Everyone who has worked on learning a foreign language and communicating with it has most likely experienced a similar problem. You’re trying to talk to someone in the language, you’re doing okay, but then the dreadful happens. You want to say something – something that’s perhaps even relatively simple – but you have no idea how to say it. You might even know the grammar bits that you’d need to use, but you don’t know the vocabulary words.
There’s something you can do to make this happen a little less often. A lot of the time when you’re talking to someone, you’re talking about what you did during your day, what you thought about, etc. This obviously isn’t always the case, but it let’s face it: we all talk about ourselves, and a lot.
So, here’s what to do: throughout your day, carry a small notebook around with you, or even a stack of index cards. As you go about your day, when you have a moment, just think about what it is you’re doing. What action are you performing? What are you looking at? What’s around you? And then, try to think about that in your target language. Do you know all of the words to express what it is you’re doing or thinking about? If you come across a word or expression that you don’t know, write down word that you’d use in your native language. Later, when you’re home and can get to your language learning materials, look up the words you need and note them in whatever vocabulary storage you use, whether it’s a plain notebook or a computer flashcard program.
This is a good way to hunt down the words that you really want; the words and expressions that are important to you. While I think it’s a good idea to learn the vocabulary lists that are provided in language books, often, these vocabularies are quite generic, and will not cover what you as an individual want to express in your target language. For those words and expressions, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands and hunt them down. Paying attention to what you do throughout your day, along with your thoughts, and trying to express those actions and thoughts in your target language, is one way to find the words you really want to know.