One of the things that often discourages foreign language learners is lack of vocabulary. They start off all gung-ho with simple phrases and general conversation and then find themselves wanting to say more or join in a more interesting topic of conversation than where they live, how many brothers and sisters they have and what they do for a living. Suddenly, everything starts going wrong. They desperately want to make themselves understood but find themselves lacking the necessary vocabulary and this leads to frustration which has an inevitable affect on the brain - shutting it down so they completely forget all the vocabulary they do actually know.

So what can be done about it? Well, the key is not to be disheartened. There are a few things you can do that don’t involve whipping out your pocket dictionary in the middle of a conversation.

The first thing to remember is that most people are actually quite nice and would be more than happy to help you. When they realise you’re just learning, it’s surprising just how many people start demonstrating their latent “teacher” instincts and are suddenly willing to impart all their knowledge. By learning one key phrase in your target language, you can tap into this source of “walking human dictionaries” and develop the ability to contribute to more advanced topics of conversation and keep the conversational flow going with more ease. So what is this magic phrase? Well it’s no surprise but one of the most useful phrases you can learn in your target foreign language is:

What do you call this in German/French/Spanish, etc.? (Please insert your choice of language here and translate the phrase accordingly)

We have all seen the films where early explorers set off in scurvy-riddled ships only to land on a palm-fringed island full of bare-breasted beauties. The ship's resident clever-clogs then gets to sit with one of the said beauties, points at seashell with an expectant look on his face and “Eureka”,  the native island girl suddenly gets it, says the name and it’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Well, this phrase works on the same principle. The idea is, you point to or pickup the object you don’t know the name of while muttering this phrase and, before you have the time to reach for your pocket dictionary, the person you are speaking to has filled in the blank and you move swiftly on.

Making use of this phrase in conversation makes learning new vocabulary a lot more fun, plus you are learning words in context so they are more likely to stick.

In the event that there isn’t anything to hand to pick up for naming, you can take everything a step further and try to describe the word. It is great fun and can even end up as a game something along the lines of a foreign language Catchphrase with you describing the word with words you do know or acting out verbs. Great fun will be had by all.