what to say when words fail you: part 1. second language
Natives have strategies for continuing to talk when words fail them. Starting from the age of two, when a child points to an object and calls it a “bah-bah!”, rising through teenage years of using a restricted set of idiomatic vocabulary (innit, yeah?), to a career as a politician or a TV rent-a-gob. We learn how to keep our mouths working until ours brains catch up.
The main problem for intelligent people is that they tend to go to university where they are taught not to make a statement unless they can back it up with evidence. Collecting data, sifting out useful information and reasoning your way to a conclusion takes time. In England, when someone says “Lovely weather!” to you, by the time you have looked at the sky, estimated the air temperature, wind speed and the possibility of rain later, not only has your conversational partner walked away but the weather will have changed too. Sometimes all that is expected of you is to open your mouth and make some noise.
This problem gets worse when intelligent people decide to learn a second language. Teachers tell you how to communicate information correctly. To a smart person that means even more processing, even slower responses. To a listener this sounds like you haven’t understood the question, or you are too stupid to answer.
Recently I asked someone whether there were a lot of trees in his country. It was a stupid question, I was just checking that he was still on the line and hadn’t fallen asleep over his laptop. The answer was a long, puzzled silence. “Did you hear the question?” I asked finally. “I heard it and I understood it,” he admitted, bashfully, “but I’m afraid I don’t know the answer!” Clearly he is an extremely intelligent person, because if he wasn’t he would have said “Oh, yes!” ‘Yes’ is a nice, bright, shiny word, it trips off the tongue and makes people happy. Who cares if it is the right answer? It takes a lot of intelligence to make you afraid of making an ill-judged remark about forests.
I intend to write a series of pieces, aimed at the smart but tongue-tied student, explaining what you can say when you can’t think what to say. My suggestions will not make you sound cleverer: you already know how to speak like an intelligent person. They will hopefully, however, make you sound more confident and comfortable in a conversation in English, which will make the process of speaking intelligently a less stressful experience. Who knows, they might even come in useful when you speak in your own language!