8 Easy Tips to Improve Your Conversational English
So you’ve spent years studying the English language, and you feel like you know the grammar, you know the pronunciation, and you’ve gained a rich vocabulary. Why, then, do you still feel like you sound so wooden?
Classroom English, while important, often doesn’t sound like real conversations. It also tends to focus on reading and writing more than speaking and listening. But if you’re learning English because you interact with real people in real-world situations, you’ll have to learn conversational English. This article offers tips and tricks to help you develop your conversational English skills.
Last Updated May 2022
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If you’re more interested in working on your grammar, check out this article on English Grammar 101 on Udemy.
1. Pick your English
Just like the English you learn from a textbook is different from the English you learn while running errands, there are many, many types of English. If you wish to learn to speak conversational English, first decide which type you’d like to learn. As you can imagine, conversational English in an office in California will sound very different from that of the streets of Pretoria, South Africa. People use different types of slang, different inflections, and different idioms. It’s important for you to pick the kind of conversational English you want to learn and be as specific as possible.
2. Listen and learn
If you live in a place that speaks the conversational English you want to learn, you might consider taking a notebook with you everywhere you go. Typing notes into a smartphone is not enough: the physical act of writing things down helps you remember them.
Pay attention to the conversations native English speakers around you are having. If you’re sitting on the bus, listen to the casual conversation between the bus driver and a passenger. If you’re at a restaurant, pay attention to the discussion between the people at the next booth. But instead of trying to uncover secrets, listen for how the people are speaking.
Take note of the type of conversation. Are the people at the booth co-workers talking about their jobs? Is the bus driver giving directions? Make a note of any grammar, usage, or pronunciation mistakes. Also, listen for inflection and watch the body language of the speakers.
If you don’t live in a place that speaks the conversational English you want to learn, don’t worry! Just find ways to immerse yourself. Watching movies and TV shows from those places is a good first step (although you have to be careful to pick authentic ones). Even better: watch videos that were made in those places and that feature people who are not professional actors and who are not following a script.
After you’ve observed, practice what you learn. It’s best to do this by yourself, in front of a mirror. Practice using an idiom you heard, or using a certain kind of inflection. Doing this will feel weird and awkward at first. This is normal!
3. Learn the local idioms
One of the things that make different types of English unique is idioms. But what is an idiom? An idiom is a phrase whose meaning you can’t guess just by looking at the words. For example, it’s raining cats and dogs is a common idiom that means “it’s raining very hard.” If you’d never seen it before, you would have no way of knowing that that’s what it meant.
Every region has its own set of idioms. An idiom that might be very common in one region will not be understood elsewhere. Idioms are part of what makes regional types of English so rich and colorful. They’re definitely worth learning! Knowing how to use them will help your English sound more conversational.
Lots of dictionaries of regional idioms are available; which one is right for you will depend on which regional English you wish to learn.
4. Learn the local lingo
Did you know that there are many ways of saying “semi-truck”? Depending on where people are from, they refer to the large, articulated vehicle designed to transport goods by road as a lorry, trailer truck, tractor-trailer, 18-wheeler, big rig, juggernaut, and many other things.
And that’s not all. Depending on where you’re from, the grey bug that rolls up is called roly-poly, pill bug, or potato bug.
The words you use to describe certain things will be different, depending on where you live. People in the United States will give you a funny look if you call a car’s storage area the “boot.” When Australians talk about a ‘barbie,’ they’re talking about a way of grilling food, not the doll.
All this to say that even though English-speaking regions have much in common, there are also differences in language that come up in conversational English. If you want to get better at conversational English in a region of the United States, Harvard University Press has published the Dictionary of American Regional English, parts of which are available online. It includes many of the words that we’ve mentioned above and lots more. If you’re more interested in British English, the Oxford English Dictionary has plenty of regional terms for you to look up.
You can learn a lot from books, but the best way to learn conversational English is by speaking.
5. Learn non-verbal communication
Even though language articles such as this one focus a lot on language, it would be a mistake to ignore the importance of non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication can be divided into three broad categories: body language, inflection, and exclamations (like uh-huh, hmmm, or oooh).
