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What to do when you don't know a word

8 Feb 2011
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Is it time to panic? Photo by Mikel Manitius.

As I've written previously, learning vocabulary is the biggest challenge in language learning: there are almost an infinite number of words to learn!

Inevitably, you will be in a situation where you need to use a word that you don't know.

What should you do? Panic? ;-)

The short answer: circumlocution. The long answer: read the rest of this post!

How do you say dehumidifier?

When we were living in Poland, we had a massive problem with moisture in our apartment, particularly during the winter.

Our dishes dried on a rack in the kitchen and our bathroom didn't have a window. In the warm months, we dried our clothes on the balcony, but in the winter we dried them inside.

Moisture leads to mold. Mold leads to ruined paint, rotten bread and allergies.

I started trying to find a place to buy a dehumidifier. At many stores they sell a kind of chemical dehumidifier (a big white puck) that takes water out of the air, but didn't work nearly fast enough for the size of our humidity problem.

Dehumidifier
The dehumidifier we eventually bought.

For some reason, electric dehumidifiers are very uncommon in Poland. I even had trouble figuring out the correct word. Searching on the internet led to many different possibilities, including: "osuszacz powietrza," "odwilżacz" and "pochłaniacz wilgoci."

I went to every store I thought might have a dehumidifier and tried each word in turn. The clerk I asked always ended up looking at me like I was crazy!

So, I gave up on the words I found on the internet and simply described what I wanted using other words which I already knew. This is called "circumlocution."

"Szukam elektrycznego sprzętu, który usuwa wilgoć z powietrza." This means, "I'm looking for an electric appliance that removes moisture from the air."

Some people always carry a dictionary with them in case there is a word they need. This works, but it can cause some interesting pauses as you are searching for the right word. And if it's a word you've never heard before, you can never really be sure it means what you intend in the target language.

So, instead just describe the thing you are looking for using words you already know!

Have you ever tried this technique? What other techniques have you used when you don't know a word? Write a comment below!

Anonymous's picture

Witaj,

bardzo podoba mi się to co piszesz i w jaki sposób piszesz. Zastanawiam się, czy podoba Ci się nasz język :)

pozdrowienia
D.

Posted by: Dominus (not verified) | Wednesday, February 9, 2011 - 14:39
Anonymous's picture

Witam,
duże wrażenie robi to w jakim stopniu opanowałeś nasz język. Sam chciałbym tak dobrze mówić po angielsku, jak Ty po polsku.
PS. "powiedtrza" => powietrza, choć pewnie to tylko literówka bo kolejne wystąpienie tego słowa już jest ok.

Posted by: metaxy (not verified) | Saturday, February 12, 2011 - 17:54
David Snopek's picture

Dziękuję za poprawkę! Już poprawiłem artykuł.

Pozdrawiam serdecznie,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Monday, February 14, 2011 - 11:03
Anonymous's picture

Of course ... I am trying improvise :) I am sometimes using other words which seems to me be similar and sometimes hands are also useful ;)

Anonymous's picture

Hey David.

Please share what model did you buy? I also have problem with moisture and I've tried chemical dehumidifiers as well but effects weren't satisfactory. So "electric" soultion seems to be perfect :) BTW - in previous sentence ("I also have...") I've used PP tense ("I've tried...") and then Simple Past ("effects weren't..."). Is this a mistake? I'm wondering if such mixing is acceptable.

Kind regards :)

Posted by: crs (not verified) | Wednesday, March 30, 2011 - 12:40
David Snopek's picture

Hello!

It was an Olimpia Splendid SeccoReale. I bought it at AGD RTV Euro.

Mixing different types of tenses is acceptable (perfect and simple, continuous and simple, etc) but not different times (meaning past, present, future). The whole sentence was in the past, so it's OK!

Best regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Wednesday, March 30, 2011 - 14:15
Anonymous's picture

Describing the word, using hands to show what I mean, and also the good method is drawing.

Posted by: Lena (not verified) | Friday, April 1, 2011 - 15:06
Anonymous's picture

One day I had an english lesson in my school. The Teacher told me to describe a picture with a (soup) ladle ("Chochla" in polish).

And I had no idea how it was called in english and even in polish!

