Filling in the Conversation Bubble

Speech bubbleWhen I ask them why they don’t talk with native-speakers more often, many of my students answer in such a way that makes me think they’re afraid of their own success. “What if they want to talk, but I can’t understand them?” or “What if we start talking, but I can’t keep the conversation going?” This blog post will give you some strategies for what to do in each of those situations.

First, let’s explore:

“What if they want to talk, but I can’t understand them?”

When you start a conversation with a native-speaker, you can begin by saying: “My English isn’t very good yet, so could you speak slowly?” This will let them know that you aren’t 100% confident. They will probably also try to choose easier vocabulary if you do this.

Another strategy is to ask the person to write down a word that seems important but that you can’t understand. (Be sure to carry a small notebook and a pen in your pocket or bag so that you are prepared to do this when you need to.) Sometimes, just that one word is enough to help you understand what is being said.

A third strategy is to paraphrase what they’ve said. That means to repeat it, but in your own words. You can say “Let me see if I understand what you’re saying. You mean ‘….,’ right?” or “You’re saying ‘…,’ right?” This is an excellent method because it lets you try to restate their ideas and gives them a chance to say, “Exactly!” or “Not quite.” Most people are thrilled to be listened to so closely.

Of course, you can always ask them, “Can you repeat what you just said? I didn’t catch that.” Most people will be happy to.

Next, let’s look at:

“What if we start talking, but I can’t keep the conversation going?”

Watching a basketball gameTo solve this problem, remember the power of information questions. If you’re sitting next to someone on a bus and s/he asks, “Are you a sports fan?” after you answer “Yes” or “No,” you can ask— Image

What sports do you like watching?

How often do you watch sports?

Where do you watch them—in sports bars or at your friends’ houses?

How long have you been a fan?

Who do you like? (Which athlete is your favorite?) or Who do you watch with?

The beauty of an information question is that the person you’re speaking with has to keep talking. If you listen carefully, everything your conversation partner says can lead to another information question for as long as you want to keep the conversation alive.

Let’s practice. It’s summertime. You ask someone about fun things to do nearby. S/he suggests the beach.
A crowd at the beachYou can ask:

How far ______________________________________?

What ________________________________________?

What kind of __________________________________?

How often ____________________________________?

Which _______________________________________?

(see possible answers below)

You can add a yes/no question or two as well just for variety:

Is the water warm or cold here?
Is there a bus that goes to the beach?
Do you go often?

The point is that if you think “QUESTIONS!” you won’t run out of things to say.

Of course, pay attention to body language. If the person you’re speaking with turns away, checks his or her watch, or looks out the window it’s probably time to take a break. The great thing is that then it will be your choice to stop talking. Try it out!


Possible Answers (for questions, above):

How far is it to the beach?

What kind of activities do you like to do there?

What is the water like?

How often do you go?

Which beaches are your favorites?

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