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The Curse of Emergency Speech – and What to Do About It


You probably recognize the following scenario:

You’re in an important conversation in your target language. Then suddenly, your vocabulary seems to shrink to: Yes, No and Thank You.

Call it stress or nerves, fact is it makes you feel as if all the studying you’ve done has been worthless.

Heck, you could have just read a tourist phrasebook and the result would have been the same:

A flawlessly talking native speaker and a rambling Neanderthal foreigner trying to converse.

Not cool…

Honey, I Shrunk Your Vocabulary

So what’s up here?

Well, this a classic case of Emergency Speech, as I call it.

We tend to revert to Emergency Speech when we’re under some kind of stress.

You’re probably way better in your target language than what you show in a tense conversation. It’s just that the nerves make you look like a beginner.

How much you’ll suddenly sound like Tarzan depends largely on the state of your Active and Passive vocabularies.

In case this is the first time you hear those terms, let me explain briefly:

Your Active vocab consists of all the words you would use in speech. Passive words, however, are words you understand but wouldn’t use in speech.

In other words, Active vocab consists of the words you are familiar with and know how to use. And you mostly understand the words in your Passive vocab, but you’re not familiar enough with them to use them in your speech.

But here’s the important bit:

The amount of Active Vocab available to you does not depend solely on the number of words you have in your Active Vocab. It also depends on the situation:

In moments of stress, your Active vocab shrinks big-time. Words you would normally think of don’t come up…or at least not as fluent as they usually would.

Emergency Speech makes us revert back to our most primitive way of talking in a foreign language…

Is There a Solution to this Problem?

Not a complete one…

Nerves will pretty much always deal a heavy blow to your active vocabulary.

But it doesn’t have to be a knockout:

The good news is that the larger your Active vocab, the more words you have at your disposal…even when trembling with nerves.

And…the more active a word is, the less chance of forgetting it when under pressure.

So you’re left with two tasks:

  1. Increase the size of your Active vocab
  2. Make important Active words more active

You can accomplish both tasks by actively using the words. You will not make your Passive vocab active if you keep treating it passively.

Now before you jump to conclusions…

I’m not solely talking about intentionally using Passive vocab in conversations — though that’s an excellent way — but also using those words in any kind of expression.

Something as simple as making 20 sentences that include the passive word you want to make active — or the active word you want to make more active —works great as well. Just make sure you say them out loud. (You have to use the words in speech.)

The Final Ingredient is a Pinch of Spaced Repetition

Whatever way you plan to use the words, I want you to repeat the process from time to time. If not, most of the words won’t stick.

So go through the method again on day 2, day 7, day 30 and day 90. Use your agenda. (With nagging reminders, if it’s digital.)

Seems like a lot of work?

Not really…

It’s a quick and simple process.

If it takes you too long, then you probably haven’t done enough Back End work yet.

But hey, even if you think 20 sentences are too much, do 10 or 5…but do something!

The potential payoff is huge here.

You’ll have more words at your disposal, and they will come easier to you…even when the nerves make you piss your pants.

With a little bit of effort, you’ll be a better, more confident speaker in your new language.

And that’s exactly what we learn languages for, right?


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