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How to improve your speaking with real conversations

Let’s say you have someone to talk to in English, maybe a native or maybe a person who knows the language much better. Does it mean that by speaking to them you will improve your speaking skills?

Not necessarily. I’ve had students who have travelled a lot and have had conversations with natives on a regular basis. True, they often understood English very well, had good pronunciation, made few grammatical mistakes, and sounded natural.

But they replied in short sentences and wouldn’t say much. It felt like they maintained a conversation but didn’t participate in it. If they couldn’t express something, they didn’t try much and used ‘well, you know what I mean’ instead.

On the other hand, there are people who learn a language just by listening and speaking, without textbooks, teachers and exercises. How do they do it?

Well, there’s a whole set of strategies that help to manage a conversation and use it to your advantage. In speech we identify them by certain phrases called functional language.

So what are these skills?

Active listening

This is how you stay in contact with the other person. You’ll show respect for and interest in them (and they will like you in return =)). But, most importantly, it’ll give you some time to get used to the accent, understand the topic of the conversation and prepare your ideas.


  • OK … Yes… Right… Uh-huh … Hmm…
  • Oh I see
  • You’re right.
  • Really?.. Interesting!.. No way!..
  • Sorry to hear that.
  • Do you really think so?

Managing the flow of the conversation

It’s your job to make sure that the conversation is not too fast and not too difficult. Because it’s very hard to participate in a conversation you don’t understand. We do it naturally in the first language (have you noticed how?) but we may forget about it in English if we’re feeling too nervous. So don’t be afraid and

  • interrupt (politely)Sorry, can I interrupt you for a moment? Sorry for the interruption but could you (repeat/ explain… etc)
  • ask to repeatSorry, could you repeat that, please? Sorry, I’m not sure I understand you. Could you say that again? Come again, please? Say that again, please?
  • ask to clarifyWhat do you mean by that? Could you clarify that a bit? I’m not sure I understand you, could you clarify? Sorry, you lost me. Can you explain it in other words? Sorry, I’m not sure (that) I know what you mean. Sorry but I don’t quite follow you.
  • ask to slow down if neededCould you speak more slowly, please? A little bit slower please?

Being active

Once you’re engaged in the conversation and understand it well, it’s time to participate more. If you’re not ready with your ideas yet (or maybe need more time to find courage to speak), try this:

  • repeating key phrases as echo questionsReally? You binge watched the whole series in two days? It shows you as an attentive listener and gets the conversation going, but also you get to practise interesting/ new phrases by repeating them back to your conversational partner. Try not to overdo it, though, or it would seem unnatural.
  • paraphrasingSo you’re saying … Am I right? Do I understand you right/ correctly that…? Do you mean that ….? Similar to the above but it requires you to be more flexible with grammar and maybe use some synonyms.

Taking the opportunity to speak.

You now know what to say? Well, it’s your job to make sure you actually say it. To help yourself,

  • Use fillers: Well, right, so. Often we need time to think, so these phrases help to avoid awkward silence and show that you’re thinking and are about to say something.

More phrases: Actually… Well … right … so… you know …Let me think… Give me a minute What I want to say is… What I mean is… The thing is… Hmm… That’s a good question!

  • Reply in full sentences and give details where appropriate. If your partner is listening to you, try to say a bit more not, not less. Try to interest your partner even more to maximise your speaking time)
  • Ask for the English words you don’t knowWhat is it called in English? What is it in English? What is the meaning of the word ‘related’? (It’s ok not to know or to forget something; it happens in our first language, too.) And then repeat them back to make sure you got the pronunciation correct. People are usually generous in helping with words if the conversation is interesting.
  • Repeat after the other person if you get corrected (intentionally, like by a teacher, or unintentionally- natives do this to make sure they understood you right, often in the form of a question), e.g. I like swim => You like swimming? => Yes, I like swimming (not just ‘yes’). I believe that’s a very important skill that many students don’t have (!) and it has to be taught explicitly.

So, what do you think? Which strategies do you need in your repertoire?

Photo credit: Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 on Unsplash

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