Social & Academic Language Acquisition: Differences & Characteristics

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

All languages have a set of words that we use for social purposes and another set we use in academic contexts. This lesson overviews the differences between the two and explores the characteristics of beginner, intermediate, and advanced learners.

Daily Routine vs. School/Work Setting

Mónica is an English language learner (ELL) student who, after only a few months of interaction at school with friends and teachers, can basically communicate in English. Mónica can tell her friends about her weekend, she can answer questions about her family, and she can talk about her likes and dislikes. In short, Mónica has a basic level of social language. When she comes across math or science terms in the classroom, however, Mónica is not always comfortable because she is not familiar with such academic vocabulary.

Mónica's speaking abilities illustrate the basic definition of the two types of language we analyze in this lesson. Social language is the set of vocabulary that allows us to communicate with others in the context of regular daily conversations. Conversely, academic language is the set of specific terminology that pertains to specific subjects people usually learn in academic contexts. Let's take a look at the differences between each.


Differences Between Social and Academic Language

While there are clear differences between social and academic language, it is important to remember that the two types of language are not independent from one other. For example, while Mónica is unfamiliar with words like ''equation'' or ''research,'' vocabulary from the social language Mónica knows is also present in academic language. Thus, students who have a basic working knowledge of social language can use it in academic contexts. Now, let's explore both.

Social Language Academic Language
In everyday interactions in spoken/written form In textbooks, research papers, conferences in spoken/written form
For everyday conversation Used in school/work conversations
Used to write to friends, family, or for other social purposes Appropriate for written papers, classwork, homework
Informal (e.g., words like ''cool,'' ''guy,'' ''kidding'') Very formal and more sophisticated in its expressions (e.g., words like ''appropriate,'' ''studies,'' ''implementation'')
Can use slang expressions Does not use slang
Can be repetitive Uses a variety of terms
Can use phrases Uses sentences
Sentences do not follow grammar conventions necessarily (e.g., ''you're hungry?'') Sentences begin with appropriate transitions (e.g., ''moreover,'' ''in addition'')

Now that we know the differences between social and academic language, let's take a look at how different levels of English proficiency apply to each type.

English Language Proficiency Levels

While Mónica can easily communicate in daily conversations, lately she is running into expressions she does not understand. This is because Mónica is a beginner in her English language proficiency. Idiomatic expressions as well as a saying can come up in daily conversation and still confuse Mónica. For instance, she heard the teacher say, ''I am a little under the weather.'' Mónica has no idea what this expression means.

The most basic English language proficiency levels are beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Each of these levels means something different depending on whether the basis is social or academic language. The following table explains each level.

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