10 ways to get conversational English practice every day
Ever lost in conversation? You are not alone! Spoken English can be a hard skill to master, especially if you do not have regular opportunities to gain practice. In this study guide, we will give you 10 great ways to practise your conversational English, both face-to-face and online. Ready? Let’s jump right in!
Understanding English conversation: problems & solutions
If you want to converse well in English, then first you need to understand what people are saying to each other and to you. Many learners comment that it is easier to understand other non-natives in English than it is to follow conversations involving native speakers. Think about your typical conversation partners and the type of English you use most of the time. Do you communicate more with other non-natives or with native speakers? Are you exposed to more British or American English in your daily life and at work? Once you have settled on a specific branch of English, you can then find ways to focus on this more with your conversation practice.
In most cases, the English used by native speakers in the UK or USA is more complex than that used by non-natives overseas and this creates issues for ESL learners in terms of both listening comprehension and conversational usage. Take a look at these common problems and solutions to help improve your understanding of spoken English:
SPEED – Natives speak faster so you have less time to process information
Asking others to speak slower is fine at lower levels, but your longer-term goal should be to improve your processing speed. This is only possible through regular practice. One good way of getting this is by watching English TV news channels via the internet or by listening to local UK or US radio stations through a website like TuneIn.
INFORMAL – Brits and Americans use more slang and colloquial forms when speaking
If this type of language is not in your textbooks, then you need to use other resources to learn and understand it. Try watching TV series or Youtube channels and write down the new vocabulary you discover. If a usual dictionary does not contain the word or phrase, use a website like UrbanDictionary to find it.
PHRASAL – Natives commonly favour phrasal verbs over more formal vocabulary
Phrasal verbs can be difficult to learn because they often have multiple meanings and seldom follow a logical pattern. Whenever you come across a new phrasal verb (like “come across”!), write it down with a couple of examples in context. You may also wish to improve your skills by using this useful A-Z of phrasal verbs.
SPONTANEOUS – Topics of conversation change continuously and without warning
Spoken English is more spontaneous and less organised than its written equivalent. A typical British conversation might start with politics, change to football, and move on to shopping, before returning again to the topic of politics! This is a natural feature of daily conversation so, in order to participate fully, you need to practise speaking about a broad variety of subjects.
ACCENT – Pronunciation causes confusion
Within each national branch of English there are a multitude of regional accents. Most Brits and Americans speak with some form of regional dialect, which may include non-standard pronunciation (accent), vocabulary and even grammar. You can improve your listening comprehension through music and television, but it is best to use standard pronunciation when you are speaking English.
1. Find an English speaking club near you
There are over 1 billion people learning English as a foreign language in the world today so, regardless of where you live, you should always be able to find local conversation partners. Regular interaction in English, both with native and no-native speakers, helps to develop your fluency. If you want to gain more conversation practice, then you need to embrace every available opportunity. Start in your local area by looking for English speaking clubs that hold meetings weekly or monthly. Most will be free of charge, but some may have small membership fees to cover room hire and admin costs.
Where to search:
Go to local universities, libraries, cafes and community centres. Look for any leaflets or posters adverting English conversation clubs or ask a member of staff for assistance.
Try searching on Facebook and other social networks for groups or pages belonging to clubs in your town. Then write to the admin to find out how to get involved.
Perhaps approach volunteer organisations and churches that organise free conversation groups with native speakers as a way of involving more people in their activities.
Questions to ask when joining a conversation club:
Is it organised by a native speaker? If not, does the club ever invite Brits, Americans or other expats to participate in its discussions? This is a big plus, although perhaps not always essential.
Does the club charge a membership fee and is there any hidden commercial agenda? You can expect the majority of conversation groups to be free and open to all. If the organisers are trying to sell you a commercial product, then it may be best to avoid the club.
How many members attend each meeting? If there are too many people, then this can limit your ability to practise your spoken English because you will spend more time listening and waiting for others.
What format do its meetings take? Does the club hold talks by native speakers followed by question and answer sessions, or does it have an informal round table format? Are topics chosen in advance and prepared by participants, or are discussions more spontaneous in nature?
How often does the club meet up? You need regular conversation practice, so this is an important point.
Do the other members have a similar level of English to you? If there are many weaker learners in the group, then this could hold you back. You do not want to attend an English club where members have to use their native language to compensate for their lack of fluency.
No conversation clubs in your town? Why not try to establish one yourself? Start by creating a Facebook page or group and invite some friends or colleagues who might like to practise their English speaking skills. Find a local venue to hold your meetings – most cafes and bars are more than happy to host small social events free of charge as this attracts more guests, who then buy drinks or food. You can begin with a small group of “locals” and invite a couple of native speakers who are your based in your area (see the next point to find out how!).
