English Conversation Practice:
Hints for Getting Started  

You probably realize that English conversation practice is very important, especially if you want to speak more fluently. However, if you are studying English online, you may be wondering how to have English conversations. It’s simpler if you are in an English class, or live in an English speaking country-- but it’s not easy even then! Here are some hints for getting started.

young people having a conversation at a table outside
young people having a conversation at a table outside

Look for chances to talk with native English speakers. Maybe there is someone in your city-- or online via Skype or a chat program-- who would be glad to talk with you.

Many English speakers enjoy sharing ideas and experiences with someone from a different background. You might even find someone trying to learn your language. You could help each other and take turns practicing each language.

Talking with a friend (native speaker or not) is a great way to practice expressing yourself in English. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The more you try, the faster you’ll learn. (It’s also true that fear of making mistakes has hindered many people from becoming fluent in a second language.)

Ask your study partner to tell you if you make a mistake or if he or she can’t understand you. Correct it and try again. Ask for a repeat or an explanation if you don’t understand something-- and enjoy the conversation!  A new language can give a whole new perspective on so many things!

Having trouble finding an English conversation partner? If your friends and local organizations can’t help you, try an online English forum or Livemocha. You might also try talking with the robot at ESL Fast, and see how it works for you.     

Guidelines for Casual Conversation (Small Talk)

  • English-speakers tend to be less formal than speakers of some languages. A safe guide (as with many other questions): follow your partner’s lead. If the people you are talking with use first names or very casual speech, you can also.
  • It’s perfectly acceptable to ask for clarification. (In fact, it’s a good idea, even for native speakers.) Try:

       “Could you repeat that a little more slowly?”

       “So we should meet next Thursday at 3 PM.”

       “So you’re saying it’s important to invest in staff development. Is that right?”

  • Listen to native speakers chatting or doing business to get an idea of what is appropriate where you are. (This is of course important advice for English speakers doing business or working with people of another culture, as well!)
  • It’s best to chat briefly-- establish rapport and a basis of common interest-- before getting down to business. In the U.S. it isn’t necessary to begin every conversation by asking about the other person’s health and family (as I’ve noticed my Mexican friends do, even during a brief phone call to ask a question or confirm plans).
  • However, it’s a good idea to start a business conversation (even a job interview) with at least a minute or two of chatting about the weather, a recent sports event or other news that is non-controversial, or possible common interests. If you’re not sure how much chatting is appropriate (or if you are the interviewee or definitely the less dominant/powerful person), start with a friendly greeting and let the other person take the lead.
  • Safe topics for small talk include the weather, occupation, sports, hobbies and interests
  • Avoid discussing politics and religion unless you know someone well. Many people have such strong feelings about these that it can be hard to stay polite. Also never ask a person’s age (if they are over 12 or so) or income. It’s best not to ask casual acquaintances how much something cost, though it’s common for women to brag about sales and bargains. Don’t initiate those conversations, though.
  • It’s O.K. to ask about someone’s family-- if you know each other. Don’t pry, and be aware some issues may be sensitive (for example, if there is illness, a recent death, or disagreements and tension in the family.) Never press people about why they don’t have children—they may not be able to, or may not want to. 
  • In general, keep conversation light and casual unless you know each other well.
  • Be sensitive to when the other person wants or needs to change the subject or end the conversation. These hints will often be with “body language”: looking down or away, checking a watch, fidgeting (small, quick movements).
  • Ways to change the topic: “I’d rather not (or prefer not to) talk about that. What do you think about…?” or “By the way, did you hear about…?”
  • Ways to end a conversation. “It’s been nice seeing you. Will you be at … next week?” “Nice to chat. Say ‘hi’ to _______ for me.” “Well, it was great to see you. I need to get back to work (or to an appointment, etc.) now.” “Gotta* go...” “See you around.” etc.
4 men in a serious conversation. Quote on wall:
4 men in a serious conversation. Quote on wall:

Some Contractions that Are (Only) O.K. in Conversation

Here are a few contractions that you will hear (written as pronounced.) These are often used in casual conversation but not correct in written English:

  • cuda (or cud ov) —could have
  • cudja?—Could you…?
  • dija? no, I dint.—Did you…? No, I didn’t.”
  • gotta—have got to (need to)
  • gunna – going to (future plan)
  • shuda—should have
  • wuda—would have
  • wudja?—would you?
  • ya—you 

You might also be interested in Learn English Free, which has more resources for English listening or conversation practice.

Do You Want to Improve Your English Fluency?

Several readers have asked me for advice on becoming fluent in English. Here are my suggestions for ways to improve your English fluency (as well as vocabulary and comprehension.)

Difficulty with fluency is a frustrating but common problem. Two things help the most with fluency: practice, and lots of exposure (listening.) 

See all the suggestions above for using English whenever you can.  Especially practice with friends or Internet practice partners who are also learning, so you will not feel pressured to speak perfectly, without mistakes. Keep using English and you will become more comfortable with it-- and more fluent!

Also read and listen to all the English you can. Your mind will absorb the usual rhythms and patterns and over time find them natural to use.

I highly recommend listening to news reports, the BBC and Voice of America, NPR (American public radio), and TED talks. Many of these also have transcripts, so you can read along and check if you understood (or look a word up, if necessary.)

See Listening & Reading Comprehension Exercises for links and more ideas.

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