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How to maintain a conversation in English

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

Even highly proficient non-native speakers can sometimes struggle to fully participate in a conversation! There are many obstacles such as handling misunderstandings, knowing when to speak and understanding the social conventions. In this post, inspired by a member of my speaking club, I'm going to share some thoughts about three aspects of participating in a conversation - Interaction, Comprehension and Social Conventions.

1. Interaction

When I observe the members of my speaking club, I am always struck by how polite they are! It's true that speaking on Zoom is different to speaking in person and we tend not to interrupt one another as often as in face-to-face conversation, but it's still interesting how polite people are online. In a person-to-person conversation between two native speakers, there is likely to be a lot of interruption and very quick turn taking. And while you may find some people who are polite enough to listen to you talking at length, it's also likely that if you don't make your point quickly, you may lose your turn.

So, it's a good idea to practice getting your point across concisely. I have often noticed that my learners can take a long, long time to make a point and this can be risky in a fast, natural conversation. And while you may not quite need to go to the extreme lengths of 'conversation tennis' that you find in a Cambridge exam, it's good to practice saying something reasonably quickly then allowing another person to take their turn. We also like to build the conversation on what someone else has said and often take inspiration from their ideas. Phrases like this are useful:

  • That reminds me of when....

  • That's just like what happened to / when....

  • I suppose it's a bit like .....

2. Comprehension

I can clearly remember how frustrated and embarrassed I felt when I had been living in China for a long time and still could not understand what people had said to me! Part of me wanted to give up because I got so fed up with how often I failed to understand someone's meaning. Looking back now, I should have been more compassionate towards myself! I was dealing with multiple accents and complex topics which were usually delivered very fast with little adaptation to my foreign ears. So, if you're in a similar position when it comes to English conversations, what can you do to make life a bit easier?

First, don't be afraid of saying that you don't understand! Although you might feel foolish, you'll probably feel less foolish than if you pretend to understand when you don't! Bored of saying sorry, could you repeat that? Try these phrases instead:

  • sorry, I didn't quite catch that

  • sorry, I'm not quite clear what you meant there

  • sorry, what do you mean?

Or, if you're with people you know very well, you can use some extremely informal phrases:

  • Huh?

  • What?

  • Hey?

As I said, use these phrases with people you know very well!

However, a more sophisticated way of dealing with misunderstanding is to paraphrase what the speaker said. This is a trickier skill to master but it is a hallmark of an advanced speaker. When you paraphrase, you repeat what you heard but in different words. This is very common among native speakers and is a great way of checking that you have understood:

  • Do you mean + rephrase of the original statement

  • Are you saying + rephrase of the original statement

  • It sounds like you mean + rephrase of the original statement

3. Social conventions

A couple of things that are worth knowing about the way native speakers structure their conversations is that there is a lot of interruption! We tend to take the conversation from other people quite frequently which is okay in a conversation about an everyday situation but not so okay when someone is trying to explain something that is important to them. When someone is talking about an issue they see as important, it's better to listen and give them your full attention before offering your own opinion. In fact, this is an ideal rather than a reality as we are so trained to interrupt when we have a thought that most people cannot keep quiet!

Another interesting feature of English language conversations is that we are very 'noisy' listeners. We usually don't listen in silence; rather we encourage the speaker with lots of words and sounds like hmm, okay, yeah, right, wow - even as the speaker is speaking! While this can feel strange if you're not used to it, it really is how we show attentive listening!

If you'd like some extra speaking practice, come and try a week in the Think Positive Speaking Club for free!

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