Learning the Two Types of English

I’ve been certified as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher for at least six years (I’ve lost track of the official date on that certificate), and in that time I’ve worked primarily with those whose first language is Spanish. I’m not bilingual, which is a common misconception about ESL teachers. Instead I use special methods along with the English language to help students learn in English.

English is most certainly a very hard language to learn.

Unlike many other languages, English doesn’t follow its own rules most of the time and there are vast differences between conversational or “playground” English and formal, academic English. As a person working to learn English and especially those looking to improve their writing skills in English, it’s critical to understand the differences between casual and formal English. This is not only complicated for English Language Learners (ELLs), but for many native speakers as well.

Casual English

Casual English is the language of MTV and playgrounds all over the world. A myriad of slang terms, abbreviations and profanity, casual language uses relatively few words of the true language and is understood easily among native speakers as it is written and spoken at a far lower reading and comprehension level than academic English. Casual English would be similar to this sort of exchange:

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Nothin’.  Just hanging out before that test later – it’s going to suck.”

For younger students learning English, casual English is the first form of the language they learn. Those who are immersed in the casual culture of the United State have no trouble picking up these relatively few phrases and words in the first year or two that they are in the country. In a matter of two or three years these students can have a conversation naturally with their peers. Casual English takes only a few years to learn to the point that it feels almost natural. This is why many ESL students don’t “sound” like they are still struggling with the language to an untrained teacher, but still have a great deal of trouble passing classes.

For ELLs who come to the United States, or any other English speaking country to learn English, casual English is easy. It’s the academic English that presents the biggest problem. In fact it can take up to nine years to develop a strong ability in formal English, or the language of the classroom, especially if your language skills aren’t strong in your native language. For those that live in other countries and have learned English as a second language without growing up or spending considerable amounts of time in the United States, casual English presents the biggest stumbling block.

Formal or Academic English

If you’re living in a foreign country, perhaps India or China, and you’re learning English as a second language, you’ll be learning formal English. Formal English is easiest to learn for those who have a strong vocabulary in their native language. Those who are bilingual don’t use two separate compartments of their brain to process the language. Instead, they use their core word knowledge in their native tongue to translate to the proper word in the new language. The more formal words you know in your native language, the easier it is to connect the new words in a new language to what you already know.

If you are fluent in formal English you likely have no problems understanding textbooks and vocabulary lessons prepared in English. You can work through formal papers and excel in accounting, science, engineering and medical texts that use formal English all of the time. Your strong language grasp of formal English might have even supported you through university in an English speaking country where you were able to study and use the formal English you learned in school to enhance your knowledge of subject matter.

The trouble for those with this strong background in formal English is how to take it down ten notches to casual English. They simply don’t know the terms and phrases that others learn on the playgrounds in America or England. The formal ESL students just know what’s in the textbooks. Congratulations, by the way. If you can converse in formal English, you’re well ahead of a large percentage of Americans who rely on casual English their entire lives.

The same conversation above translated into truly formal language looks like this:

“Salutations! What are you doing now?”
“I’m not doing anything presently. I am patiently waiting for the examination the instructor has prepared for class today. I expect it will be challenging.”

As a high school teacher I can safely assure you nobody sounds like that in the hallways of American high schools, even the “smart kids”, and this is the problem for those who struggle to improve their casual English – to a degree you already know too much.

The formal English sentences above sound stilted and overly formal. Taking it down just one or two notches by using a bit of common slang, shortening the phrasing and using a contraction makes a huge improvement to how the sentence sounds to native readers. After all, many probably don’t even know what “salutations” means.

“Hi! What are you doing?”
“Just waiting for the test later. It’ll (It will) be hard.”

Seems easy and almost insulting, but hey – that’s casual English for ya!

