping the thought process in that language as much as possible.
posted by limeonaire at 3:25 PM on December 23, 2006

The best suggestion I got was :
Every night, right after you get in bed, do a nightly recap of everything that's happened that day. In the language you're trying to be fluent in.
If you keep at it, you'll find yourself fluent enough to start dreaming in that language.
posted by Arthur Dent at 3:57 PM on December 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

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