LTL DISCUSSION: five tips to help you get started in a new language

LTL DISCUSSION: Strategies for negotiating meaning when you don’t know all the words

Dealing with a small vocabulary

The most popular strategy among second language learners when faced with communication in the target language is to avoid any second language interactions at all. Obviously, this is a rubbish strategy, so let’s look at some other alternatives.

Experts talk about two main types of strategies that language learners can use; cognitive and meta-cognitive. Cognitive strategies deal with the language itself, and how you use it, while meta-cognitive strategies deal with the learners’ attitudes to learning a language.

It is very small now, but if you play with it, it will get bigger – I promise! (I’m talking about vocabulary, of course).

This is the best ‘meta-cognitive’ strategy there is; have fun and play with your new language. If you are like me, you hate it when people laugh at your mistakes and mispronunciations. This can be a problem, because other people’s reaction is not something you can control. Instead of letting the fear of people laughing at your mistakes stop you from speaking, try and make jokes and get the other speakers to laugh with you, rather than at you (easy to say, but not so easy to do).

Here are some cognitive strategies that you can use right away without having to do anything as radical as changing your mind-set.


Let other speakers know your difficulties. Practise expressions like ‘slowly, please’, ‘sorry?’, say it again’. As well as learning these useful phrases, also learn something a bit more unique and personal to you to capture their attention (“Help! I’m from another planet!”).


Focus on what you DO know, rather than what you don’t. This way, you are letting the people you are speaking to know what you understand, and hopefully it will help them to keep the exchange on track.


This does two things (1) it shows the other people what you are trying to talk about and (2) it prompts the other people to provide you with the word or phrase you don’t know.


Listening (like really listening) to the other speakers means giving them your whole attention. When other people are speaking to you in a language you are trying to learn don’t use that time to figure out what you want to say next; use it to try and decode the sounds into meaning.


Look at the other speakers, notice their facial expressions, what shapes do they make with their mouths? What are they doing with their hands? Try and mirror these gestures and expressions and you will seem less ‘alien’ to them.

What strategies do you use when you are trying to communicate in a language you don’t know well?

Read more about learning strategies for beginners HERE


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