- Posted by VoiceBoxer Team
- On 7 April 2016
This happens to most of us every now and then: You know exactly what you want to say, yet the words escape you.
Thinking about those instances can make you aware of the fact that you do not always think in words and sentences. There are, in fact, a lot of steps in between having a thought and putting it into words, let alone into spoken language. But what does this process look like? Is there a difference between talking in a foreign language and your mother tongue?
The intuitive answer is “yes,” but what is that difference?
Let us examine this process with an example. Say you were out for dinner last night, and you would like to describe the Bordeaux that came with the second course to your coworker. For our purposes, the complex memory of the taste is the message you want to convey, so your brain now starts working on transforming that thought into speech.
You start off by searching for the words most fitting to that thought. In case of describing wine, those words might include “red,” “opulent,” or “earthy.” This is called the “lexical selection.” The bigger the vocabulary you have at your disposal, the better the fit between the thought and the words you choose, leading to more accurate communication. The difference between your mother tongue and a foreign language is the size and specificity of your vocabulary. It only takes about 400-500 words to get through 80% of your day-to-day conversations in a given language, but being able to intelligibly talk about many topics takes a whole lot more. An educated adult speaking English natively has a vocabulary of 20,000-35,000 words at their disposal while the most common vocabulary size for people who learn English as a foreign language is about 4,500 words. 
Now that you have chosen the adequate words, you will decide what to do with them. Say you now have “wine,” “drink,” “opulent,” “earthy,” and “I” stored in your memory, but how do they relate to each other? During this phase, called “function assignment,” you decide that you drank the wine, not the other way around, and that the adjectives describe the wine, not you as a person. This step more or less stays the same when switching languages, as the way the words relate to each other will, in most cases, stay as they were.
Now that you know how the different words relate to each other, it is time to encode them in the grammatical rules of the target language. Once you are done with the “positional processing,” you have produced something that will resemble “Last night, I had a great opulent and earthy wine during dinner.” It all comes down to practice here. If you only had a mediocre amount of practice in the foreign language of your choosing, you will go through this step considerably slower and make more mistakes than if you spoke in your mother tongue or a language in which you’ve had more practice.
In the final stage, you do the “phonological encoding.” This can be daring when learning a language. You send signals to your body in order to produce the sounds that are equal to the sentence you constructed. If you are familiar with the language you should be capable of producing the right ones and not sound too “off.” Producing the right sounds can take a lot of practice, and not being able to pronounce a foreign language properly can make a speaker very unwilling to communicate.
While Bock and Levelt’s model of speech production  is far from the only model for explaining this process, analyzing it can show us where difficulties in speaking another language may arise. In general, your mother tongue is the language where you have the best vocabulary, where encoding the message in the grammatical rules comes naturally, and where your body has had a lot of practice in pronunciation and speech. Speaking in any other language is therefore bound to be less precise.
Yet it is not only the loss of precision that matters when speaking in a foreign language. The fact that we are put into a position where we are limited in our ability to communicate can influence the way the speaker behaves and therefore is perceived by the audience.
While foreign language anxiety is a phenomenon well-studied in students, its existence is somewhat ignored outside the classroom but it undoubtedly exists. Foreign language anxiety has negative effects on confidence, self-esteem, participation in discussion, and can sometimes lead to complete mental blocks. Being put at a communicational disadvantage does influence the speaker in a negative way and can lead to him being perceived as silent, tense, less competent, indeed even less trustworthy !
It is important to keep in mind that the language you choose for communication not only influences how well your audience understands you but also how you present yourself.