Focus on What You CAN Say in English Instead of What You CAN’T!

By Robby

If you are new here please read this first.

Focus on your active English vocabulary

When You Focus Too Much on What You CAN’T Say in English…

… you find it very hard to concentrate on the topic at hand; your mind seems to be drifting away in a hundred different directions leaving you unable to have a normal conversation…

… you have a feeling as if the stuff you want to say is right in front of you yet you can’t read it out

… you keep confusing words and making mistakes when speaking…

… you constantly question yourself if you said it correctly – as a result you start making even more and more mistakes…

… you’re just unable to produce normal, fluent English speech. What can be worse for you as a foreign English speaker? 🙁

But let’s begin by looking at this issue by drawing parallels between spoken English and another type of activity I’m into.

I’ve been blogging and running several websites for about five years now, and over the time I’ve learnt a great deal about technical aspects of website building such as HTML coding, working with graphic files and using different software to create videos. I would still rely on professional help when it comes to design and setting up WordPress themes, but by and large I would feel quite comfortable at what I’m doing. After all – I created the English Harmony System using Camtasia Studio software and I think it’s no mean feat!

In other words there’s a lot of things I CAN do when it comes to educational product creation and website building and I would consider myself a pretty decent Internet marketer.

Yet there are many other aspects of website building that I haven’t got a clue about! There are plenty of things I CAN’T do and I would have to spend a considerable amount of time mastering web design, CSS language and who knows what else.

Same goes with spoken English.

I CAN say a lot in English, and I feel comfortable discussing nearly any topic – unless it concerns something I don’t take interest in. If I look at the average native English speaker, on the other hand, there is so much I’ve yet to learn and improve that it’s quite easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of English knowledge I don’t know and CAN’T use.

Can you see where I’m coming from?

It’s easy to get worked up when you look at things you CAN’T do, and if you focus too much on those aspects of the particular subject you don’t know, you can seriously damage your determination and desire to be successful ❗

A well educated native English speaker has about 20 thousand English words in his vocabulary, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be as successful as him in your chosen area if you know only a half or a third of that.

There’s always someone who speaks English better than you, yet it doesn’t mean you have to feel inferior every time you hear someone speak a word or a phrase you can’t use. You have to grow your English knowledge based on what YOU KNOW and what YOU CAN use, so let’s look at what happens behind the scenes if you get too wound up about English phrases, idioms and words you CAN’T use.

First of all though, let’s start with a startling realization… You actually know more English than you think! 🙂

You KNOW A Whole Lot More Than You CAN Say!

Not every foreign English speaker is aware of the simple fact that there’s a big difference between active and passive vocabularies.

Your ACTIVE English vocabulary consists of all words, phrases and expressions you can actually USE in conversations.

Your PASSIVE vocabulary exceeds the active one big time and is made up of everything you UNDERSTAND and RECOGNIZE in English, but can’t use when speaking.

I’ve often heard foreign English speakers say things like – How come I understand everything I’m told but when I have to speak myself I can’t speak the same way!” Or – “I knew what I wanted to say, it just slipped my mind…” It’s very easy to explain, and it’s all about the active and passive vocabularies.

When you listen to other foreign or native English speakers, you understand everything because your passive vocabulary is much larger that your active one, and it’s actually quite natural.

Also, when you get the feeling that you know what you want to say but you still can’t say it out loud, it’s about your mind being unable to produce the respective English sentence because you haven’t used it often and it hasn’t been added on to your active vocabulary, simple as that!

It’s probably no comfort to you to know the reason for not being able to speak like native English speakers, but still it’s something to start with. And the first thing you should do is – develop a habit of never looking down on yourself when it comes to speaking English!

It’s important to understand that the very urge to say something you CAN’T is born out of hurt pride. You basically want to speak better than you do, and generally it’s a good thing.

What’s bad about it is – by complaining about how little you can say you’re not making things better. Instead of whining about how badly you speak, take action and make effort to add more phrases to your active English vocabulary every day…

… or else you risk getting so confused by keeping thinking about what you CAN’T say that you may run into real English fluency problems!

Three Powerful Tips to Help You Focus on
What You CAN Say in English

Tip #1 – Eliminate translation between your native language and English when you speak English.

You have to understand that every language you learn and speak is used naturally ONLY when you don’t associate it with another language. If you learn new English vocabulary as a direct translation from your native language, you’ll always be struggling to speak fluent English because of the following – you’ll always think in your language first, and then say it in English.

But here’s the main issue – if you speak following the aforementioned pattern, you’ll often face inability to find a corresponding English word or phrase because you’ll have acquired a habit of translating things literally. This will lead to frequent situations of not being able to say all you want.

Let me give you an example. Here’s a sentence in Latvian – “Májás valda nekártíba”. There was a time when I would have translated this sentence directly and I would have looked for the exact words in English. I would have got stuck on the word “valda” because its direct translation “reigns” wouldn’t make sense in the context of home and disarray. “Disarray reigns at home” sounds completely wrong, and most English speakers wouldn’t understand what I mean by it.

Now, when I think only in English when I speak English, I would say it without thinking – “My home is messed up”.

