If you’re an intermediate language learner, you might feel like you’ve gotten stuck in a language plateau. There are some topics you can discuss with relative ease. You no longer get stressed out about ordering food at a restaurant or asking for directions in the street. In fact, you may even be able to hold a decent back-and-forth conversation with a native speaker, as long as the subject matter is relatively concrete. But when it comes to expressing more complex or abstract ideas, you find yourself falling flat in your target language. You are able to make allusions to your ideas, but robust and fluid expression just isn’t there yet.
If you continue being patient and putting the time into your language studies, that full range of expression will come soon enough. In the meantime, though, you might want to try supplementing your language practice using some of the following techniques:
You’ll be surprised to discover how much you can convey through gesture alone. Many verbs can be acted out in a way that makes their meaning quite clear. If you need some help on the uptake, try watching old silent movies. They’ll likely give you novel ideas about hand, arm, and full-body motions that can be used to communicate. (Not to mention you’ll be able to brag to your friends about what a cinema buff you’re becoming.)
If you decide to use this strategy, be sure to exercise caution in the following ways:
• Don’t inadvertently use a rude gesture. Different cultures interpret gestures and body language in different ways. Something that might be completely innocent in your culture could be offensive or obscene in someone else’s. Be sure to read up on what’s considered acceptable in the culture that you’ll be interacting with – after all, the last thing you want is for your good-intentions to be misconstrued.
• While using gestures or body language to help express an idea, try to assume a lighthearted air whenever possible (unless doing so would be considered inappropriate to the situation). Though gesturing is a pretty safe bet with your friends or family abroad, confused strangers might not feel as comfortable responding to them. Thus, be sure to frame your gestures with the words that you do know.
Visuals are always a great asset to communication. In fact, most people are visual learners, which means that supplementing auditory cues with visual ones will often help your ideas to click into place for your conversation partner. Consider all of the “props” at hand — how can you combine what you see with your foreign language vocabulary in order to get your idea across?
That mini-computer in your pocket – i.e. your smartphone – should also make it easy to pull up appropriate images that can be used in tandem with any items you have on hand.
The “Layering Technique”
As an intermediate speaker, you often know some of the words that relate to your idea. Whenever this is the case, the layering technique can be used to expand on the subject-matter and clarify your meaning.
Start by creating as detailed a picture as possible, using your best grammar and vocabulary to set the scene. Once you’ve hit a “dead end,” you can go into “sentence fragment” or “isolated word” mode, layering these words upon your original premise to develop your idea. The work you do in the beginning will prime your interlocuter to think about the topic you’ve introduced, and from there, it will be easier for them to fine-tune their interpretation using the words or phrases you’ve layered on top.
Note: The layering technique might feel a little bit clunky, since you often end up presenting your idea somewhat out of order. Keep in mind, though, that humans are not highly sequential communicators. Unless we’re telling a story or an anecdote in which chronology is key, we often circle around our ideas (even in our native language), doubling back and repeating ourselves before we reach our main point. So if you feel a little muddled when you first start using the layering technique, don’t worry about it. You’re probably making more sense than you think.
The Storytelling Technique
Your idea might feel too abstract to convey with your current level of foreign language vocabulary, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. Remember, when you want to be understood, try thinking like a teacher: just as people learn better with visual aids, they are much better able to wrap their heads around abstract concepts when concrete examples are given. Try illustrating your complex idea with an anecdote or a story. You might talk about something that happened to you or someone you know, or you could use something you read or saw on the news. You could even present a hypothetical scenario if that seems like the best way to get your point across. And if you feel more comfortable using certain verb tenses, you can orient your examples to fit these tenses as well.
All of the above techniques can help make it easier for native speakers to understand you. But when you need to be absolutely sure that what you’re communicating is being accurately conveyed, contact ALTA Language Services. Our language professionals will help ease your mind with quality translations and interpretations every time. ALTA also offers a variety of language training services, to help you continue your own language learning journey.
About the author: Danielle Martin has taught multiple subjects to students in three different states. She previously spent time as a literary agent’s assistant and video editor. Danielle writes about education, business, health, and lifestyle topics, and she also enjoys writing fiction.