One of the things I find the most difficult about speaking in a new language is talking on the phone. Without any common visual cues or references, I think telephone conversations are the most difficult of any that you might have in a foreign tongue. If you are chatting online, it is so easy to take a moment to re-read what the other person has written, or check your own text (or throw it all into an online translator if you need to). If you are speaking in person it is much easier to refer to written material or a dictionary.
Speaking on the phone, especially if the other person is speaking at a native speed (which they inevitably will), gives you no clues. In the last few days, I have had to deal with some problem phone calls, including trying to cancel an order which I thought was cancelled (and so wasn’t expecting the courier to call me), ordering a taxi that wasn’t available at the time I wanted, and ordering dinner from a menu that is now obsolete. In all of these situations, I would have been able to deal with the transaction going smoothly (“Oh, you have something to deliver to me? Great, I’ll be home in an hour.”). It’s the unexpected situations that are the problem.
I inevitably have to resort to asking them to re-explain, rush to look terms up in the dictionary, and let streams of conversation run over my head. I will likely feel stupid and/or useless at some point in the dialogue. In the end, I managed to get what I wanted (cancelled order, earlier taxi, food), but I still feel like I missed important parts of the conversation (hopefully none that cost me money). Nevertheless, I’m still fairly proud of myself.
Besides endlessly asking people to repeat themselves, trying to get them to email you, or begging a better-spoken friend to handle your day-to-day issues, what can you do when dealing with people on the phone? Any suggestions?