Anyone who regularly interacts with English as a Second Language (ESL) speakers knows that it’s hard to come up with good questions to spark a conversation. Whether you’re a teacher of ESL students or leading volunteer groups, you have likely experienced that terrible moment when you’ve just asked a question and your listener stares back blankly, eyes wide and uncomprehending. This happens often in ESL classrooms because the limited vocabulary of people who are not yet proficient in English restricts the topics about which they're able to converse freely, and they might shut down when asked a question that's too lexically complex.
This list of conversation topics includes subjects that are usually taught in English classes, so they revolve around a vocabulary set that should be familiar even to people who have just begun learning the language. Use these topics and sample questions to start up a conversation in which your ESL learners will be able to participate stress-free.
One of the first things taught in any classroom is how to refer to various family members. Therefore, even absolute beginners will be able to talk about their brothers and mothers. Use that to your advantage when first getting to know ESL speakers.
Do you have any brothers or sisters?
Do you live with your family?
How many people are in your family?
This topic is especially useful to form bonds with ESL speakers because everyone has strong opinions about the food they eat. Plus, you might get to hear a little bit about some foods you’re not familiar with if you get started talking about food, which can benefit you, too.
What’s your favorite food?
Do you like to eat breakfast?
What's your favorite meal to cook?
Sports can be a polarizing topic, which usually means they’re something to stay away from, but in this case, it can influence everyone involved in the conversation to be more engaged. International sporting competitions can be especially fun to talk about with people from different countries.
Do you play any sports?
Do you watch any American sports?
What sports are popular in your country?
Musical vocabulary is also usually taught early on in English classes, so this topic is easy to interact with, especially since band/song names don’t need to be translated into English.
Do you like singing?
Do you play any instruments?
What’s your favorite genre of music?
Asking questions about what people like to do in their free time can really give you a portal into what they’re like as people, so this is a great thing to ask any ESL speakers. Plus, they’ve likely memorized their own specific set of vocabulary if they have any habits that are out of the ordinary.
What do you like to do on the weekend?
What’s your favorite thing to do with friends?
What do you do when you have alone time?
With more advanced English speakers, it can be interesting to start up a chat about romance. This is a topic that everyone has an opinion on.
Are you in a relationship right now?
Do you hope to get married?
What’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever done?
If they’re bothering to learn English, they might be bilingual or even trilingual in other languages; ask about language and see what their thoughts are.
What other languages do you speak?
Your English is so good! How long have you been learning?
What’s your favorite language?
It’s likely that if you’re talking to an ESL speaker, they’re from another country. Find out more about what that’s like indirectly by asking about travel in general.
What countries have you recently visited?
What’s your favorite place in the world?
Where do you want to visit before you die?
The beauty of this topic is its accessibility. Everyone sleeps, and they probably have something to say about it.
How many hours do you usually sleep?
Are you a morning person or a night person?
Do you snore or talk in your sleep?
Animals are fun to talk about, and animal vocabulary is often one of the first vocabulary sets taught to new speakers of any language. (Which is strange, because we don’t normally discuss animals very often.)
Do you have a pet?
If you were an animal, which one would you be and why?
Have you ever been attacked by an animal?
As someone living in a foreign country, an ESL speaker is likely running up against culture shock every day. Give them a chance to talk about how different their culture is in comparison with ours.
What was the most surprising thing about American culture for you?
What type of American food do you think is the most disgusting?
What do you miss most from home?
Work is a universal source of complaint, which makes the topic an easy way to connect to people even across a language barrier. Commiserate!
Do you have a job? If so, what is it?
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
What hours do you work?
Talking about future plans is a great conversation to have with ESL speakers for two reasons: first, you’ll get to hear about their life goals, and second, it allows them to practice their skills with the future tense.
Will you have children someday?
Where will you live?
How old will you be when you buy your first house?
Religion can be a more delicate topic, so tread carefully here. Despite the tricky potholes that you don’t want to fall in with this topic, the ensuing conversation can be well worth the pain because many people love sharing about their religion.
What's your religion?
Do you belong to a church/synagogue/mosque?
Do you follow the same religion as your parents?
Shopping is pretty polarizing — people either love it or despise it. It makes for an easy, light topic when you want to have a quick chat.
What’s your favorite clothing store?
Do you like to go shopping?
Who do you like to go shopping with?
Dreams are interesting and can spark a dialogue that goes in directions you never anticipated. Try this topic out with more seasoned ESL speakers, and you’re sure to be in for an enriching debate about the meaning of dreams.
Have you had any funny dreams recently?
Do you have any recurring nightmares?
Do you like to interpret your dreams?
For the 21+ crowd, this topic can serve as a nice icebreaker. To keep it PG, stick to drinks that Starbucks would serve.
Do you know how to mix any drinks?
Do you prefer coffee or tea?
How old were you when you had your first alcoholic drink?
This vocab set is traditionally introduced early on in language learning, serving to educate students on American culture. It gives you an opportunity to probe a little further and hear more about other traditions. (You can start up this conversation super easily if any holidays are coming up!)
What's your favorite holiday?
Which holiday was your favorite as a child?
What holidays do you celebrate?
People tend to feel strongly about fame. They also tend to feel strongly about certain celebrities. Use this to your advantage when kicking off a discussion.
Do you have a favorite celebrity?
Do you want to be famous? Why or why not?
If you ever become famous, what will it be for?
This topic is great for conversation because schooling is a shared experience, but it’s done very differently from country to country. Comparing and contrasting school systems can be invigorating for a lagging chat.
Who was your favorite teacher at school?
Did you like school?
How old were you when you started going to school?
The world of technology is another shared experience, one that tends to inspire both trepidation and enthusiasm. That said, if you do engage with ESL speakers about tech, keep in mind that they might not have access to the same technology as you.
Do you like playing video games?
What apps do you have on your phone?
How do you feel about social networking apps?
Someone from a different country who doesn’t speak English very well probably won’t understand your references to popular media, so you should keep conversations on the topic of movies and television more broad. Find out what they like to watch instead of talking about your own media consumption.
What’s your favorite TV show?
Do you ever watch American movies with subtitles?
Can you recommend some movies in your language?
This topic is great for getting to know the people with whom you’re conversing. Any tattoos they have or want tell an intimate story about who they are as a person.
Do you have any piercings?
If you had to get a tattoo, what would you choose?
How do your parents feel about tattoos?
Food is a topic that never stops giving when speaking with foreigners, and the lack of food is no different. People choose different diets for a plethora of reasons, whether they be religious, health-related, economic or environmental.
Are there any foods you cannot eat?
Would you go/have you ever gone on a diet? Why or why not?
What do you think about vegetarianism?
This topic is especially relevant when someone in your group’s birthday is coming up or if you have a celebration planned. It’s a cheery conversation to have.
Do you like parties?
Would you rather attend a party or be the host?
How do you feel about surprise parties?
Money may not be the most popular topic, but it’s certainly often on everyone’s mind. Talking about American currency can also prompt an interesting discussion on exchange rates. Let your participants complain!
What does money look like in your country of origin?
Can money buy love?
Is it more expensive to live in the U.S. or back home for you?