Take-Away Lesson:

Casual English makes use of slang, contractions and shorter phrasing. Try substituting the following into formal writing to sound more natural:

  • Slang terms such as hi, bye, awesome, cool, powerful, rule and hundreds more. Learn more slang terms on this site.  Be aware, however, that slang terms can change with the wind (meaning: change frequently) so start with these and expand your skills by reading all kinds of blogs and commentaries and practice using the words yourself. American or English television and movies can help tremendously as well.
  • Contractions. Hey, we’re (we are) lazy when we can get away with it. Contractions are shorted phrases where certain letters are omitted and an apostrophe inserted. My personal favorite? Y’all, or you all, which is used predominately in Texas. Using contractions rather than full phrasing for terms when you can will immediately lighten up your writing. The ESL About guide has a nice reference for learning which words can be made into contractions easily.
  • Abbreviated Sentences and Phrasing. This is even a hard one for some native writers who are stuck in essay writing mode. Short sentences read more easily. In many articles and especially in blog posts and conversational pieces, abbreviated sentences, even incomplete sentences, sound more natural than complex ones. Usually you do best to balance a long sentence with a short one. Like this.

Try shortening your sentences. Using contractions will help a bit, but eliminate big words as well when you can. It might seem like you’re “dumbing things down”, but most readers out there aren’t on a college level and can be turned off by fancy word choices when a simpler word will do. For example, look at the differences in the three samples from above:

Very Casual:

“Hey, what’s up?”“Nothin’.  Just hanging out before that test later – it’s going to suck.”

Very Formal:

“Salutations! What are you doing now?”
“I’m not doing anything presently. I am patiently waiting for the examination the instructor has prepared for class today. I expect it will be challenging.”

Moderately Casual:

“Hi! What are you doing?”
“Just waiting for the test later. It’ll be hard.”

The sentences were shortened by dropping words such as “I am” and qualifiers such as “now” and “presently.” I also used simpler words where I could. This is a skill that improves over time. Contemporary, casual literature is a great way to see how sentences can be shortened into a more casual language. Look for modern books appropriate for young teenagers with a personable narrator and try to mimic the phrasing and patterns of words as you read. Reading in casual English is the second best way to immerse yourself in it after all.

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Rebecca is a full-time everything. She teaches English and reading to her much loved, if challenging, high school students during the day and is a freelance education writer in the evenings. With almost ten years in the classroom and advanced degrees in business and information science, Rebecca specializes in materials that inform, educate and entertain. Rebecca indulges herself by pretending to have spare time and writing about the ups and downs of being a freelancing mama whenever she gets a chance.

10 thoughts on “Learning the Two Types of English”

  1. I’ve tutored foreigners in casual English for six or seven years now. We start with word recognition/definition and move right on to idioms. It’s ridiculous how many idioms we use in our daily speech. My student has a binder ring full of both words with definitions and idioms with the same. She and I have so much fun trying to write and understand casual English! I wrote her a few lessons in all idioms. I was amazed how quickly she picked up on them.

    What a fun post, Rebecca!

  2. Ugh, contractions! I’m doing my best to incorporate more contractions into my writing. I’ve been told that “people speak this way” so incorporate contractions and don’t be too formal. Hmmm…I can’t help it if I enjoy speaking proper English. I must admit that I have an issue with the way the English language has deteriorated over the years in the U.S. I think “texting” plays a small role in it, but I think peoples’ overall speaking ability has become worse. That’s just my opinion.

    • I don’t think it’s just the U.S. I’ve heard just as much casual language from people I know in the UK and Canada. I remember one friend in England making a comment about how we don’t speak “real” English in the U.S. because it isn’t “the way it was meant to be” or something like that. She quickly realized how ridiculous she was when I pointed out that she doesn’t exactly craft prose like Shakespeare either. It’s a “mutt language.” It stems from many others, and it branched out into different lines. Each of those lines includes people who can speak intelligently in their version of the English language, and each has their share of linguistic laughing-stocks.

  3. And you didn’t even get into the fact that there are two ways to SPELL many different English words (that’d be the US way and then the correct way 😉 LOL) “My favourite thing about English? At the centre and all throughout, the language honours confusion.” 🙂

    • Fortunately this a monthly series, so I might hit it next month. There are so many problems for those trying to sound natural when they haven’t been immersed in English. Just spelling in American English is overwhelming without throwing in the UK spellings as well. Spelling and idioms coming up soon. 🙂

      • Oh, please cover the “the” issue. Pretty, pretty please! That’s one of my biggest pet peeves (stemming from editing work I do for a particular non-native speaker who refuses to use “the” where she needs to and often tosses it in where she doesn’t). It makes me want to cry. Well, scream first, then cry.

  4. I am terrible at writing without contractions. For stuff like you are and we are, that makes perfect sense to me but do not? Cannot? Will not? I can’t even think that way.


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