How To Keep a Conversation Going

For many English learners, one of the greatest challenges to face is how to keep a conversation going with a native English speaker or with another English learner who is more advanced in level.

Don’t be afraid to ask the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary.

Too many times, when we hear a new word from the other person, we tend to close off and not respond anymore because we didn’t understand it, and we are afraid that we may sound stupid if we give the wrong response. What started to be a good interaction now ends in silence and the conversation is dead.

To avoid this, don’t be afraid to ask questions about a vocabulary that is new to you. This will make the conversation more interesting—keeping it alive and more interactive. Plus, when you build up the confidence to ask questions, the most obvious reward is that your vocabulary will increase.

If you don’t understand the sentence, don’t hesitate to ask the person that you’re talking with to explain the word, phrase, or topic you don’t understand. This way you don’t end up in silence and never knowing what that word or phrase meant.

So, it is always safe to ask: “What’s _______ (a new word or phrase)?” OR “What does ________ mean?” For example, the other person is saying, “..because of that situation, I had no choice but to spill the beans.” Don’t be silent and wonder what that meant. You have to ask what it means. So the other person can explain to you that it’s actually an idiomatic expression, which means “reveal all, tell everything, or share a secret information.”

Describe the word you don’t know or don’t remember.

Another helpful expression you can use is: “How do you say______?” OR “How do you call______?”. Then, describe it by using the words you already know. For example, you don’t know the word “giraffe”. You can explain, “How do you call the animal with a long neck? I saw this on a Discovery Channel show about the animals in Africa.” By describing it, the other person can tell you, “Oh, it’s a giraffe.” There are also times when you kind of know the word, but don’t remember it. You may have seen or read it somewhere, or you may have heard it in a song or movie. So you can go, “There’s this word that I read before, but I don’t remember. How do you call _______ (describe it)?”

In your conversations with English speakers, they may use words that are new to you. And in any language, slang or idioms are very common. Even among native English speakers, new idioms are added to their vocabulary many times. When that new idiom becomes popular and people use it more frequently, then it becomes part of their language. This shows us that language is dynamic, complex, and evolves all the time. This is true for any language in any part of the world. There are old and new words as well as old and new idioms. So, when you hear a new English phrase or word, it doesn’t hurt to ask. As soon as you ask questions, they will realize that you don’t understand the word. And, believe it or not, they will be happy to help you.

You don’t need to apologize to ask questions

Finally, minimize apologizing. Don’t say “I’m sorry I don’t understand….or I’m sorry I don’t know that word.” The person you’re talking to knows your position. And when you say “sorry” all the time, it will get awkward.

Here’s a website I suggest that you can study so that you will be more familiar with English idioms: If you are already one of our students. Feel free to discuss new idioms and phrases with your tutors at LingualBox.

I have a passion for the English language because it is such a powerful tool for creativity and personal development. I've been writing articles since I was in High School. I represented my school in English writing competitions in the city, regional, and national levels. When I was in college, I wrote a short story which was published in the University Literary Portfolio. In 2006, I worked as a call center agent in Cebu City. In 2007 up to 2008, I worked as an English accent trainer in a startup call center company. I have also been offering ESL lessons as a freelance tutor since February 2016.