Conversational English Practice: 13 Strategies to Get Good at Speaking English
Why is speaking English so darn hard?
You know the words, you’ve heard them many times before.
You can probably think of what you want to say—but your mouth just can’t produce the words.
Read on for some great ways to learn conversational English and improve your skills and confidence!
- 1. Use your favorite technology
- 2. Talk back to TV shows and movies
- 3. Warm up with online conversations
- 4. Join language exchange apps like HelloTalk
- 5. Ask thoughtful questions to deepen vocabulary
- 6. Download the WordReference Dictionary app
- 7. Use slang dictionaries
- 8. Translate everything, on the go
- 9. Narrate your day like a reality TV show
- 10. Use Meetup groups to find other English learners
- 11. Analyze your English conversations
- 12. Prepare a script before talking
- 13. Learn vocabulary by need
- Types of Conversational English
- Why Conversational English is Challenging
- And One More Thing...
1. Use your favorite technology
Technology makes doing anything much more efficient, including learning English. Here are a few hacks that you can try out:
- When you use Google, use the “speaking” option. If you have a device with a microphone, like a smartphone or computer, you can do this easily. See if Google understands what you’ve said and puts the correct words into text.
- Make video call dates with friends and family members who speak English. Since you know who you’re talking to, this is a fun and stress-free way to practice.
- Record little English language voice messages when you chat with friends on messenger services like WhatsApp.
2. Talk back to TV shows and movies
Watching movies or television shows in English gives you plenty of chances to practice English listening and speaking skills.
Because most TV shows rely on continuity, they’re bound to repeat certain things. Pick a TV show or a movie you already love and don’t tire of watching. Since you already know what’s going to happen and what everyone will say, you won’t have to worry about understanding anything.
Watch once and just practice paying attention to dialogue (conversations) and how people speak. Pause at regular intervals to emulate (match, typically by imitation) their tone and pronunciation. Repeating what people say will help you sound more natural.
The video-based learning program FluentU actually makes this easier.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Try this out with English videos regularly! As a plus, you’ll pick up some conversational and pop culture vocabulary.
3. Warm up with online conversations
If you’re having trouble getting the confidence to speak to someone in person, maybe you can always start by typing online.
It won’t help you learn to speak out loud, but it will help you learn how to form conversational sentences and communicate clearly, and these skills will make you more confident when it’s time to speak.
Make online conversations a part of your daily routine. To learn conversational English through online communications, try these tips:
- Use online translation services. The best thing about typing your conversations is that you have plenty of time to make sure you get everything right. Websites like Google Translate can help you find the right words to use. If Google Translate isn’t helping, you can look up unknown words on Vocabulary.com or Dictionary.com.
- Join conversations in comments sections and social media. Do you read articles or blogs online? Great! Now join the conversation about it.
Scroll to the bottom of most articles online and you can usually leave a comment. Read what other people are saying, and leave your own thoughts. Many websites use Facebook or Disqus for comments. Just join and comment!
- Announce that you’re an English learner in your profile or signature. Add a line in your profile that states you’re learning English and welcome corrections. The people who will be helping you are probably regular people, so their advice will usually have great conversational English tips.
- Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help! You can also ask people, “How would you say this in a casual conversation?” to get some really useful information about how people talk.
- Remember: People use slightly different language online. Not everything that you see online can be said in person. There’s no sure way to know which words you can and can’t use in real conversations, except to ask a native speaker (or just ask the person who used the phrase online!).
Thanks to the Internet, you can have lots of English teachers right from the comfort of your home!
4. Join language exchange apps like HelloTalk
Chatting is great, but you’ll want to move on to actual speaking as soon as you can. It’s good to have an online tutor or a native speaker study partner, but it’s even more useful to find a language exchange partner. A language exchange partner is a native English speaker who is learning your language.
One of the best language exchange apps today is HelloTalk since it lets you chat, send voice messages and even do video calls in English. This app pairs you with real native speakers with whom you can have conversations that vary depending on skill level.
Any language can be chosen. Luckily, most people are there to practice their English just like you, so there are plenty of people you can practice with.
If your partner sends you a text message, there’s actually an option to have the app read the message out loud for you. This can be extremely helpful with pronunciation as the app does a good job of speaking clearly.
Here’s an in-depth review of HelloTalk if you want to know more about the app.
Aside from HelloTalk, you might also want to try out other language exchange apps.
5. Ask thoughtful questions to deepen vocabulary
If you’re with a native speaker who knows you’re learning English, you can ask specific questions to understand the meaning of new words better.
For language exchange specifically, your partner will understand at least some of your language! This can make it easier to find out how to say things that “don’t translate well” into another language.
Try out these questions:
- Instead of: “What does that word mean?”
Ask: “What does this word mean in this sentence?”
Because… Understanding how words fit into sentences is a step towards fluency.
