Topics and Activities

A Few Conversation Starters

You and your PAL partner can certainly choose whatever topic you want to discuss, but here are a few suggestions that can lead to some really fun and interesting conversation.

Food:

This is a topic that never fails to start a lively discussion! Possible questions could be:

  1. What food do you miss most being in California?
  2. What’s the strangest food you’ve ever eaten?
  3. What’s your favorite food that you’ve tried since you came to the U.S.? Your least favorite?
  4. How do you eat food in your country (chopsticks, fingers, which hand, spoon, scoop, do you share from one central dish or have individual plates)?

Home Remedies:

There are loads of weird and wonderful home remedies in every culture (whether or not they actually work!) which can be fun to talk about. Some might be personal to your family whereas others might be more widely used, such as lemon and honey for a sore throat. Some examples of home remedies:

  • Hiccups: Bend forward and drink a glass of water “upside down” or take a teaspoon of sugar.
  • Warts: Cover with duct tape for several weeks (apparently, this really works!).
  • Cold: Drink “tea” made with crushed raw garlic cloves or chew raw garlic (sounds strange, but garlic is a natural antibiotic).
  • Headache: Drink a cup of coffee.

Body Language:

Even though verbal language is your main focus, it’s surprising how important – and often culturally specific – body language can be in learning to fit into another culture. Here are some things to think and talk about:

  • How do you signal that you're bored? tired? angry?
  • What are the gestures for "I don't know", "You are crazy", "money" and "come here" in your country?
  • How close or far away is it polite to stand when meeting and talking with someone (formal and informal)?
    (Interestingly, there have been studies which actually measure this and reveal big differences between, for instance, some Middle Eastern cultures where closeness of 8-12 inches is normal and standing farther away is considered suspicious, and someone from Japan, who normally prefers 36 inches distance and feels uncomfortable or threatened if someone stands closer.)

You and your partner can discuss which of these gestures you might have in common and which have different meanings. They are common in the U.S. but can have very different interpretations elsewhere!

  • Waving (hello, goodbye, to get attention, to dismiss someone)
  • Circling finger at temple (to indicate craziness)
  • High five (likely specific to U.S. but so common, it would be good to introduce it to your international PAL)
  • Shrugging shoulders (“I don’t know” or “I don’t care”)
  • Shaking head to indicate “no”
  • Nodding head to indicate “yes”
  • Thumbs up / Thumbs down (good / bad)
  • Making an OK sign with thumb and forefinger (warning: this is very rude in Brazil!)
  • Averting your eyes when speaking or being spoken to (in the west, we consider this suspicious)
  • Looking directly into the eyes of someone speaking to you (some Asian countries consider this aggressive)
  • Shaking hands (as opposed to bowing, as they do in Japan)
  • Pointing to something or someone with a forefinger (again, some cultures find this very impolite)
  • Social (as opposed to romantic) kissing or hugging

Slang and Idioms:

These are sometimes interchangeable but essentially, slang is informal language that tends to be used in speech rather than writing, and between people who are familiar with each other and share similar interests. Some slang is inappropriate in the PAL context, but there is plenty of slang that is used every day that would be useful for a non-native English speaker to know, simply in order to understand what someone is saying.

Some very commonly used slang: Hang out / Awesome / Cool / Hot / Chill out / Have a crush on / Crushing on / Have a blast / Nerd / Rip off / Dude / Skip class / Cut class / Totally / Freaked out / No brainer / What’s up? / You rock / Split / Split up

Idioms are phrases that don’t make sense in a direct word-for-word translation but are so commonly used that we forget sometimes that they can be really confusing to someone who has only had formal English teaching. Unlike a lot of slang, they are mostly socially acceptable and “polite” and can be used in formal as well as informal situations. Again, it’s not necessarily important for a non-native English speaker to learn to use these, but it’s helpful for them to know some of the more common ones in order to understand what someone is saying. Also, it’s a fun topic of conversation.

Some very commonly used idioms: “That class was a piece of cake”, “I heard through the grapevine that Sam and Tania are splitting up”, “These jeans cost an arm and a leg”, “My professor and I don’t see eye to eye”, “I’m going to hit the sack”, “I feel like I have to study 24/7”, “Take it easy”, “I’m sick and tired of my roommate leaving dishes in the sink”