English conversation tips

Nothing helps your speaking more than practising with others. (If you don’t live in an English-speaking country, our page on How to practise your English speaking gives you advice on ways to practise your English.)

In a controlled environment (i.e. a classroom) speaking English with others is relatively easy, as you’re probably practising particular expressions or vocabulary.

But in the outside world, conversations can be a lot more unpredictable and things can go wrong in conversations. Maybe you don’t understand the other person – or maybe they don’t understand you. Maybe you’re talking about a difficult subject with technical vocabulary, or maybe the other person uses a lot of slang or English idioms that you don’t understand. Here are some tips and strategies for when there are communication problems.

You don’t know the word

Sometimes we forget the right word, or we realise as we’re speaking that we don’t know the word we need. We can also forget the word if we are under pressure, such as in an exam. But the important thing is to keep going – don’t let the conversation stop! If you don’t know the word, try to say it in another way. Define it, give an example, or give a synonym.

For example, if you can’t remember the word “mug” you can try these:

“It’s something you can drink coffee from.”
“You can use it to drink coffee from.”
“It’s used for coffee.”

Examples, explanations and descriptions
“It’s made of china. You use it for drinking coffee.”
“It’s bigger than a cup.”

“It’s like a cup, but bigger.”
“It’s similar to… (a cup).”
“It’s a kind of … (cup).”

The other person doesn’t understand you

You’ll probably guess that this has happened from the blank look on the other person’s face.

Ask a question such as “Do you know what I mean?” or “Sorry, have I lost you?”

Or use a rephrasing phrase, such as “Let me say that again”, or “Let me put that another way.”

You run out of things to say

A conversation should be two-way. If you find that you are talking all the time, or if you don’t have anything else left to say, get the other person to contribute by asking a question.

You can try a short question like in this example from our page on how to keep a conversation going:

“We tried out the new Chinese restaurant last night.”
“Did you?”

Or you can ask a more direct question, such as “What do you think?” or “what’s your opinion?”

You don’t know how to end the conversation

Some conversations should be short. For example, asking someone for directions, giving directions, asking for information in a shop are all situations where the conversation comes to a natural end. In these situations, a simple “Thank you” (where the typical response is “You’re welcome” or “Not at all”) shows both people that the conversation is over.

But in other situations, you might just be chatting, with no particular purpose. End the conversation with a phrase like “I’d better get going” or “I think that’s my bus / train” (if you’re waiting for public transport, say) to end the conversation naturally.