- Instead of: “What does this phrase mean?”
Ask: “What is a similar phrase in my native language?”
Because… Sometimes understanding the words is not enough to understand the meaning.
- Instead of: “Why did you say that?”
Ask: “Why did you say it that way?”
Because… We use words in different ways to express feelings, emotions, opinions and much more.
- Instead of: “What are you saying?”
Ask: “What do you mean?”
Because… What you say and what you mean are not always the same thing.
For example, what’s the difference between saying you “really want that new phone,” and saying you “seriously want it?” When would you use “really,” and when would you use “truly”? These are the kinds of questions you should be asking your conversation partner.
6. Download the WordReference Dictionary app
WordReference is a great tool that is a known lifesaver for language students. But there’s more than just the dictionary-style website for you to enjoy! It also has a mobile app (Android or iOS) with two specific features that allow you to practice your speaking.
First, the app will sound the word out to you, and there’s an option to hear a British voice or an American voice. To fully take advantage of this feature to improve your English speaking skills, you’ll need to repeat the word out loud, mimicking the way it’s pronounced by the app.
The second feature is that you can easily look up words and see how they’re used in context. Whenever you search for a particular word, you’ll get a definition and example sentences. They aren’t just basic sentences either, they’ll show you tons of great real world examples for how to use new vocabulary.
Plus, there are forums where language learners can ask their questions to the world—and the world responds! Check out these forums to see how native speakers explain their own ways of using English vocabulary. This will help you understand cultural contexts and etiquette behind words.
7. Use slang dictionaries
When we talk about conversational English, we’re really talking about the “vernacular.” The vernacular is the type of language native speakers use in their everyday conversations. Many words have different meanings in the vernacular—so aside from official dictionaries, it’s also important to have a slang dictionary.
Remember that slang is different based on age and location, but you can still get a good idea of how people actually use words by checking what they mean in slang. If you do this every time you learn a new word or phrase, you’ll get a good understanding of conversational English without too much extra work!
Some good dictionaries you can check are Dare Dictionary, ESL Cafe’s section about slang and the Online Slang Dictionary. As mentioned above, you can also visit Urban Dictionary, but just be mindful that it can be edited by anyone, so not all the entries are used commonly. Some of the entries can also be quite vulgar (offensive or sexual in nature).
8. Translate everything, on the go
This is an exercise that can be worked into many different parts of your life, just like the reality TV show. Often, when done frequently enough, it almost becomes a habit. Pretty great habit to have, right?
To give an example: you’re driving on the road and see a billboard with a funny phrase on it. See if you can translate it and speak your English translation out loud with excellent pronunciation.
9. Narrate your day like a reality TV show
Sometimes, we want to get away from all the technology in our daily lives.
Don’t worry—there are lots of fun and creative ways to practice speaking without technology.
For example, have you ever wondered what your life would look like as a reality television show?
Go about your day. As things happen, practice your English speaking by discussing the things you do, as well as the people, things and sometimes problems you encounter. Talk about everything as if you had a million viewers out in the audience, interested in your life.
If something was difficult about a particular part of the day, talk about how that obstacle was easy or hard for you to overcome. Perhaps while cooking you can tell the audience what it is you’re making and how to make it. Go through the recipe step by step and talk about why you love it so much. While watching a sports game, try to narrate everything going on like an actual newscaster.
When you have to pause because you can’t remember a particular word or phrase, keep talking using other words to describe what you mean. This will help you learn to be more creative.
If you happen to have a way to take notes at the moment, make a note of which words and phrases you forgot. Then, you can look them up and study them for future use in conversation.
So, just have fun with it and you’ll see your speaking ability improve greatly without realizing it.
10. Use Meetup groups to find other English learners
I use the international networking site Meetup. I get alerts in my inbox when someone creates a Meetup group in an area I’m interested in, like Italian conversation practice.
There are usually several English language practice groups in any major city, so all you have to do is look around. Joining any Meetup group is free. You only have to pay a small fee if you form one yourself.
11. Analyze your English conversations
Worried about speaking correctly in your new language? Too much concern (worry) about speaking correctly might stop you from engaging in conversations, so you’ll need to relax a little. However, being too laid-back (relaxed) about this won’t help you in the future.
For example, you can be confident in speaking but never pay attention to your mistakes. This means that your accuracy won’t improve, and you won’t learn the right way to say things.
To avoid this, just remember these important tips:
- Focus on how words are used, not why. Many native English speakers can’t tell you why something they said is correct (that’s what your language exchange partner is for). Instead, listen and ask about how words are used to communicate. This could mean asking a speaker for examples of sentences they would say with a certain word.
- Don’t worry too much about grammar. Being understood is more important than being correct. Just try to communicate your ideas.
