Any English as a Second Language student dreads talking on the phone in English. Some of the aspects that explain why this normal activity can be so difficult for an English learner is that you have to rely only on your listening skills –– there’s no body language to help you understand what someone is trying to say. Besides that, sometimes the quality of the sound is not so great, which makes everything so much more difficult.  

I remember calling a customer service call center to solve a problem I had with my phone in the United States. I couldn’t understand anything the person was saying and had to ask an American friend to help me out. Since I don’t want that to happen to you, I’m going to give you all the information you need to successfully talk on the phone in English.  

18 words you should know 

It’s 2020 and most people own smartphones. However, there are some other types of phones and we are going to explore them in this section.  

The phone we have in our houses is called a landline. The ones that are not connected by a cord are called cordless phones. Another type of phone is the one we find in public spaces, such as supermarkets and malls. 

That kind of phone is called a payphone. You usually need to add coins to it in order to place a call. A payphone is usually located inside a telephone booth. The city of London, in England, is famous for its red telephone booths.  

When you pick up a landline telephone, you will hear the dialing tone. That means your phone is connected and you can start dialing the numbers you need. If the person you are trying to call is already on another call you will then hear what we call the engaged tone or busy tone. After hearing this sound, you will return the phone to the receiver. This action is known as hanging up the phone.  

Now, let’s picture that you are the one receiving a call. Your phone will start ringing. You answer the phone in order to talk to the person who is calling you. You can also ignore the call if you can’t or don’t want to answer the call. If you are not available, the call will go straight to voicemail. That means the phone won’t ring at all, and the caller will be able to record a short message that you can listen to later. In the message, they may ask you to call back or return the call.  

When you need to call a company, it is common that they put you on hold until someone is available to answer your call. While you are on hold, you can’t communicate with the person on the other end of the line. Whenever the person you want to talk to is available, the operator will put you through to the person. However, if the individual is not available, the operator may ask you if you want to leave a message

Informal and formal dialogues on the phone 

There are some phrases that can help you feel more at ease when answering or making a call. Check the conversation over the phone below for some expressions you can use in an informal or a formal call.  

Informal dialogue

Check out this English phone conversation dialogue between a mom and her daughter:

Hello. Barbara speaking. 

Hi, mom. This is Julia. 

Hi, honey. How are you? 

I’m good. How is dad doing? 

He is doing good. Julia, I can’t hear you very well. 

Oh. Can you hear me now? 

Yes, that is better. 

Mom, can you put dad on the phone? 

Ok, hang on a second. 

Ok. 

He is in the shower, honey.  

Ok. Can you ask him to call me back later? 

Sure. 

Ok, mom. I have got to go. Talk to you later. 

Bye, honey.  

Formal dialogue  

Whenever you need to make a more formal call, it is a good idea to prepare what you are going to say by writing down some sentences you may need to use. Don’t be afraid to ask them to repeat or say it slower if you happen to not understand something that was said. Check out this formal telephone conversation dialogue:

Smith and Jones Lawyers, good morning. How may I help you? 

Good morning. It is Kelly Reed speaking. Could I please speak to Mr. Jones? 

Good morning, Ms. Reed. I’m afraid he’s in a meeting now. Would you like to leave a message? 

I understand. Could I call later this afternoon? 

Sure, he is free after 3. 

Perfect. I will call back later then. 

Thank you for calling Smith and Jones. Have a great day. 

Thank you. Have a good one! 

Telephone phrasal verbs  

Phrasal verbs are considered verbs. They are composed of a main verb and a particle (or two). The particle can be a preposition (on, in, at, for, etc), an adverb (up, down, away, out, off, etc), or both a preposition and an adverb.  

You should know that phrasal verbs are often idiomatic. This means that we don’t translate them literally. Take for instance, the phrasal verb get upGet is the verb and up is the particle. We know that get means several things, such as arrive somewhere, understand something, buy something, or bring something –– among many others (be sure to check out our post about the meanings of get). The adverb up means toward a higher place or position. However, the meaning of the phrasal verb get up has nothing to do with those definitions – it actually means to rise from bed after a night of sleep.  

Let’s have a look at some of the most common phrasal verbs we use on a phone call. 

Phrasal verb Meaning Sentence 
pick up  answer the phone Laura, pick up the phone! I’m in the shower. 
speak up  speak louder Sorry, I can’t hear you very well. Could you speak up? 
cut off interrupt a phone call We were cut off right when she was telling me the big news. 
hang up  end a call Sorry, grandma. I really need to hang up. I will call you back later, okay? 
hang up on end a call without waiting for the conversation to end I can’t believe my sister hung up on me! 
hold on  wait for a short time Can you hold on a second? 
break up  become inaudible over the phone, usually because of a bad connection You’re breaking up. I can’t hear you anymore. 
call back return a call Can you call me back in 5 minutes? I’m in the middle of a meeting. 
hang on  wait for a short time (same meaning as hold on) Hang on. I need to get my wallet. 
put through  connect by phone Could you put me through to the manager, please? 
put on hold wait to be connected while making a phone call She put me on hold. I hope it doesn’t take long. 
get off finish a phone call I just got off the phone with Lisa.  

I know talking on the phone in English can be scary. However, the best way to get better at it is by practicing. I hope all these tips we gave you today about talking on the phone in English are helpful and that your next phone call isn’t such a nightmare. Happy calling!