Jumping around missing vocabulary
5. Use related words
Strategy number five is to use related words. I know that seems really obvious, but there are two important details:
- don’t worry about being too precise, and
- allow others to help you
For example, maybe you want to use the word exhausted but you can’t remember it.
So what other words could you use? Sleepy? Tired? Out of energy? These words are not exact synonyms but they communicate the big idea.
And that is what’s important here. Remember that real-life conversations happen in context, which really helps others to fill in the missing details. If you can’t remember a word, see if you can find a similar word, and if you can’t, use a more general word.
For example: If you can’t remember the words sneakers or trainers, simply say shoes, or sports shoes.
Also, many words in English are paired with other words, and if you know the other word, use it to help you.
For example, salt and pepper are two words that often go together. If you simply say “salt and _____” almost every English speaker will automatically fill that empty space with: “pepper?”
This strategy of indirectly asking for help can be really effective.
4. Not + opposite
Strategy number four is an effective and simple way to jump around a missing word. You can’t always use it, but when you can, it’s like magic.
Here is how it works: Think of the opposite of your missing word and add the word not in front of it.
Let me give you an example:
Imagine you want to say something is ugly, but you can’t remember the word.
Take the opposite word, beautiful, which is a really common word, and add not in front of it.
- “That car is (ugly)… not beautiful.”
Good job! You just jumped around that gap in your vocabulary. This works especially well with adjectives:
- “That hotel is (cheap)… not expensive.”
- “That company is (young)… not old.”
An added bonus is that if you get experience using this strategy, it will help you when you need to speak diplomatically, and avoid using certain negative words, especially at work!
- “The manager’s instructions are (confusing)…. not clear.”
3. Big idea first
Strategy number three is to give the big idea first.
If you have to describe a word you don’t know, don’t make the mistake of jumping into specifics without first giving the general idea.
For example, if you’re trying to describe a hammer, tell your listener you are looking for the word for a thing, or even better, a tool, if you know that word.
If you are trying to describe an action, tell your listener you’re looking for an action, or a verb. It will only take a moment, and it prepares your listener to help you.
- “What’s the English word for… it’s a verb… when you open your mouth big when you are tired? Yes, yawn! To yawn! Thank you!”
To use this strategy, I’d suggest learning some words that help you describe things. Focus on some key vocabulary for describing shape, size, and texture, and also the names of some common materials like metal, wood, and plastic.
Like with anything, practice makes perfect, so next time you are walking down the street or cleaning your house, play a little game in your head, and describe the things you see around you in English.
Look around you right now and ask yourself how many things you would be able to successfully describe.
2. Use body language
Strategy number two is to use body language. I know, I know. This is also obvious. But many people have been taught not to use their hands while speaking.
Depending on your cultural background and your professional experience, you may have been taught that using your hands a lot and gesturing is ‘unprofessional’ or ‘distracting’. You may think that using gestures looks childish and uneducated.
But in communication, using your hands, your face, and body can provide an enormous amount of really helpful extra information.
So feel free to combine all that body language with the English you do know, and you will be surprised at how much it can improve your communication.
And that’s the key (gesture). Combine (gesture) your gestures and your language to help you fill in (gesture) those missing gaps (gesture).
You obviously want to build up your vocabulary enough so that you don’t need to rely too much on gesturing, but the honest reality is that you will always forget some words from time to time. And that’s okay. It’s a normal part of having a human brain.
1. General + for
And now it’s time for the final strategy. If you become an expert with this, you can survive almost any conversation with a limited number of words.
The best way to explain this is to give you an example.
Imagine that I want to say bakery, but I can’t remember the word.
Take the word and simplify it, to its core meaning, and general category. A bakery is a shop. So let’s use the word shop instead of bakery.
But now comes the secret formula: use that word with for, to create a short, simple explanation:
A shop for bread.
- “Excuse me, where is the shop for bread?”
Now I know that the word bakery is more precise, but in context, 99% of the people are going to understand what you mean.
Another example. You can learn the name of all the various types of doctors in a hospital, or you can use this simple strategy:
- pediatrician becomes a doctor for children
- gynecologist becomes a doctor for women
- cardiologist becomes a doctor for hearts
- the thing for changing TV channels (remote control)
If you want, you can add an extra, simple adjective to make your explanation even clearer:
- the metal thing for heating the room (radiator)
And combining this with gestures makes it even easier to understand.
- the small tool for connecting papers (+ stapling gesture) (stapler)
Remember real communication happens in context, not in textbooks. So you will always have the situation or environment around to help you.
- “I need the thing (gesture) to turn on the thing (gesture).”
A little grammar reminder, if you use a verb after for, don’t forget to add -ing at the end.
1. Bonus tip: Mindset
If you know me, you know I always put communication first. And a huge part of successful communication is mindset.
I want to remind you to be kind to yourself. Not knowing a word simply means that you have not had enough repetitions or enough necessity to learn it.
It does not mean you are bad at English. It does not mean you are too old. It does not mean you are stupid. Don’t allow those toxic thoughts to destroy your communication.
Think about it: who would you prefer to speak to? The person who says:
- “Excuse me, I’m looking for… umm… ohh… what’s the word… ummm… I definitely know this word… damn…. uhhh… one moment… sorry… I look in my phone to translate… sorry…. mmm… bak-ery? Bakery?”
or, would you prefer the person who says:
- “Excuse me, I’m looking for ummm… the shop for bread?”
The second option is not a lower form of English. It’s an example of successful, fluent communication! You can make a deliberate effort to learn the word bakery later.
So start communicating today with the vocabulary you already have. There is no excuse to wait until later until you “have enough words”. Learn to jump around those missing words and start sharing your stories with the world.