Having a conversation in Spanish can feel scary at first.

There are so many things that could go wrong!

  1. You forget a word or some grammar mid-sentence.
  2. You don’t understand what they said to you.
  3. They reply in English!
  4. You’re not sure what to say.

When you start speaking Spanish, these little communication breakdowns are a normal part of the learning process.

But if you’re smart, you can turn these seemingly tricky moments into opportunities to learn more, by using a few strategic Spanish phrases. 

In this post, you’ll learn 13 Spanish phrases to help you:

  • Keep the conversation going in Spanish, even if you forget a word or don’t understand.
  • Learn more Spanish words.
  • Stop people from replying in English.
  • Strike up a conversation with native Spanish speakers.

You’ll also pick up tips on where to find Spanish speakers to practise with.

Smart Spanish Phrases Help you Keep the Conversation Going

Imagine this.

You walk into a panadería (bakery) and see a tasty pastry, but you’re not sure what it’s called. You have two options. You can:

  1. Point and say: “one of those please”.
  2. Point and say: “Cómo se dice eso en español? (how do you say that in Spanish?)

The first phrase will keep you stuck in touristville.

Option 2 will help you strike up a conversation with a Spanish speaker and learn a new Spanish word at the same time.  Most Spanish speakers will welcome this kind of curiosity – once you start a conversation like this, you’ll probably end up chatting for a little longer, giving you a friendly way to keep practising your Spanish.

The more you use Spanish phrases like this, the longer you can keep the conversation going. And the longer you can keep the conversation going, the better you’ll get at speaking Spanish.

That’s why I’ve teamed up with Juan from Easy Spanish (a fab YouTube channel for Spanish learners) to bring you 13 essential Spanish phrases.

In the next section, you’ll find a video tutorial with 6 Spanish phrases to help you get unstuck and communicate better in Spanish.

Then, you’ll find 7 basic Spanish phrases for everyday conversations. For this part, Juan went out onto the streets of Mexico and posed simple questions to passers-by. In this video, you’ll hear Spanish small talk questions being used in a natural way and learn to understand the replies you might get from native speakers.

Of course, you’ll also need Spanish speakers to practise with – the last section will help you find them.

To make sure you remember the 13 Spanish phrases, you’ll also find a PDF cheatsheet that you can print off and take with you.

6 Spanish phrases to keep the conversation going

Learn these phrases by heart so you can drop them into the conversation when you need them. Get the PDF here: 13 Essential Spanish Phrases PDF.

Spanish Phrase 1: ¿Cómo se dice… en español? 

How do you say… in Spanish? (Literally: How does one say … in Spanish)

To be used when you’re speaking Spanish, but you get stuck because you don’t know – or forget – a word.

In the video, Juan used the example of “tree” (¿Cómo se dice “tree” en español?) – you can just replace “tree” with any word you need to know.

You can also point and say: ¿Cómo se dice eso en español? (how do you say that in Spanish?)

Spanish Phrase 2: ¿Qué significa eso?

What does that mean? 

To be used when you hear or see a word you don’t understand. It’s especially useful in restaurants – just point to the word on the menu and ask the waiter!

When you ask this question in Spanish, you’ll be more likely to get an answer in Spanish, which will help you keep the conversation going. But even if they use English to give you the definition, it’s still a good way to show your conversation partner that you’re making an effort to speak Spanish. This makes it easier to go back to Spanish once you get unstuck.

Spanish Phrase 3: Lo siento, no entendí

Sorry, I didn’t understand. 

A word of warning: try not to use this phrase in isolation because Spanish people may interpret it as a cry for help and switch back to English. Be sure you follow it up with another Spanish phrase, like:

¿Puedes repetirlo, por favor? Can you repeat please?

¿Puedes hablar más lento, por favor? Can you speak slower please?

When you use these phrases, the person you’re talking will know exactly how to help you, so they’ll be less likely to jump in and use English.

You can also say: “Disculpa, no entiendo” – sorry, I don’t understand. In situations where the formal version would be more appropriate (such as a hotel reception) say “Disculpe, no entiendo.”

Spanish Phrase 4: ¿Puedes repetirlo, por favor?

Can you repeat, please? (Literally: can you repeat it, please?)

When you just need to hear the phrase again. In formal situations, you can ask: “Podría repetirlo, por favor?” Could you repeat please?

If they repeat and you’re still having trouble understanding, try to identify the problem and ask another question:

  • Speaking too fast? Ask: “¿Puedes hablar más lento, por favor?” – Can you speak slower, please?
  • A word you don’t recognise? Ask: ¿Qué significa eso? – What does that mean?

Spanish Phrase 5: ¿Puedes hablar más lento, por favor?

Can you speak slower, please? 

For those times when the Spanish speaker is going at 100mph and you’re struggling to keep up!

A more formal version of this phrase is: ¿Podría hablar más despacio, por favor? – Could you speak more slowly please?

Spanish Phrase 6: ¿Podemos hablar en español, por favor?

Can we speak in Spanish, please?

This phrase is perfect for those frustrating moments when you manage to say something in Spanish, but they reply in English!

If the person seems friendly (and not too busy), simply explain that you’re learning and ask if they would speak Spanish with you. With this phrase, you’ll find that many people are happy to chat to you for a little while in Spanish.

A more formal version of this phrase is: ¿Podríamos hablar en español, por favor? – Could we speak in Spanish please?

7 Basic Spanish Phrases for Everyday Conversations

Now you’ve learnt a few key phrases to help you communicate, time for some Spanish phrases to get the conversations started! In this video, Juan went out onto the streets of Mexico and asked some simple small talk questions.

To make the most out of Juan’s video for learning Spanish, check out this post: 5 smart ways to learn a language by watching TV and films.

In the meantime, let’s look at some of the phrases Juan used to start everyday conversations in Spanish. You can download a PDF with these phrases here: 13 Essential Spanish Phrases PDF.

Spanish Phrase 7: Hola ¿cómo estás?

Hello, how are you? 

Spanish Phrase 8: ¿Cuál es tu nombre?

What’s your name?

Alternatively, you can ask: “¿Cómo te llamas?” – What are you called? 

Spanish Phrase 9: Mucho gusto

Pleased to meet you

You can also say: “Encantado” or “Un placer”

Spanish Phrase 10: ¿Qué hiciste hoy?

What did you do today?

Alternatively, if you want to ask someone what they’re going to do in the future, you can say: “¿Qué vas a hacer?”.

Spanish Phrase 11: ¿Qué me recomiendas…?

What do you recommend….

Great for getting recommendations from the locals for places to eat and visit etc. You can ask: ¿Qué me recomiendas comer por aquí? What do you recommend to eat around here?

If you’re speaking to a group (2 or more people) say: “¿Qué me recomiendan…?” 

Spanish Phrase 12: ¿Qué se te antoja hacer…?

What do you feel like doing?

Spanish Phrase 13: Hasta luego

See you later! Other Spanish phrases you can use when you’re leaving include: “Ten una linda noche” – have a nice night and “Cuídate” – take care. 

13 Spanish Phrases to ace your first conversation

Let’s quickly review our 13 Spanish phrases.

  1. ¿Cómo se dice… en español? How do you say … in Spanish?
  2. ¿Qué significa eso? What does that mean?
  3. Lo siento, no entendí. Sorry, I didn’t understand.
  4. ¿Puedes repetirlo, por favor? Can you repeat please?
  5. ¿Puedes hablar más lento, por favor? Can you speak slower, please?
  6. ¿Podemos hablar en español, por favor? Can we speak in Spanish, please?
  7. Hola ¿cómo estás? Hello, how are you?
  8. ¿Cuál es tu nombre? What’s your name?
  9. Mucho gusto. Pleased to meet you
  10. ¿Qué hiciste hoy? What did you do today?
  11. ¿Qué me recomiendas…? What do you recommend…?
  12. ¿Qué se te antoja hacer…? What do you feel like doing?
  13. Hasta luego. See you later.

Next, it’s time to practise using them!

Where can I find Spanish people to talk to?

If you’re one of those people who feels confident enough to walk up to Spanish speakers and start talking, ¡muy bien!

But this approach doesn’t work for lots of people.

It can be tricky to speak Spanish with people you meet randomly (in shops, restaurants or on the train) because these people are just going about their day – they’re not there to help you learn Spanish. This puts unnecessary pressure on you to be able to have a normal conversation.

A great (non scary) way to practise speaking Spanish is to set up a “learning agreement” with Spanish speakers. These are situations where the Spanish speaker knows you’re learning and has agreed to help you. This could be:

  1. A language exchange partner: Find a Spanish person who’s learning your native language – they can help you practice speaking Spanish while you help them speak your native language.
  2. A conversation tutor: Meet a native Spanish speaker (online or in person) for conversation practice and pay them in exchange for their time.

These options take the pressure off because you’re giving the Spanish speaker something in return for their time so you don’t need to feel embarrassed if the conversation is a bit stilted (totally normal at first!)

Also, they know you’re learning, so they’re expecting you to speak slowly and make mistakes. You can even take some tools with you to make the conversation easier, such as a notebook, a dictionary app on your phone and this Spanish phrases cheatsheet.

Related Post: The simplest way to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language

So where can you find some lovely Spanish speakers to chat with?

Online

The best place to find native Spanish speakers online is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors. They are usually pretty good value (often less than $10 an hour).

If you fancy giving it a go, here’s a $10 voucher to use after you book your first lesson here:

Click here to find a tutor on italki and get $10 off

If you find it hard to practice Spanish because you’re busy, this is a great option – you can squeeze a lesson in whenever you have a spare 30 minutes, from wherever you are (all you need is an Internet connection).

Alternatively, if lessons are too expensive for you at the moment, you can also use italki to set up an online language exchange with a Spanish speaker.

Face to Face

If you’d prefer to connect with Spanish speakers face to face, you can set up an in-person language exchange, at a café or pub near you. Here are a couple of tools that will help you find Spanish speakers in your area.

Tandem 
Conversation Exchange

One word of advice – when doing language exchanges, be sure to divide the time equally (e.g. 30 minutes in each language) and be strict about sticking to it so that you both get a fair chance to practice. Remember to ask:

Podemos hablar en español, por favor? (Can we speak in Spanish please?)

If you’re planning on travelling to a country where Spanish is spoken, you can use these tools to meet the locals. By setting up language exchanges in the places you visit, you’ll get to practise speaking Spanish with natives who can show you their favourite spots – a Spanish teacher and local tour guide rolled into one!

What about you?

Can you add any other handy Spanish phrases to the list? Let us know in the comments!

You might like these too…

You know those “Giovanni checks into a hotel” style dialogues you find in most Italian textbooks?

They’re ok if you want to pick up a few polite phrases for travelling. But not so great if you want to actually have conversations with Italians.

Why?

Firstly, they’re not very exciting, so it takes a lot of willpower to use them consistently. And perhaps more importantly, because Italians don’t talk like that in real life.

If you want to understand Italians – and talk like them – the best way is to practise listening to Italians talking in real situations.

Luckily, in 2019 you don’t need to go to Italy to do it. You can create your own little immersion by watching Italian YouTube channels (and go down the YouTube rabbit hole guilt-free because you’re learning Italian at the same time!)

Why you should watch Italian YouTube channels to learn Italian

With Italian YouTube channels, you can listen to people speaking natural Italian, which is perfect for training yourself to understand Italian conversations.

Also, as they’re real human beings, they’re interesting to watch – they can get quite addictive which is great for your Italian!

Finally, many of them come with Italian subtitles, an invaluable resource for going deeper into your Italian study. Native speakers don’t come with subtitles in real life but YouTube is the next best thing – once you’ve listened, you can go back and read the Italian subtitles to look up new words and grammar points.

Some channels also have subtitles in both Italian and English so you can switch between the two and check that you’ve understood. If you need a little help finding the subtitles, there’s a mini-tutorial on how to use YouTube subtitles in different languages at the end of this post.

Once you’ve got subtitles on YouTube, there are tons of different activities you can do to get the most out of the video and learn loads of Italian. For some ideas about how to use these videos to improve your Italian skills, check out in this post with 5 smart ways to learn a language by watching TV and films:

Italian YouTube Channels

But first, let’s get into the best Italian YouTube channels to help you learn Italian.

Italian YouTube Channels for Beginners

Italy Made Easy

Manu is a native Italian based in Australia. In his videos, he explains concepts clearly and has a great understanding of the kinds of problems you’re likely to come up against when you start learning Italian. He’s also a polyglot (he speaks several foreign languages himself) and gives tips on how to learn Italian.

Although he’s in our beginner section, Manu has videos that go right up to advanced level, so you can keep learning with him as your Italian gets better.

He also has a great series of slow videos (with subtitles in Italian) so you can ease yourself into to listening to real spoken Italian.

 

Italian Pod101

Italian Pod101 is great for picking up some basics. Importantly, they give lots of natural examples so you can see how to use the words and phrases in real life.

One World Italiano

Veronica is the bubbly Italian teacher behind One World Italiano. Her videos are entirely in Italian so they’re towards the more difficult end of our beginner section, but she speaks in a slow and clear style. If you struggle to understand the audio, you can use the Italian subtitles to read along and look up any words you don’t know. The One World Italiano channel has a variety of levels, so you can start with the beginner videos and work your way up.

LearnAmo

On the LearnAmo channel, you’ll find mini-tutorials on Italian grammar, culture, expressions and commonly confused words. LearnAmo’s videos are 100% in Italian, so they’re not for complete beginners, however, they talk clearly, which makes them perfect for making your first steps into listening to natural Italian. Some videos have subtitles in both English and Italian, so you can listen in Italian first then switch to English to check your understanding.

Italian YouTube Channels for Intermediate Learners

Easy Languages

On the Easy Languages YouTube channel, we go out onto the streets of Italy and pose questions to passers-by. It’s a great way to get up close to Italian culture and get used to hearing natives speak in a natural and spontaneous way.

