Making Small Talk

Making Small Talk

By Kenneth Beare

English as 2nd Language Expert

The ability to make ‘small talk’ is highly valued. In fact, many English students are more interested in making effective small talk than knowing correct grammar structures – and rightly so! Small talk gets friendships started and ‘breaks the ice’ before important business meetings and other events.

What is small talk?

Small talk is pleasant conversation about common interests.

Why is small talk difficult for some English learners?

First of all, making small talk is not difficult only for English learners, but also for many native speakers of English. However, small talk can be especially difficult for some learners because making small talk means talking about almost anything – and that means having a wide vocabulary that can cover most topics. Most English learners have excellent vocabulary in specific areas, but may have difficulties discussing topics they are unfamiliar with because of a lack of appropriate vocabulary.

This lack of vocabulary leads to some students ‘blocking’. They slow down or stop speaking completely because of a lack of self-confidence.

How to Improve Small Talk Skills

Now that we understand the problem, the next step is to improve the situation. Here are some tips to improve small talk skills. Of course, making effective small talk means lots of practice, but keeping these tips in mind should improve overall conversational skills.

  • Do some research

Spend time on the Internet, reading magazines, or watching TV specials about the type of people you are going to meet. For example: If you are taking a class with students from other countries, take time after the first few days of class to do some research. They will appreciate your interest and your conversations will be much more interesting.

  • Stay away from religion/strong political beliefs

While you may believe in something very strongly, beginning conversations and making small talk about your own personal convictions may abruptly end the conversation. Keep it light, don’t try to convince the other person that you have the ‘correct’ information about a higher being, political system or other belief system.

  • Use the Internet to gain specific vocabulary

This is related to doing research about other people. If you have a business meeting, or are meeting people who share a common interest (a basketball team, a tour group interested in art, etc.), take advantage of the Internet to learn specific vocabulary. Almost all businesses and interest groups have glossaries on the Internet explaining the most important jargon related to their business or activity.

  • Ask yourself about your culture

Take time to make a list of common interests that are discussed when making small talk in your own culture. You can do this in your own language, but check to make sure that you have the English vocabulary to make small talk about those subjects.

  • Find common interests

Once you have a subject that interests both of you, keep to it! You can do this in a number of ways: talking about travel, talking about the school or friend you have in common, talking about the differences between your culture and the new culture (just be careful to make comparisons and not judgments, i.e., The food in our country is better than the food here in England”).

  • Listen

This is very important. Don’t get so worried about being able to communicate that you don’t listen. Listening carefully will help you understand and encourage those speaking to you. You might be nervous, but letting others state their opinions will improve the quality of the discussion – and give you time to think of an answer!

Here is a list of common small talk subjects. If you have difficulties speaking about any of these topics, try to improve your vocabulary by using the resources available to you (Internet, magazines, teachers at school, etc.)

  • Sports – current matches or games, favorite teams, etc.
  • Hobbies
  • Weather – boring, but can get the ball rolling!
  • Family – general questions, not questions about private matters
  • Media – films, books, magazines, etc.
  • Holidays – where, when, etc. but NOT how much!
  • Home town – where do you come from, how is it different/similar to this town
  • Job – once again, general questions not too specific
  • Latest fashion and trends
  • Celebrities – any gossip you may have!

Here is a list of topics that probably aren’t very good for small talk. Of course, if you are meeting a close friend these topics may be excellent. Just remember that ‘small talk’ is generally discussion with people you don’t know very well.

  • Salary – how much do you make? – That’s none of your business!
  • Politics – wait to you get to know the person better
  • Intimate relationships – only for you and your partner – or maybe your best friend
  • Religion – tolerance is the key!
  • Death – we need to face it, but not the first time we meet someone new
  • Financial – related to salary above, most people prefer to keep financial information to themselves
  • Sales – Don’t try to sell something to someone you have just met.

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IEC Goes to Kidzania

IEC Jatinegara students participate in IEC Goes to Kidzania on Sunday, March 23, 2011.
Kidzania will be packed by IEC students from Jabodetabek + several branches in Java. From 9 am to 2 pm (morning session) KidZania “belongs to” IEC and it is closed for public. Why? Because on that beautiful day IEC celebrates its 43rd Anniversary.
For KidZanians who want to visit on the dayPlease come on afternoon session, 3pm-8pm.

