English language conversation: how to improve English speaking

A photo of a woman sitting on a sofa in mid-conversation, looking directly at the camera. Her body language suggests she's really happy, and her arms are slightly outstretched as if to say "I told you so!".

So you’ve been learning English as your second language. Maybe you’ve taken a few courses at an English Language School. Perhaps you’re learning English all by yourself, or perhaps you took English as a second language many years ago and you’re worried that your spoken English has gotten rusty.

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Wherever you are on your learning journey, speaking confidently and clearly is very important in order to show off what you know! To make sure you’re heard in English, here are five top tips to help you improve your language skills for 2023.

English Speaking Tip #1 – practise what you know and what you don’t!

In England, we have a saying: practice makes perfect. And it’s completely true for any language or new skill – the main way you are going to improve is by doing it over and over again. With a language such as English this can be hard to do, but don’t be shy. The more you speak in English, and the more you surround yourself with the language, the more confident you will get.

There are two ways you can do this. First, you can practise what you already know. You may have picked up some useful phrases already through English courses you’ve attended, or possibly phrases you’ve found in books, or by watching English language films and TV, or interacting with native English speakers on social media. If you want to make sure what you’ve learned so far is correct, it’s good to start with phrases you’ve learned at your English language school.

Next, try and match some of your favourite English phrases against the situations you might find yourself in. If you are in an English-speaking country that’s obviously a lot easier, so for example if you know you’re going to go into a café in the UK you can predict what words and phrases you will need to make the visit a success. A fun way to practise and improve is to try and challenge yourself to ask a new question, or start a conversation with a different member of staff, or talk to another café user about what food and drink they are ordering. By trying new things you are polishing your existing English skills while learning and developing at the same time!

By practising your vocabulary in this way you will find that very quickly those phrases become a part of your long-term memory. It will become easier each time to recall what the English words and phrases are that you want to use in any given situation. And a simple trick is to write down the phrases you plan to use in conversations tomorrow and tick them off when you’ve managed it. Enjoy the fun of the challenge of getting phrases into the conversation, and enjoy people’s reactions to you using clever or interesting English.

If you’re not in England or another English speaking country, then you’ve got more work to do! There are always English people somewhere, and it will be worth you finding out where they socialise or gather. Are there groups you can join or clubs and events you can go to? Is there a friend of a friend you know who is English, and you’ve always been a bit nervous about speaking to them? If so, try the same approach as in the UK café. Work out a few phrases or sentences you know you can use, for example, “How did you first meet Maria?”, “How long have you two known each other?” or “Tell me about where you’re from in England”... The benefit of those sorts of questions are also that you get the other person talking, and you can sit back and listen – and learn even more!

Try to keep practising phrases that you know already, and add new words and phrases every day. Your vocabulary will quickly expand, and your grasp of the English language will become stronger and stronger.

A good method – which will have you thinking fast! – is to just throw yourself into a situation and let your brain work out how to survive. This is because sometimes it doesn’t help so much to practice, and you will benefit enormously from having to work out what you want to say. If you have a collection of stock phrases you can often become scared of entering new situations where you cannot control the conversation. Jumping right in without any preparation is often a great way to work your brain and learn as you go. This is about your ability to improvise, to pull vocabulary, phrases, and grammar from different corners of your mind and see what happens.

Remember that whenever you’re speaking English, you’re going to make mistakes! Everyone makes mistakes and so will you – don’t forget that even native speakers get it wrong sometimes. Making a mistake when speaking is not as bad as you think. The worst that will happen is you’ll create a funny situation which makes a great story for the future. Anyone who has learned another language has some funny stories about the time they said something wrong! A big part of any learning experience is when you get things wrong – as long as you can laugh about it, dust yourself off, and get back to work you will be fine!

English Speaking Tip #2 – listen and note things down to look up later

If you are a little on the quiet side and prefer to ‘people watch’, a great tip is to listen to the world around you. This works best if you’re in an English speaking environment. If you’re learning English in the UK or any other English speaking country (such as the US or Australia), everything around you will be in English. This is the perfect opportunity for you to absorb all the English you can.

Tune into local radio stations, watch TV or stream a movie in English with the subtitles switched to your native language. Listen to the announcements when you’re on the train, or soak up the conversations around you as you travel – you’ll be surprised at how much you will learn just by eavesdropping on other people’s conversations! Listening to locals communicate with one another will teach you how to pronounce various words, and help you recognise different accents.