To help you follow along, there are big subtitles in Italian and smaller ones in English. Quick tip: try covering the English subtitles with a piece of paper while you listen the first few times, so you can get used to figuring out the meaning from the Italian.

There are loads more activities you can do with these dual-language subtitles to help you learn Italian faster. Check out this post for ideas on how to use YouTube videos to learn Italian.

Your Italian Teacher

With her calm and clear teaching style, Valeria of Your Italian Teacher makes mini-tutorial videos on Italian grammar, vocabulary, and phrases. She speaks Italian at a natural pace, which is great for training your listening. The majority of her videos focus on native-sounding phrases and details that foreign students often get wrong, so they’re perfect for refining your Italian once you can already speak it at a basic level.

 

Lucrezia Oddone

Rome-based Lucrezia Oddone’s love for her native language is contagious! On her YouTube channel, you’ll find grammar tips, handy phrases, Q&As and language learning tips. Her vlogs are especially lovely to watch because she brings you out onto the streets of Italy – it’s almost like being there yourself!

Most of Lucrezia’s videos are entirely in Italian so it’s great for getting the immersion experience. She usually adds manual subtitles to her videos so you can be sure that you’re reading correct Italian, without having to have to worry about the confusing mistakes that can sometimes pop up in the autogenerated ones.

Italiano Automatico

Alberto from Italian Automatico set up his YouTube channel for “people who already have some knowledge about grammar and vocabulary but they can’t speak well, or they can’t speak at all…” He creates super interesting videos in Italian with the help of a special guest, his lovely nonna! His unique approach to learning Italian is focused on listening and speaking without obsessing over the grammar, which is something I can totally get on board with.

Related post: Why so hard? How to learn a second language as an adult

At the time of writing, he already has a library of 503 videos, including a playlist of videos with Italian subtitles. Time for an Italiano Automatico YouTube binge!

Italian YouTube Channels for Advanced Learners

Now you’re at an advanced level, you can kick back and watch videos for native speakers. You’ll probably still come across bits and pieces that are tricky to understand (still happens to me and I’ve been living in Italy for over 6 years!). For this reason, here you’ll find 6 Italian YouTube channels with subtitles, so you can go back and read any bits you miss.

Sgrammaticando

Fiorella from Sgrammaticando started her YouTube channel to clarify grammar points for Italians (yep, even Italians need help with their own grammar sometimes!), but as her channel grew, she realised that she also had lots of Italian learners in her audience. In her fun and friendly style, she answers FAQs and gives tutorials to help both Italians and Italian learners avoid common mistakes and “defend themselves” from the common traps of the Italian language.

She’s also written a book on the same topic, so if you want to refine your Italian by correcting common grammar mistakes, Fiorella’s your girl!

Fan Page

With over 1 million subscribers, Fan Page is one of the most popular YouTube channels in Italy. Here you’ll find social commentaries, interviews, investigative journalism, and pranks. One of the things that makes Fan Page so popular is their ability to show current affairs and Italian culture with a personal touch  – like this “letter from Neapolitans to migrants in difficulty.”

Or this reportage on the meeting between vice-president Salvini and Gino Sorbillo, a famous pizza chef who has spoken out against Salvini’s right wing policies.

Wild at Earth

In her fun travel channel, Italian globetrotter Mery takes you around the world and documents her experiences in her native language. In addition to classic travel guides, she talks about interesting challenges she faces while travelling, such as living in a 14 square meter apartment.

Luca Lampariello

Luca Lampariello is an Italian polyglot who gives advice on how to learn a language on his popular YouTube channel. A few of his videos are in his native language, so you can pick up tips on how to learn a language and practise your Italian listening at the same time!

The Jackal

People often say that if you can understand humor in the language you’re learning, you know the language well. In that case, you can put your Italian to the test by watching the Jackal – probably the most popular alternative comedy YouTube channel in Italy.

Some of their videos have subtitles in both Italian and English, which means you can start with Italian and switch to English every now and then, just to make sure you’ve understood everything. And they have lovely Neapolitan accents – perfect for getting some exposure to regional varieties of Italian.

Get started with this video: 10 things you didn’t know about Italians (maybe you didn’t want to know but we’ll tell you anyway)

Cook Around

If you’re hoping to speak Italian like a native speaker, why not learn to cook like one too?  There are lots of Italian cooking channels on YouTube where you can get recipes and tips from Italian chefs – ecco an example of an original carbonara recipe from the Cook Around YouTube channel with subtitles in Italian.

How to use subtitles with Italian YouTube videos

How to turn them on

To turn on YouTube subtitles, click the little white box in the bottom right-hand corner.

I’d recommend listening without subtitles first so you can train your listening (native speakers don’t come with subtitles in real-life, sadly!), then watch again with subtitles so you can catch what you missed and look up new words.

Related post: Improve your Listening in a Foreign Language: The Ultimate Guide

How to switch languages

If you’re lucky, you might find a video with Italian AND English subtitles. This is handy for when you understand the words in Italian, but you’re still not quite sure what the whole sentence means – you can switch over to English and see how the pros translated it.

To switch languages, click on the little cog button at the bottom right-hand corner.

Then click on Subtitles/CC and you’ll see all the available languages.

What about you?

Which of these Italian YouTube channels do you like the most? Do you know any other good Italian YouTube channels that we missed? Let us know in the comments!

A few months ago, I decided to try and become fluent in Mandarin Chinese.

I made a plan.

Looking at people who’d already done it, I worked out that it’d probably take me around 1500 hours. If I wanted to do it in 2 years, I’d need to study for around 2 hours a day.

156 days later, I should have done around 312 hours.

So far, I’m on 147.

I’m already way behind schedule, and it’s all because of one little word.

Tomorrow.

It’s the busiest day of the week. And the reason I’m publishing this New Year’s post on the 12th of January.

And it could be the reason you’re not as far ahead with your language learning as you’d like to be.

If you’re one of those people who keeps telling yourself you’ll start tomorrow (and never getting around to it), keep reading. If you don’t cure your tomorrow-itus now, in December you’ll look back and realise that another year has passed. And you still don’t speak that language as well as you could.

We don’t want that for you!

In this post, you’ll learn a 2-step plan to stop tomorrowing yourself and make 2019 the year you learn a language.

Why “tomorrow” is toxic for language learning

Busy projects, problems at work, vacations, guests. Over the last few months, I’ve had some great excuses to put off learning Chinese until tomorrow.

One little day – it seemed innocent enough. Until I looked back over the last few months and realised that all those tomorrows had added up and I was way off schedule.

Progress (or deterioration) is usually an accumulation of small actions taken over time. Take smoking for example. One little cigarette won’t kill you, but the cumulative effect over a lifetime could.

Missing one study session won’t stop you from learning a language, but putting it off every day will.

Most people focus on today and underestimate the cumulative consequences of their actions (or lack of actions) over time. But if you tomorrow yourself enough, one day you’ll look back over your life and realise you never did any of the cool stuff you planned.

The tried-and-tested plan to stop putting off learning a language

Although I’m definitely one of those people who tends to put things off, there are a few times when I haven’t done this. Like last year, when I managed to go from intermediate to advanced French in a few months. Or recently, when I finished a presentation a whole week before the deadline.

Why?

These goals had two things in common, that were missing from my Chinese plan.

  1. They were short-term
  2. Other people knew about them

For my French mission, I booked myself in for the DALF exam a few months away. I could feel the exam date approaching so I knew I couldn’t get away with putting it off. And, as I’d already talked about it on the blog, it would have been embarrassing not to go through with it!

For my presentation, I had a meeting with the reviewer a week before the conference. He was relying on me, so I made sure it got done.

When I made my Chinese plan, I forgot to include short-term goals. And being as I didn’t have a short-term goal, no one was watching to make sure I did it. It was easy to keep lying to myself and tell myself I’d do it tomorrow.

Recently, I’ve adjusted my plan to account for these two steps and I’m getting loads more done.

1. Set short-term goals

I’ve broken my plan down. I’m now aiming to do 65 hours a month, which translates to around 16 hours a week.

This includes downtime activities, like listening to podcasts and watching Chinese TV (even though I don’t understand a lot yet!) and stuff I do on the go, such as revising vocabulary on my flashcard app on the subway or in line at the supermarket.

I know 16 hours a week is loads, so please don’t let that put you off! You can start with any number that fits in well with your life. 15 focused minutes a day is enough to see tangible progress over the year.

2. Check in with a friend

I’ve teamed up with a friend, who I check in with every day. The system is simple: for every hour of Chinese I do, I send him an emoji on WhatsApp. If I stop sending emojis, he knows I’m slacking off and after a while, it gets embarrassing. I’m peer-pressuring myself to stay on track – and it’s working!

The 2-step plan to make sure you learn a language this year

1. Set yourself some short term goals

Choose a short-term goal that you like the sound of. This could be a language exam, a trip to the country or simply the number of hours per month/week that you’re going to spend learning the language. Actually, even if you choose a goal like an exam or trip, you should probably decide on the number of hours you’re going to study each month/week anyway, as this will help you stay on track (see next step).

And when I say “learning” this doesn’t have to be boring stuff like studying from a grammar book or memorising vocabulary. If you’re going to be spending so much time learning a language, you might as well enjoy it! Here are a few posts that will help you find fun ways to learn a language.

Related posts:
5 smart ways to learn a language by watching TV and films
How to learn a language at home (even if you’re really lazy)
32 fun ways to learn a language (that actually work)

2. Check in with a friend

Find a friend to check in with each day/week to make sure you’re staying on track. The simpler the system, the better. Sending a thumbs up emoji or a “done” message works well.

If you can’t think of anyone to do this with in real life, there are people online who can help! Try joining the Language Diary Challenge Facebook Group – they’re a friendly bunch so you should easily find like-minded language learners to team up with.

Before you go…

It’s possible that these ideas aren’t new to you. But there’s a big difference between knowing about this stuff and actually doing it. Although I knew about these ideas, I wasn’t applying them, which is why I fell behind with my Chinese mission. If you think these ideas could help you, think about practical ways you can apply them to your life and start doing them asap.

How about you?

Do you have a habit of tomorrowing yourself? Do you have any other strategies to stop yourself from putting things off? Share them in the comments!

Have you ever noticed how cheesy the dialogues in French textbooks sound?

They use the same words and grammar as French people do in real life, but something doesn’t sound quite right.

One of the reasons is that textbook dialogues forget to include a few important little words that French people use all the time, like “bon”, “ben” and “euh”. These are called French filler words – they don’t add meaning but they give French its characteristic sound.

The good news is, they’re very easy to learn and you can use them to instantly sound more French.

In this post, you’ll learn:

  • 9 French filler words that will help you sound more fluent.
  • An easy trick to stay in “French mode” even when you’re stuck for words.
  • The little word you should avoid using.
  • Bonus: How French people greet each other – which cheek should you kiss first?

What are French Filler Words?

Filler words are little words like “er”, “kind of”, “so” and “well”. They’re called “filler words” because we use them to “fill” the time while we gather our thoughts and decide what to say.

Every language has their own filler words. A few examples in French are:

  • Bon
  • Bref
  • Euh
  • Alors

Why should I use French Filler Words?

French filler words are great for a few reasons:

They buy you thinking time

When you start speaking French, you might feel worried about long silences while you try to find the words.

But even natives hesitate sometimes, that’s why they have filler words! If you can use the same words French people do when they’re thinking, this will help you stay in “French mode” while you decide what to say next. You’ll sound more French, even when you’re stuck for words!

They help you sound (and feel) more French

Filler words give your speech a French flavor – it’s like sprinkling your sentences with French condiments.

They improve your listening comprehension

French people use filler words all the time. If you can recognize them, this will help you understand spoken French better.

9 French Filler words (and how to use them)

I can’t think of anyone better to teach you how to sound natural in French than Carrie from French is beautiful, my favorite American in Paris who brings French to life by using real materials (like films and quotes) in her lessons.

So I invited her to give you a little lesson on French filler words, and luckily she said “oui!”.

Below the interview, you’ll find:

Voilà some notes from Carrie’s lesson. Here you can download the PDF version of these notes so you can take them with you and study them whenever you like (you’ll also find links to other handy French stuff inside).

1 – 3: Bon, fin, bref

Used in isolation, these filler words mean:

  • Bon =good
  • Fin = end
  • Bref = anyway

Used together, they signal the end of a story, a bit like “so anyway” or “long story short”.

Imagine you were telling a story about how you lost your keys, at the end, you could say:

Bon, fin, bref… elles était dans mon sac.

Long story short… they were in my purse.

4 – 5: Bon, ben

  • Bon = good
  • Ben = uhm

Used together, these filler words mean: “OK, well…” or “so, then…”.  They’re often used just before you’re about to wrap up a conversation. For example:

Bon, ben… on s’appelle ce week-end?

OK, well… shall we call each other this weekend?

6 – 7: Donc, Alors

  • Donc = Then, therefore, so
  • Alors = Then, so

“Donc” and “alors” are often interchangeable. They have a similar meaning to “bon, ben” (OK then, so then…) but they’re a little more sophisticated.

Donc… on s’appelle ce week-end?

Alors… on s’appelle ce week-end?

So then… shall we call each other this weekend?

8: Euh

This is the sound French people make when they’re thinking. It’s like the English “er” or “uhm”.

As Carrie mentioned, our ears like to stay in the same “sound universe”. If you’re speaking French and you suddenly pronounce “err” the English way, it breaks the flow of the conversation.

Learning to pronounce French sounds, like “euh” when you’re thinking keeps you in French mode – it’s an easy way to instantly sound more French.

You can also use “ben”, which has the same meaning, but sounds a little more sophisticated.

