Good Conversation Starters for International Students
Practice makes perfect
Once you arrive in the United States, you might be tempted to avoid speaking English. Even if you feel shy about your accent or not knowing every word, remember that if you don’t “use” your English, you risk “losing” it.
Luckily, speaking English gets easier with practice. To help you get started, here are some smart conversation starters for international students.
- “I hear an accent – where are you from?”
Use this when joining an existing conversation or after greeting each other. If you have an accent, it’s a humorous way to acknowledge it casually. It’s especially funny if the other person doesn’t have much of an accent.
Another benefit is this opening naturally gives you lots of follow up topics, such as, “Oh, what’s it like there?” or “What do you miss most about it while at school?” This also gives you a chance to share about where you’re from, something you’re already comfortable talking about.
Use this when: ∨ Joining conversations ∨ Attending orientation ∨ Meeting someone new
- “What’s the best movie you’ve seen recently?” or “Listen to anything good lately?”
As an international student, you can explain that you’re interested because new movies or music can help you learn more about English. This also gives you a relaxed way to learn more about the other person.
To keep the conversation going, ask, “That sounds cool, what’s it about?” or “Oh, what are they like?” Avoid questions that lead to just a yes or no answer. More open-ended questions give you a better chance to learn, and because the other person talks more there’s less pressure on you.
Use this when: ∨ Waiting in line ∨ Seeing someone take off their headphones ∨ Eating in the dining hall
- “Excuse me, what does [insert word or phrase] mean?”
This is a natural way to join a conversation when you overhear a word or phrase that’s new to you. You can follow up by saying that you’re here studying internationally, which will help explain why you’re unfamiliar with the word or phrase.
To keep the conversation going, share about your favorite American slang words or funny phrases from your native language. And share any funny stories about accidentally using an American word or phrase incorrectly – humor is always helpful.
Use this when: ∨ Overhearing a nearby conversation ∨ Waiting for class to start ∨ At the book store or library
- “What inspired you to pick this school?”
This topic lets you learn about another student while also getting to talk about your own reasons for studying internationally. You also get to learn more about your new school.
If the other person picked the school because it’s close to home, you can ask for recommendations about what to do nearby. Or if they chose based on academics, ask how they picked their area of study. If they’re undecided, you could ask, “What class are you most excited about so far?”
Use this when: ∨ Attending orientation ∨ Meeting neighbors ∨ Attending the first week of classes
- “I’m from [home country] – what’s the one thing I definitely need to see or do while I’m here?”
This opener is great because it inspires a fun discussion in two ways. It shares something interesting about you, and leaves things open for the other person to discuss what they find interesting or cool.
Remember to ask more about the recommended place or thing (“How did you find out about it?” or “That sounds cool, when were you there?”). You can also talk about your new friend’s home town. For instance: “Where are you from? How far is that?” or “What’s it like? How is it different from here?”
Use this when: ∨ Meeting a group of people ∨ Introducing yourself in your dorm ∨ Talking at a party
- “What do you think of the food here?”
Figuring out where to sit in the dining hall can be intimidating. Try asking someone else if you can sit with them, and then use this conversation starter. Most people love talking about food!
While you don’t want to talk while your mouth is full of food (many Americans consider it rude), there are plenty of ways to keep the conversation going. For instance, talk about your favorite food from home or ask what the food is like where your dining companion is from.
Use this when: ∨ Getting ready for lunch or dinner ∨ Joining a table in the dining hall ∨ Seeing someone eating
Now get out there and talk
However you start conversations, you’ll notice your English improve the more you use it. Try setting a goal of starting one conversation a day, and eventually you’ll find you do it naturally and don’t even need these conversation starters!
Want to read more? Check out our latest article here.