Sticking to your target language isn’t always easy. But it’s a rule worth sticking to. Denying yourself the luxury of speaking your native language is vital in building up mental ingenuity and spontaneous, flexible thinking as a linguist.
However, it is a thing easier said than done. Especially when your vocabulary is limited as a language beginner.
My most recent experience of this has been in Polish. I’ve been learning the language quite casually for a while. I really enjoy it, but maybe haven’t had as much time to spend on it as I’d like. As such, my level isn’t particularly high just yet (maybe an A2), but I can get by.
Just over a year ago, I visited beautiful Gdańsk for my first taste of Poland. I knew my Polish wasn’t brilliant, but I was determined to try and use it. Fairly quickly, I realised that this meant mastering more than just words. It was all about supporting my speaking with purposeful non-verbal cues and pointers.
Thrifty speaking shortcuts
You can pave the way for an efficient speaking-signing hybrid language by careful vocab prep. The trick is to learn words and constructions that have a general, rather than a specific application.
Demonstratives are essential – put this (one) and that (one) at the top of your list. Also, non-specific placeholder words like something, someone and somewhere can be linguistic lifesavers when you are short on vocabulary. Add like … / like this / like that, and you have an instant tie-in to hand gestures, pointing and more ways to get your intentions across without being a walking phrasebook.
Likewise, many languages have polite constructions for requesting something. Examples include Polish poproszę, French je voudrais, German ich möchte, Icelandic ég ætla að fá, Norwegian jeg vil gjerne ha and so on. These are transactional workhorses that you can use again and again. They combine perfectly with the general pointer words or gestures above.
If you lack those, even just saying the word/phrase for please, followed by the item you want, should work. If that still doesn’t work, gesticulating wildly will eventually yield the desired results. Just don’t be tempted to lapse into English!
Finally, words of possibility are very useful when combined with hand-talk. Just a simple is it possible? or can I?, combined with some pointing, will make it quite clear that you are asking for permission, for example.
Not just crutches
The fact is that planning for all these non-speech cues and helpers prepares you for real communication. How often is that you have tip-of-your-tongue moments in English, or struggle for the right word for something? And, like me, most people use gestures all the time to supplement everyday native language chat. So much of our regular interaction is non-verbal.
These are not simply crutches for the initial stages of language learning – they are part and parcel of human communication. Language is not simply words. It is an process set in a context of bodies, places and intentions. Working with that fact in your first steps learning a new tongue is no bad thing.