9: Hein

“Hein” is the French equivalent of “huh?”. This little word is great to understand, but best avoided in the beginning stages as it can be perceived as impolite in some contexts (just like “huh?” in English).

More polite versions are:

  • Pardon?
  • Comment?

Bonus: “La bise”

In this lesson, Carrie talked about “la bise”, which is the French word for that kiss on the cheek that French people do when they meet each other. A couple of tips:

  1. French people don’t literally kiss the cheek, they just touch cheeks and make a kissing sound.
  2. If you both wear glasses, it can be a good idea to quickly take yours off so you don’t get tangled!

Conclusion

Et voilà, 9 little words that will instantly help you sound très French. Have you used French filler words before? Do you know any that we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments, s’il te plaît!

More from French is Beautiful

If you’d like to keep learning French with Carrie, you can find her here:

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Lots of people say they speak a foreign language better after a drink or two.

It seems logical.

One of the trickiest things about speaking a language is the nerves and alcohol lowers inhibitions.

But does drinking really help you speak a foreign language better? Or just make you think you speak it better? After all, alcohol also makes people think they can dance like Beyonce, they should call their ex and that cheese is a food group.

Interestingly, science suggests that the “Dutch courage” effect is real – alcohol really can help you speak a foreign language.

Which is an interesting finding, if not all that helpful.

For a start, lots of people don’t drink alcohol. And even if you do like a tipple, what happens when you need to speak the language over breakfast, or at the airport?

It’s just not practical to crack out the bubbly every time you want to speak a foreign language.

In this article, we’ll talk about:

  • The science behind why alcohol helps you speak a foreign language better.
  • How to get the same confidence boost without touching a drop.

Science says alcohol helps you speak a foreign language (kind of)

Last year, researchers invited 50 Germans who spoke Dutch as a second language into the lab. Half were given a drink with vodka in it, while the others got a drink which was alcohol-free.

Once the Germans had finished their drinks, they were asked to have a conversation in Dutch. Two native Dutch speakers (who didn’t know who had drunk alcohol and who hadn’t) listened to the recordings and rated the Germans on how well they spoke Dutch.

Specifically:

  • Pronunciation
  • Grammar
  • Vocabulary
  • Argumentation quality

The participants who had drunk alcohol were rated higher on their pronunciation, although it didn’t make any difference to the other areas.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time alcohol has been found to improve pronunciation in a second language. In a 1972 study, researchers gave groups of Americans cocktails with and without alcohol and tested their ability to pronounce Thai words. The ones who had consumed alcohol received higher pronunciation ratings than those who had drunk the mocktails.

Alcohol might improve your pronunciation, but only in moderation

It’s important to keep in mind that the pronunciation gains were linked to small amounts of alcohol. In the most recent study, the Germans consumed less than a pint of beer. Back in 1972, the sweet spot was 1.5 oz of 90 proof alcohol, which is around one shot of strong whiskey. Participants who drank more than that, or who drank on an empty stomach, performed worse than the sober ones.

This fits in with my experience when I moved to Italy. When I went to the pub with my Italian friends, I found that the first drink helped, but any more than 2 and I struggled to keep up with the conversation.

Does alcohol help you speak a foreign language?
When I moved to Italy, I found that conversations were easier after 1 drink, but more difficult after 3!

Which is not all that surprising. Large amounts of alcohol impairs concentration, memory and makes you slur your words – not ideal for speaking a foreign language.

So in answer to our question:

Can alcohol help you speak a foreign language? 

Science says:

Yes, but only pronunciation. And only in small amounts. 

Why does this happen?

Why does alcohol improve your pronunciation in a foreign language?

One theory is that alcohol helps you open up to a new cultural identity.

Pronunciation forms a strong part of your identity because it links you to a community. If you have a London accent, this could suggest all kinds of things about you including the type of job you might have, your religious or political views, the kinds of things you eat for dinner and certain personality traits.

Learning the sounds of a new language requires you to leave this behind, which explains why you might feel a bit silly when speaking a new language – it doesn’t feel like you. 

In the 1972 study, the researchers suggested that drinking alcohol increases “ego permeability” – the willingness to temporarily give up the separateness of your identity so that you can mimic speakers of the second language.

This idea fits in with a study by Tim Keeley, who found that people with higher ego permeability tend to speak foreign languages better, and other research which suggests that empathetic people usually have better pronunciation (very cool interview with Tim on this topic coming soon… watch this space!)

Another reason could be linked to the relaxing effect of alcohol. Anxiety makes it harder to speak a second language and as small amounts of alcohol reduce stress, this could explain why the drinkers in both studies had better pronunciation.

But what about the confidence-boosting effect we talked about at the beginning of this article? Does alcohol help you feel more confident when you speak a foreign language? If we come back to our Dutch speaking Germans, we find a surprising twist in this cocktail.

Can alcohol help you feel more confident when you speak a foreign language?

When researchers asked the German groups how well they thought they’d spoken, there was no difference between the drinkers and the non-drinkers. This means that although their pronunciation was better, the Germans who had drunk alcohol didn’t feel more confident.

One reason for this could be that the participants didn’t actually know if they’d drunk alcohol or not (they were told that they may have a drink with alcohol in it).

Alcohol has a strong placebo effect – people who think they’ve drunk alcohol can feel the same effects, even though they’re completely sober. Perhaps it’s the thought that you’ve drunk alcohol that makes you feel more confident, rather than the alcohol itself.

And it seems that non-drinkers don’t need alcohol to get this effect.

In the comments to a recent question I posted about languages and drinking, Nasrul said:

I can’t drink wine because I’m Muslim. But I speak Arabic and English better after I’ve drunk something like mineral water and coke. 

I do drink myself, but I remember going to the pub with friends on occasions when I didn’t. At first, I was worried that I would feel awkward, but after a while, I got into the conversations and forgot that I wasn’t drinking.

Pleasant moments, like sitting around a cozy table with friends, could be enough to help you relax into speaking a foreign language.

So far, we’ve learnt that:

  • Small doses of alcohol can improve your pronunciation (possibly because it helps you open up to a new cultural identity).
  • Too much alcohol can impair your ability to speak a foreign language.
  • The confidence-boosting effect of alcohol might not always be real.
  • Anything that helps you feel more relaxed could help you speak a foreign language better.

What does this mean for me?

If you drink alcohol, why not take advantage of these findings and combine it with language learning? You could meet a speaking partner at the pub and practise chatting over a drink.

But you don’t need alcohol to feel more confident when speaking a foreign language. There are plenty of other ways to increase your self-esteem.

Here are 4.

4 ways to feel confident when you speak a foreign language (no Dutch courage necessary!)

1. Close the cultural gap

If you’re not used to speaking to people from other countries, it can feel intimidating. While it’s natural to focus on your differences at first, research suggests that this kind of “me and them” thinking could make it harder for you to learn the language.

Breaking down cultural barriers will help you speak the language better. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Focus on them

Feeling nervous naturally causes you to focus your attention inward. Instead, try directing your attention to the person you’re talking to. This changes your attitude from “I’m trying my best not to sound stupid” to “I’m trying my best to connect with the person in front of me”. This approach will help you relax and have more rewarding conversations.

Find your similarities

Most cultural differences are on the surface. When you get closer to people from different cultures, you’ll realise that you have a lot in common. Many values, like kindness, friendship and family, are universal.

Put yourself in their shoes

Imagine you come from the culture of the language you’re learning. What does a typical day look like? What time do you wake up? What do you wear? What do you eat for breakfast? You can even go deeper – What keeps you up at night? What makes you smile? This will help you get closer on a practical and emotional level.

Make friends

When you spend time hanging around with people you like from that culture, you’ll get an insider view that will help you understand and connect with other native speakers. Get tips on where to find these people in step 4.

Don’t take yourself so seriously

When dealing with a new language and culture, you’ll probably have awkward moments where you make mistakes, or you’re not sure what to say or do. If you shut down from fear of mistakes, this will create distance between you and the native speakers you want to talk to.

Arm yourself with a good sense of humour and learn to laugh at yourself. Most people are forgiving of the mistakes foreigners make when navigating their culture – if you let them laugh with you, you’ll never struggle to make friends.

2. Practise a lot (even if it feels uncomfortable)

You cannot think yourself out of feeling nervous.

In fact, trying to convince yourself not to feel nervous makes everything worse, because you create a new problem:

1. You feel nervous
2. You’re nervous about the fact that you can’t stop feeling nervous.

If you accept that nerves are a normal part of learning to speak a foreign language, you’ll make life easier for yourself. So, if you can’t stop the nerves by thinking, what can you do instead?

Take action. The most reliable way to gain confidence when speaking a foreign language is simple: practise until it feels normal.  

And you don’t have to start at the deep end – you can gradually build up to conversations. Find a step-by-step guide in this post:

The simplest way to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language

3. Learn a language in relaxing situations

Classrooms can make you anxious because your “performance” is always being judged.

  • No mistakes = Great! A+
  • Lots of mistakes = You should have studied more! F.

But languages aren’t a school subject with a test at the end. They’re a social thing. In fact, you don’t need to be in a classroom at all to learn a language!

To make speaking a language more enjoyable (and therefore less nerve-wracking) try practicing the language in fun social situations. For example:

  • Are there any meetups in your area where you can practice speaking the language with like-minded people?
  • Can you meet a language exchange partner in a place you love? Like at a café or in the park? Can you go to an art gallery or sightseeing? Or how about cooking together?

You’ll probably still feel nervous at the beginning, but that’s nothing to worry about. Remember, the secret is getting started.

The more you do it, the easier it gets.

4. Practise with people who make you feel comfortable

In your native language, there are probably people you feel relaxed around, and others who make you a bit uncomfortable.

It’s no different for language learning. I’ve been learning Italian for years, but there are still people and situations that make me nervous. For example, I get a bit of social anxiety around friends of friends who are very different from me. Or when ordering in shops and restaurants (I feel awkward talking to people I don’t know in English, so in Italian, it’s worse!)

This doesn’t mean you should avoid people and situations that make you feel awkward (remember, nerves are a normal part of language learning). But it does mean that you’ll probably find it more difficult to speak in these situations, so they’re not ideal for practicing.

The best way to improve your speaking skills in a second language is to find people who make you feel comfortable and practise with them regularly.

Where can you find these people?

Online language tutors

One of the best places to practise speaking a foreign language is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, you can get a $10 voucher after you book your first lesson here:

Click here to find a tutor on italki and get $10 off.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to stick with the first person you find. If you don’t feel comfortable with the first tutor, keep looking until you find someone you click with.

Language Exchange Partners

Alternatively, look for people in your area who also want to learn your native language and set up a language exchange:

  • They help you practise speaking their native language
  • You help them practise speaking your native language

There are lots of websites and apps that help you find native speakers in your area, so you can meet up and practice speaking over a coffee (or glass of vino if you do drink). Conversation Exchange and Tandem are two examples.

You can also do it online, via italki.

Again, keep in mind that you don’t have to stick with the first person you find. It’s a bit like online dating – you can keep going until you find someone that feels right.

Immersion Vacations

A fab way to feel comfortable and get a lot better at speaking is to join one of our immersion vacations. The vacations are run by myself and a patient native speaker teacher who will put you at ease and encourage you to speak.

The idea?

To practise speaking a language in beautiful locations, while doing fun and relaxing things like:

  • Wandering around lavender fields in Provence.
  • Island hopping across the Italian lakes
  • Nibbling on tapas and sipping on sangria (or virgin sangria) on the Costa Brava.

By the end, you’ll feel loads more confident because you’ll have spoken the language for a whole week! And you’ll have new friends to practise speaking with.

If you’d like to join us, you can find out more here:

If the language you’re learning isn’t in there, send me an email and let me know: which immersion vacation would you like us to organise next? We might be able to put something together for you.

In the meantime, you can also join our Immersion Vacations Facebook group to get updates (and a sneak peek of what we did on the last one).

What do you think?

Do you find it easier to speak a foreign language after a drink or two? Do you have any other techniques that help you relax when you’re speaking?

What’s the difference between a Spanish learner and a native speaker?

There are obvious things, like pronunciation and grammar.

But there’s another difference that people hardly ever talk about. Little words that Spanish speakers use all the time, but that you won’t find in a typical Spanish lesson or textbook.

The good news is, they’re quick to learn and instantly help you sound more native.

In this post, you’ll learn what Spanish filler words are and how they can help you speak Spanish better.

We’ll cover:

  • 19 little words that will help you sound more Spanish when you talk.
  • The difference between “eh” and “ah” in Spanish (it’s bigger than you might think!)
  • A video tutorial on how to use Spanish filler words like a native.
  • A Spanish conversation with realistic examples.
  • Bonus: A mini lesson on how to pronounce b + v in Spanish!

What are Spanish Filler Words?

Filler words are little words and noises like “uhm”, “so”, “well”, “sort of”, “I mean”, “right” and “you know”. They’re called filler words because we use them to fill in the gaps while we’re thinking about what to say next.

Every language has their own set of filler words. A few examples in Spanish are:

  • Bueno
  • Pues
  • Eh
  • Ah
  • Oye

Spanish speakers use them all the time in natural and spontaneous conversations.

Why Should I use Spanish Filler Words?

If you want to sound more native when you speak Spanish, filler words are a great place to start. They’re handy for two reasons:

They buy you thinking time

When you speak Spanish, you might feel nervous about having long pauses while you think about what you want to say next. But even native Spanish speakers hesitate sometimes and when they do, they use filler words.

If you can use the same words that native speakers use when they pause, this will help you stay in “Spanish” mode while you organise your thoughts. You’ll come across as a little more fluent, even while you’re hesitating!

They make you sound (and feel) more Spanish

Filler words don’t change the meaning of a sentence – the sentence would still make sense without them – but they make a big difference to how your speech sounds. Imagine I ask you this question:

¿Quieres ir a la biblioteca?  Do you want to go to the library?