Years ago I would have looked up the word “valdít” (which is infinitive of the verb “valda”) in my Latvian – English dictionary, I would have taken down all its meanings in English in my notebook and learnt them by heart. I would have acquired a false sense of filling the gaps in my spoken English while in reality all I needed was to learn the phrasal verb instead – “to mess up”!

Moreover – there’s a chance that I already knew the meaning of “messed up” so I actually COULD say what I wanted to; searching for a direct translation only made me feel as if there’s something I COULD NOT say ❗

Tip #2 – Think in English when you speak English!

This one is closely related to the previous one. Basically when you gradually do away with translating between your native language and English, you automatically start thinking in English. When you’ve made it your second nature, you’ll naturally find that there are very few things you can’t say.

Every time you force yourself to think in English, you train your mind to establish contextual links between English words and abstract concepts. And after a while when seeing a scene of mess, your mouth will automatically produce a sentence “It’s all messed up” because the abstract image of a mess has become strongly associated with the phrasal verb “to mess up”.

Of course, you can use the more formal word “disarray”, but since my English Harmony project is dedicated to spoken English improvement, I’m more inclined towards using phrasal verbs and informal expressions 😉

Tip #3 – If you have a feeling you CAN’T say something in English – paraphrase!

Try to visually imagine all your active English vocabulary as a huge cluster of words, phrases and expressions. Now the point I’m trying to make is that nearly all English words can be substituted by others.

Whenever you have a feeling you CAN’T say something, you just have to put it in different words, so essentially your limited English vocabulary will still allow you to say ALL you want.

You just have to keep thinking in English while you paraphrase, keep your mind relaxed and use very simple words to describe the abstract concept you have in mind. I believe that one can describe very difficult technical concepts using basic English vocabulary, so I’ll say it once more – focus on what you CAN say instead of chasing the ever avoiding phrase or word that you want to say out loud, but you CAN’T…

Say for instance, you’re looking at some broken down machine with your English speaking co-workers in a factory you work in. You’re looking at all the levers; springs and others pieces of metallic parts and you want to point out that the ball bearings seem to be faulty. The only problem is – you’ve forgotten the words “ball bearings”… You have a feeling that you know those words, and they seem to be right on the tip of your tongue… Yet they keep avoiding you so it’s something you just CAN’T say.



Simply put it in different words, describe the ball bearings using English words you KNOW and you CAN say – “… the round shaped metallic part with the little balls in it.” See? Wasn’t that difficult, was it? And when your co-worker points it out to you that it’s called “ball bearings”, you’ll probably add those words to your active vocabulary after a few repetitions to yourself – “ball bearings, ball bearings, ball bearings…”

Bruce Lee once said: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times”. There’s great wisdom in this quote, and there’s something in it for every foreign English speaker, too.

Can you guess what it is?

Let me paraphrase it for you – “Not the one is a fluent English speaker who knows 10,000 words; it’s the one who can use 100 words in 10,000 ways”.


P.S. Are you ready to get on the fast track to spoken English fluency? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!


English Harmony System

P.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out the English Harmony System HERE!

English Harmony System
  • No problem Arkadiy, you’re welcome and I’m glad you find my articles motivating!!!

  • Arkadiy

    Great article, Robby, though as always. You understand all this niceties, what is needed to pay attention. Amazingly! All the more English language is not your native.For many years attempts of learning i’ve never met such simple and useful advices. Thank you very much, Robby.

  • Abdulrrahman

    Yes, my mistake.

  • Did you not mean to say Fluency = Active Vocabulary/Passive Vocabulary ? Then it would make a perfect sense to me and by the way – it’s a perfect formula, never thought of it that way!u00a0nnThanksu00a0Abdulrrahman!

  • Abdulrrahman

    I’ve conceived the relation between active and passive vocabulary mathematically u2013 Fluency = Inactive Vocabulary/Passive Vocabulary. Thus, the more passive vocabulary grows, the less the fraction becomes smaller, and vice versa. It’s not a math blog though. Thanks for clearing everything.

  • Thanks for the comment Aaron, I completely agree with what you said about when one is in a conversation, one has to forget all about English learning and just enjoy the conversation. To achieve that, one must get fully involved, and I also agree with you – it’s easier said than done, but it can be accomplished. Here’s an blog post of mine where I’m discussing a few techniques on how to do it -u00a0

  • Hi Robby,nGreat motivational article, as always.nnJust to play devil’s advocate, though, I just read an article ( about how people who focus on how much they have left to go are more successful in finishing a project:nn

    “Koo and Fishbach’s studies consistently show that when we are pursuing a goal and consider how far we’ve already come, we feel a premature sense of accomplishment and begin to slack off.”

    nnI think that the problem you’re addressing is people who feel self-conscious and uncomfortable when it comes time to speak English. In that moment, I completely agree that it’s important to feel confident, and thinking about all the “mistakes” you’re making is a bad idea.nnIt seems to me that the best attitude to have is to focus on how much you have left to learn, but only when you’re “offline”. When you’re in conversation, though, forget all that and just feel good about whatever your ability level is at that time. Of course, this is easier said than done, but it’s something to consider.