Do you forget words while speaking?

Do you get stuck while speaking because you can’t think of an appropriate word for what you want to say next? You know what to say in your native language, but not in English.

Unfortunately, in speaking, unlike in writing, you don’t have the luxury to pause and recall an appropriate word for what you want to say. You need to get it in a flash. Otherwise, you’ll pause, which will kill your speech – and confidence.

In this post, I’ll cover why uncomfortably long pauses happen while speaking and what you can do to reduce their frequency. Read on, there is a quick way.

Why people get stuck on words while speaking?

People struggle to recall appropriate words while speaking mainly for two reasons:

1. Stage fright or nervousness

Have you been in a situation such as speaking in a small group or addressing an audience where you knew what you wanted to say like the back of your palm, but forgot to say it?

This happens not because you don’t know what to say next, but because you get nervous. In a more comforting setting, you would have stayed normal and spoken without pauses.

2. Lack of active vocabulary

Far more common reason for getting stuck for words, though, is lack of adequate active vocabulary.

Active, unlike passive, vocabulary is the vocabulary that you can use in speech and writing. For almost all of us, an overwhelmingly high proportion of vocabulary is passive, the one we can understand while reading and listening, but can’t use on the fly while speaking and writing. The image below represents proportion of the two types for most of us:

For example, most of you will comfortably understand words such as laborious, gigantic, unrehearsed, and outplay while reading or listening, but won’t use them while speaking or writing (passive vocabulary). Active vocabulary of most people comprises of common words such as eat, sleep, run, and wash.

People who get stuck on words while speaking have even smaller active vocabularies and, therefore, they struggle to say (in English) what they want to say even in the friendliest of situations, say talking to a friend.

What can you do to stop getting stuck on words?

If nervousness is the reason behind your forgetfulness or pauses, the best remedy for you is to progressively expose yourself to situations that scare you. Speak up in a group if you fear doing so. Ask questions in a class or group if you fear doing so. Address an audience if you fear doing so. There is absolutely no escaping it. There is no other way. You’ve to pay your dues.

Key is to start small and gradually take bigger challenges (that’s why I used the word progressively). So, if you’re starting out on asking questions, start with a short, well-rehearsed question and as you gain confidence, ask longer, impromptu questions. So goes for addressing an audience. Start with small groups and graduate to larger.

For the second problem, the long-term solution is to read and listen regularly, mark new words you come across, explore them in a dictionary, and, most importantly, use them – all are important. But people struggling with pauses need a solution that remedies their problem to a significant extent in the short to medium term. Here it is.

A quick method to reduce frequency of pauses

  • After you finish a conversation, note down the words (in your native language) where you paused. You may not recall the word in English, but you can certainly recall them in your native language. Right?
  • Refer a bi-lingual dictionary or an online tool such as Google Translate to look for what words in English can replace the words you noted down. Listen to their pronunciations and see how they’ve been used in different examples.
  • I’ll strongly recommend you note down these words along with few example sentences. Use them applying spaced repetition to retain them for long. More on this later in the post.

This may sound cumbersome, but it’s not. It’s all about getting used to it.

A huge advantage of this method:

By noting down words where you pause, you’re attacking precisely those words where you struggle, right? In that sense, this method is surgical and takes less time to reach a respectable level, which is what someone who pauses frequently need. This is in sharp contrast to building vocabulary through reading and listening, in which case you add to your overall vocabulary and not necessarily address your weak areas.

This is a quick way to reduce your pauses, but to build on this vocabulary, you should continue with general reading and listening and exploring new words you encounter. Besides, repeated exposure to words (through general reading and listening) you’re learning will embed them deeper into your active vocabulary.

How long will it take?

The good news is that we use just 2,800-odd words for more than 90 percent of our communication, and many of these words would already be part of your active vocabulary (examples: run, eat, sit, walk, bird, road, and so on).Few common words cover most commonly used vocabulary

This means you probably need few hundred (or may be thousand-odd for someone who is at a real basic level) more words to drastically reduce your pauses. If you’re regular, you can bridge the gap in few months, and then let your vocabulary build gradually through the normal route of general reading and listening.

Make your practice far more effective through…

You can make your practice far more effective by adopting spaced repetition of the list of words you’re building and being proactive in using these words. More you use them, deeper they’ll embed in your active vocabulary and more seamlessly they’ll flow into your regular communication. BTW, you need not wait for a real conversation to use these words. You can – and should – use them in your solo practice by constructing sentences around them. Here is how I did.

Repetition is key. That’s what Norman Lewis recommends in his book Speak Better Write Better English:

The secret of successful vocabulary building is repetition.

Walking this extra mile makes complete sense, because you’re attacking – and that too precisely – a pressing weak area, the list of words where you pause isn’t going to be big, and you’ll reap the benefit for the rest of your life.

Final note

While you’re on your journey to reduce the number of pauses you take, there is no harm in going around the word and describe what you want to say in a longer, slightly less accurate way. That’s better than a pause.

In the examples below, first of the pair is the accurate description. The second is somewhat roundabout, but it nonetheless conveys the meaning.

The shopkeeper cheated me by selling food item past its expiry date.

The shopkeeper was dishonest in selling me food item that had gone bad.

He was out of breath after climbing five floors.

He was breathing heavily after climbing five floors.

After the cake-cutting ceremony, friends slapped/ smashed the cake on his face.

After the cake-cutting ceremony, friends forcefully applied the cake on his face.

Unless you go too roundabout a word, people won’t even notice your less accurate choice of words. And as you build your active vocabulary, you’ll gradually start using more accurate words.

Summary

If you often get stuck while speaking because you can’t think of an appropriate word to describe what you want to say, start noting such words in your native language. After the conversation, find the closest English word for these words, note few example sentences, and adopt spaced repetition. Above all, use them in sentences.

Just few hundred words can bring the frequency of your pauses down drastically for life, and therefore the effort is worth the effort.