Without filler words, you could answer like this:

No.

With filler words, you could say something like:

Pues… ahora mismo, no… Hmm, not right now, no.

Sprinkling in some Spanish filler words is a bit like adding condiments – they’re not the main ingredients, but they add a lot of Spanish flavour. When you use them, you’ll feel more Spanish and your speech will sound more natural to Spanish ears.

That said, not all Spanish filler words are the same. There are different filler words for different situations, so it’s important to learn how to use them correctly.

To help you drop them into the conversation smoothly, Nacho from Nacho time Spanish is here to teach you some Spanish filler words and how to use them in real life. Below the tutorial video, you’ll also find:

Take it away Nacho!

Spanish Filler Words: Video Tutorial

Get the PDF with all the examples here: Spanish Filler Words (PDF)

1) “Pues” – To answer questions you weren’t expecting

—¿Qué quieres que haga para desayunar?
—Pues… podrías hacer tostadas con aguacate.

“What do you want me to make for breakfast?”
“Hmm… you could do avocado on toast”

2) “Pues” — To signal a direct response to what was previously said

—Me estoy muriendo de frío.
—Pues haberte traído un jersey

“I’m freezing my ass off”
“You should have brought a sweater, then”

3) “Bueno” y “Vale” — To agree without a lot of enthusiasm

—Tu habitación está hecha un asco. Ve ahora mismo a limpiarla.
—Bueno, pero me parece que tampoco es para tanto.

“Your room is a mess. Go clean it right now”
“Okay, but I don’t think it’s that bad”

4) “Oye” y “Mira” — To request someone’s attention (or to indicate a non-neutral statement)

—¿A qué hora vamos al cine?
—Oye, se me olvidó decírtelo, pero ya he quedado con Roberto.

“When are we going to the movies?”
“Listen, I forgot to tell you, but I’ve already made plans with Roberto”

5) “Venga” y “Vamos” — To encourage someone to take action

—¿Has visto mis zapatos? No los encuentro.
—¿Pero todavía no estás listo? ¡Venga, que no llegamos!

“Have you seen my shoes?” I can’t find them.
“You’re not ready yet? Come on, otherwise we’re not going to make it!

6) “Es que” — To give excuses and explanations

—¿No me dijiste que ibas a lavar los platos?
—Es que me he puesto a mirar cosas en Instagram y al final no me ha dado tiempo.

“Didn’t you say you were going to do the dishes?
“Well, the thing is… I start going through my Instagram and I ended up running out of time.

Spanish Filler Words: Example Conversation (advanced)

The best way to learn Spanish vocabulary is to hear it being used. In this video, Nacho and I will switch over to Spanish so you can see these Spanish filler words in action (+ a few bonus ones).

Transcript

Get a PDF with the full transcript here: Spanish Filler Words (PDF)

Nacho.—¿A que no sabes con quién me encontré ayer por la calle?
Katie.—Pues, no sé. Sorpréndeme.

Nacho.—¡Con Alberto! Mi antiguo jefe. Resulta que dentro de poco es su cumpleaños y me ha dicho que estamos invitados a la fiesta que está organizando en su casa.

Katie.—Ah, pues dile que muchas gracias, pero no creo que vaya. Habré hablado con él dos veces en mi vida y en esa fiesta no creo que conozca a nadie.

Nacho.—Bueno, ¿y eso qué más da? Me conoces a mí. Y con él, ya hablarás el viernes. Así que no le vayas a hacer un feo ahora. Encima que te invita…

Katie.—Oye, a ti esto de darle la vuelta a la tortilla se te da muy bien, ¿sabes? Deberías de trabajar de comercial. Ganarías una pasta.

Nacho.—¡Venga, mujer! Que no es para tanto. ¿Tenías otro plan para este viernes?

Katie.—Es que no sé si me apetece pasarme el viernes en una fiesta de un tío que no conozco de nada.

Nacho.—Mira, vamos a hacer una cosa. El viernes por la tarde te vienes a mi casa, nos preparo algo para cenar, nos tomamos un par de cubatas y luego vamos a la fiesta de Alberto. Estamos allí una horita y si nos aburrimos, nos vamos. ¿Eh? ¿Qué te parece?

Katie.—Bueno, vale. De acuerdo. Pero nada de pizzas congeladas como la última vez. O cocinas algo de verdad o no pienso poner un pie en tu casa.

Nacho.—O sea, que si no me lo curro, me quedo sin fiesta.

Katie.—Exacto.

Nacho.—Venga. Pues, ¡trato hecho! A ver qué tal me sale. 😅

Today’s Spanish Filler Words

So you can keep them all together, here’s a handy list of all the Spanish filler words Nacho and I talked about in the videos.

  1. Ah! (To express surprise, like the English “oh!”)
  2. Pues (Hmmm)
  3. Eh (Well)
  4. Bueno (OK, without enthusiasm)
  5. Vale (OK, without enthusiasm)
  6. Oye (Listen)
  7. Mira (Look)
  8. Venga (Come on)
  9. Vamos (Come on)
  10. Es que (The thing is)
  11. A que no (You’ll never guess)
  12. Resulta que (It turns out that)
  13. Ya (something that hasn’t happened yet, but will in future)
  14. Así que (so)
  15. Encima que (on top of that)
  16. Esto de (this stuff about)
  17. Sabes (You know)
  18. O sea (In other words)
  19. A ver (let’s see/we’ll see)

Conclusion

So there you have it, a few easy-to-remember words that will instantly help you sound more Spanish when you speak. Have you tried using Spanish filler words before? Do you know any others that we missed? Let us know in the comments!

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Reading, listening, speaking and writing.

As a language teacher, I’m supposed to tell you that they’re all equally important (a bit like not having a favourite child).

Between you and me, I have a favourite. One that’s more important than the others, at least for most people.

Listening.

If your main reason for learning a language is to have conversations, the best way to train yourself is by listening to lots of conversations.

Yet it also happens to be one of the most frustrating skills to master.

You might understand quite a bit when you see the words written down or hear them spoken slowly and clearly. But when natives chat at 100mph and mush their words together, it can feel impossible to keep up.

Luckily, with the right strategies, you can train yourself to understand. In this in-depth guide, I’ll show you how to tune your ears into the language you’re learning so you can follow what native speakers are saying.

We’ll cover:

  • Why listening helps you speak a foreign language better.
  • The common problems that stop you from understanding (and how to fix them).
  • 3 techniques to help you keep up with fast and unclear speech: Deliberate, Binge and Passive.
  • How to find the right listening resources.
  • Should you use subtitles? A science-based answer.
  • How to stop panicking and start understanding (+ other useful mindset stuff).

Why should I do more listening in a foreign language?

When you improve your listening skills, you’ll understand native speakers better – a fundamental skill for speaking a foreign language.

But listening has another benefit: It helps you learn how native speakers talk.

Of course, if your aim is to have conversations, you’ll also need to practice speaking. But one of the coolest things about listening is that it helps with your speaking skills. The more you listen, the more you’ll find that the right things “pop into your head” when you need them.

Listening helps you get the grammar right

Time for a little experiment. Let’s say you’re a native English speaker and I ask you which of the following is correct:

  • Last year I went to London
  • Last year I have been to London

Which would you choose?

Most native English speakers instinctively feel that the first sentence is right. They can’t tell you why, but they use it correctly even though they don’t know the rule.

When you listen a lot in a foreign language, you’ll pick up grammar without spending so much time memorising the rules. You’ll just know because it “sounds right” – a bit like in your native language.

This happens to me all the time. For example, German has several ways to say “the” (including der, die and das), which can be confusing for learners. But I know that Germans say das Foto. Why? Is it because I memorised it in a list of “das” words?

Nein.

It’s because I’ve been watching a certain reality TV show (*Cough* Germany’s Next Topmodel) where they talk about photos a lot.

Listening in a foreign language
One of my guilty pleasures is Germany’s Next Top Model. I’ve picked up lots of German grammar just by hearing certain structures being used over and over.

This doesn’t mean you should totally ignore grammar, but it does mean that you can pick up a lot relatively painlessly by listening as much as you can.

Listening helps you learn native-sounding expressions

Languages are full of little expressions that don’t translate logically. Look at the literal translations of the phrase “we’re nearly there” in different languages:

Italian: We are almost arrived (Siamo quasi arrivati).
Spoken French: One is almost arrived (On est presque arrivés).
Spanish: Already, we almost arrived (Ya casi llegamos).

Every language has thousands of little expressions like these and the best way to learn them is by hearing them in natural situations (either in real life, or via TV/films etc.)

Listening is a great way for busy people to learn a language

Just in case you needed another reason to increase the amount of listening you do in a foreign language, it’s the busy learner’s best friend. All you need is a smartphone and some headphones and you can listen as you go about your day without it taking up any extra time.

What if I don’t understand anything?

Have you ever felt a frustrating gap between your listening and reading abilities in a foreign language? When you see something written down (or if someone says it very slowly), you can follow what’s being said, but when they speak at normal speed… woosh! 

Straight over your head.

If you understand when you have the words in front of you, it’s not a comprehension problem. The problem must be sound-related – your ears aren’t tuned into the foreign language yet.

There are 2 reasons this can happen.

Problem #1. The words sound different to how you expected

When you were born, you had a super little polyglot brain that could hear sounds in all the world’s languages.

As you grew up, your brain adapted to your native language by zooming in on sounds that were important and filtering out the ones that weren’t. This is good because it helps you understand your first language better, even in unfavourable conditions, like over a crackly phone line or in a noisy pub.

But it means that when you listen to a second language as an adult, your ears play tricks on you. They make you think that the sounds in a foreign language are similar to your native language when actually they’re different.

Listening in a foreign language
Your ears are tuned into your native language. This is good because it helps you understand in tricky listening conditions, like over a crackly phone or at the pub. But it makes it harder to hear sounds in a foreign language.

 

Problem #2: You haven’t practised enough

At school, I hated Spanish listening exercises.

I remember feeling nervous before the teacher pressed play and the panic that set in as I missed everything that was being said. Then the self-flagellation – if I couldn’t do the class activity, I assumed the problem was me.

Now I’ve managed to learn Spanish at home on my own, I know what the real problem was.

In Spanish class, we listened to a 2-minute audio, twice. This means I was listening to Spanish for around 4 minutes a week. It’s not surprising that my listening skills weren’t very good!

When it comes to listening in a foreign language, one of the biggest challenges is the speed – to keep up with native speakers, you have to get faster at understanding.

The best way to get faster at something?

Practice.

To recap, there are two main reasons why you might find listening difficult in a foreign language:

  1. The words sound different to how you expected.
  2. You need more practice.

In the rest of this blog post, you’ll learn how to adapt to new sounds in the language you’re learning and get more practice (even if you don’t have much time) so you can understand native speakers more easily.

How to improve your listening in a foreign language

To train your listening in a foreign language, we’re going to use three different techniques.

1. Deliberate listening
2. Binge listening
3. Passive listening

Let’s get into it.

#1. Deliberate listening

Deliberate listening is all about the details. It’s a process that helps you identify what’s stopping you from understanding native speakers and fix it.

It draws from deliberate practice, a technique pioneered by psychologist Anders Ericsson, whose research suggests that you can become highly skilled in just about anything by following the 3 Fs:

  • Focus: Break the skill down into parts you can practice repeatedly
  • Feedback: Analyse your practice attempts and identify your weakness
  • Fix-it: Come up with ways to address your weaknesses so you can do better next time.

You can apply this technique to improve your listening in a foreign language. Let’s learn how.

Deliberate Listening Method 1: Dictation

In a classic dictation activity, you listen to the audio and write down what you hear. A deliberate listening dictation takes this one step further by analysing your mistakes so that you can fix them.

To get started, you’ll need some audio in the language you’re learning as well as a written version of the audio, such as a transcript or subtitles. If you need help finding these, see the next section: Where to Find Resources.

Step 1: Listen to a sentence and write what you hear. YouTube videos are ideal because you can skip back 5 seconds which makes it easy to listen to the sentence several times.

Quick tips for listening with YouTube videos:

  • Press the spacebar to play and pause.
  • Press the back arrow key to skip back 5 seconds.

Step 2: Did you understand everything? If yes, repeat step one with a new sentence. If no, look up the part you didn’t understand on the transcript/subtitles and identify the problem that stopped you from understanding.

Are there words or grammar you’re not familiar with? If yes, take a moment to look up the meaning of the word or investigate the grammar. If you think you’ll come across these words/grammar points a lot in future, make an effort to learn them so that you’ll understand them next time.

Did the words sound different to how you expected? If yes, how? Sounds often change in fast speech. For example, in French, Je ne sais pas becomes j’sais pas. Accents can also make things trickier, for example, in Mandarin Chinese, people from Beijing sometimes pronounce the “sh” sound as “r”.

Listen carefully to the part that caused you trouble and repeat a few times. In what way are the sounds different from how you expected? Keep these differences in mind so you’ll be more likely to understand when you hear them next time.

Here’s an example of this technique in action.

 

Dictations help you find the gaps in your listening knowledge and fix them. In this exercise, I couldn’t hear “eso” (that). After reading the subtitles and comparing them to the audio, I realised that the native speaker said it very quickly, so it just sounded like “s” between two words.

 

Deliberate Listening Method 2: Skipping

The skipping method is similar to the dictation method but requires a bit less effort – for times when you can’t be bothered to go all in! Instead of writing down what you hear, you’re just going to use your ears.

Step 1: Listen to the audio. When you get to a part that you don’t understand, skip back and listen several times.

Step 2: If you still can’t figure out what’s being said, consult the transcript or subtitles. Then follow the rest of step 2 from the dictation method.