2. Explore your local expat community
An expat (or expatriate) is someone who chooses to lives outside his or her home country on a temporary or permanent basis. Larger cities often have a vibrant expat community with nationalities from across the globe. These expats may come from many different countries, professions and social backgrounds, but they share one thing in common – they mostly use English to communicate with each other. If you can find a way in, then you can gain valuable conversation practice and make some interesting friends!
How to find expats near you:
Try a Google search for “expats + name of your city”. For example, if you type in “expats Moscow”, you will see several websites like: Expat.ru and Expatica.com/ru/. Explore each in turn and look for information about upcoming local events and “meet-ups”. If the website has a contacts page or forum, use this to introduce yourself and ask how you can get involved in the community.
Look for expat groups on Facebook using the main search bar at the top of the page. Pay attention to the number of members in each group and to the date of the latest post to see whether they are active or “dead”.
Approach the International Department of your local university to see if they have any expat students and social events for them that involve speaking English.
Visit some local branches of UK organisations (like The British Council) to find out if they hold cultural events to bring together expats and local learners of English.
3. Search for chat groups online
Start with a Google search for a phrase like “English chat group online” and then explore the list of websites in more detail. Before you get involved with any online conversation groups, you need to bear in mind that they are likely to be a) open to all internet users, and b) only partially moderated by an admin. This just means you need to watch out for members who are there to cause offence, waste time or take advantage of other users, rather than to practise their speaking skills. While most conversation groups are safe, they are not suitable for children as adult topics may be discussed and there is little control over shared content.
Facebook is another great place to look for groups of likeminded learners who are interested in having more conversation practice in English. Use the search bar at the top of the page and type in a phrase like “English chat group”, then select the “more” tab to view the full list of results. You will find plenty of options to choose from so take a few minutes to read the descriptions and browse through the members in each group. You may want to avoid chat groups that have lots of learners from your country so that there is no temptation to use your native language instead of English. Also pay attention to the program or platform used for the actual discussions themselves – common VoIP options for larger numbers of participants are: Google Hangouts and Zoom.
Pros and cons of online conversation groups:
PRO: They are usually free and open to anyone who wants to converse in English
CON: Security and moderation can be a problem because of this “open door policy”
PRO: You can practise your English with interesting people from around the world
CON: These groups are not popular with native speakers
PRO: You can have plenty of different discussions on all kinds of topics
CON: There is no native speaker to lead these discussions or correct your mistakes
Why not give online chat groups a try and see if they are right for you?
4. Attend face-to-face conversation classes
Paying for English lessons is a great way of guaranteeing regular conversation practice each and every week. However, you should consider exactly what you require from these classes before you cough up your hard earned cash! Group classes may offer more of a social element to your studies as you will meet other learners like yourself, but a 1-to-1 course may suit you better if you are short of time and want more personalised lessons.
Tips for choosing the right conversation class:
Make sure the school is close to home so you are less likely to miss lessons due to work and family commitments, or opt for a private tutor who can travel to you.
Ask about class sizes before you sign up. If there are more students in the class, opportunities to practise your conversational English will be limited. 6-8 is a good number.
Choose a school with good reviews and reasonable prices. Budget for 2 lessons per week.
Use your conversation classes as a focal point for all of the self-study activities done outside lesson time. In other words, do not assume that you will make fast progress just because you attend a class twice a week – homework and extra practice are both essential.
5. Study conversational English with a native tutor online
If you lead a busy life and need a flexible solution that fits in around your schedule, then online English lessons could be right for you. In recent years, internet speeds have improved dramatically and VoIP programs like Skype have been adopted by the majority of computer users. If you already use Skype to communicate with your friends and family in other cities (or even countries!), then why not use it to improve your conversational English too?
There are many more native English teachers online than there are in your local area. This means you can have access to a wider range of quality tutors who are based in the UK or USA.
Online lessons with a native tutor are often cheaper than face-to-face classes with a native teacher at your home or office. You can save money and travel time.
Personal Skype tuition is more flexible than traditional school lessons because you do not need to consider the availability of other students or follow a strict timetable.
Most online lessons are conducted on a 1-to-1 basis. This means you have the tutor’s full attention all of the time and can focus 100% on topics that are more relevant to you and appropriate to your level of English.
Live conversation classes can help ensure that you get regular practice because you can access this type of tuition from anywhere at any time.
6. Use mobile apps to fill in the gaps!
Mobile apps offer a fantastic way of gaining access to all kinds of information quickly when you are on the move. This also makes them ideal for learning, practising and using English. If you are ever in need of a quick translation or the correct pronunciation of an unfamiliar word, having the right app on your phone can be a lifesaver! While apps tend to do a great job with vocabulary, technology has not yet advanced enough for them to provide adequate conversation practice or error correction in spoken English. Therefore, it is best to use apps to help with the other English skills that “support” your conversational fluency.
