Keeping the Conversation Going, Even if you Understand Nothing





When studying abroad, no matter how much or how long you’ve been studying the language, there will be times where you’re conversing with someone not in your native tongue, and you will be thinking, “I have no idea what you’re saying right now.” For me, this thought has occurred too many times to count, and it can be one of the most frustrating things to deal with, especially considering all the time you’ve taken to study the language! Even though I’ve been studying Japanese for almost three years, even simple conversations between me and the grocery store clerk leave me having absolutely no idea what was really said.

Considering many study abroad students are still in the early stages of learning a language, I’m sure I’m not the only one who experiences this sort of thing. Because of that, here’s some tips I’ve come up with some strategies to prevent leaving you and your speaking partner awkwardly ending the conversation, as well as avoid those “I-don’t-understand-you-but-I’m-going-to-pretend-I-do” smiles and nods.

1) If you don’t understand something, ask!

This is probably the most obvious option, but I understand that it can also be one of the most nerve-wracking. What if the conversation ends up being more complicated and I’ll end up understanding even less? First of all, that probably won’t happen. If you say, “I’m sorry, but could you say that again?” or just “Sorry, I don’t understand.”, that is a signal to your speaking partner to use their words more carefully, and they’ll probably use simpler words when speaking with you. Even if you are just starting to learn the language your program focuses on, I would suggest at least learning these phrases before going abroad.

One of the signs for everyone’s trash in our apartment. On the day we arrived, our Japanese housemates did their best to explain which trash will go where (we also have signs for plastic and non-recyclable garbage). After letting them know that not everyone understood their explanation, we came up with a compromise to post these signs in Japanese and English.

2) If you can’t say it through words, use another method!

There are other ways of expressing thoughts other than through voice. At times when you’re not understanding the conversation, giving a look of confusion can signal your speaking partner to give you an explanation. This is a strategy I use often with friends and professors alike. Rather than give your speaking partner a deadpan look that foreshadows a possible end to the conversation, cocking your head or uttering a “Hm?” not only expresses confusion to your speaking partner, but it is also expressing to them that you are listening and engaged in the conversation, as if to say “I’m listening to you, but I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

For beginners especially, other communication methods such as acting out and/or drawing your thoughts are other helpful ways to get your point across!

3)Sometimes, you just won’t get it (but don’t let it get to you)!

More likely than not, there will be some situations where there will not be an opportunity to use the learning methods I mentioned above, or you may forget to, or may not even want to. For example, when my train ticket wasn’t being accepted and I could not pass the gate, I understood little to nothing about the explanation the station attendant gave me. Feeling too insecure and panicked, rather than ask him to explain again, I thanked him and eventually figured out how to solve the problem myself, but in doing so I had stood in the middle of the station feeling lost, anxious, and very frustrated.

Conversations are not always going to be successful, but just remember to not be hard on yourself about it. If you maintain that image of wanting to engage and learn from your speaking partner, conversations will most likely go smoothly and you will learn a lot! Keep in mind, too, that you will most likely be surrounded by others willing to help you improve your language skills!