Improvise – don’t paralyze!

Do you, as a learner of English, hesitate to speak because you know that at one point in the conversation, you will block and not know the right words? Saying the word or expression in French won’t help, because that person doesn’t speak it. And since there are well over 100,000 words in the English language, do paralyze and avoid the situation?  Learn to improvise!  Why?

  • Sure you do, improvise!
    I don’t know what to say!

Well, what do you do when you drive and enter a section under construction, full of the famous orange cones for which Montreal is famous these days?  Do you just park and wait until the project is over?  It could take many months, or even years…

Improvise, that's what!
What do you when you encounter construction?

Of course not!  As a normal person (you are normal, aren’t you?), you turn around or back up and find another way to get where you want to go.  And you make sure not to make that same mistake again.

You will never know everything

Secondly, when it comes to speaking in French (or whatever your first language is), do you know all of the words that exist?  Of course not! We all need a dictionary, even in our first language. Even very educated people don’t know everything.  Most adults have a vocabulary of around 20,000 words.  So what do you do, then, when you need a word that you don’t know?  Do you just block and paralyze, like when you speak in English?  Of course not!  You just use what you have and improvise around that, making yourself understood.

Improvise when you’re not sure

So then, do the same thing in English:  Don’t paralyze – improvise!  You will never know everything, so if you think you need to, you will never speak the language. Use what you know to explain what you don’t know.

As an example, imagine it’s Monday morning and you have a brain cramp (hey, it happens to us all, and often on Fridays too) and you can’t think of the word “coffee” (hint:  you probably need one).

That's it - improvise!
You know the dark brown liquid that smells so good…

Say “You know the hot dark brown or black liquid they sell at Starbucks™, Tim Horton’s™, Second Cup™ and McDonald’s™?  Not tea or hot chocolate.  It smells really good, especially in the morning.  Some people eat it with a muffin or a doughnut.  Italians like espresso.  Some people add milk or sugar to it.”

So, what did you just do?  You improvised:  gave examples, synonyms, described it (maybe even with your hands, like a good Italian).  And the other person surely understood.  Brain cramps are not the end of the world and they won’t kill you, even if you sometimes would rather die.

So, whenever you don’t know a word in English, IMPROVISE!  Describe the size, shape, colour, temperature, material or age.  Give examples, synonyms and antonyms.  Most importantly, don’t stop and paralyze!

How do you improvise with something intangible?

Let’s take another example, something less concrete this time.  Let’s say you never learned how to say “RRSP” (Registered Retirement Savings Plan) and here you are in a situation where you need it.  Your heart starts to beat faster, you feel a lump in your throat and the other person is looking at you, as if trying to pull the word out of your mouth.  You feel the clock ticking, as if the person were going to leave in five seconds if you don’t say the word.  The tension is palpable.  So, what do you do?

You can improvise - go ahead and try!

If you try to say the French word “REER” with an English accent, you will be met with blank stares and raised eyebrows.  (I once had a student tell me that he regretted not putting more money in his rear. After his colleagues called an ambulance because I had been rolling on the floor laughing for five minutes, I was finally able to tell him what that really meant.)  OK, if that didn’t work, you’ll have to try something different this time. So, how about this: “You know the money you give a bank for when you are 65 and don’t want to work anymore…” And the other person will answer:  “Oh, you mean an RRSP.”   Yes, of course… and the conversation continues…

And after you improvise…

When the conversation is finally over, you will stop and realized that you survived (Hallelujah! You did it!) and consequently, you will start to believe that you can do it again.  And you will do it, again and again and again.  Every time you venture out of your comfort zone (and return alive), you become more self-confident.  You also begin to associate pleasure with speaking that language (in this case, English). And by the way, you really should put money in an RRSP regularly, even if you are young.  It’ll be much easier when you get older.  The government will need lots of money to pay all of the old baby-boomers like me.

One of the factors that determine the level of people’s language skill is the amount of time that they can speak without stopping and giving up, returning to their first language.  Advanced speakers can go on and on, seemingly forever.  Why?  They have learned to improvise, just like you can.

You will find that you can continue almost any conversation. Furthermore, you will gain in self-confidence, knowing that you don’t need to know everything to communicate in another language.  Try it!  But if at all possible, avoid the construction zones and the orange cones that come with them.