My teacher said to describe it with an other words, so my classmate tried this and said
"The photo shows a spoon, that is used to serve a soup"
TADAAA it was correct, so even if you don't know some words, there is always some way to solve a problem ^_^

Posted by: seba2122 (not verified) | Tuesday, April 12, 2011 - 11:24
Anonymous's picture

Cześć David,

Czytając ten wpis przypomniała mi się identyczna sytuacja, która spotkała mnie podczas mojego pobytu w USA i pierwszych zakupów które realizowałem w miejscowym Wallmart'cie. Problem może wydawać się banalny ale na tamtą chwilę był dla mnie dość zabawny a zarazem poważny. Potrzebowałem bowiem zakupić tartą bułkę, która miała mi posłużyć później do przygotowania panierki na kotlety. I tutaj w mojej glowie nastała pustka... jak jest po angielsku "tarta bułka" :)? Zaczepiłem pierwszą lepszą Panią robiącą zakupy i wytłumaczyłem w bardzo podobny jak Ty sposób że:
- "I'm looking for something like a ground roll that is used to coat a chicken for example in KFC?".
Na co po chwili zastanowienia Pani odparła:
- "Ohhhh... I'know what you're looking for, it's probably breadcrumbs" - po czym wskazała regał, na którym odnalazłem wreszcie poszukiwane "okruchy chleba" :) Kotlety smakowały a ja poszerzyłem moje słownictwo. Cała sytuacja do dziś wywołuje we mnie miłe wspomnienie :)

Pozdrawiam,
Paweł

Posted by: PaVliK (not verified) | Monday, June 6, 2011 - 15:57
David Snopek's picture

Cześć Paweł!

To fajna historia! Nic nie smakuje tak dobrze, jak rozwiązany problem w obcym kraju. :-) Nazwa "tarta bułka" zawsze wydawała mi się bardziej logiczna niż "breadcrumbs". Bo przecież tarta bułka sama nie robi się - ktoś musi to trzeć. :-)

Pozdrawiam serdecznie,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Monday, June 6, 2011 - 17:15
Anonymous's picture

Very nice article :) And a lot of new words for me... :)
Greetings!

Posted by: P.o.l.a (not verified) | Thursday, December 8, 2011 - 18:48
David Snopek's picture

Thanks!

Posted by: David Snopek | Saturday, December 10, 2011 - 09:47
Anonymous's picture

[...] tym etapie rozwijasz i ćwiczysz "strategie mówienia" takie jak peryfraza (kiedy nie znasz słowa), różne wyrażenia konwersacyjne do podtrzymania biegu rozmowy oraz [...]

Anonymous's picture

[...] Circumlocution [...]

Anonymous's picture

[...] this point you develop and practice "speaking strategies" like circumlocution (for when you don't know a word), various conversational phrases to keep things flowing, and even [...]

Anonymous's picture

[...] tym kroku rozwijasz i ćwiczysz “strategie mówienia” takie jak circumlocution (kiedy nie znasz słowa), różne wyrażenia konwersacyjne do podtrzymania biegu rozmowy oraz [...]

Anonymous's picture

[...] this step, the goal is to develop and practice "speaking strategies" like circumlocution (for when you don't know a word), various conversational phrases to keep things flowing and even [...]

Anonymous's picture

Ja miałem problem podczas matury ustnej z języka angielskiego. Moim zadaniem było opisanie obrazka na którym pewien człowiek kopał za pomocą łopaty dołek w celu posadzenia drzewka.

Trudno opisać taki rysunek, gdy człowiek nie wie jak jest łopata po angielsku. Z sytuacji wyszedłem tak, że po prostu tam gdzie miało być "spade" lub "shovel" (już do końca życia zapamiętam :P ) używałem zwrotu "The thing which is used to digging". Maturę udało się zdać z wynikiem 13/20 :)

Pozdrawiam :)

Posted by: Bronzar (not verified) | Sunday, June 3, 2012 - 08:29
David Snopek's picture

Hehe, to fajny przykład i sprytne wyjście. :-) Pozdrawiam, David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Sunday, June 3, 2012 - 15:02
Anonymous's picture

Hello,
I also had very similar situation in London :) I went to the shop which was selling stationary and I was looking for "zszywki do zszywacza". It was really problematic because I didn't know how to say "zszywacz", let alone say "zszywki" that's why how could I explain what I want to buy exactly when these two words are connected with each other?? ;( So, I started to explain that I'm looking for "small metal things used to join, for example, two sheets of paper..." the clerk asked me; "Do you mean staples? "I guess so" I replied, but I wasn't sure what it meant. I was really confused, but my shopping finally ended good. :):) So, for the rest of my life I'll remember these two words "stapler" and "staples" ;P

Posted by: dominika (not verified) | Tuesday, February 19, 2013 - 10:48
David Snopek's picture

Hi Dominika!

Heh, that's a great story! It's interesting how those types of situations can help us remember certain vocabulary forever. :-)

Best regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Wednesday, February 20, 2013 - 07:39

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