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.

“Two on three like it.”

2013-09-15Why wrong:  Proportions in English use out of and not on. French uses sur (deux sur trois), as if the number two were sitting on the number three, as in 2/3.  English uses another metaphor:  that of a group containing three members and two of them are removed (taken out of) the group.  So, we take two out of three, hence the idiom.  To speak properly,Squarehead Blog

Correct it:  Say “Two out of three like it.” It is also possible to sayTwo thirds like it.”

Contact Roy to write speak more professionally and follow this blog every day to improve your English.

“We got married on the two May.”

OpportunityNot Again1Why wrong:  Dates in English use the ordinal (first, second, third, etc.) and not the cardinal number (one, two, three, etc.).  French uses the ordinal for the first day of the month (le premier mai), but cardinals for the rest (le deux mai, le trois mai, etc.).  Typically we will say the month first, followed by the and the correct ordinal. In written form, many possibilities are used (May 2, May the 2nd, 2 Mai, 2013-05-02, and so forth).  Usually corporate culture dictates which form is preferred in your company.

Correct it:  “We got married on May the second.” or “We got married on the second of May.”  The second one is more formal.

Contact Roy to write email more professionally.

“No, I don’t too.”

WrongTranslation: « Non, moi aussi.»

BusyWhy wrong: Just as the above translation sounds weird to francophones, the original sounds just as strange in English  The negative form of too is either.

Correct it: Say “No, I don’t either.”  

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“We need to buy some gaz.”

IMG_2890What’s gaz? Demotion

Why wrong: The English word gasoline and its shortened form, gas, do NOT have the sound of the letter z. Gas rhymes with the word grass, not the word jazz. To be taken seriously…

Correct it: Say “We need to buy some gas.

Don’t let bad pronunciation and vocabulary limit your career options. Contact Roy for more free information.  No obligation!

Spelling “responsible” as “responsable.”

DictionaryWhy wrong:  In French, the word responsable is spelled with the letter a.  In English, responsible takes an i To avoid this mistake…

Correct it: Write “responsible.” Spell checkers are very useful for writing when they are used. Make it a habit of using them before sending email or before presenting with slides.

With handwritten notes, however, be careful with words that are similar between English and French, since such mistakes can make people question your credibility: contact Roy to learn these words and for personalized classes adapted to your objectives!


Writing “adresse” instead of “address.”

IMG_3030Why wrong:  In French, the word adresse is spelled with only one letter d and a final e.  In English, address takes a double letter d and no final letter e.  To avoid this mistake…

Correct it: Write “address.” Spell checkers are very useful for writing when they are used. Make it a habit to use them before sending email or before presenting wiChecklistth slides.

With handwritten notes, however, be careful with words that are similar between English and French, since such mistakes can make people question your credibility:  contact Roy for personalized classes adapted to your personality and interests!

“Please fill the document”

Asian Woman Covering MouthReally? What should I fill it with?

Why wrong: In English there are thousands of expressions called phrasal verbs that use a particle (i.e. a preposition or adverb) after a verb.  Examples of particles are up, down, in, out, on and off. Concerning information, there are two often misused idioms:  fill in and fill out.  Fill in refers to blanks or fields in a database whereas fill out refers to entire documents.  The trick to remember that is that out is bigger than in, i.e. outside is much bigger than what room you are in right now.

CareerCorrect it:  ‘Please fill out the document”

Do you also know how to use fill up?  Would you just say fill for all of these?  To learn 1,000 English idioms, contact Roy and see your career take off!

Writing “week-end”

Paper Bag (Small)Why wrong:  In French, there are many words borrowed from English which, even though they have identical meanings, are spelled differently.  For some reason, in French, the word week-end takes a hyphen.  In English it does not.Act Now (Small)

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Writing “They’re american.”

Paper HelpWhy wrong: Nationalities, languages, proper names, days of the week, months of the year, holidays and the pronoun I must be capitalized. To avoid this mistake…

Correct it: Write “They’re American.”Do It Now

Would you like to impress your boss? Contact Roy for personalized classes adapted to your personal objectives! 

Writing 99$.

$99Dollar SignWhy wrong:  The dollar sign always goes before the number.  It’s the cents sign that goes after the number. Write $99.

Avoid these mistakes:  contact Roy here! Whether it’s conversation, email or presentations, he can help you communicate more professionally.

Calling John Smith “Mr. John.”

IMG_3034Really? So his name is Smith John?

Why wrong:  Using Mister, Mrs., Ms. or Miss is formal.  Use of first names is informal.  They contradict each other.  For more information, click here. For more information only on Ms., click here.Learn Practice Improve

Correct it: To be formal, use the family name after Mr. or Ms. (e.g. Mr. Smith) To be informal, say John.

Contact Roy to have fun and learn at the same time.

Writing “I write english very well.”

Um, actually you dostockfresh_568706_wrong_sizeXSn’t!Upper Lower Case

Why wrong:  Nationalities, languages, proper names, days of the week, months of the year, holidays and the pronoun I must be capitalized.  Do the same with a person’s title when used before the name but not afteit.  That should be “I write English very well.”

Roy has lots of tricks to improve your writing. Contact him.