Image by funkblast (CC by 2.0)


So, imagine you’re telling a friend about your mischievous dog Dudley. Perhaps you’re about to tell your friend about the time Dudley ran into a wedding ceremony, tripped the bride as she was walking up the aisle, and plunged his head neck deep into the wedding cake. Just as you are about to get into all the unfortunate details, you forget how to say the word “bride” in English. Perhaps you know that you know this word; in fact you had seen it somewhere just the other day! But, for some reason your brain refuses to cooperate and the word just won’t come to mind.


Even if you don’t have a mischievous dog named Dudley, I’m sure most language learners are familiar with forgetting crucial words when telling stories.


Often, moments like this can be embarrassing, awkward or even downright traumatizing! But fret not! There are certain steps and precautions that can be taken to either prevent these situations entirely, OR at least recover from them and continue on. (NOTE: I’m talking forgetting words, sorry, I can’t help you out if you have dog problems!).


1. DON’T panic!

It’s not the end of the world! Whomever you are talking to will not think less of you because of it. Just accept that these types of things can’t be avoided when people learn new languages. Even people who are now fluent probably forgot words all the time in the beginning!  Even native speakers sometimes forget words!


2. Stall or buy time.

Sometimes when we are trying to think of a word to say, it only takes a brief moment to remember what it is.  Here are a few ideas so that you have a chance to remember the word.


a)     Try talking more slowly so that you have time to think. Obviously, the faster you talk, the faster you have to think about the formation of your sentences!


b)     Let your partner know somehow that you are thinking about what to say. You could do this indirectly by even just saying something like “ahh how do you say it again in English?” to yourself while you are thinking. Try not to suddenly stop talking midsentence; this may make the situation a little awkward. If you are talking within a casual setting the use of “ummm” or “erm” within reason can fill the silence and prevent awkwardness. Just remember that the use of sentence fillers like this are not necessarily correct, but can help a conversation flow more easily when not used too often.


c)     Make sure not to revert to your mother tongue or any other language in panic as you try to kill time to think of a word. Even if you are just talking to yourself, the sudden change of language can break your English-speaking mindset and may not come off smoothly.


3. PRACTICE the story ALONE before you tell it to someone.

All great storytellers actually do this, whether they are planning to tell it in their native language or in a foreign one.  Preparation and practice will help make sure your story sound smooth as well as interesting. If you already have an idea of how you are going to tell the story, you don’t have to think about how you’re going to tell it on the spot, and you can just concentrate on your delivery!

a)     Think about the order in which you are going to tell the story, and what selection of words you are going to use. Any words that you are unsure about, check with a friend or take a look in a dictionary.


b)     Try telling the story out loud to yourself in the mirror. See if you can tell the whole story without too many pauses to try and remember words.


c)     It may also help to write your story down so that you can remember it later! Writing a notebook entry on italki and having native speakers correct it is another great way to make sure your story makes sense and is entertaining!


4. DESCRIBE the WORD that you are looking for with SIMPLER WORDS.

You can often describe hard-to-remember words with several simpler words. Let’s look at some quick examples.

a)     A bride = a woman who is going to be married soon.
b)     An elephant = a large African animal that has a long nose.
c)     A kite = a fun flying object shaped like a diamond that we take out on windy days
d)     A jail = a place where criminals go.

By breaking down vocabulary that you can’t recall into words that you know, the person you are talking with will probably guess the word and you can both remember the word and continue on with your story.


5. Save the story for later.

If you are very unsure of how to say something, you can always save it for later and instead tell another story that you are more comfortable with. This way, you can figure out how you are going to recount your tale and then say it later.

Hopefully, the next time you are telling a story in English, these tips come in handy! This article was written with English in mind, however, these tips are not exclusive to English learners and should be of use to anyone learning a new language! If you have any other tips, questions or suggestions please leave a comment below!