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“I see you’re wearing a Yankees cap.  Are you a baseball fan?”

This is small talk: something we often do to start a conversation.  Notice the comment (“Yankees cap”) + question (“you a fan?”) structure — we’ll come back to that soon when we discuss techniques.

But first — why bother reading about small talk?  After all, you probably do it naturally with people you want to interact with.  That’s great … but remember those awkward times when you wanted to interact with someone but couldn’t think of the right thing to say? 

Small talk can be a BIG challenge for anyone facing new or anxiety-inducing situations, including many key moments in our careers.  And small talk can be a BIG deal in relationship-building: people prefer to socialize and do business with others they feel comfortable with, and this sense of comfort can be established & maintained through light conversation that feels natural and builds rapport.

So making a little effort at strengthening your small talk skills can enhance your personal & professional encounters.  Here’s a simple formula that can remind us what small talk is, and what it’s for:

small talk = SHOWING INTEREST

You may ask: What if the person or situation is too new to make me feel “interested” yet?

I hear you!  That’s why the key word SHOWING is helpful.  Showing interest can come from (a) having genuine interest and expressing it … or (b) making an effort: finding something — anything — to comment on!

In the “Yankees cap” example, (b) is likely to apply to me, as I’m not a Yankees fan; I’m not even a baseball fan, and I have no natural interest in discussing baseball or baseball hats … but hey: I’m making an effort by noticing something and remarking on it!

You may ask: What if the person or situation is too intimidating or tense, and I feel literally frozen?

I know — I’ve been there too!  Sometimes we have to “break the icebefore showing interest.  (The “ice” in this idiom indicates the initial frozen state of a new social situation; the awkward paralysis of people together not communicating.)

One of the easiest ways to break the ice is asking about the weather.  This works even for remote video-conferencing and phone calls:

“How’s the weather where you are?”

Notice this question doesn’t even require knowing where the other person is, which makes it very easy to use.  It leads naturally to discussing where the other person is, where you are, and suddenly the “ice” is broken, the conversational stream is flowing, and now you can show interest!

“I heard you say you’re from Italy.  What part of Italy are you from?”

That’s another example of the comment + question structure.  Comments set context for questions, and sometimes even prompt them: I may say “you’re from Italy” without knowing what else to say … and “What part?” naturally emerges!  

And by adding space between questions, comments create more comfortable pacing: focus on me (comment); then you (question); me; then you.  And you, I hope, do the same!  Asking questions only turns small talk into an interrogation, which can be unpleasant for your partner.

The “Italy” example features an information question (“What part?”), which unlocks more conversational potential than most yes/no questions do.  Information questions — those beginning with who, what, where, when, why, which, how — elicit specific and often revealing responses.  In contrast, yes/no questions may result in one-word answers: “Yes.”  Or “No.”  And nothing more!

As your small talk warms up, think of simple questions — especially information questions and yes/no questions with like — to follow up on what your partner says:

— “Did you like growing up there?”

— “Oh really?  Why?”

— “When was that?”

— “Where was that?”

— “That’s interesting; and then what happened?”

— “Wow!  How did you handle that?”

Follow-ups are short, easy to generate, and more fun to answer.  Since they demonstrate you’re listening and showing interest, they encourage meaningful conversation and transform small talk into real engagement.

A version of this article appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on April 1, 2021.

Learn with Lloyd!As you know, vowel sounds in English can be confusing: we have so many different ways to spell them!  Consonant sounds can be challenging too.  And stressing the right syllables in words is especially important in English.

Refining your pronunciation is a long-term process, and the older you are, the more modest your expectations of progress must be.  Children can mimic and reproduce the sounds of second languages quickly and accurately, but if you’re past your teenage years, you’ll likely find pronunciation work a challenge.  However, you can learn to make subtle adjustments that will improve the way you sound in English!

One exercise you can start with is reviewing SINGLE vs. DOUBLE vowel sounds — read ALOUD the words that begin with the same consonant (for example, “f“) on the LEFT side below … immediately followed by the word(s) that begin(s) with that same consonant on the RIGHT side:

Notice how the two vowel sounds on the LEFT side are added together for the blended double sound on the RIGHT.

Now read ALOUD the words in the charts below in the same way:

If you’re color-oriented, notice that the two primary colors on the LEFT side of each chart are the “ingredients” for the blended complementary color on the RIGHT side — this visual reference may help reinforce the skill you’re working on: blending two “pure” vowels into a double vowel (diphthong).

Here’s another single-to-double-sound chart for you to practice reading ALOUD:

How do you like working on your English pronunciation skills? It can be fun — like working on music or singing skills — and even more fun with an instructor, whether in person or remotely.

If you’re an adult second-language learner, keep your expectations for progress modest … and if you practice skills one by one (as illustrated above), you’ll find that gradual, modest progress is not only possible, but enjoyable!

If you’d like individual coaching/instruction on your English pronunciation, please contact me directly (see my “About Lloyd” page — link at top right of this page).

Enjoy learning!

~ Lloyd ~

Near the end of my English language listening/speaking-focused courses, students often ask me, “How can I continue building my skills on my own?”  

You’re probably already using audiovisual resources, but visual “eye candy” can consume so much of your attention that you don’t concentrate enough on language issues.  Consider audio-only resources, which focus your mind on listening: you immediately notice aspects of vocabulary, pronunciation, intonation, and grammar that demand your attention.

Try public radio sites like NPR.org (National Public Radio) and WNYC.org (NYC’s own station), which offer top-quality news and feature stories you can use to boost your language skills. 

ACTIVE listening with NPR.org:

a) Search for key words of interest or particular shows — click the menu icon (with three short horizontal bars); shows like “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” offer new reports and stories every day, and archives of past shows.  Most features are 3-8 minutes long; choose one.

b) Listen without pausing to get acquainted with overall content.

c) Listen again and pause as needed; notice things you missed the first time.

d) Read the transcript to see how well you understood everything.  Transcripts offer immediate feedback on your listening accuracy.  Research the meanings of unfamiliar words.

e) Listen again while reading the transcript to reinforce the content in your mind and focus your ears & eyes together on language issues.  

f) Listen again, pause after each short sentence and in the middle of longer sentences, and repeat what you just heard.  Imitate pronunciation & intonation to refine your speaking skills.

g) Each day, repeat these steps; follow your instincts, adjust as needed, and trust your judgment.

PASSIVE listening with WNYC.org:

a) Subscribe to the WNYC app or other podcast platform offering WNYC content.  

b) Listen to live broadcasts while doing other things, like exercising, preparing meals, or washing dishes.  

c) Don’t worry about missing content — you’re busy and cannot possibly catch all the words.  You can miss 90% and still benefit from English streaming into your ears.  And don’t worry about transcripts when listening passively — just allow quality audiocasts to become part of your daily routine.  

(photo by Bonnie Yoon Bishop)

This article originally appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on December 11, 2019.