  • If it’s a vocabulary or grammar problem, look it up.
  • If it’s a sound problem, listen several times and focus on the sounds. In what way are they different to how you expected? Keep this in mind for future listening.

Deliberate Listening Method 3: Shadowing

Shadowing is also like the dictation method, but instead of writing, you say what you hear.

Step 1: Listen to the audio and copy the speaker – try to lay your voice over the speaker’s as closely as possible.
Step 2: When you find a bit that trips you up, stop talking.
Step 3: Skip back a few times and listen to that part as closely as you can.
Step 4: If you still can’t understand, consult the transcript or subtitles.

  • If it’s a vocabulary or grammar problem, look it up.
  • If it’s a sound problem, listen several times and focus on the sounds. In what way are they different to how you expected? Keep this in mind for future listening.

Step 5: Go back to the tricky part and talk over it again, trying to mimic the new words/sounds you’ve learnt.

Here’s an example of this technique in action.

#2. Binge listening

While deliberate listening is about listening as carefully as possible, binge listening is all about listening as much as possible.

If you want to understand native speakers in the language you’re learning, it’s important to practise a lot. The more you practise listening, the faster you’ll be able to keep up.

Look for some long-format listening (like podcasts or TV shows) and listen as much as you can. Here are some examples of how you can fit listening into your day.

  • Listen to a news podcast as you eat breakfast
  • Listen to an audiobook in your car/on your way to work
  • Listen to a podcast as you do chores in the house: ironing, cleaning the bathroom, watching the dishes etc.
  • Watch YouTube videos in the language you’re learning while you’re procrastinating online
  • Watch a film or TV series in the evening.

The best thing about this kind of listening is that it doesn’t have to take any extra time out of your day – listening to a podcast while you’re walking to work or washing the dishes is easy even during busy times.

Listening is the busy language learners best friend. As long as you have a pair of headphones, you can squeeze in language learning throughout the day without it taking up any extra time – even if you’re on a boat!

To get the most out of binge listening, look for materials that are:

1. At the right level

The ideal materials are ones where you can get the general gist of what’s going on, even if you don’t understand all the details. There should be new words and expressions, but not so many that you have to interrupt your listening every few seconds to look in a dictionary.

For lower levels, start with materials that have been simplified for learners. Here’s a list of listening materials you can use:

Beginner to intermediate:

  • Audio files from a learner textbook
  • Podcasts for learners
  • TV programmes for learners
  • YouTube channels for learners
  • Audiobooks for learners

Intermediate onwards:

  • Audiobooks and podcasts for native speakers (start with simple ones, like biographies or nonfiction).
  • YouTube channels for native speakers.
  • TV programmes.
  • Films (don’t worry if you find these difficult, that’s normal even at high levels!)

More advice on where to find these in the next section: where to find resources.

2. Relevant to the skills you want to learn

If your aim is to have informal conversations with people, then talk shows, soap operas and reality TV are ideal because they will help you pick up grammar and vocabulary to talk about everyday stuff.

On the other hand, if you want to pass an oral exam, then it’s probably better to listen to news programmes and documentaries because they’ll help you learn how to speak in a more formal register.

3. Something you like

Listening in a foreign language is like cracking a code. It takes effort to decipher the unfamiliar sounds and understand the meaning.

When you don’t like what you’re listening to, you won’t feel motivated to crack the code because you don’t care about the message on the other side.

On the flip side, if you choose materials you like, you’ll be motivated to put in the work because you want to know what they’re saying. Also, as you’re going to be spending a lot of time doing it, you might as well pick something you enjoy!

If you like listening to the news in your native language, look for ways do this in the language you’re learning. If travel or photography is your thing, try and find podcasts about these topics. If you’re a reality TV addict or a Netflix fan, can you find some series in the language you’re learning?

Related posts

5 smart ways to learn a language by watching TV and films

How to learn a language at home (even if you’re really lazy)

To subtitle or not to subtitle?

Foreign language films and TV shows are tricky to understand in a foreign language, even at very high levels (so don’t worry if this is still a struggle for you!)

Subtitles can be a really handy tool, as long as they’re in the language you’re learning. Avoid subtitles in your native language – it’s too tempting to read them without making an effort to understand the foreign language.

When it comes to subtitles in the language you’re learning, while most people agree that they can help you learn a language, some worry that they’re not good for listening skills because you end up reading most of the time.

But research suggests that watching TV with subtitles still improves your listening skills. So if you prefer subtitles, feel free to keep using them!

#3. Passive listening

With passive listening, you just let the language wash over you without understanding what’s going on.

If you’re at a beginner to intermediate level, this could happen a lot when you try listening to materials for native speakers. It could also happen when you have the radio on in the background.

For learning to happen in a foreign language, you need to be able to follow the gist of what you’re hearing – it can’t happen through osmosis. For this reason, passive listening is probably the least effective of the 3 techniques, so you should focus most of your energy on the first two: deliberate and binge.

That said, passive listening can be handy sometimes, for the following reasons:

  • Being surrounded by the language helps you build a personal connection with it, which boosts motivation.
  • Getting used to not understanding everything is a good skill to have, it means you won’t panic so much when you hear the language in real-life situations.
  • It can help you get used to the rhythm and intonation of the language.

Improve your Listening in a foreign language: Where to Find Resources

Now you’re ready to start listening more in a foreign language, you’ll need some stuff to listen to! If you’re learning French, Spanish, Italian, Russian or Mandarin, you might find these posts useful:

The 17 best tools for learning French: from beginner to advanced

The 11 best tools for learning Spanish: from beginner to advanced

The 38 best Italian learning tools: from beginner to advanced

The 15 best tools for learning Russian: From beginner to advanced

The lazy person’s guide to learning Chinese

Here are a few other handy resources which are available in lots of different languages.

Easy Languages

One of my favourite resources for training yourself to understand native speakers is the Easy Languages YouTube Channel. The presenters go out into the streets and ask passersby interesting questions like “What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done?”

The answers are usually entertaining and the format gives you an example of natural speech, as well as a sneak peak into the culture of the language you’re learning.

The videos have subtitles in the language of learning and smaller subtitles in English so you can go back and check bits you didn’t understand. I like to cover the English ones up with a bit of folded paper to make sure I don’t cheat and read those ones first!

Here are links to some of the most popular languages:

The “Extra” series

If the US Sitcom friends and your school textbook had a love child, it would be the Extra Series. This educational sitcom follows the story of four young friends who share an apartment and is available in 4 languages: English, Spanish, German and French.

It’s cheesier than cheese, but if you can get past the hammy acting and over the top dialogues, it’s a really handy listening resource for beginner to intermediate levels.

Slow podcasts

Nowadays, there are lots of podcasts with slow-read audio to help learners understand better. Their websites often come with transcripts (look for links in the show notes/comments) which are handy for checking bits that you couldn’t make out in the listening. Here are a few I’ve found on iTunes and YouTube.

There is also the News in Slow series, which is available in French, Spanish, Italian and German.

A little word of warning – “slow” materials are a fantastic stepping stone to help you get used to listening in a foreign language, but try not to rely on them too much. The unnatural speed means that they don’t give you much chance to practice keeping up with normal native speech.

Coffee Break Season 2

The Coffee Break Podcasts are fab at any level, but season 2 and upwards are particularly good for improving your listening skills. Over the course of the series, Mark Pentleton and his team tell stories based on conversations, which are read at a clear yet natural pace. Once they’ve read the story, they go into key vocabulary and grammar points to help you understand the dialogues in depth.

Season 2 is available in French, Spanish, Italian and German.

Viki

If you’re learning an Asian language like Mandarin, Korean or Japanese, check out Viki.

They have a “Learn mode” with interactive, dual-language subtitles where you can click on a word you don’t know and get the definition. As with Easy languages, it’s a good idea to cover up the English subtitles with a bit of paper so you don’t get tempted to cheat and read them first!

In Learn Mode, you’ll also find very user-friendly commands so you can skip back and listen to phrases you didn’t understand several times (a bit like on YouTube).

Viki.com is an amazing resource if you are learning Mandarin, Korean or Japanese. It has interactive subtitles that you can click on to see the meaning of a word, and the controls make it easy to skip back and listen to tricky sentences several times.

Skills that will help you listen in a foreign language

Now you’ve got the techniques and the resources, let’s talk quickly about personal skills that will help you deal with the challenges of listening to a foreign language.

Skill #1: Tolerate ambiguity

When you’re listening in a foreign language, you’re going to spend a lot of time not getting stuff – that’s normal. If you have a tendency to get frustrated when you don’t understand things, you’re going to make life unnecessarily difficult for yourself. Accept ambiguity as a natural part of language learning and you’ll be able to remain calm and keep moving forward.

Skill #2: Have a growth mindset

People with a fixed mindset convince themselves that they can’t do something because they’re not good at it. People with a growth mindset recognise that all skills are hard at the beginning – they know that if they keep practising, they’ll make progress.

Learning to listen in a foreign language is all about perseverance. Stick with it and you’ll get there!

Skill #3: Be an observer

Get into the habit of observing native speakers – which words, phrases and sounds do they use? The more you observe native speakers, the more you’ll be able to make educated guesses about what they’re likely to say in certain situations, which will help you follow conversations more easily.

What Next?

Listening in a foreign language can be a pain in the ear sometimes, but with the right kind of practice (and perseverance), you can do it!

Think about a typical day and decide:

  • When can you squeeze in some deliberate and binge listening?
  • Which resources are you going to use?

Keep chipping away at it and in a few months, you’ll understand native speakers much more easily.

Do you have any other strategies for improving listening that I didn’t mention in this guide? Or can you add any more good resources to the list? Let us know in the comments!

Imagine this.

You’re walking along the streets of Paris and you see a delicious croissanty thing in the window of a boulangerie.

You don’t know what it’s called, but you know you want one.

So you let the sweet smell of French pastries pull you towards the counter, where the serveur asks:

Bonjour, vous désirez? (Hello, what would you like?)

You have 2 choices.

  1. Point and say “one of those please”
  2. Point and ask: Comment on dit ça en francais? (how do you say that in French?)

The first will keep you stuck in touristville. The second is an example of a powerful little French conversation phrase that will help you:

  • Learn a new French word.
  • Strike up a conversation with a French person.
  • Show French people you meet that you’re interested in their language and culture.

French Conversation Phrases that Make Speaking Easier

They say that speaking French is hard.

In reality, it’s not the speaking bit that’s hard (that’s the goal!). The tricky bit is when you try speaking, but you get stuck.

For example:

  • When you don’t know (or forget) a French word.
  • When French people reply too fast and you don’t understand what they’re saying.
  • When you try really hard to speak French and they reply in English!

Learning a few strategic French phrases will help you navigate these problems smoothly so you can take back control of the conversation and keep talking.

Voilà 6 French conversation phrases that will help you do that, brought to you by my lovely French teacher, Manon.

Learn these phrases by heart so you can drop them into the conversation quickly when you need them. If you need some help memorising them, here are some flashcards you can download (+ tutorial on how to use them):

6 French Conversation Phrases you Need to Know (Flashcards)
Not sure how to use them? Watch this tutorial

If you’re more of a pen and paper person, voilà a little cheat sheet you can print off and take with you.

French Conversation Phrases (PDF)

Of course, you’ll also need some French people to practice with! Later in this post, we’ll talk about how to find them. First, let’s dive into the phrases in more detail.

French Conversation Phrase 1: “Comment on dit ça en français ?”

How do you say that in French? (literally: how does one say that in French?)

Possibly the most useful French phrase you’ll ever learn. Not only is it a great way to learn some new words, it’ll also help you connect with French people who are normally happy to teach you a few words in their language – especially if you ask them in French!

Also, the fact that you’re learning these words in real life situations makes them far more memorable compared to learning them from a book or dictionary.

Quick tip: Keep a notebook with you (or use the notes app on your phone) to write down the new words you learn.

French Conversation Phrase 2: “Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire ?”

What does that mean?

Use this one when you hear or see a word and you don’t know the meaning. It’s particularly useful question in restaurants – just point to the word on the menu and ask the waiter!

You can also ask: Qu’est-ce que c’est ? (what is that?)

By asking this question in French, people will be more likely to reply to you in French, which gives you an opportunity to keep the conversation going. But even if they switch back to English for the definition, at least you’ve shown the French person that you’re learning their language, which makes it easier to go back to French once you get unstuck.

French Conversation Phrase 3: “Pardon, je ne comprends pas”.

Sorry, I don’t understand 

A handy phrase for if you get lost mid-conversation. A word of warning: try not to use this phrase in isolation because French people may interpret it as a cry for help and switch back to English. If you use this phrase, make sure you follow it up with another request, like:

Pouvez-vous répéter s’il vous plaît ? (Can you repeat, please?)

Pouvez-vous parler moins vite s’il vous plaît ? (Can you speak slower, please?)

This way, the person you’re talking will know how to help you.

French Conversation Phrase 4: “Pouvez-vous répéter s’il vous plaît ?”

Can you repeat, please?

When you just need to hear the phrase again. If they repeat and you’re still having trouble understanding, try to identify the problem and ask another question:

  • Are they speaking too fast? Ask: Pouvez-vous parler moins vite s’il vous plaît ? (Can you speak slower, please?)
  • Is there a word you don’t know? Ask: Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire ? (What does that mean?)

French Conversation Phrase 5: “Pouvez-vous parler moins vite s’il vous plaît ?”

Can you speak slower, please? (literally less fast)

For those times when your French speaking partner is going at 100 mph and you’re having trouble keeping up!

French Conversation Phrase 6: Pouvons-nous parler français s’il vous plaît? J’aimerais apprendre.

Can we speak in French, please? I’d like to learn.

Sometimes you might say something to someone in French, but they reply in English!

