Don’t Talk Like a Textbook: 8 Ways to Learn Real, Conversational English
You might have noticed that the ways English native speakers greet someone in real life are completely different from what you’ve learned in the classroom
This is because people don’t always speak so “properly” in casual settings.
To help you learn some of this conversational English, I’ve put together a list of some excellent ways to learn conversational English.
- Types of Conversational English
- When to Start Learning Conversational English
- 8 Powerful Ways to Learn Conversational English
Types of Conversational English
Think about the way you speak in your native language. How you talk to your co-workers or fellow students is different from how you talk to your friends or family. You speak differently when you’re in a professional environment and when you’re at a party. Everything from the location, social status and even age can change the way the conversation sounds.
The same is true in English. There are many different ways of casual speaking in English. 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.
When to Start Learning Conversational English
You can start learning conversational English at any skill level. All you have to do is learn conversational speech along with your regular English. It’s not as much work as it sounds! For every phrase and vocabulary you learn, try to learn how to say the same thing in a real conversation.
Choose a method (or two) that works for you from our list below, and you’ll be speaking to natives in no time.
Just make sure that you practice with real people. Learning and practicing English by yourself is perfectly fine, but nothing can replace having an actual conversation.
You’ll get a chance to try your new skills, and get real experience using them. You might also make some mistakes, and that’s okay too! Be confident and give yourself a chance. Speaking with a native English speaker is an experience that just can’t be replaced. (We’ll show you where to find one in #2.)
For even deeper insight into how to perfect the art of English conversation, check out the video below.
You’ll learn some of the top tips, tricks and strategies to help you master your English speaking (no matter your level).
8 Powerful Ways to Learn Conversational English
1. Build confidence with typed conversations online.
Okay, so we know we said you should really speak to real people. That’s still true! But if you’re having trouble getting the confidence to speak to someone in person, maybe you can start online.
Typing online 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. You can add the sentence on the “about me” sections of Facebook and Twitter. Most email services and many forums have a “signature” part that is added at the end of all your messages.
- 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!). If someone is using slang, you can look it up on Urban Dictionary, or if their response has a picture with words on them, try checking Know Your Meme.
Thanks to the Internet, you can have lots of English teachers right from the comfort of your home!
2. Learn with a language exchange partner.
Typing online is a great start, but you’ll want to move on to actual speaking as soon as you can. You can do that online, as well! Like written online conversations, spoken conversations online still leave you free to use the same online tools, but it’s a step towards “real” conversation.
Since you’re speaking in real time, you won’t be able to constantly use translating tools, or look words up in the dictionary. That makes online speaking partners a perfect step between typing and speaking in person.
It’s good to have an online tutor or a native speaking 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.
Language exchange can be useful because you’ll be speaking to a native English speaker who also understands 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.
A speaking partner might be able to help you translate a word, but a language exchange partner can help you translate the nuance of a word. That’s the slightly different meaning that you get from changing the tone, the phrase or even the facial expression as you speak.
You just have to ask the right 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 language exchange partner.
For more information on where you can find a language exchange partner, check out our article all about online speaking partners!
3. Start at the end, with real conversation.
When we said that English speakers at any level can learn conversational English, we really meant it. They say the best way to learn to swim is to just jump in! You can do the same with English. Just start talking with others, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you learn by doing.
This is the way children learn, and it’s an effective method to learn a new language. The more English you hear and speak, the better you’ll learn. That’s why we’re always talking about exposing yourself to the language in every way possible!
All you need is to have some basic vocabulary and a few key phrases, and you can start having conversations right away. Some useful phrases you might want to remember are:
- I’m learning English.
- Please speak slowly.
- What does ~ mean?
- Can you repeat that please?
- Thanks for being patient with me!
This method of learning can be intimidating (scary) at first. But don’t worry, 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. With this method, 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!
4. Write a script.
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.
For example, if you’re going out to a restaurant with some friends, you can prepare ahead of time by writing a script. In a restaurant, some useful phrases you might use are:
- 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!
5. Study topics you’re interested in.
Conversational English is not just about learning the words, it’s about being able to “hold a conversation.” That means you need to keep a conversation going. We’ve talked about using filler words and writing scripts to help you get started. Another way you can build confidence is by building knowledge.
Learn more about topics that you’re interested in, and you’ll have more to contribute to (add to) the conversation. Reading news and informative articles about the subject you’re interested in is just the beginning.
You can practice your conversational English by reading personal blogs written by regular people, following the social media accounts of people involved in your subject, and looking in the comments sections for how people are responding to the topic. Don’t be afraid to leave your own comment!
6. 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—and one of the best ways to learn these different meanings is by using slang dictionaries.
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. You can also visit Urban Dictionary, but beware: Urban Dictionary 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).
Another option is to learn natural English with FluentU. Since FluentU uses authentic English videos like movie clips, music videos and inspirational talks, you’ll see much more than just textbook English.
Plus, every word can be conveniently defined by clicking on it in the subtitles. And if it’s being used in a slang way, the contextual definition will tell you that, and show you the right meaning for that situation.
With FluentU, you can also add words to flashcard lists. For example, you can make a slang words list and learn it using the personalized quizzes on the platform. You can even practice your pronunciation with speaking questions on the iOS / Android app version of the program.
7. Learn vocabulary based on need.
How do you learn vocabulary? Many English learners go through a vocabulary list from a textbook or a workbook. Others write down and define new words from books and TV shows. It’s great that “Captain America” taught you what “recruit” means, but how often will you actually use the word in a conversation?
Try learning vocabulary you’ll actually use. Don’t just write down any new words you hear, write down the words you can’t think of while having conversations in English.
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. (Both of these are excellent, by the way, because you’ve communicated your idea without stopping the conversation—even though you didn’t know the word for “paddle.”)
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, alphabetically, or by parts of speech.
Instead of learning vocabulary for the sake of knowing more words, lists like this can help you learn vocabulary for communication. If those numbers seem a little scary to you, just remember: You probably already know most of the words on these lists!
8. Learn to fake it.
Imagine this: You’ve followed every tip on this list. You’re speaking like a native, feeling confident. Then suddenly, you find yourself in a conversation and you have no idea how to express what you want to say. What do you do?
Fake through it! Conversations are not just about words. You can use synonyms (words that mean the same thing), gestures (hand movements), and whatever else you can think of to say things. Communication can be more important than grammar!
You may need to learn how to fake your way through parts you don’t know. You can do this as part of your regular learning. For example, play the “in other words” game:
If you’re having trouble remembering a word, tell yourself “in other words” and follow this with a few other words that mean the same. For example, “That building is decrepit. In other words, it’s old. In other words, it’s ancient.” Playing games like this will help you learn the original word better, learn new words that mean the same thing, and learn words you can use when you can’t remember the right one.
Some other ways you can learn to fake your way through a conversation are by playing games like Charades or Taboo, or by practicing speaking about a topic for 3-5 minutes straight.
Of course, by learning with any of these methods, you’ll become so good at conversational English that you won’t need to fake anything!