Are you learning English and want to start real conversations with native English speakers? Or perhaps you're learning another language, and would like ideas for how to get speaking practice. I have had many students with excellent English come to me recently telling me that native speakers do not understand them. If you are one of those people, then these tips are for you!
I know it can be scary to start a conversation with someone, or to join a group conversation – especially in your second language. You might be wondering “what do I say?” or “what if I say the wrong thing?” or “what if people think I’m stupid?”
Here’s the problem for language learners: What you learn in the classroom sometimes just isn’t relevant to everyday situations. You would never start a conversation with “How many uncles and aunts do you have?” or “What is the colour of your hair?”
Here’s another problem. All languages – including English – are much more than just a list of words and grammar rules. Language exists for communication. It's about connecting with people. Speaking conversational English is usually just about knowing the right thing to say in any given situation. That’s rarely taught in classrooms.
The fear of speaking to strangers really comes from the fear of seeming “weird” or looking foolish. You're essentially afraid of the other person’s reactions, like a strange look that says “I don’t want to talk to you”, or even someone laughing at you. (Of course, this very rarely happens in real life!).
Step 1: Be Friendly!
The first key to feeling relaxed and getting over your fear is to have a good time and be friendly. Smile and enjoy the experience of meeting someone new. If you can relax and enjoy getting to know someone, then that will be felt by the other person and it will put them at ease.
Talking with someone who is super serious and has a grave expression is rarely enjoyable, so why put someone else through that? Relax your face and turn that frown upside down!
Talk to people as you would talk to a friend, and they may just become one.
Step 2: Take the Pressure Off
A lot of fear around starting conversations comes from putting pressure on yourself to have a certain result from the conversation.
So, stop having specific expectations about what will happen! Whatever happens happens. Don’t expect anything from yourself or the other person other than getting to know them a little better.
Also, don’t force a topic or be aggressive in what you’re trying to say. That type of energy is a turn-off to someone you’ve just met. Let the conversation flow naturally.
Finally, realize that you don’t need to become BFFs (“Best Friends Forever”) with your conversation partner. There are millions of speakers out there, so becoming friends with this one person won’t determine your success as an English speaker. If the conversation doesn’t go well, that’s okay. The next opportunity is just around the corner.
Step 3: Remember, the World Doesn’t Revolve Around You
Don’t make the conversation only about yourself. Try to ask questions about the other person’s life. Only interject things about yourself when they are actually relevant to the topic.
What if they ask you a question about yourself? Answer it. But then ask them the same question. Often people ask questions they secretly want to be asked themselves, so turn the question around and see what your conversation partner has to say.
The most important thing is to not be forceful or seem desperate. Bring things up naturally and casually. People should never feel pressured to talk with you, so help them feel comfortable.
Step 4: Be Honest
When asking questions or talking about something, don’t make something up just because you memorised a particular phrase.
For example, don’t say “I love cats too!” if you actually hate cats. Or avoid saying “My uncle works in a factory” when you don’t even have an uncle, let alone one that works in a factory.
Make sure you say things that are true, even if it means searching for the words you need. Otherwise you could end up in a really awkward situation.
Step 5: Avoid Closed-Loop Questions (I think this one is the most important for you to remember because almost EVERY student that comes to me has this problem)
Questions that can only be answered with “yes” or “no” are what I call closed-loop questions, because they close down conversation. Open loop questions work much better when your aim is to keep a conversation going.
Let’s look at the difference between these through a couple of examples. Instead of asking the closed question “Do you like apple juice?”, ask the open question “What is your favourite type of juice?”
Or, instead of asking “Do you like spaghetti?” you can ask “How often do you eat Italian food?”
Open-loop questions invite further discussion, whereas a “yes” or “no” question usually just invites an end to the conversation.
Now that you have the right mindset, let’s get into what you can say to start up and maintain some great conversations.
If you want specific phrases to use in all kinds of situations like at school, the grocery store, the airport, or if you want to know how to extend a conversation, elaborate on a topic, or even change the topic, see me soon. Or if you want to practice talking about every day topics, sign up for a lesson. We can discuss articles, relevant world issues, or anything that you did not know how to speak well about in the past. I can help you feel more comfortable with small talk, business talk, or any other kind of talk. See you soon!