Making phone calls can be difficult enough in your mother tongue. It’s more impersonal than a face-to-face conversation — not to mention that a poor connection and a lack of visual cues can lead to misunderstandings. In a foreign language, having a conversation over the phone is twice as difficult, but it does have some hidden benefits for language learners. For example, you can prepare for the call beforehand and read from a list of bullet points without your conversation partner knowing. Here are 11 practical tips for a successful phone conversation in the language you’re learning.
Before The Phone Call
Tip #1: Learn vocabulary for a basic call
First of all, pay attention to the structure of a phone call. This may sound obvious, but how often have you — even in your native language — received an unannounced call where somehow no one knew what they were supposed to say? Let’s take a look at how a structured telephone conversation goes:
- If you’re calling a business number, you often have to dial through to the person you want to speak to. Learn vocabulary such as numbers (obviously) and department names. If you’re especially nervous, call outside business hours just to familiarize yourself with the menu options.
- After reaching the person you want to talk to, the conversation begins. Learn the most common greetings for phone calls, how to you give your own name, ask who you’re speaking with, and ask if you can speak with a different person in case someone else picks up the phone.
- State the purpose of your call. Would you like to get information about something, book a hotel room or make an appointment? (Or something else entirely?)
- Discuss whatever the aim of your call is.
- Lastly, it’s time to wrap up the conversation. Don’t just say “goodbye” — summarize what’s been discussed, clarify if the conversation leads to additional steps (“I’ll send you an email”) and then you can finish off with the nice “goodbye” expressions you learned.
Tip #2: Look up vocabulary beforehand
Run through the call in your head before it actually happens — that way you’ll have an idea of which vocabulary needs some brushing up on. For example, if you want to schedule a medical appointment, you should be prepared to describe your symptoms and learn dates and times. Additionally, does the place you’re calling have a website? This can be a good source of vocabulary.
The Babbel app also has a handy helper for calls: the dialogue trainer. These training exercises have specific vocabulary, and most of the languages feature courses just for placing calls!
Tip #3: Avoid distractions and background noise
Making phone calls in another language is hard enough without being distracted. Call from a place where you have good reception, you can minimize background noise, and nobody will interrupt you.
Tip #4: Always be prepared
Simple but effective: If you often receive calls, you can place a note next to your computer (or to whatever object’s closest to the phone) with the most common phrases for phone conversations.
During The Phone Call
Tip #5: Don’t be afraid to ask
Shyness and apprehension are not your friends during a phone call! After all, you’re calling to accomplish something, and it doesn’t help if you can only understand half of what the other person is saying. Prepare helpful sentences beforehand in the language you’re learning. The examples below are useful to let your conversation partner know when you didn’t understand something:
- “Could you repeat that, please?”
- “I couldn’t understand that, could you please phrase it another way?”
- “Could you please speak slower?”
- “How do you spell that? / Could you spell that?”
- “Where can I read about this?”
- “Sorry, I’m still learning this language.”
Tip #6: Take notes
You know the feeling when you end a call and then forget half of the conversation? The solution to this problem could not be easier: Place a notepad and a pen near you during the call, and take notes.
Tip #7: Speak slowly and clearly
This tip is pretty self-explanatory, but it’s easy to forget when you’re nervous. It’s okay if you’re suddenly talking too fast: Excuse yourself to your interlocutor, set the telephone aside and take a deep breath — inhale and exhale deeply. Afterwards, you can continue speaking at a slower, more controlled pace.
Tip #8: Don’t forget to summarize
Is the conversation coming to an end? Before you say goodbye, briefly summarize what was discussed so you can be sure that you understood everything correctly.
Tip #9: Thank your interlocutor for their patience
Having a conversation over the phone in a foreign language isn’t easy, not only for you, but also for the person on the other end (native speaker or not). So thank them from your side! It often works well even if the other person wasn’t patient with you — that way you politely point out that they have conversations like these every day, but it’s not as simple for you.
We all know that it’s not what you say, but the way you say it. Impatience can often be transformed into shared understanding through a nice gesture on your part. By being authentically grateful, you leave a nice impression and finish the conversation on a positive note.
After The Phone Call
Tip #10: Don’t forget to follow up
Did your phone call end with a pending task? Then put aside all the excitement about this successful call and get to the task! Better to do it now while it’s top of mind instead of needing to call again and apologize in another language.
Tip #11: Additional practice never hurts
Practice having phone calls in your foreign language with friends, tandem partners, or even shops and answering machines! The latter two are easy enough to manage without being obtrusive. You can call outside office hours to hear the answering machine menu. Instead of booking a table at a restaurant online, you can call. Instead of checking for information about a movie online, many cinemas offer this information via audio recording. The possibilities for practicing are numerous — and that way you’ll feel all the more comfortable the next time you need to make a serious phone call in another language. Good luck and happy calling!