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5 tips for improving your telephone English

BY OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS ELT

Do you get stressed speaking English on the telephone? Do you feel afraid whenever you hear the phone ring? Don’t worry. You’re not the only one.

Whether it’s receiving a spontaneous call, or leaving a voicemail – speaking in English on the telephone can be a challenging task for any English language learner. You can’t rely on lip reading, gestures, or any other visual cues and people often speak really fast, making them hard to understand.

However, there are many situations when speaking on the telephone is absolutely necessary – especially if you work in an international environment, where English is the main way to communicate.

These five tips will help you improve your speaking and listening in English on the telephone. We’ll also give you some great advice for practising leaving voicemails, which also happens to be one of the test questions for the Oxford Test of English.


1. Prepare beforehand

Before making a telephone call in English, it’s important to plan ahead – especially when you’re still learning English.

Make a note of what you’d like to say and memorise some fixed vocabulary related to the topic. Use a translator app like Google translate or check words you’re unsure about in the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary.

It’s also a good idea to prepare questions in advance or some fixed expressions that will assist you with your call. Saying these out loud to yourself first will help relax you and get you used to the pronunciation.

Here are some useful introductions that are valuable to any telephone conversation in English – whether you are learning to speak English on the phone at work, or at home:

This is…My name is… (first introduction)Hi, I’m calling about…Who’s calling?


2. Record your conversations

An excellent way to improve your telephone English skills is to record your real-life phone conversations. Set up a voice recorder on your phone and conduct the conversation on speakerphone. Then listen back and think about how you could improve what you said. Remember to get permission from the person you’re talking to first!

Could you have used a wider range of vocabulary and grammar? Could you have spoken more clearly? Do you need to vary your intonation to sound more friendly and welcoming?

Transcription apps like Otter.ai are a fantastic way to find out where you went wrong and which words you didn’t pronounce well. It creates automated notes of your speech in real-time, which you can then read back and learn from.

If you’re not able to have an actual phone conversation with a real person, don’t worry. Try recording a voice memo to yourself. It’ll be strange to hear your voice speaking in another language at first, but it’s one of the tried and tested ways to improve English fluency.


3. Be polite

You might be nervous, or in a rush, but it’s important to remember good telephone manners. If there isn’t the time pressure, and the phone call is more like an informal chat, why not start the conversation with some small talk? Asking about someone’s day or enquiring about the weather is an excellent way to break the ice.

It’s also a good idea to give a bit of positive reinforcement to whoever you’re speaking to. On the telephone, we can’t see if someone is listening. Help the other person out by saying words like hmmm or Oh I see.

And the most important thing when speaking English on the telephone? Try not to be too direct. Sometimes people think it’s enough to just add please to a sentence to make a polite request. However, you should also avoid saying words like want and can and try to use modal verbs like would and could.

Check out these useful expressions for making polite requests:

May I speak to…?Please could you tell me…?I’d like to know if…


4. Ask for help

Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification on things you haven’t understood. More often than not, people are patient and want to help you in any way they can.

It’s also perfectly normal to ask for the repetition of important details. This is particularly true for phone numbers, dates, times, and addresses. All of which can be tricky to decipher in another language on the phone.

Have a pen and paper to hand during the call, and ask the other person on the line to spell out any information you don’t understand. Then make a note of what they’ve said and read it back to them.

Take a look at these different expressions for asking for clarification:

Sorry, could you repeat that please?I’m afraid I didn’t catch that.Could you speak a little slower please?Can I just read that back to you?


5. Learn how to leave voicemails

Mastering the voicemail is the final step in perfecting your everyday English and business English telephoning skills. These are normally brief snippets of information that have to condense a lot of information into a short amount of time. Due to the time constraint, it’s important not to ramble on. So keep your voicemail short and sweet.

When leaving a voicemail, first make sure you introduce yourself properly. Then state why you’re calling. Finally, don’t forget to say how they can get back to you. Our top tip is to write down the main things you want to say before you pick up the phone. Just in case you need to spontaneously leave a voicemail!

Here’s some language you might find useful:

Hi Maria, it’s Beth (if you know the person)Hi this is… (if you don’t know the person)I’m just calling to…You can reach me at 653446739

Thank you, bye.

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