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The Importance of Speaking Practice

There are 4 key skills when you learn a language:
1. listening
2. speaking
3. reading
4. writing
Which one of these is the “Odd-One-Out”? Which one of these is different from the other three? The answer is speaking. The other three you can do alone, on your own, without anyone else. You can listen to the radio alone. You can read a book alone. You can write a letter alone. But you can’t really speak alone! Speaking to yourself can be “dangerous” because men in white coats may come and take you away!!
That is why you should make every effort possible to find somebody to speak with. Where can you find people who can speak English with you? And how can you practise speaking when you are alone?
At School
If you go to a language school, you should use the opportunity to speak to your teachers and other students. When you go home, you can still practise listening, reading and writing, but you probably can’t practise speaking. If your teacher asks you a question, take the opportunity to answer. Try to say as much as possible. If your teacher asks you to speak in pairs or groups with other students, try to say as much as possible. Don’t worry about your mistakes. Just speak!
Conversation Clubs
Many cities around the world have conversation clubs where people can exchange one language for another. Look in your local newspaper to find a conversation club near you. They are usually free although some may charge a small entrance fee.
If you are living in an English-speaking country, you have a wonderful opportunity. Practise speaking to the local people such as shop assistants or taxi drivers. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, you can ask questions about products that interest you in a shop. “How much does this cost?” “Can I pay by cheque?” “Which do you recommend?” Often you can start a real conversation – and it costs you nothing!
Pubs and Bars
Even if you don’t live in an English-speaking country, there are often American, British, Irish and Australian pubs in many large cities. If you can find one of these pubs, you’ll probably meet many people speaking English as a first or second language.
Language is all around You
Everywhere you go you find language. Shop names, street names, advertisements, notices on buses and trains… Even if you are not in an English-speaking country, there are often a lot of English words you can see when walking in the street, especially in big cities. And there are always numbers. Car numbers, telephone numbers, house numbers… How can this help you? When you walk down the street, practise reading the words and numbers that you see. Say them to yourself. It’s not exactly a conversation, but it will help you to “think” in English. For example, if you walk along a line of parked cars, say the number on each car quickly as you pass it. Test yourself, to see how fast you can walk and still say each number. But don’t speak too loud!
Songs and Video
Listen to the words of an English-language song that you like. Then repeat them to yourself and try to sing with the music. Repeat the words as many times as possible until they become automatic. Soon you’ll be singing the whole song. Or listen to one of your favourite actors on video and repeat one or two sentences that you like. Do it until it becomes automatic. It’s good practice for your memory and for the mouth muscles that you need for English.
Above all, don’t be afraid to speak. You must try to speak, even if you make mistakes. You cannot learn without mistakes. There is a saying: “The person who never made a mistake never made anything.” So think of your mistakes as something positive and useful.
Speak as much as possible! Make as many mistakes as possible! When you know that you have made a mistake, you know that you have made progress.

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Improve British Pronunciation

Reader Stories: How I Improved My English Pronunciation

From Deniz, Guest

My most important tip for good pronunciation is:

Having good pronunciation is not very easy way. But nobody can say it is difficult. If you want to improve the British pronunciation, do not forget the fact that emphasis takes place over the second and the third syllables of the word. Listening should be the first step and repetition and imitation should be the second step. How does it work? Firstly, You can record your pronunciation on the tape to check how well and how accurate your pronunciation is.

How I Did It

One of the most significant ways to improve my pronunciation is listening the foreign channels such as BBC, CNN, Euronews systematically. If you have difficulty in adopting the desired pronunciation easily, you can listen an

English speaking CD ,using headphones before going into sleep. Let the CD work and let the headphones on your ears during the sleep period of yours. When you wake up in the morning, you are going to realize that your pronunciation has been changed as it should be. If you have any doubt, you can try and see the positive results.

Tips and Tricks

  • English people generally have difficulty in understanding the way of speech with which they are not familiar if they are not well educated. In 1990, I was in Norwich, England. A few times I needed to phone a taxi to go from the school where I had education to the city center. I spoke on the phone formal “Would you send me a car I am waiting in front of …….” The man or woman on the phone used to start to speak very slowly as if I was a new comer to England. One day I wanted the secretary at the school to phone a taxi, I wondered how to address to the man on the phone. She said “Is there a chance to send me a car ?”
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English Debate

Debate held in IEC Jatinegara

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IEC Grand Tour 2010

Borobudur Tour Program, July 2010


  1. Jatijajar
  2. Malioboro
  3. Borobudur Temple
  4. Parang Tritis (out-bound)
  5. Ciater / Guci

Cost: Rp 110,000.- X 5+ T-Shirt

Meals : 3 X

Door Prizes: laptop, Blackberry, etc.

Further info: see the poster or contact receptionist

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Prof. Chuck Sandy

A One-Day Training with Prof. Chuck Sandy on Teaching Adult Learners, Jakarta, 9 February 2010 – Gedung Pegadaian – Central Jakarta

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