There are many reasons this might happen:

  • They’re busy, and using English is the quickest way.
  • They’re not aware that you’re trying to learn French, so they reply in English to make life easier for you.
  • They’re used to dealing with tourists, so they default to English without thinking about it.
  • They want to practice their English!

If you can see that someone is busy trying to do their job and you’re not confident about your ability to speak French quickly (totally normal at first!), it’s probably best to go ahead and use English. There are better ways to practice speaking, which we’ll talk about in the next section.

But in situations like 2 – 4, if the person seems friendly, you can simply explain that you’re learning and ask if they would speak French with you. With this technique, you’ll find that many people are happy to chat to you for a little while in French.

However, if you don’t feel comfortable with this, there are other ways to practice speaking French…

Where can I find French people to practice with?

Lots of advice on speaking French will tell you to just “give it a go” and speak to people in French whenever you get the chance.

If you’re extroverted and you find this easy, c’est super!

But this approach doesn’t work for everyone. In the beginning, it can be tricky to practice speaking French with people you meet randomly – in shops, restaurants or on the train – because these people aren’t there to help you learn French, they’re just going about their day. This puts an extra (unnecessary) layer of pressure on you to be able to have a normal conversation.

When you start speaking French, it’s normal to make lots of mistakes and take ages to string a sentence together, but you might worry that this could be annoying for the French people you speak to.

You just need to find the right people to practice with.

Look for situations where you can set up a “learning agreement” with French speakers. These are situations where the French person knows you are a beginner and they are there to help you speak. This could be:

  1. A language exchange partner: Find a French person who is learning your native language – they can help you practice speaking French while you help them speak your native language.
  2. A conversation tutor: Meet a native French speaker for 30 minutes or an hour of conversation practice and pay them in exchange for their time.

These options take the pressure off because you’re giving the French person something in return for their time and effort – you don’t need to worry so much if the conversation is a bit awkward at first.

Also, they know you’re a beginner, so they’re expecting you to speak slowly and make mistakes!

Related Post: The simplest way to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language

Finding patient French people to help you is one of the most important things you can do to make progress in your speaking.

So where can you find these people?

Online

The best place is to find native French speakers online is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors. They are usually pretty good value (sometimes less than $10 an hour).

If you fancy giving it a go, you can get a $10 voucher after you book your first lesson here:

Click here to find a tutor on italki and get $10 off

If you find you often put off practicing French because you’re busy, this is a great option – you can squeeze a lesson in whenever you have a spare 30 minutes, from wherever you are (as long as you have an Internet connection).

Alternatively, if you don’t have the budget for lessons, you can also use italki for online language exchanges.

Face to Face

If you’d prefer to connect with French people face to face, look for native French people in your area and set up a language exchange. Here are a couple of tools you can use to find them:

Tandem 
Conversation Exchange

One word of advice – when doing language exchanges, be sure to divide the time equally (e.g. 30 minutes in each language) and be strict about sticking to it so that you both get a fair chance to practice. Remember to ask:

“Pouvons-nous parler français s’il vous plaît? J’aimerais apprendre” (Can we speak in French please? I’d like to learn)

If you’re planning on travelling to France soon, you can use these tools to meet up with the locals. I used conversation exchange when I went to Paris and it was great. I got to practice speaking French with Parisiens who showed me some of their favourite local spots – a French teacher and local tour guide rolled into one!

Conclusion

By learning the few French phrases from today’s post, you’ll be able to keep the conversation going, learn some new words and connect better with French people.

Have you tried using any of these French conversation phrases before? How did it go? Let us know in the comments below!

Related

The 17 best tools for learning French: from beginner to advanced

How I’m becoming fluent in French (from my living room)

The lazy person’s guide to learning French

10 French idioms that will impress the socks off native speakers

DALF C1: How I’m preparing for the scary French exam

I passed the DALF exam! Intermediate to fluent French in 5 months (what really happened)

 

You know that dream where you’re standing in front of lots of people and you suddenly realise you’re naked?

Everyone’s staring at you.

An intense panic squeezes your chest and makes your hands and voice go all wobbly. You want to escape but for some reason, you can’t.

This happened to me last Friday.

Only it wasn’t a dream. Luckily for me (and everyone else in the room) I wasn’t naked. But the rest is true.

It happened while giving a talk at the Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana for the Friday Language Learning Event. My brain turned to swiss cheese and I kept forgetting what I wanted to say. At one point, I was shaking so much that I had to grab the mic with both hands.

It reminded me of how I used to feel when speaking a foreign language – that moment when the nerves make your mind go blank and you can feel the listeners’ eyes on you while you scramble around to find the words.

So I’m using the same technique that I used to overcome my fear of speaking a foreign language. It’s a strategy that’s so useful, I’m actually looking forward to my next chance to speak in public.

It’s not fancy. There are no Jedi mindset tricks or motivational quotes with a beach in the background. It’s not a quick fix either – you actually have to put some time and effort in.

But it works. And you can use it to feel more confident when you speak a foreign language.

In this post, you’ll learn:

  • Why most advice on how to get over your nerves doesn’t work.
  • The reliable way to deal with your fear of speaking a foreign language.
  • A practical step-by-step guide to help you build your confidence and start speaking.

The simplest way to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language

I’m not a naturally confident person.

I used to (sometimes still do) get very anxious about things like speaking foreign languages, job interviews and public speaking. I’ve tried all kinds of tricks to get rid of my nerves, such as:

  • Telling yourself that you’re not nervous, you’re just “excited”
  • Asking yourself: “what’s the worst that could happen?”
  • Making the listener(s) less intimidating by imagining them sitting on the toilet.
  • Positive visualisation

None of it worked. Why?

Because trying not to feel nervous is a bit like trying not to think of a giant grasshopper crossing the road holding an umbrella. What are you thinking of?

These methods made me feel worse, because they made me focus on my nerves and turned them into a personal problem that I couldn’t get rid of.

How I learnt to feel confident when speaking a foreign language

Despite not being naturally courageous, these days I don’t get particularly nervous when speaking a foreign language. And the reason is simple: I’ve spent an awful lot of time doing it.

There is only one strategy that helps me feel more relaxed when speaking a foreign language, and it’s this:

Do it until it feels normal

There’s a quiet confidence that comes with having done something many times, that you can’t get any other way.

When I gave my talk at the polyglot conference, I was petrified because it was my first time – no amount of preparation or “positive self-talk” could have changed this. But somewhere between my shaky hands and fluttery stomach, there was a glimmer of hope: I survived.

Next time, it will be marginally less terrifying. If I keep doing it, one day it won’t be terrifying at all. I know this because there are many things that used to scare me – like living in a foreign country or teaching – that are now a normal part of my life.

Studies on foreign language anxiety show that people who have spent time in the country where the language is spoken tend to feel less nervous when they speak it. This makes sense. When you live in the country, you get more opportunities to practice. The more you practice, the more confident you feel. But you don’t need to go abroad to benefit from this experience – you can create opportunities to practice at home with online tutors or via language exchanges (more on this later).

I know this “just do it” advice is easier said than done, and it’s not something that happens overnight. That’s why in the last part of this article, I’ll give you a step by step guide on how to gradually build your confidence in speaking a foreign language.

But first, let’s talk about why action (and not thought) is the simplest and most effective way to deal with your fear of speaking a foreign language. We’ll start by looking at why we get nervous in the first place.

Why do I feel nervous about speaking a foreign language?

Your brain has evolved over millions of years to protect you from danger. That’s why most people are afraid of heights to some degree – as you walk towards the edge of a cliff, your mind starts shouting “danger!” “danger!” to make sure you don’t get too close to the edge and fall off.

But why do we feel afraid in situations which aren’t dangerous, like speaking a foreign language?

Although fear is nature’s handy way of keeping you safe, it’s not very sophisticated. It can’t differentiate between physical threats, like falling off a cliff, and social threats, where the only thing at stake is your ego. Which could explain why more people are afraid of public speaking than death!

Trying to talk yourself out of feeling nervous can be counterproductive because it makes you feel like nerves are something to be avoided, when actually they’re just a normal biological response to the fact that you’re taking on a new challenge.

Doing things that scare you regularly (and surviving), shows your mind that they are no longer a threat, so the nerves eventually start to die down.

 

Confidence doesn’t come from changing your thoughts, it comes with experience

This is why you’ll never find lasting confidence in a flashy Instagram quote or self-help book. The path to self-assuredness is a lot less sexy: it comes from doing the same thing over and over until it’s not new anymore.

It’s an intense awkwardness that gradually declines with experience until it almost disappears (a few jitters may remain, but that’s nothing to worry about).

Instead of trying to make your fear of speaking a foreign language go away – which is basically impossible – you could spend that energy in a more productive way: learning to tolerate the fact that you feel uncomfortable.

Nerves are necessary if you want to do new and cool things that will help you grow, like speaking a foreign language. The more time you spend doing these things – even if they feel awkward – the faster you’ll feel at ease doing them.

This doesn’t mean you have to run around like an adrenaline junkie doing things that terrify you all day (although if you did, you’d probably get confident in those things pretty quickly).

There’s a gentler way.

Two ways to get out of your comfort zone

Have you ever watched people go swimming in the sea? Some run up and dive in head first. Others wade in inch by inch as they get used to the temperature.

The end result is the same: they’re both swimming in the sea.

If the ”just start speaking” approach feels a little too uncomfortable, you’re not alone. For many people (myself included) striking up a conversation with a stranger is intimidating in their native language – the idea of doing it in a language you’ve just started learning could be enough to put you off for life!

You don’t have to dive head first out of your comfort zone. Dipping your toe out works just as well.

Aim for the right level of nerves – a little speaking challenge that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable, but not so much that you traumatise yourself (more ideas on how to do this in the next section). Once you get used to that, try something else that makes you slightly uncomfortable and so on.

The confidence-boosting effect of these little steps will add up over time and help you feel more relaxed when speaking a foreign language.

Fear of Speaking a foreign language
To get over your fear of speaking a foreign language, try a speaking task that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable. Keep doing it until it feels normal, then repeat. One day you’ll look back and realise that speaking a foreign language isn’t as scary you thought!

How to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language: A step by step guide

Prepare for your conversations

If the idea of speaking a foreign language is scary, not knowing what to say can make it even scarier! Learning words and phrases that are likely to come up in conversation will help you to communicate more confidently.

Here are a few ways to prepare for your first conversation in a foreign language:

  • Learn basic greetings and pleasantries
  • Learn how to ask and answer simple conversation questions: Where are you from? What do you do?
  • Think about the kinds of questions people might ask you and learn the answers (you can ask a native speaker to help you with this – see the next section!)
  • Learn some small talk phrases: If you can talk about the weather, food and sport, you’ll have a great foundation for conversations.
  • Learn phrases to keep the conversation going, such as “How do you say that?”, “What does that mean?”, “Could you repeat please?”, “Could you speak slower please?” If you can ask these questions in the language you’re learning, you’ll be able to avoid awkward pauses when you don’t understand someone or when you don’t know a word.
  • Listen as much as you can: When you listen a lot, you’ll hear common phrases being used over and over. The more you listen, the more these phrases will pop into your head naturally when you are speaking. As a beginner, you can practice listening with textbook dialogues, audiobooks or podcasts designed for language learners.

That said, remember that no amount of preparation will make your nerves go away. Don’t fall into the trap of preparing forever because you want to put off speaking. Remember – the best way to remember things is to practise using them in conversation. And the more you practise, the less nervous you’ll feel!

Related posts:

The complete guide to having a conversation in Italian

The 11 best tools for learning Spanish: from beginner to advanced

The 17 best tools for learning French: from beginner to advanced

The 38 best Italian learning tools: from beginner to advanced

The 15 best tools for learning Russian: From Beginner to Advanced

Take small steps

You don’t have to start with a full-blown conversation. There are lots of ways to ease yourself slowly into speaking a foreign language.

Here are some suggestions.

Start by chatting to people online

Chatting online (via text message) is handy because there’s no time pressure. You can look up words you don’t know and think about the sentences carefully before you type them. Also, the other person can’t see your face which makes things a lot less nerve-wracking at first!

There are lots of different resources you can use to type little messages in the language you’re learning. HelloTalk is a great app where you can connect with native speakers via text message (a bit like WhatsApp for language learners). You can also try looking for Facebook groups where people practise chatting together in the language you’re learning.

Don’t overthink it, just type your first message then see what happens!

Practise speaking before you meet native speakers

It’s a great idea to get used to speaking in the language you’re learning before you try having a conversation with native speakers.

How? You’ll find some ideas in this post.

4 unconventional ways to practise speaking without a native speaker

Practising speaking before you meet native speakers will give you the opportunity to practice grabbing all that grammar and vocabulary that’s floating around in your head and organising it into sentences so your conversations will run more smoothly when you try the real thing.

Practise speaking in situations where you have permission to be a beginner

Speaking a foreign language in real life situations – like with a person sitting next to you on the train – can feel scary because there’s pressure to have a normal conversation. You might worry about mistakes, forgetting words, or making the poor person wait for ages while you string a sentence together.

These things are a normal and necessary part of learning to speak a foreign language, but they might make you feel embarrassed about your level because you’re placing a burden on the listener.

At first, it’s useful to find people where there is a “learning agreement” – that is, people who know you are a beginner and have agreed to help you learn. Usually, this will be a language exchange partner or a tutor.

This takes the pressure off for two reasons:

  1. You’re giving them something in return for their time (teaching them your language in the case of exchange partners, or a little bit of money in the case of tutors)
  2. They know that you’re a beginner, so they expect you to speak slowly, forget words and make mistakes! It’s a safe place to practise speaking a foreign language without the pressure of having to perform well.

Where can you find speaking partners like this?

Find a community tutor on italki

The best place to find people to help you speak a foreign language is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, you can get a $10 voucher after you book your first lesson here:

Click here to find a tutor on italki and get $10 off.

