February 6, 2023

3 reasons you forget words in conversation…and what to do about it

Do you ever forget words in conversation?

You’re talking to someone and all of a sudden you forget a word; an easy word that you know!

Your mind goes blank and you can’t think.

Forgetting words is common.

First, it’s important to remember that we sometimes forget words in our first language – it’s quite normal! But when we forget words in our second language, it can make us feel that we’re not good enough.

Here are the three main reasons why we forget words in conversation…….and how we can reduce the number of times this happens. Disclaimer: forgetting words is natural so we won’t eliminate this 100%

1. Interference from your first language 

If you always learn new vocabulary by translating from your first language, it takes longer to retrieve words and will distrupt your flow when speaking.

How can you avoid this?

Learn new vocabulary ‘in context’. When you read or hear a new word, first, try to work out the meaning from the text or conversation.  If you’re not sure of the meaning, look up the meaning in an English-to-English dictionary. If you’re still not sure, then…and only then…translate.

2. Your vocabulary isn’t fully activated

When you’ve been learning English for many years, you understand lots of words BUT this doesn’t mean you actually use them in conversation. This affects how words are recalled in conversation.

How can you activate vocabulary?

Write down all the situations and topics where you want to activate your vocabulary – e.g. phrases to use in meetings or words related to technology

For each situation or topic, note down all the words and phrases you know (you can add to this over time). Identify which you want to start using…and start using them. The more you use the language, the stronger the connections will become and the more easily you will recall words.

3. Feeling stressed or under pressure

When you’re feeling under pressure or feel you’re being judged, it makes you feel stressed. This triggers the fight or flight response that in turn interferes with the recall of words.

What can you do? 

First, the above steps will help you to feel more prepared and confident in these situations.

Second, you need to “get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable”. The more you speak up in these situations, the more normal it will feel and the less stressed you will feel. When you get used to using English in low-stress situations, the more automatic it will become in more stressful situations.

Working on calming the mind every day can also help with recall. Activities such as physical exercise, mindful practices, and meditation have also been shown to lower the stress response, which interferes with recall.

Finally, remember that forgetting words is common…even among native-English speakers.

In most cases, if you forget a word, the other person WILL NOT think that your English is bad.

If you forget, just use another word, describe the word, or make a joke about it…..

…….remember it’s your overall message that’s most important.

If you’d like to practise your English conversation skills in a relaxed environment, join my free community, The English Café. We meet 4 times a month on Zoom and it’s a great space to meet other expats in the UK and practise your English skills.