You can remember what you hear and practise it later, perhaps at home when you speak to yourself in the mirror, or if you meet up with an English-speaking friend. An excellent learning tip is to try and note down particular words or maybe phrases that you’ve heard throughout your day, and when you have a quiet moment to yourself you can read through them and practise saying them aloud. You can create these notes on a smartphone, or simply on a piece of paper or a tiny little notebook like these that we think are cool…

In an English speaking country you will be immersed in the local culture and surrounded by native speakers. This means you will have the benefit of hearing the language spoken in context, so you can guess a lot from where you are, what is happening around you, and also people’s gestures and facial expressions.

Most of our communication as humans is non-verbal, so try and guess what someone might be talking about and then listen for a few keywords to see if you’re right. Your brain will do a lot of the work for you without you realising it. The idea of noting down words you hear is also really useful because you’ll start to remember where you heard a word. Don’t be in a rush to look up the word immediately. Instead, stay fixed on the conversation you’re listening to. When you find out later what it means, the moment you go “A-ha, THAT’S what they were talking about!” will fix that memory in your mind, and the word has a better chance of staying in your brain.

English Speaking Tip #3 – use the internet as part of your strategy

As of 2022 English is the language of the internet. It was estimated that 5 billion people – almost 65% of the world’s population – have online access, with 170 million new users added in the last year alone. And English is the most common language, used by 6 million of the top 10 million websites – over 60% of the entire internet’s sites. So for our third piece of advice we’d say “Use the internet, but use it in a certain way”.

There are loads of great websites out there that you can use to practise your English communication. You don’t have to be a student on an English course or in an English language school to improve your English speaking skills – a lot of the work can be done from the comfort of your own home. Check out this blog post that lists 10 websites for improving your English online. It has more than you need to start practising.

The only thing we would add is that it’s important that online English courses don’t take you in the wrong direction. The most interesting thing about English speaking in the real world is that this is your amazing opportunity to talk about what interests you – your passions, your hobbies, what makes you laugh and cry, your friends and family, your hopes and dreams. So don’t be pulled into learning the things you’ll never need. Pick and choose the subjects that interest you, so you don’t become demotivated. We want you to enjoy speaking English so if the subject is not inspiring you, you will definitely be able to find something else. Once you’ve found a subject that interests you, just make sure it’s at the right level for you. You can take a free English test to check your level of ability.

English Speaking Tip #4 – find a buddy

Don’t be loner. Making new friends is a fantastic way to improve your speaking. Surrounding yourself by likeminded people who are also trying to learn English is a guaranteed way of quickly boosting your English skills and abilities.

If you’re studying in a good English language school, the faculty and course programme will help to do this for you. So if you’re staying with a homestay provider, the English school staff will make sure you are placed with a student who speaks a different language to you. This will mean you have to speak English to communicate with each other, so you don’t fall into the habit of speaking in your mother tongue.

A language buddy can be more that that though. For example, during [English summer programmes] (/uk/english-courses/summer-classes/) (which often combine English classes in international groups with exciting excursions and activities), schools will use the ‘buddy system’ to ensure you always have a familiar face and someone to be there for you AND help you to speak more English!

Even if you’re not studying in the UK, we’d tell you to follow the same advice – find a buddy! Using English to make new friends means you’ll be speaking English every day. You can help each other, share vocabulary or correct mistakes, but most importantly you’ll be doing it together – and doing things together is always much more fun and easier than doing things alone. Having someone to support you and encourage you also makes you work harder. You could research new interesting words and phrases online, and keep them noted to share with your buddy at the end of the day. Even if you’re not in the same location, you could connect via Skype or Zoom and chat. You could even keep in touch with the buddy you met in the UK and continue learning and supporting each other when you get home!

English Speaking Tip #5 – fine-tune your pronunciation

So now we’ve got you speaking with native speakers and new friends, and you’re improving your vocabulary by using the internet and listening to the world around you. Your confidence is growing because you’re not afraid of making mistakes and you’re not alone in learning English – but you’re still having trouble making all those tricky sounds English people make with their mouths. This can be especially hard to do if you decide to learn English later in life.

The best thing for this is the Phonemic Alphabet. It might look nothing like English but trust me it helps! You can find one here. It helps you pronounce every English word correctly. Each symbol stands for a sound (kind of like Cyrillic script for Slavic languages) so it gives you that little extra bit of knowledge when it comes to speaking.

Remember no matter where you are you can always practise speaking English and you won’t be the only one trying, so make friends and it’ll get easier. Be confident in yourself! You’re doing something incredibly difficult. Remember to make mistakes so you can learn from them, and if someone comments on your accent just remember that you’ll soon be able to speak two languages and that outweighs perfect pronunciation any day!

ELC is an English language school in England with locations on the south coast in Brighton and Eastbourne, and a school in the northwest of the country in Chester. ELC is ranked as one of the top schools in the UK by the British Council.

A classroom scene of students working through an exercise in class during their English course at ELC Brighton