When we speak a second language, it can be difficult to convey our intended message as easily as in our native language. And we might use any number of reasons to explain why it is so difficult for us:
- I don’t know enough vocabulary
- I don’t know the colloquial phrases and slang that my listeners use
- I have a really strong accent, and it’s hard for my listeners to understand me
Whatever your reasons may be, there is good news. Language is something that is always changing. Once you identify the things that make it hard to get your message across, then you can work toward being able to communicate clearly and successfully. You can change the way you communicate with others in a second language.
If you feel you don’t know enough vocabulary to communicate your ideas clearly, then work to change this. There are many ways to improve your vocabulary. Let me share with you some of my favorite ways to increase my vocabulary in a second language.
- Seek to explicitly work on your vocabulary. Look for lists of words related to topics you want to talk about. Study these words and their definitions, doing a little bit each day.
- Read as much as you can. As you read, keep a list of unfamiliar words, and work on learning them. Set a goal for the number of words you’ll learn each week, and your vocabulary will gradually improve. Then, set a goal for yourself to use the words you have learned in conversation.
- Look up the lyrics to music you enjoy listening to in your second language. Then, look up any words you are unfamiliar with.
When working on your vocabulary, it is easy to find an unfamiliar word, read its definition once, and immediately forget what the word means. For more long-term learning, write down the word and its definition by hand. This not only triggers a language-related circuit in the brain different from the more passive reading language circuit, but it also leaves you with something you can look at later. The more you expose yourself to the definition of a new word, the better you will learn it.
Colloquial Phrases & Slang
Formal language classes in school very rarely teach slang and the colloquial phrases that native speakers of a language use every day. One reason for this may be because of the regional variation in these words and phrases. A slang word that is a compliment in one part of the country could be an insult in another region.
Another reason may be that educators are hesitant to teach non-standard uses of the language, because it doesn’t follow the rules. Here at Lingua East, we recognize how helpful rules can be to language learning, but we also believe that rules are meant to be broken. Effective communication is good communication, and sometimes good communication includes the use of slang, colloquial phrases, and *gasp* swear words.
Because of regional variation and the fact that these words and phrases aren’t in textbooks, they can be especially hard to learn. Luckily, there are ways to learn the slang and colloquial phrases that real speakers use.
- In your region, go out to the places where people are using these words. You probably aren’t going to learn this important part of the language in the office from your coworkers, so by getting out to the street, restaurants, bars, and other places where lots of people meet up to talk, you get the chance to hear the way people speak when they are relaxing outside of work. Look for ways to talk to people you don’t know. If they use a word or phrase you’re not familiar with, you can either ask them about it, or place it in your mental list of words to look up later. (If you don’t trust your memory, just pull out your phone and quickly tap the word into a notepad app.)
- Another great way to learn slang is on Urban Dictionary. The world’s largest resource for slang and nonstandard language usage in English, this site is always growing as users add words and phrases every day, with other users voting entries either up or down. The more up votes a definition has for a given word, the more common it is. As I write this post, the word rad has 86 definitions. However, only the top-ranked definition:
has 5861 up-votes and only 1325 down-votes. This means that if you use the word rad to describe something that’s cool, your listeners will probably know what you mean. While it can be fun to comb through the different entries on Urban Dictionary, it’s likely that many of the words and phrases you encounter will not be commonly used and understood in your regional location. Fortunately, many of the entries specify where the word or phrase is used. You may find Urban Dictionary most useful for looking up words and phrases you hear.
If you feel that your accent is your biggest obstacle to good communication, then there is a lot you can do to change the way you talk. The two most important features of an accent are production of the speech sounds in your second language and your use of intonation patterns in words and sentences. There are many ways to improve your pronunciation, but it is best to include some form of listening training, so you can train your ears for clear pronunciation.
- Listen to as many native speakers as you can and make an effort every day to have conversations in your second language.
- Use recordings of native speakers producing words and phrases that are difficult for you. Practice these words and phrases. Record your practice and compare your pronunciation with the native speaker recordings. Then, work to sound more like the native speaker.
- If you are ready to work a bit harder for a better accent in English, professional speech training may be for you. You can learn about our services here, or email us to set up a consultation for accent services today.
If there is something about your second language that you don’t like, then change it. The beauty of communication is that it is always changing. Just as the slang people use changes over time, the way you speak can change, too. The power is in your hands – or your mouth, rather – to make that change happen. All you have to do is start somewhere.
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