- Listen first, write things down after. It might be tempting to write down any new words you hear. Doing so will take you away from the conversation, though, so don’t do it! Instead, you could record the conversation with your smartphone and write down words later. Remember that if a word is very useful, you’ll probably hear it again.
And remember, your speaking partners want to help you. People are usually happy to help an English learner!
12. Prepare a script before talking
If jumping into a conversation sounds too scary for you, there’s something you can do to prepare: write a script. A script is a dialogue that actors follow, and it can help you become more confident when you speak to others. All you have to do is choose a scenario, and write out the different things you might need to say in that situation.
To start off, some useful phrases you might want to remember are:
- “I’m learning English.”
- “Please speak slowly.”
- “What does this word mean?”
- “Can you repeat that please?”
- “Thanks for being patient with me!”
If you’re going out to a restaurant with some friends, you might use these phrases instead:
- “What do you recommend?”
- “I’ll have the…” (Used when ordering your meal)
- “Can I have some more time to decide, please?”
- “I’ll have what she’s having.”
The examples above are just phrases you might say to the restaurant staff. But what will you talk about to your friends? So you can write a few ideas for that, too.
You can also use your knowledge of the people you’ll be meeting with. Will they be talking about the latest movie they watched, or discussing their jobs?
Remember that this script is not something you’ll follow exactly; it’s just something to get you started. Being prepared will also make you feel more confident!
If you can’t think of something to say, or the conversation ends up being completely different from what you’d imagined, that’s okay, too. You can always use filler words to fill any silences or gaps in conversation. Filler words are words like “um,” and “you know,” and they’re an excellent way to keep the conversation going without breaking the rhythm. Even native speakers use them!
13. Learn vocabulary by need
Focus on learning vocabulary you’ll actually use.
For example, let’s say you’re telling your language exchange partner about last weekend’s canoe trip, but you don’t know the English word “paddle.” You might do the action of rowing with your hands—and your partner would say “paddle”—or might describe it as “the stick we used to move” instead.
What you need to do next, is jot down this meaning or the word “canoe” in your native language so that you can look it up later. These “gaps” in vocabulary while speaking about everyday topics are the words you need to learn!
If you still prefer to have a list to go by, choose a list made of words that are actually used in everyday conversations. Here’s one that lists the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language. Here’s another with 5,000 words listed by frequency of usage or by parts of speech.
Types of Conversational English
Now that you have all of these strategies for learning English, you can develop an English study plan by thinking about what kind of conversational English you’d want to focus on. Some groups include:
- Slang: Slang is the extremely informal “street speak.” Different age groups and locations use different slang, so if you’re interested in learning some slang it’s important to choose a location and stick to your age group. After all, it wouldn’t make much sense to use American teenager slang as a middle-aged person living in Britain, would it?
- Casual: A casual conversation is a relaxed conversation. In casual speech, the grammar doesn’t matter as much as in a more formal setting. The conversation usually flows from one topic to another naturally. You would speak casually to your friends and family, for example.
- Work-casual: Work-casual conversations are the kind you would have with a co-worker during a coffee break. The setting is still a work environment, but the conversations can be more comfortable than if you were speaking to your boss. This kind of speech is somewhere between formal and casual.
Think about who you plan to speak to in English. Are you hoping to make some friends around your age? Or are you trying to improve your conversational skills so you can make better “small talk” in the office? Your answers to these questions will determine the type of conversational English you should learn.
Why Conversational English is Challenging
Getting good at conversational English really takes a lot of practice! This is because language learning consists of two things: input and output.
Input is all the listening and reading—everything about the English language that you absorb. Output is all the writing and speaking. People naturally tend to have a harder time dealing with output.
Here are the most common reasons:
- You’re not getting enough real-world input. Textbooks and other English learning materials make conversation sound clearer and simpler, removing slang words, idioms, accents, fast speed and improper grammar. This means you’ll need to practice getting used to real-world English, whether through listening to tons of videos and audios or being exposed to native speakers in real life.
- Speaking is the least practiced skill. Maybe you practice speaking less because you prefer to listen or you just don’t feel confident enough in your speaking ability. Or, maybe it’s because most of your learning time is spent reading, writing and listening. Unless you have a good conversation partner or live in an English-speaking country, getting plenty of English speaking practice can be a challenge.
- Conversations can be nerve-wracking. Once you actually have to talk to someone in English, you become nervous. Who knows what they might think of you if you say the wrong thing, or what if they don’t understand you? These are all very common and understandable things to worry about, so don’t feel bad about it—it’s totally normal.
The more you use conversational English, though, the less nerve-wracking it’ll become. You can also work up from chatting online to sending voice messages all the way to talking to strangers in English.
Even 10 extra minutes every day of practicing will get you more comfortable with speaking.
See what you can do throughout the day with these exercises whenever you’re ready to finally improve your English speaking skills and start heading towards total fluency!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.