“I can understand everything I hear and everything I read, but I can’t speak!”
“I’ve been postponing my lessons because I’m scared.”
“I know what I want to say, but I can’t put it into words.”
Listen, we get it. It’s one of the worst feelings when learning a new language: you know exactly what you want to say, you’ve studied the vocabulary before, but still you go blank. You can’t remember a thing. And you feel really, really dumb.
We know. Speaking to natives can get pretty intimidating, especially when you keep thinking in your mother tongue and have difficulty knowing how to improve. So here’s our mission today: let’s talk about common problems that keep you from being fluent, and six key strategies to avoid awkward silences.
“Why can’t I speak?”
Let’s talk about some reasons why you’re struggling with awkward silences.
Firstly, you might want to express something very complex when your vocabulary is still elementary, which causes you to be frustrated and quiet!
Secondly, you have probably tried to explain your opinion or tell somebody about an experience you’ve had, but you end up translating from your mother tongue and not being able to speak properly.
Finally, language learners typically struggle with confidence issues when they feel exposed. They can often speak well when they are practicing alone, but go completely blank when they talk to somebody new.
The secret to speaking well?
Here’s a secret: speaking well is not about talent or confidence. It’s about strategy. You don’t have to suffer forever comparing yourself to fluent speakers and wondering why they are so skilled and confident, while you still have difficulties. Like learning a new sport, playing a new instrument or trying to shed some extra weight, speaking a language comfortably is synonym with good habits, consistency and an efficient plan!
6 steps to avoid awkward silences
Practice the specific skill you need to improve
Many learners claim they want to be fluent. However, they also say they are trying to achieve this feat by studying grammar, listening to music, watching videos or just sitting around listening to other speakers talk. While all of these strategies can help you sound more professional, coherent, pleasant and almost native-like, they won’t save your fluency.
Would you ever tell somebody who wants to learn how to play the piano to just read about it? Probably not! When your problem is not being able to speak, you must speak more and use other resources to support your speaking, not to replace it.
Get used to how people actually speak
Have you ever noticed that some languages sound nothing like what you’ve learned in school? Perhaps you had got used to a clear, logical language, only to get the shock of your life when you heard actual native speakers talk. And this goes back to step one: manuals and apps are fantastic resources to support your learning, but they should not replace real conversation and speaking practice. This is why many learners struggle to keep up with a conversation and become quiet after some minutes – they are way too used to vocabulary lists, grammar tables, verb conjugations and logical examples, while speaking is frequently chaotic, illogical, quick and defiant of some grammar rules!
Bonus tip? Don’t be afraid to use body language to keep the conversation moving.
Practice talking about yourself – not the examples on your manual
How come most language learners can recite full vocabulary lists about family members, jobs and numbers, but then struggle to talk about their own family history, their own job and dates that were important in their lives? Because we are so focused on memorising what we believe we are expected to learn, that we forget what the purpose of language learning is – to be able to communicate with others about ourselves, our world and our perspectives!
Next time you prepare for a speaking lesson or a meeting with foreign friends, jot down some sentences about your own life and opinions, even if you think they are at a more advanced level. Practise them out loud, and you can even take them with you. Don’t limit yourself!
Learn small words that make a difference
Perhaps you have already started learning lists of verbs, adjectives, colors, numbers and so on. However, are you overlooking some small, yet important words people use all the time in conversation? A great way to avoid awkward silences next time you speak is learning reaction words, such as:
- I agree!
- No way!
- I’m not sure about that.
- I don’t know.
- That’s amazing!
- I didn’t know about that!
- Of course!
These small words are great tools to spice up your conversation and react to what the other person is saying, rather than just thinking about what you’ll say next. Let’s not be robots!
Prepare fun topics beforehand
You don’t always have to walk into a conversation unprepared and hope for the best. In language learning, you must be active and even play the role of a teacher to reap your benefits earlier. So why don’t you take a moment to think about your favourite topics and some fun “getting-to-know-you” questions? For example, you might tell your teacher or partner that you only want to talk about movies a certain day, and prepare the necessary vocabulary beforehand (“script”, “cast”, “storyline”, etc). Not only does this help you get more confident before the exchange, it will also allow you to be more focused.
Avoid “yes” or “no” reactions.
Challenge yourself to avoid “yes” or “no” answers next time you practice speaking. These are monosyllabic answers that shut the conversation down, rather than nurturing it and inspiring it. There is usually an awkward silence after a “yes” or “no” type of reaction. How to solve this? Always try to answer a question in a longer, more developed way, even if you feel you’re not saying anything special.
Use as many words as possible. For example: next time somebody asks you “Do you like vanilla ice cream?” you could try to reply something along the lines of “I’ve always preferred strawberry ice cream, but vanilla ice cream definitely brings me great childhood memories. It also goes very well with brownies – so I guess I do!” instead of just “Yes”. Don’t worry – this might sound overwhelming right now, but it’s all a matter of practice and repetition! You’ll be able to do it!
Be a detective
So now you’ve mastered the art of complex answers. But what if your exchange partner keeps answering your questions with short answers that don’t lead anywhere (such as “yes” or “no”)? Take control of the conversation. Become a curious detective and make sure you question your language exchange partner or teacher by asking them to develop their answers. Here are some useful expressions you can use to inspire your partner to speak more:
- Why? / Why not?
- How did you learn about this?
- But what would you recommend I …(see, do, visit, eat, etc)?
- And what do you think about this situation?
- How do you feel about that?
- And how did you react?
For example, next time you ask somebody “Have you ever studied Spanish?”, rather than accepting a “Yes” and moving on to the next topic, ask the following questions: “Why did you decide to learn Spanish?”, “How did you feel about it?”, “What did you find difficult or easy?”, “Have you ever visited a Spanish-speaking country?”.
And by the way…
You might have noticed none of these steps is related to increasing your self-confidence, developing your motivation or telling you how to have courage. That’s because it is better to focus on smaller, specific steps you can easily apply starting today, rather than talking about abstract concepts you won’t be able to use. These small steps will allow you to give your conversation a more natural, human feel.
This, in turn, can help you develop your confidence and guts! Let’s do this together!