It’s great for busy people because you get private conversation lessons and you can squeeze one in whenever you have a spare 30 minutes and an internet connection.

Find a language exchange partner

Alternatively, you can find native speakers who want to learn your native language and set up a language exchange. There are lots of websites and apps that help you can find native speakers in your area, so you can meet up and practice speaking over a coffee or beer. Conversation Exchange and Tandem are two examples.

A little word of caution – when doing language exchanges, be sure to divide the time equally (e.g. 30 minutes in each language) and be strict about sticking to it so that you both get a fair chance to practice.

Don’t take yourself so seriously

Earlier, we talked about how confidence in speaking a foreign language starts with “an intense awkwardness” that declines with experience.

In the beginning, you’ll almost certainly make mistakes and look silly at times. That’s nothing to fear! The sooner you can make friends with that awkward feeling, the more confident you’ll feel speaking a foreign language.

You don’t have to be perfect, and native speakers don’t expect you to be either. If you can learn to laugh at yourself, you’ll give native speakers the chance to laugh with you. This will help you get closer to your speaking partners and make the experience more fun.

Time for some action

If you only take one thing away from this article, let it be this: it’s normal to feel nervous when speaking a foreign language. Take the first small step and just keep going. It’ll get easier, I promise.

Get more tips on how to speak a foreign language

Join our free 5-day email course and learn:

– Proven ways to deal with speaking nerves – even if you’re shy

– How to have your first conversation

– Where to find people to practice with

– How to stop fear of mistakes from holding you back (and even enjoy them!)

– Words to help you sound more fluent

– How to have fun with native speakers

Fear of speaking a foreign language

What do you think?

Do you ever feel nervous speaking a foreign language? Do you think it gets easier with practice? Let us know in the comments below!

In August 2008, I had an Italian lesson that changed my life.

I’d already taken two years of Italian classes, but I still couldn’t have a basic conversation. Back then I hated languages (and wasn’t any good at them either).

Then I met Francesca. A tiny Roman teacher in her 50s who rode a scooter to school and didn’t believe in pens and paper.

There was something unusual about Francesca’s classroom. There were no desks or books, just chairs in a circle. And only one rule: NO ENGLISH.

Instead of spending hours explaining irregular verbs, Francesca made us have conversations in Italian.

At first, my brain melted. I spent half the time not understanding what people were saying, and the rest feeling awkward about making others wait while I strung a sentence together. But the more I practiced, the easier it got.

And after a few days… I was speaking Italian!

Not amazingly well, but it was an exciting start. I knew that if I kept learning Italian through conversations like this, I’d eventually learn to speak it well.

I’d discovered a simple key to fluency: Practice speaking Italian as much as you can.

It sounds obvious, but before I met Francesca, I’d never thought about it.

How to have a conversation in Italian
After Francesca’s lessons, I fell in love with learning Italian because I realised that I could learn it by socialising!

If you want to have conversations in Italian, you need lots of speaking practice

The idea is simple, but the reality is hard.

  • What if you forget a word and get stuck mid-sentence?
  • Or you say everything perfectly, but don’t understand the reply?
  • Or you get really nervous and your brain freezes up?
  • How can you find Italians to practice with?
  • Won’t people get impatient if you speak too slowly?
  • What if people keep replying in English?

These problems are all surmountable, with the right strategies.

In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know to start speaking Italian. From phrases to keep the conversation going when you don’t know a word, to strategies to help you deal with speaking nerves.

You’ll also learn:

  • The nuts and bolts of Italian conversation: basic greetings, simple questions and small talk
  • How to stop people from replying in English.
  • Where to find speaking partners to practice with.

Time-sensitive: We’ll also be sharing how you can learn to speak Italian in Italy, by joining us for our next Italian immersion vacation.

If you’d like to be involved, click here to find out more about our Italian immersion vacations.

But for now, let’s learn how to have a conversation in Italian.

Get ready to have a conversation in Italian

The fastest way to prepare for Italian conversations is to learn words and phrases that are likely to come up in everyday conversation.

This means going against the traditional classroom way of learning languages: you don’t need to memorise all the rooms in a house, or names of sports before you can start having conversations with Italians.

In this section, you’ll learn key Italian conversation skills such as:

  • Basic greetings and pleasantries
  • Asking and answering small talk questions
  • Talking about yourself in Italian
  • Stopping people from replying in English
  • Managing communication breakdowns

Let’s start with the most important skill – managing communication breakdowns – because once you’ve mastered this, everything else will be easier.

Managing communication breakdowns: The 6 most important phrases you’ll ever need in Italian

When people say they’re nervous about speaking a foreign language, usually they’re not scared of speaking it (that’s the goal!), they’re nervous about all the things that could go wrong, such as:

  • Long silences
  • Embarrassing mistakes

In other words, if you’re nervous about speaking Italian, you’re probably nervous about the communication breakdowns that could happen.

In the video below, you’ll find 6 phrases to help you deal with these situations smoothly. The more you use them, the longer you’ll be able to keep the conversation going in Italian. And the longer you can keep the conversation going in Italian, the better you’ll get at speaking.

Come si dice questo in italiano? How do you say this in Italian?
Che cosa vuol dire questo in italiano? What does this mean in Italian?
Scusi, non ho capito*

Scusa, non ho capito

Sorry, I didn’t understand (formal)

Sorry, I didn’t understand (informal)

Potrebbe ripetere, per favore?

Puoi ripetere, per favore?

Could you repeat, please? (formal)

Can you repeat, please? (informal)

Potrebbe parlare più lentamente per favore?

Puoi parlare più lentamente per favore?

Could you speak slower please? (formal)

Can you speak slower please? (informal)

Possiamo parlare in Italiano per favore? Vorrei imparare. Can we speak in Italian please? I’d like to learn.

*Note: Avoid using “non ho capito” (I don’t understand) in isolation, as people may see it as a cry for help and start speaking English. Be sure to follow it up with another phrase, such as “Puoi parlare più lentamente?” (can you speak slower?) or “Puoi ripetere?” (can you repeat?), so the listener knows how to help you.

Learn basic greetings in Italian (+ other pleasantries)

First things first – let’s start with names.

The easiest (and most natural way) to introduce yourself to someone is to shake their hand and say:

  • Sono… [+ your name]

For example:

  • Sono Katie (I’m Katie)
  • Sono Matteo (I’m Matteo)

An even easier (and very common) way is to just hold your hand out and say your name.

If you want to ask someone their name, you can say:

  • Come ti chiami?

Or the formal version:

  • Come si chiama?

Knowing when to use the formal address in Italian is not always easy (even Italians have problems with this!) but as a rule of thumb, use it with people over 50 who you don’t know very well and in formal situations such as in hotel receptions or fancy restaurants.

Here are some more lessons to help you master basic greetings and pleasantries in Italian:

Italian Greetings: How Italians really say hello to each other

How (and when) to say sorry in Italian

How to ask “where are you from?” in Italian

Could I have a coffee please? How to ask polite questions in Italian

Planning a trip to Italy and need to know how to order a gelato or buy a train ticket? You might find these episodes of five minute Italian useful.

How to get from the plane to your hotel (or city center) in Italian

How to ask for travel information in Italian

How to buy train and bus tickets in Italian

How to order gelato in Italian

How to buy food at the market in Italy

Una pizza grazie! How to order food in Italian

How to order wine in Italy

Learn how to ask and answer simple conversation questions in Italian

Once you’ve learnt the basic pleasantries, it’s time to pick up some common conversation questions in Italian.

As in English, the first two questions that are most likely to come up in conversation are:

  • Di dove sei? Where are you from?
  • Che lavoro fai? What job do you do?

You might also need the formal versions of these questions:

  • Di dov’è? Where are you from (formal)
  • Che lavoro fa? What job do you do (formal)

You’ll also need to know how to answer those questions…

Di dove sei? (where are you from?)

The simplest way to tell people where you’re from is to use “sono” (I am) + your nationality.

For example:

  • Sono americano (I’m American – for males)
  • Sono australiano (I’m Australian – for males)
  • Sono italiano (I’m Italian – for males)

If you are female, change the last “o” to an “a”

  • Sono americana (I’m American – for females)
  • Sono australiana (I’m Australian – for females)
  • Sono italiana (I’m Italian – for females)

If the nationality ends in an “e”, it’s the same for males and females

  • Sono inglese (I’m English – for males and females)
  • Sono scozzese (I’m Scottish – for males and females)
  • Sono francese (I’m French – for males and females)

If you want to give the city, you can say “sono di” (I’m from) + the city:

  • Sono di Londra (I’m from London)
  • Sono di New York (I’m from New York)
  • Sono di Roma (I’m from Rome)

Che lavoro fai?

To describe your job, use “sono” (I am) + your job.

For example:

  • Sono insegnante (I’m a teacher – for males and females)
  • Sono in pensione (I’m retired – for males and females)
  • Sono impiegato (I’m an office worker – for males)
  • Sono impiegata (I’m an office worker – for females)
  • Sono studente (I’m a student – for males)
  • Sono studentessa (I’m a student – for females)

To find your job (and check the pronunciation), try using a good Italian-English dictionary, like WordReference.

Learn how to talk about yourself in Italian

When you meet Italian people, they’ll probably ask you about yourself and your interests. It helps to have some pre-prepared soundbites so you can talk about these topics without having to stop and think too much.

One way to do this is to memorise a paragraph or two with basic personal information. Some ideas for topics that will come up frequently are:

  • Your hometown/country
  • Your job
  • Your family
  • Why you’re learning Italian
  • Your opinion of Italy and Italians (Italians love to ask this!)

If writing in Italian feels too tricky at the moment, you can start by writing the paragraph in English and translating it into Italian using google translate.

But don’t stop there!

Google often translates things too literally, so you’ll probably end up with a few bizarre sentences. Before you memorise your script, get it checked by a native speaker to make sure there are no mistakes.

Where can you find these native Italian speakers?

I’ll show you later in this article, in the section called: “where to find Italian speaking partners”.

Once you’ve found your Italian speaking partner, you can simply take your text along to one of your sessions and ask them to help you correct it.

If you prefer a digital solution, try submitting your text to the “notebook” section on italki, where a native speaker should stop by and give you some corrections.

How to make small talk in Italian

The stereotype is true – Italians love to talk about food!

Learning how to talk about food will give you a great basis for light conversation in Italian. Here are some good questions to ask.

  1. Quali sono i piatti tipici della tua regione? What are the typical dishes of your region?
  2. Mi puoi suggerire alcuni ristoranti buoni? Can you recommend any good restaurants?
  3. Ti piace cucinare? Do you like cooking?
  4. Che cosa ti piace cucinare? What do you like cooking?
  5. Che tipo di vino ti piace? What kind of wine do you like?
  6. Mi puoi suggerire un buon vino? Can you recommend a good wine?
  7. Preferisci la pizza napoletana o romana? Do you prefer Neapolitan pizzas (soft with thick crusts) or Roman pizzas? (thin and crispy)

Just in case you need them, here are the formal versions of those questions:

  1. Quali sono i piatti tipici della SUA regione? What are the typical dishes of your region?
  2. Mi PUÒ suggerire alcuni ristoranti buoni? Can you recommend any good restaurants?
  3. LE piace cucinare? Do you like cooking?
  4. Che cosa LE piace cucinare? What do you like cooking?
  5. Che tipo di vino LE piace? What kind of wine do you like?
  6. Mi PUÒ suggerire un buon vino? Can you recommend a good wine?
  7. PREFERISCE la pizza napoletana o romana? Do you prefer Neapolitan pizzas (soft with thick crusts) or Roman pizzas? (thin and crispy)

And making some nice comments about Italian food is bound to get you in the good books!

  1. Adoro + food name (e.g. adoro la burrata = I love burrata)
  2. Lo adoro! I love it!
  3. Che buono! How tasty!
  4. È molto buono.It’s really tasty!
  5. Mi piace molto. I really like it

Bringing up the Rome vs. Naples pizza debate will get Italians talking for hours (Just in case you were wondering – Naples pizza, obviously).

It’s also handy to learn some phrases to talk about food from your region because Italians will almost certainly ask you about this sooner or later.

  • Il piatto tipico della mia regione è… The typical dish of my region is…
  • Di solito mangiamo… Normally we eat…
  • È un tipo di… It’s a type of…
  • Si fa con… It’s made with…

How to talk about the weather in Italian

Another classic small talk topic is the weather – Italians talk about it just as much as British people do! Here are some handy phrases:

  • Fa caldo oggi It’s hot today
  • Fa caldissimo! It’s really hot!
  • Fa freddo oggi It’s cold today
  • Fa freddissimo It’s really cold!
  • Fa freschetto Literally, it’s a bit fresh – often used in summer when it’s not as hot as expected, or at the end of summer, when it starts to get cooler).

For more tips on talking about the weather in Italian, check out this episode of 5 Minute Italian: Fa caldissimo! Italian weather words.

Your own small talk topics

The best small talk topics draw from your own interests: if you love football, why not learn a few questions to chat about Italian teams? If you’re into music, asking about classic Italian bands would be a great way to get Italians talking.

Related post: 9 catchy Italian songs to learn Italian (+ lyrics and translations)

Once you find a speaking partner to practice with, you can ask them to teach you some phrases to help you talk about your favourite topics in Italian.

How to stop people from replying in English

You finally pluck up the courage to try speaking Italian, then something frustrating happens… They reply in English!

Getting Englished is a common problem for language learners and it can knock your confidence before you’ve even started.

Keep in mind that the reason Italians reply in English often has nothing to do with your language skills. I’ve been living in Italy for 7 years and my Italian is pretty good, but people still reply to me in English at times.

