I open all of my lessons by asking my students certain questions, the same ones I would ask my friends, family and colleagues, and quite often they are confused and panic a little as these questions aren't taught in textbooks but are used in everyday conversations all the time!


Whenever you meet a friend, colleague, or even your language teacher it is polite to ask about them and how they are. Of course, ‘How are you’ is the easy and probably most commonly used question, but unfortunately it can lead to the dreaded and boring, ‘I’m good’, or ‘I’m okay’, or ‘I’m fine’. Which are good, okay and fine answers but don’t really express much.


So how do native English speakers get around this? They ask different questions, which demand similar answers but allow you to express as much or as little as you want.


So here, are 5 questions native English speakers will ask to open a conversation.


How’s it going?


This is very similar to ‘How are you?’ But the ‘it’ in the question refers to your life in very general terms. You could answer by describing how are feeling, for example:


Okay, but I’m pretty tired today.


or by describing your day:


Great, I’ve had an awesome morning.


Another option would be to describe what has been happening in your life since you last spoke to the person asking the question:


Not too good, my cat died last week.


A very similar question would be ‘hows things?


How’ve you been?


This question can be tricky upon hearing because of the common contraction of how have. This is just asking about how you have been feeling recently. Or since you last saw the speaker. You might answer with:


I’ve been good/awesome/fantastic. Or just, Good/Great/Fantastic! I went to London last week and saw Buckingham Palace!


What have you been up to?


So this question is really focused on what you have been doing since you last spoke to the person, or what you have done recently-it could be in the last few months, weeks, or even that day- it depends on who you are speaking to.


How much detail you go into is really up to you. But a few common responses  might be:


Not much, I’ve just been working/studying/looking after my kids.


Not much, just the usual. - this short phrase works when you are quite friendly already with the person and they know what you usually do each week/day.


Nothing special. This is very similar to the last phrase, although you might want to add a little more onto your answer.


Loads! Last week I went to Paris and this morning I bought tickets to see Coldplay in London!


What’s up?


This is more of an American greeting and phrase although it has been adopted into British conversation, so don’t be surprised if you are asked this when you meet someone. At the start of a conversation the speaker is very generally asking about how you are and how your life is at that present moment. The speaker isn’t expecting a very detailed response and this question can also be used as a greeting.


You might reply with:


Not much.

Nothing much.

I’m alright.

And then ask them one of the questions we’ve learnt in response.


However if something significant has happened that you want to tell the person then the conversation might go:


A: Hey.

B: Hey, what’s up?

A: I’m just going into town to do shopping.

B: Ok cool, have fun.


Are you alright? Or even, You alright?


This is a British phrase that is commonly used in casual, informal conversation. You probably wouldn’t go into a job interview and ask your potential employer ‘You alright?’. But among friends, or a taxi driver, or shopkeeper for example it would be fine to use this colloquial phrase.


It has the the same meaning as, ‘Are you okay?’ so the person is enquiring as to how you are. Although, you would answer with Yes, or No, and then elaborate.


Yes, I’m great thanks.

No, I’m feeling a little under the weather today.


So there you go, there are five questions you can now answer and ask at the start of a conversation - making you sound like a native English speaker!


The best way to practice these questions and your answers is in real conversation. If you don’t have an opportunity to practice with a native speaker then why not book a lesson with me on italki-my lessons are always based around conversation and making you feel confident when speaking.


Hero image by Ben Duchac on Unsplash