TEFL Difference between formal and non-formal language

To discuss the differences between formal and non-formal language, it must first be clarified that this does not necessarily relate to the use of ?slang? terms or idioms. It invariably relates to the social setting of where the communication is taking place, such as a business meeting or social gathering, for instance a birthday party.

As Yoshihiko Ikegami has identified many Asian peoples? learning Western languages find them liberating as they are not as rigid in themselves to certain ?situational types and participant relationships? [1]. This can cause the students to use terms, which native speakers would find inappropriate in certain situations however. This illustrates the richness of all languages but those with roots where hierarchical social structures have been eroded over a longer time periods, greater opportunities for social faux pas.

So what guidance can be offered to new speakers of these languages? Firstly, is the communication to be written or spoken, as situations where a level of professionalism is to be portrayed, less formal terminology may be spoken. However should the same communication to be made in a written or visual format then more formal language should possibly be utilized [2].

Of course most TEFL courses are designed to equip potential teachers with the ability to enable their future students to interact with a reasonable level of spoken fluency, in the most common social situations. It is therefore reasonable for students to have clarification for the usage of terms, and this would be particularly true for business persons looking to develop commercial links with foreign organizations.

The really problems will start to arise for learners when they try to comprehend that not only does the social situation, but the topic being discuss will have a bearing on the level of formality to utilized. For example, often business persons will try to determine their counterpart?s personality by initially discussing banal topics, such as sporting results. Should the respondent, by using very formal terminology, appear dour or ?stiff? the inquirer may feel unable to establish a future working relationship, and an opportunity may be lost that otherwise would have been fruitful for both parties [3].

It is therefore regrettable that no true methodology can be given to non-native speakers, other than possibly to err on the side of caution. Though all is not lost. Any language is but a tool to enable communication between two or more parties and like any craftsman the skill increases with usage and experience. By advising non-native speakers to take and enjoy the opportunities that this new found skill offers, they will find the majority of native speakers helpful in their endeavors. They will also discover that humor, often seen purely as informal language, take its place in formal interactions. Most native speaker will then pass their personal views on formalities and good, enduring relationships will form, which one would assume is the ultimate goal of communicating in each other?s tongues.


[1] Register Specification In The Learner?s Dictionary, Yoshihiko Ikegami, Pearson Education, 2005,

[2] The UVic Writer?s Guide ? Levels of Usage, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995,

[3] English as 2nd Language, Kenneth Beare, The New York Times, 2006,

Author: Dean Noble

Date of post: 2006-10-10