Italians normally speak English to foreigners for the following reasons:

  • They’re trying to be nice – they assume you’d rather speak English because it’s easier.
  • They’re working in a busy bar or restaurant and assume it will be quicker to use English.
  • They serve foreigners all day and use English out of habit.
  • They want to practice their English!

If you can see that a person is very busy and you’re not sure about your ability to speak Italian quickly, it’s probably better to go ahead and use English.

In other situations, there are a few techniques that will reduce your chances of getting Englished:

1. Have the first phrase ready in your head

You get to the front of the queue, your mind goes blank and errrhm… errrhm… errrhm…

Before you get your sentence out, the server has switched to English.

Deciding what to say and getting the phrase ready in your head will help you deliver it smoothly and increase your chances of getting a reply in Italian.

2. Sound confident

We’ve already seen that “non ho capito” (I don’t understand) is best avoided in isolation because it gives the listener a chance to jump in and start speaking English.

Sometimes, it’s better to say:

“Non ho sentito, puoi ripetere?” I didn’t hear, can you repeat?

Italians will be less likely to switch to English when you use this phrase because you sound more confident – it’s not that you didn’t understand, you just didn’t hear 😉

Another handy phrase is:

“Non mi viene la parola” The word doesn’t come to me

This is a phrase Italians use when they momentarily forget a word. When you say it, Italians will assume that you normally know the word, you just forgot it for a second!

You can learn more phrases like these in our free webinar:

How to have a conversation in Italian

19 essential phrases to keep the conversation going and sound more fluent when you speak Italian

The webinar is hosted in our private Facebook group – click on join and we’ll let you in asap.

3. Look Italian

If an Italian can tell that you’re a foreigner from your appearance, they’ll probably start speaking to you in English. You can reduce your chances of this happening by observing and copying Italians:

  • What do they wear?
  • How do they move?
  • What do they say in certain situations?

If you can give off an Italian vibe rather than a tourist vibe, people will be more likely to speak to you in Italian. Here are a couple of guidelines that will help you blend in:

  • Dress smartly – Italians like to keep it formal and rarely wear sportswear outside the house or gym. You’ll see some denim and trainers, but they’re generally smart or put together in a fashionable way. You’ll also see lots of leather jackets and sunglasses!
  • Avoid showing too much skin – Italians rarely wear skimpy clothes. Even in very hot weather, they opt for long and flowing rather than short and skimpy to stay cool.
  • When you walk into a shop, it’s polite to say “buongiorno/buonasera” to the staff when you enter and “arrivederci” when you leave. With young staff in informal shops, you can use “ciao”.
  • Don’t drink cappuccinos or lattes after midday – they’re considered a breakfast drink in Italy.
  • Don’t order wine with pizza – the traditional Italian combo is pizza + beer.
Italians never drink milky coffee like cappuccinos or lattes after midday – they’re considered a breakfast drink in Italy.

4. Avoid big cities

If you get the chance, visit small towns that aren’t popular tourist destinations. You’ll be less likely to run into Italians who speak English, which will give you a great opportunity to practice your Italian.

5. Ask people to speak Italian with you

If you’re a native English speaker, it’s doubly hard to learn Italian because you’ll find lots of Italians who want to practice their English with you.

Over the years, I’ve learnt that the best way to deal with this problem is to simply ask:

Possiamo parlare in italiano? Vorrei imparare.

Can we speak in Italian? I’d like to learn.


Once you’ve explained the situation, most Italians will be happy to chat with you for a little while in Italian.

That said, in the early days, it’s not always practical to insist that people speak Italian with you, as the conversation might be slow and stunted. When you’re just starting to speak Italian, it’s better to practice in situations where there’s a “learning agreement”.

5. Set up an Italian “learning agreement”

Speaking with random people in shops/restaurants/public transport can feel intimidating because:

  1. You don’t know the person
  2. There’s pressure to have a normal conversation, which might make you might feel embarrassed about mistakes and long pauses (a completely normal part of language learning!)

I sometimes feel awkward talking to strangers in my native language, never mind one I just started learning!

In the beginning, it’s better to find speaking partners where there is a “learning agreement”: a situation where you are the learner and your speaking partner is there for the sole reason of helping you speak Italian.

For example:

These situations are ideal for beginners because there’s no pressure to be perfect. Your speaking partner knows that you’re learning – they expect you to make mistakes and speak with long pauses.

These people can be your partners in crime along your Italian journey. If you don’t know something, there’s no need to feel silly, you can just ask!

But remember to ask in Italian: “Come si dice….?” How do you say…?

Get feedback from native Italian speakers

Some people think that speaking a foreign language is like a performance. You practice alone for months or even years, then, once you’ve mastered enough, you can unveil your skills to native speakers.

But languages don’t work like that.

They’re more like Bambi learning how to walk: you have start by making lots of mistakes and looking a bit silly.

Don’t try to hide the fact that you’re learning. Treat mistakes as normal and ask for corrections as you go along.

The following phrases will help you ask for feedback in Italian so you can check that what you’re saying is correct and learn from your mistakes.

  • Si dice così? Do you say it like that?
  • L’ho detto bene? Did I say it right? 
  • È corretta la frase? Is the sentence correct? 

Learn the Italian “thinking sounds”

When you start having conversations in Italian, it’s normal to have epically long pauses while you search your brain for words and combine them into grammatical sentences.

When this happens, it’s useful to have some Italian “thinking words” because they will help you sound more Italian when you pause.

The Italian “ehhhh”

Every language has it’s own “thinking sound”. In English, we say “uhm” a lot.

In Italian, it’s more of an “ehhhh” sound.

Switching “uhm” to “ehhhh” is a simple trick, but it instantly makes you sound more Italian.

Tipo..

This is… like… the Italian equivalent to saying “like”, “kind of”, or “sort of” in English. But a bit less annoying.

Diciamo…

Let’s say….

Come dire…?

How can I put it…? (literally: how can I say it)

To learn more words and phrases like these, check out our free webinar:

How to have a conversation in Italian

19 essential phrases to keep the conversation going and sound more fluent when you speak Italian

It’s hosted in our private Facebook group – click on join and we’ll let you in asap.

Read and listen to things that will help you have better conversations in Italian

It’s difficult to have meaningful conversations in Italian by memorising phrases alone.

You also need to get lots of exposure to the Italian language through reading and listening, so you can start to absorb common words, phrases and grammatical structures. When you read and listen to Italian regularly, things will often “pop into your head” when you need them, helping you speak in a more fluid way.

Here’s an article with 38 resources to help you learn Italian. In it, you’ll find lots of tools to help you start reading and listening to Italian.

The best 38 resources to learn Italian: from beginner to advanced

How to have your first conversation in Italian

You’ve got the basic greetings and small talk down, you know how to talk about yourself and manage communication breakdowns and you’re doing lots of reading and listening.

You’re ready for your first conversation in Italian.

Nervous?

What to do if you feel nervous about speaking Italian

Whatever you do, don’t try not to feel nervous about speaking Italian.

It’s a bit like trying not to think of a pink elephant.

If I ask you not to think of a pink elephant, what’s the first thing you think of? Nerves are the same – the harder you try not to feel nervous, the more nervous you feel!

It’s not possible to “think yourself out of” feeling nervous. The more you try, the more you focus on your nerves and the worse they get.

Besides, a bit of nervousness is a good thing – it’s a sign that you’re about to do something exciting that will help you grow.

The key is to start slowly and do something that gives you the right level of nervousness – think dipping your toe out of your comfort zone, rather than pole vaulting out of it.

Once you get used to doing that, try something else that makes you a bit nervous.

Conversation in Italian
The virtuous circle of confidence: To get comfortable speaking Italian, start with something that’s a teeny bit outside your comfort zone. Once you’re used to doing that, try something else. If you keep inching forward like this, one day you’ll look back and surprise yourself with how far you’ve come.

Follow this cycle and you’ll make sustainable progress in speaking Italian without traumatising yourself.

Next, you’ll find a few suggestions for how to gently nudge yourself out of your comfort zone and build up to having conversations in Italian.

Warm up by chatting in Italian online

Chatting online in Italian is a great way to ease yourself into real Italian conversations.

People can’t see your face (unless you want them too) and the writing format gives you plenty of time to think about what you want to say. You can even use an online dictionary to find the right words as you chat.

Here are a few resources you can use to practice your Italian online:

HelloTalk

HelloTalk is a bit like WhatsApp for language learners. You can use it to find native Italian speakers and do a language exchange via text messages. There are built-in tools to help you learn during your conversation, such as a translation button, which helps you understand the Italian messages. Once you get used to texting, you can practice speaking by sending audio messages (just like WhatsApp) and setting up video exchanges.

Follow Italian teachers online

There are some brilliant Italian teachers with online communities that chat together in Italian. Why not join them and practice your Italian by writing in the comments? Two of my faves are:

 

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Buongiorno! Quick reminder on how to say ” Have a good time! Have fun!”⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Many of my Skype students translate “Have a good time” literally into “Hai un buon tempo”.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Unfortunately, that doesn’t actually mean anything.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ All you have to do, is say ” Divertiti” if you’re speaking to one person and DIVERTITEVI if you’re speaking to more people.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ This verb is tricky because it’s reflexive but I’d definitely work on mastering it because it has to be one of the MOST USEFUL verbs you’ll ever need to speak Italian.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Io oggi ho lavorato tutto il giorno ma mi sono molto divertita a portare 🐶Jaime a fare una passeggiata 🚶 perché ho incontrato molte persone e chiacchierato.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ I worked all day today but I had fun taking Jaime out for a walk because I met a lot of people and chatted a lot.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Tu ti sei divertito oggi? Scrivi👇 sotto!⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Did you have fun today? Let me know all about it. #allabouthavingfun #allaboutitalian

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Join the Language Diary Challenge

Another great way to practice your Italian online is to join the language diary challenge.

 

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Not sure how this happened but it’s October already! Time for cosy jumpers, hot chocolate and… the language diary challenge 💕 The prize this month is brilliant – a “with ease course” from @editionsassimil in the language of the winner’s choice. They have been publishing courses since 1929 and are often the textbook of choice for many polyglots and prolific language learners, so I’m excited to be giving one of these away! Here’s how to join: 1. Post a picture or video and write/say something about your day in the language you’re learning, every day in October. 2. Use the hashtag #languagediarychallenge and tag @joyoflanguages. 3. Don’t forget to follow @joyoflanguages Tag a friend who you think should take the challenge with you! FAQS 1. Can I take part if I’m a complete beginner? Absolutely! You can write single words or basic sentences – everything counts! 2. Can I write in more than one language? Yep, it’s totally up to you which/how many languages you choose. 3. What happens if I miss a day? No worries! It’s fine to miss the odd day as long as you do as many as you can. Follow the link in my bio for more details 👆 p.s. Congratulations to Kath from @planningforadventure, winner of last month’s challenge!

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To take part, all you have to do is post a photo or video and write/say something in Italian every day for 30 days. It’s a great way to get daily practice in Italian and meet a fab community of language learners (you might even win a prize at the end!)

You can join via Instagram or Facebook

The Language Diary Challenge on Instagram

Join the Language Diary Challenge Facebook community

Chat with us in the Five Minute Italian Facebook group

Inside the 5 Minute Italian Facebook group, you’ll find conversation questions to practice your Italian, cultural tidbits and a lovely bunch of Italian learners.

At the moment it’s private to give you a safe space to practice using your Italian – click on join and we’ll let you in!

Practice speaking Italian without native speakers

Did you know that there are lots of ways to practice speaking Italian before you meet native speakers? This post has 4 ideas.

4 unconventional ways to practice speaking without a native speakerconversations in italian

These techniques will help you organise your thoughts and practice expressing yourself in Italian so you’ll feel more comfortable and speak faster once you start having real conversations.

Where to find Italian speaking partners

Time for the real thing: having a conversation with a native Italian speaker.

Don’t fall into the trap of putting this off until you feel more confident – that day may never come! Remember, the best way to feel more confident speaking Italian is to practice speaking Italian.

Your speaking partner is there to help you learn, so there’s no pressure to be perfect. Give yourself permission to be a beginner and embrace your mistakes.

All you have to do is keep practicing and one day you’ll be speaking Italian like a pro.

italki

On italki, you can book private conversation lessons with native Italian speakers called “community tutors”.

It’s my favourite way to practice speaking a foreign language because:

  • The lessons are great value (sometimes less than $10 per hour).
  • It’s a private lesson, so you get way more speaking practice compared to normal classes.
  • You can book a lesson at a time that suits you.
  • You can speak to native Italian speakers from wherever you are in the world!

Lessons with community tutors usually cost less because they are not qualified teachers – they are knowledgeable and passionate native speakers who want to help others learn their language.

If you prefer to have a little more support, you can also book lessons with professional teachers. Here are 2 fantastic “insegnanti” I can recommend:

If you’d like to try italki, here’s a voucher to get $10 off after you book your first lesson.

Alternatively, if those options are outside of your budget, you can also use italki to set up online language exchanges. Find Italians who are learning your native language by selecting community > language partners, then set up a Skype call where you speak for 50% of the time in English and 50% of the time in Italian.

Conversation exchange

If you prefer face-to-face chats, try conversation exchange to find native speakers who live in your area.

If you’re in Italy, you can use conversation exchange to meet locals who will help you practice speaking Italian and show you the places they normally hang out. I did this in Paris and it was great – like having a  teacher and a local tour guide all rolled into one!

Italian immersion vacations

Italian immersion vacation

A fast and fun way to improve your Italian speaking skills is to join our next immersion vacation in Italy. In these vacations, we give you as much Italian speaking practice as possible so you can make a huge jump in your speaking skills after only a few days.

You’ll get:

  • Full Italian immersion in beautiful locations.
  • Patient Italian teachers who encourage you to speak.
  • New friends to speak Italian with!

If you’d like to join us, click here to find out more about our Italian immersion vacations

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