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Learning Activity: Understanding Messy English Conversations

As I mentioned in my last post on this subject, conversational speech is kind of disorganized, compared to academic lectures. You’ll need to understand both lectures and conversations for the TOEFL… and for your actual life as an international student.

Conversation is messy—speakers interrupt each other, talk over each other, say the wrong words, repeat themselves a little too often, and have tons of verbal pauses. Make sure that you are ready for this as you prepare for your life abroad.

I have a good pair of practice activities for you to do, so that you can understand the messy structure of English conversation. First, listen to the interview between George Strombo and Jackie Chan featured in this blog post.

There are direct links to the interview on and As you listen, also read  of the interview. In my transcript, I made an effort to write down all the messy parts of the conversation between George and Jackie—all the interruptions, misspeech, talking over, and so on. Listening and reading this interview can help you really recognize what a real English conversation sounds like.

Next, listen to my interview with Othman Zaimi, featured in this post. And read the transcript of the interview, also linked in the post. You can find a direct link to the interview audio . And you can see my transcript

In this transcript, I actually got rid of a lot of the messiness of my conversation with Othman. Our verbal pauses, our repetition, the interruptions, and the talking over— these have all been left out. This is because the transcript is designed to inform you about international student employment. It’s not meant to teach you about the structure of the conversation itself—it just needs to be straightforward and easy to read. (As I’ve mentioned before, transcripts are not always 100% accurate—it’s actually pretty common for a transcript to edit a conversation slightly to make it more writing-like.)

As you listen to Othman and I talk, carefully compare our speech to the written version. What words, phrases, and pauses did I leave out? Why do you think I made the editing decisions I did? This exercise will allow you to directly compare the features of real conversation to the more straightforward traits of written English.

Together, these two activities can give you a much better understanding of English conversation, in all of its sloppy glory!