To get started, use the option on your phone to open Google Play or App Store and search for “English”, “learn English” or “English learning” to see what is available on your device. Look at the user reviews and try downloading a couple of free apps every few weeks to see which help you most with your day-to-day English. You can also check out this list of the 10 best free apps for learning English.
For quick translations on the move, try downloading theGoogle Translate app via your iPhone or Android device. This great app allows you to translate words and listen to how they are pronounced in English. You can also use the camera to translate signs and text, or speak into the microphone to get instant verbal translations. Remember to download your preferred language pairs for offline use.
7. Look for a language exchange partner
Some native English speakers enjoy learning foreign languages and may be interested in finding a partner like you for conversation practice. If you are a native of their target language, then it could benefit both of you to meet once or twice a week to exchange skills – one hour of English conversation for one hour in your mother tongue. This type of informal arrangement is called a “language exchange”.
Tips for finding and practising with a native English partner:
Sign up for free with a website like Mylanguageexchange.com and search for potential native English partners by target language and personal interests. Write to several potential partners as some will not reply to your initial message.
Start by just writing to the person, but then agree on VoIP software to use for live conversation practice – e.g. Skype or Google Hangouts. If sessions are informal, then perhaps suggest using mobile apps that allow video calls, like Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger.
Remember that having a language exchange partner is not the same as having a qualified English teacher. Your partner is unlikely to be able to explain your mistakes or be able to provide a structured lesson. This is just about chatting and gaining more practice.
Using a textbook like Compelling Conversations can help you to explore a more diverse range of speaking topics with your partner.
If you cannot find a native partner, then a non-native with fluent English is the next best thing. Keep an open mind, actively reach out to other users, and you should never be short of conversation partners!
8. Get a “study buddy” for regular practice
It is a good idea to team up with another learner to practise and improve your conversational English. Studying alone can be an isolating experience and, when it comes to improving your spoken fluency, you really need a human conversation partner. Try looking for a “study buddy” near you – this could be a friend, relative or colleague – and arrange to meet at least once a week for an hour to speak English and discuss a set topic or list of questions. Take it in turns to prepare these discussion topics.
Five points to consider when choosing a study buddy:
Do you get on well with the person? It is important to ensure you are at ease when communicating with your partner. Make sure you are on the same wavelength.
Do you have the same level of English? If your levels differ greatly, then this could be a barrier to communication or the sessions may be of little use to the higher level learner.
Are you both available at the same times each week? Life can often get in the way of your studies so you need to make sure you reserve at least one slot per week to practise together.
Where are you going to meet up? You should choose a quiet location where there are no friends, relatives or colleagues using your native language or causing other distractions.
How are you going to practise your conversation skills? You could discuss a set topic each week using a list of conversation questions or opt for a more casual chat about life, work and family. Alternatively, you could choose a book, article or film as “homework” and then meet up to discuss it and examine any new vocabulary.
9. Travel abroad to improve your conversation skills
One of the best ways to learn conversational English is to place yourself in situations where you cannot use your mother tongue to communicate with others. While these situations can be stressful, they force you to use your English and find different ways of expressing your thoughts in the language. This is some of the best practice you can get, especially if it is with native English speakers. Next time you are booking a holiday, you may want to consider a destination that will give you a better opportunity to use your English.
Top holiday destinations for practising your conversational English:
Classics: UK, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand
When we think of “native English speakers”, these are the countries that spring to mind. However, there are many others where English is widely spoken to a high level.
Sunny: Malta, Gibraltar, Caribbean
There are still plenty of smaller territories that have a historical affiliation to Britain as former colonies or trading posts. Today, these places use English as a lingua franca, even though some have not officially declared English as a state language.
Exotic: Kenya, Belize, Singapore
If you fancy something a bit different, why not practise your English while on safari in Kenya or trekking in the rainforests of Belize!
10. Practise even when you are alone!
If you want to speak fluent English, then you need to be prepared to put in the effort even when you are on your own. Just because there is nobody else around does not mean that you have to stop practising and improving!
Try the following techniques to hone your communication skills:
Pronunciation drills: Keep a separate notebook with exercises to enhance your pronunciation skills through the repetition of minimal pairs, tongue twisters and any words you find difficult to say in English.
Mirroring: Find a short audio or video clip. Listen to it several times and create your own transcript. Mark this with your notes on the speaker’s intonation and pronunciation. Now play the piece again and try to copy (or “mirror”) the original as closely as you can.
Dialogues: Take some sample dialogues from a conversation textbook or website and record yourself reading them aloud. Repeat this process every few weeks, listen to your older recordings and see how you have improved.
Analyse: Take the time to analyse your mistakes in spoken English. You will find that the majority of your errors come through interference from your native language. Conversation practice is great, but never ignore the theory!