How To Stumble Through A Foreign Conversation

Indonesian friends

I was able to practice my Bahasa Indonesia with these 2 in Lombok

I really like trying to learn languages. During my month in Indonesia, I actually picked up quite a bit of Bahasa Indonesia. Right now, I’ve been traveling in Latin America since the end of February, and my Spanish is pretty good. I’m able to carry on a one on one conversation with most people most of the time. However, there are some people I can’t seem to understand at all. Old people, a handful of taxi drivers, drunk people, and teenagers who speak loosely with a lot of slang top my list. Instead of saying, “No entiendo,” all the time, I have learned to fake my way through it.

Tip #1: Mirror

This is a technique I learned in a psych class in college. It involves mimicking the other person’s body language and facial expressions to become more “in tune” with them. If someone is telling you about a moment that they felt surprised, their eyes will be wide and their eyebrows raised. You should mimic their look of surprise. If it’s a sad story, put on a sympathetic face. If the other person is laughing, smile big and nod. If there are other people listening who actually understand the story, copy their expressions.

Tip #2: Listen For Keywords

Maybe you’re beginning to learn a language and you’ve got some of the basics down. Someone asks you a question, but you didn’t quite catch what they said. Usually, I’ll ask them to repeat it one more time. If I still don’t get it, I do a quick analysis of the keywords I did understand and scramble them around to make a question. Sometimes that works, sometimes they’ll look at you like you’re a little crazy, depends on how lucky you are.

Tip #3: The Dramatic Pause

friends in Bangkok, Thailand

a couple new friends in Bangkok

You’ve been nodding and smiling while your new acquaintance smiles away, and all of a sudden they stop and look at you expectantly. Uh-oh – you’ve been asked a question, and you have no clue what the topic is. In this situation, I make a face as if I’m thinking deeply, sometimes accompanied by a thinking sound like, “Hmmm…” Then I wait it out. If it’s a fast talker or a high energy, excitable individual, chances are they won’t have patience to wait for your answer and will begin talking again.

Tip #4: Affirmations

Regular conversations are splattered with affirmative-type words like, “right,” “uh-huh,” “mm-hmm,” “oh yeah,” and, “really?” which serve as simple cues to let the speaker know that you are listening. Learning a few of these makes it seem like you know exactly what’s up. In Spanish, some of my favorites are, “asi?” “en serio?” and “verdad?”

I typically only use these methods if the conversation isn’t really important, such as small talk at a bus stop or in line at the grocery store. Obviously if you were having a deep conversation with someone, or you’re talking to an immigration officer, you don’t want to whip these out.

Have you had to fake a foreign conversation?

2 Comments
  • Casey
    May 23, 2011

    When in the middle east studying Arabic, I found the keyword strategy invaluable.. at least in the beginning. 

    There were some awkward moments in the street when I thought I had gotten “the gist” of someone’s meaning, but I in fact had missed a crucial negation (or something similar).

    Eventually I had to give up on that strategy and just relentlessly ask people to repeat themselves. Of course, after the fourth or fifth repetition I would just smile and nod. 

  • Jasmine Stephenson
    May 23, 2011

    I can relate… when I was first learning Spanish, I was master of the smile and nod, especially when I had to constantly ask people to repeat themselves. The key I think is to make friends with someone who has endless amounts of patience.

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