How to make native small talk
June 15, 2012 6:37 AM   Subscribe

Hi! I'm learning Spanish at the moment, using podcasts and LiveMocha, mostly. I try to speak it as much as possible when doing the LiveMocha exercises, listening to the podcast conversations, etc, but I realise that what's missing is real live conversation with others.

Now, I know that LiveMocha offers this. And I want to make use of it, only.. I don't really know what to say. :) I'm already not too big on small talk and I've a fear that the conversation we would be having would be way too basic for any of the two parties to be interesting at all. I mean, if I can't bring myself to harp on about what my parents do for a living and how big/small my city is, how can I expect the other person to want to listen to this?

So my question is: how do you get around that? Or actually I guess it really comes down to a broader issue of not being too great with small talk or talking to strangers, and how to improve that...
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a native Spanish-speaker. Though I don't get many daily opportunities to practice, one of my favorite exercises is to narrate my day out loud to my grandfather, who died several years ago. I try to explain whatever it was I'm working on, stuff I'm into that day, etc. This forces me to brush up on vocabulary that may be a little rusty or revisit grammar now and again. But mostly, it's a great dry-run for the next time I have to explain my job or interests to another native speaker.

I'm not a great spur-of-the-moment conversationalist, either, btw, and am occasionally envious of people who are. Most of my best conversations abroad are with the cab drivers, shop keepers, and bartenders, all jobs in which the gift of gab is an asset.

Chit-chat's the same the world over. Ask about the weather, sports, politics and see where it goes.

¡Bienvenidos y buena suerte!
posted by jquinby at 7:02 AM on June 15, 2012 [2 favorites] online language lessons. Study a unit, complete an exercise, and other members (native spanish speakers who are learning english) will correct it for you, usually within seconds. Then you can ask to talk with native speakers via a skype-like interface. Your partner will see the vocabulary you are working on so you can focus on that if you want, or you can just chat about anything. There is a white board too in case you need to type something you are struggling with. I have talked to people in Spain, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Argentina and more.

The only shortcoming is that the full version is not available for iPad. Suerte!
posted by Skychief at 8:32 AM on June 15, 2012

My local public library offers conversational English classes for people who are native speakers of other languages. If you have similar services in your area, I dont see why a native speaker of Spanish in those programs wouldnt take a few minutes to speak to you in Spanish.
posted by Billiken at 10:14 AM on June 15, 2012

I have done this successfully and I am shy. Do you have Skype? Good. Now register an account at and fill out a profile with some of of your interests, including learning Spanish.

Now go to the member forums. There is one called "Language Exchange." You can either make your own post or look at others who are offering to exchange Spanish for help with their English. Before messaging them you can look at their profile, much like you would a Facebook page. It will be more geared towards travel but should also list interests like music, books etc.

You will have literally dozens of people from South America and Spain to choose from, and with their profiles that will give you the basis of something to talk about. When you finally speak, an opening line could be: "Wow you have traveled a lot! What was your favorite place?" Then you take turns making conversation and helping to correct their errors (30 minutes in English, 30 minutes in Spanish). Don't worry about knowing the exact grammar rules in English, just telling them what sounds right will be enough.

I have some exchange partners who I only talk to about books, and others who have become something like best friends and we discuss intimate family issues.

The key is to get someone who has basically the same level of English as you do Spanish, so you won't be embarrassed and just getting through the first couple (possibly) awkward chats until you learn enough about the person and conversation will become more self-sustaining. Everyone on CS is friendly and very willing to help, though.

Feel free to message me with other questions about this, but I can't recommend this process highly enough, it's done wonders for my speaking ability and confidence.
posted by the foreground at 11:44 AM on June 15, 2012 [4 favorites] has Spanish language exchanges in my city and there are three or four meetups every week.
posted by Che boludo! at 12:26 PM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

LiveMocha already offers the OP the option to chat with native speakers who have signed up in order to do this, with a skype-like interface. By my reading, the question is not 'how do I find conversational partners' but 'what do I chat about? How do I make this useful when I am not good at small talk?'
posted by jacalata at 2:20 PM on June 15, 2012

I think you could use advice and conversational prompts/starters from some of the other English-language questions tagged conversation. AskMe's accumulated some good answers.

For example, Easy conversation prompts has some simple, non-loaded questions and links to some ESL resources (sort of the reverse of your situation) for simple conversation starters.

I also like some of the answers to What to ask other than "What do you do", which was nominally about preparing for a MeFi meetup. Do you see any sort of brief description of who you're being paired with? If so, you could make use of the good advice about looking for context cues to spark questions, like asking high school graduates "what's your next step?" Jessamyn also suggested some cross-cultural ones playing off of her (your) personal interests like asking about libraries in their country, since she's a librarian (change as/if appropriate for your own interest/hobby/profession).

There's also one about questions to put in a conversation jar, but some of those may be too theoretical/esoteric for your purpose and/or fluency. (At least they would be for mine!) That's another reason why the ESL resources might be a good bet.

One sort of off-beat thing you might consider is asking to play a simplified/adapted version of a conversation game like 20 questions, alphabet picnic or story relay - those will definitely work some different language muscles than "normal" conversation. There might even be one from their country they can teach you!

I feel like I'm still missing one of the best epic threads on this topic - if I turn it up, I'll come back and post a link.
posted by clerestory at 11:10 PM on June 15, 2012

If you don't want to do an online chat, find a language exchange partner ("intercambio" en Español) who needs help with English. I've been successful at this through Meet up (in a public location) a couple of times a month, speak 30 minutes in English, 30 in Spanish. It doesn't matter if your just talking small. The point is to practice your target language, not to entertain.

And when you're speaking Spanish, you can always focus on learning more about your partner rather than talking about yourself.
posted by evalunatik at 2:12 AM on June 16, 2012

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