Body language is very important in communication. Body language can include gestures, facial expressions, and head movements. You have to be careful using body language. Some gestures are perfectly acceptable in one culture but very rude in others. For example, people in India might raise their chin to indicate that they’re asking a question. In other cultures, that gesture might be seen as a challenge, as if that person wanted to fight.
While there are too many types of body language to mention here, you will find that paying attention to your own body language – as well as that of others – is crucial in participating in conversations.
Inflection is how you modulate your voice to indicate the purpose of your speech. Your inflection changes depending on whether you’re asking a question, making a statement, or giving a warning. But it goes deeper than that: for example, consider the question, “Did you take my pen?” People asking this question will sound very different if they’re curious, or if they’re angry, or if they’re amused.
Just like so many other things, inflections are different in different regions. And once again, it’s easy to misunderstand inflection or be misunderstood if you haven’t learned the right kind of inflection for the conversational English of your region.
Exclamations are sounds we make that aren’t considered words but still communicate meaning. For example, in American English, “uh-huh” means yes, and “uh uh” means no. They may sound almost identical to someone who is not used to them, but they have opposite meanings.
Every language is full of exclamations, and like so many other things, different languages, and different regions, will use exclamations that don’t exist elsewhere. The Canadian “eh?” and the informal British “innit?” mean pretty much the same thing (“don’t you think what I’m saying is correct?”). So, if you would like to learn conversational Canadian English, you might want to practice ending your sentences with “eh?”, not “innit?”
6. Start by doing
This might be the scariest piece of advice. The best way to learn conversational English is to have a lot of conversations in English. If you are like many people, you’re probably thinking that you’d rather jump into a pool full of sharks. If this is you, here are some ways to make the idea a little less scary:
- Don’t feel like you need to be the main speaker! If speaking in English is just too frightening, start by focusing on non-verbal communication like body language and making noises like “uh-huh” that indicate that you’re listening and participating. You can also occasionally add something like “Yeah,” or “I see.” You’ll gradually become more confident.
- Prepare by writing a script. Not word for word, of course. Before you start a conversation, think about what you’re going to say, and anticipate what the other person will say. Make a list of the vocabulary you’ll need to carry the conversation through. Try out some of the idioms you’ve learned.
- Start small. At first, a casual conversation about the weather with the check-out person at the grocery store is great. You can then move on to more complex dialogue, like asking co-workers about their plans for the weekend.
Remember that when learning conversational English, correctness is less important than fluency. The people you’re speaking with don’t care if you’re making some grammar mistake. They might not even notice! And unless you’re having a conversation with a roomful of English teachers, they probably make plenty of mistakes themselves.
7. Immerse yourself
We now know that people process their native language in a different part of their brain than their acquired language(s). We also know that people who have spent time learning a language in an immersive environment — for example, by living in the country — process their second language in the same part of the brain as the one where their native language is processed.
For you, this means that the best way to develop your conversational English is to put yourself in situations where it is the only language spoken. If you live in a place that speaks the kind of English you want to learn, great! You’ll have many opportunities to practice every day. If you don’t live in an English-speaking country, or if you want to learn conversational English from another place, then you’ll have to find opportunities to immerse yourself in the language. For example, if you wish to learn conversational Australian English, see if there’s an Australian community near you and if any gatherings are open to you.
8. Find a conversation partner
If immersing yourself is too difficult, try finding a conversation partner. The internet is a powerful tool for this. Perhaps this is someone who wants to learn your native language (if it’s not English) and can practice on you, or you have some other skill you can trade. Ideally, your partner will be a native of the region whose English you want to learn and will be available for at least a couple of hours a week.
At first, especially if you’re nervous, you might consider selecting themes for the conversation. That way, you can learn the vocabulary before you have the conversation. Make sure your conversation partner knows that you want to learn colloquialisms and that you are less interested in having your grammar corrected. This might also be a good way to make new friends!
Because there is no set course, learning conversational English can sometimes feel like a big challenge. But don’t worry! Getting started is the hardest part. When you follow this advice and give yourself lots of chances at practicing speaking, you’ll find that your English is more colloquial and more natural than ever before. Good luck!
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