There’s a funny little expression in English for when your mind pretty much decides to stop working temporarily: a brain fart. It happens to us all, and it’s totally normal. But that doesn’t mean that doesn’t make you feel awkward, uncomfortable, or just plain stupid. Today you’ll learn how to handle the most common language learning brain fart—forgetting a word or expression in the middle of a conversation, presentation, or test. Plus, maximize your chances that it won’t happen to you very often by learning vocabulary as efficiently as possible!
You can also listen to this article in podcast form via the MosaLingua Language Lab:
Even in our native language, we all have moments when there’s a word right on the tip of our tongue, but it doesn’t want to come out no matter how hard we try! Sometimes it’s even a person’s name, which can be really embarrassing!
And it happens more often to language learners because their target language is less familiar than their native language. So don’t worry, forgetting words when talking isn’t necessarily a sign of dementia. Did you know that learning a foreign language can be super beneficial for your brain? It can even help delay the onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Here are seven quick strategies to try when it happens to you during a conversation. If you’d rather watch my video where I recap these strategies, scroll down to the bottom of the article.
If you’re trying to watch TV, listen to the radio, or text and have a conversation at the same time, your brain has less energy to focus on remembering words. Give your brain all the help it can get. Get rid of those distractions and stop trying to multitask.
Some studies even recommend using hand gestures that are related to the word to help jog your memory! Does that mean that Italians and Brazilians are better at remembering vocabulary? Maybe! Associating new words to specific movements is also a good trick to help you memorize new words more easily.
If you can think of part of the word, especially if it’s the first part, say the sound out loud. Other studies have shown that sounds trigger memory retrieval. Usually, the first syllable or sound in a word can be a big help for remembering the rest. Try different combinations of the first sound with other sounds, and you may eventually get to the word you’re thinking of.
Then, if you’re totally focused and the gestures and sounds aren’t working, switch strategies. Define or describe the word you’re thinking of using other words. Think of it like the game show Pyramids or the board game Taboo, and it’ll be a lot more fun and a lot less stressful!
At the beginning of your language journey, you should study words like “person,” “thing,” and “place” in addition to some basic verbs, so that you can more easily describe what the word is, and what it does. For example, “a place for sick people” could describe a doctor’s office. “A place for very sick people” could describe a hospital. We learned this strategy from the famous polyglot Benny Lewis who defines these words as power nouns.
A similar strategy is to try to come up with a synonym to get around the word. Maybe you can’t remember the phrasal verb “working out” but you can remember “exercising.” Sure, it’s not the exact phrase you were thinking of, but it’s similar enough to get your message across just fine.
Likewise, you could use examples. Examples of exercising could be jogging, lifting weights, or going to Zumba.
And finally, move on. You don’t want to dwell too long on a word you can’t remember, because that will only lead to frustration. Besides, giving more context later on in your conversation might also help the person understand.
And one bonus strategy, just because I think it’s fun: one group of researchers found that saying a swear word decreases the likelihood that you will have a “tip-of-the-tongue moment” for the word immediately following the swear word. I promise I didn’t make that up! If you implement this strategy in your daily life, let me know in the comments if it works!
News flash: those people aren’t any smarter than you are, and they don’t have any kind of special gift for language learning, either. It’s all because of the methods they use. Practicing with the latest and most effective techniques, along with a few expert tips, is a recipe for success.
It can work for you, too! MosaTraining combines all of these tips and techniques into one comprehensive, hands-on approach to language learning.
There are also some tools that can help you remember vocabulary words you have forgotten. You probably don’t want to whip out your phone during a conversation! But if it’s still bugging you afterward, you may be able to find that word you were thinking of in these places:
- Try the Tip of My Tongue Word Finder. You can enter information like the first or last letter or sound, the word’s meaning, and even words that rhyme with it. It’s also available as an app.
- A thesaurus is another good place to check, if you can think of a synonym.
- Obviously, translation apps and online dictionaries can usually help, too.
- Finally, crowdsource your tip-of-the-tongue moment! There’s a specific Reddit forum (r/whatstheword) just for this problem!
Now, it’s great to have those strategies and tools, but wouldn’t it be even better if you could avoid that brain fart in the first place? As I said, it probably happens to you in your native language from time to time—it sure happens to me! So it’s tough to avoid mental lapses altogether, but there are ways you can prevent them, especially with words you’ve already had trouble with.
Watch Luca’s video about how to never forget what you learn again. It’s in English, but there are subtitles in 6 languages. Feel free to turn them on, or slow down the playback speed, by clicking the Settings icon (⚙️).
Great tips, right? For more language tips and hacks, join our community of YouTube subscribers.
There are many ways to make sure you don’t forget a word once you memorize it. (You may want to start with some changes to your diet and lifestyle to improve your memory.) My three main tips for avoiding future brain farts are:
First, make as many associations as possible with new words you want to be sure to remember.
To make it really simple (sorry to any neuroscientists reading this) think of your brain like an area of land. Each word is a destination—or a neuron, if you want to be scientific—and there are paths—called synapses—leading to and from the different destinations.
Now, when you first learn a new word, you create a new path. You mow the grass, you might even have to cut away some trees or bushes that are in your way. Each time you want to get to that word, it’s a bit easier, the grass is more and more trampled down, and the path is clearer. But you still have to maintain the path from time to time, or else it will get overgrown again.
Eventually, if the city council that lives in your brain sees that you’ve been going to the destination a lot, they’ll decide that it’s worth paving over that path with concrete. That’s the equivalent of the word making it into your long-term memory.
If there are multiple ways to get to a given destination, that also makes it more likely that you won’t get lost on the way. You can create new paths by using multiple different memory techniques when you learn a word, like associating it with strong emotion or creating an exaggerated mental picture.
My second tip is to use the Spaced Repetition System. With a Spaced Repetition System like the one in the MosaLingua apps and web platform, you don’t have to create your own practice schedule for each new flashcard you learn. The system will let you know exactly which path you need to walk (which word you need to practice) and when, to keep your paths from getting overgrown.
And finally, practice active recall rather than recognition. For more info on active vs. passive learning, check out this article.
You can think of active recall vs. recognition like using a good old-fashioned map instead of your GPS. It’s so important to practice the skill of remembering a vocabulary word from scratch, rather than relying on exercises that give you multiple choices. Why? Because the GPS, or multiple choices, make it too easy to get stuck on autopilot. Then, when your phone dies and you have no other choice, you don’t remember how to read a map anymore!
That’s how brain farts happen! The majority of speaking a foreign language is digging up words and creating sentences from your memory, not choosing the right answer from a list of three or four words. That’s why here at MosaLingua we prefer flashcards to multiple-choice questions.
So, did you get all that? Make sure you remember these strategies next time you have a brain fart—watch my video to recap and reinforce what you just learned!
There you have it! Next time when that word is right on the tip of your tongue but doesn’t want to come out, try the strategies I talked about at the beginning of the article. Then, be sure to put my three tips about memorizing vocabulary more efficiently to use before your next foreign-language conversation!