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Teaching Formal and Informal Language in the ESL Classroom

Teaching Formal and Informal Language in the ESL Classroom | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Just as important as knowing the grammatical rules of a language is knowing how the language is spoken within its native cultural contexts. Every language will have a wide range of cultural contexts for its use, each with its own set of stylistic rules. For example, academic papers, business cover letters, and text messages adhere to very different sets of stylistic rules and are evaluated accordingly. Broadly speaking, these styles of use will fall on a scale between formal and informal language.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Zephaniah Y.

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What is Formal and Informal Language?

Formal language is usually used in occasions that carry a great deal of social significance, such as the giving of a public speech, the writing of a cover letter, or the writing of an academic paper. Typically, in formal occasions, a speaker will be expected to eschew self-expression and follow strict social protocols. Formal language tends to follow prescribed grammatical rules more closely, as well as specific stylistic conventions.

Conversely, informal language is used in less socially significant occasions, such as talking to friends or family members. It allows for a greater degree of self-expression and personability on part of the speaker and is expected to follow fewer grammatical and stylistic rules. To become proficient English-speakers, students should at some point learn to distinguish between these two types of language.

Also read: 7 Great Resources for Teaching Business English

How to Teach Formal Language in the Classroom

One way a teacher can introduce this topic is by devoting a single class to defining formal language and distinguishing it from informal language and then supplementing this lesson with examples of colloquialisms and formal expressions in subsequent lessons. While it is important that students know the basics of formality in English, a perfect grasp cannot be expected of most TEFL students, particularly those below an advanced level, because the rules to formal writing are numerous and complex, and even most native speakers will struggle with formality.

However, a teacher might cover any of the following more basic rules: an avoidance of first and second person pronouns, an avoidance of contractions, an avoidance of abbreviations, an avoidance of slang and idioms, an avoidance of passive voice, an avoidance of too many simple sentences, an avoidance of overly emotive words or punctuation, and strict adherence to grammatical rules.

Also read: The Truth About TEFL For Non-Native English Speaking Teachers

How to Teach Informal Language in the Classroom

Informal language is in large characterized by its tolerance of the things avoided in formal language and by the stylistic innovations that arise as a result. For example, phrases may express personal sentiments, sentences and words may be shortened, and words may be used in non-standard ways. Examples of informal language conventions are too numerous and situation-specific to teach within a single lesson but can be taught in relation to any number of topics.

The universal you, for example, is often used when giving directions in everyday speech ("you make a right at the stop sign"). Additionally, in informal speech, it might also be acceptable to break grammatical rules. While the word "real" is an adjective and not an adverb, it isn't uncommon to hear people use it in place of "really" in informal occasions--a pie might be described as "real good", or the day "real hot". In some cases, the informal use might even be common enough in everyday speech that a formal use of language may be inappropriate.

Classifying Specific Words and Expressions

In addition to these rules that govern the use of formal and informal language, specific words and expressions are also sometimes classified as informal or formal arbitrarily or for reasons that would be difficult to explain, and in these cases, one can make small notes on the formality level where it is relevant. When teaching letter-writing, for example, one might contrast the formal letter greeting "Dear" with the less formal "Hello".

Also read: 11 Fun ESL Activities for Young Learners

In Conclusion

While the actual production of formal language or of local slang are skills that will require much time and experience to perfect, the introduction of rules governing formal language and of informal stylistic conventions as well as attention paid to the formality level of various words and expressions students encounter will give students a good basis for further understanding of it.

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