Teaching Social & Formal Language to ELL Students

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  • 0:04 Language Varieties
  • 1:14 Formal Language
  • 1:57 Social Language
  • 2:50 Examples & Exercises
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

Students have a lot to consider when they learn English as a second language. This lesson provides teachers with advice on how to help English language learners (ELLs) distinguish and use social and formal language.

Language Varieties

As English language learners (ELLs) begin to gain confidence in their English speaking abilities, it becomes increasingly important to teach them the differences between social and formal language. Initially, when students learn English in the classroom, they will try to speak as formally as possible for absolute correctness. But as students become more comfortable, they often tend to relax some elements of grammar and pronunciation, especially in social settings. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the ability to speak in a social manner can help students relate to their peers and develop friendships.

You'll want to consider how sharply to define and enforce social and formal language based on the age and level of your learners. For instance, elementary school students may absorb information better through examples and practice, while high school learners will likely benefit from more rigid definitions, rules and demonstrations.

Ideally, you'll want your ELLs to know when each type of language is appropriate to use and how to seamlessly switch between the two. This lesson will provide you with a basis for how to explain and demonstrate the differences between social and formal language.

Formal Language

Formal language is most often associated with academic discourse. As an ELL teacher, it's important to model formal English when delivering information to students because ELLs have a tendency to copy the pronunciation and word choice of the teacher. ELLs will typically encounter formal language in lectures, interviews, assessments, and presentations.

It's vital to provide students with a solid basis for comprehending and using formal language. As the teacher, you are their first resource and model for formal language delivery. Some students may want to rely on textbooks and other resources to develop their language skills, but there is no substitute for hearing English spoken properly by a native English speaker.

Social Language

The primary difference between social and formal language is that social language is more concerned with creating a connection between communicators in everyday conversation. Social language places less stress on grammatical accuracy and tends to rely on conveying information that the receiver will relate to. For instance, think about the ways in which teens speak to each other versus how they speak to a parent or authority figure.

Because of the nuances and cultural background of English social language, it may appear that ELLs are at a disadvantage. However, communicating in a relaxed environment that doesn't require the student to be overly concerned with accuracy and that removes penalties or criticism for mistakes can actually help the student progress more quickly.

The more an ELL comes to understand English, the better equipped that student will be to speak in a natural, flowing manner, no matter whether the setting is formal or social.

Examples & Exercises

Explaining the differences between social and formal language to your ELLs can be accomplished through specific illustrations. A good place to start is with examples of formal and social pronunciations.

For instance, formal language includes things like 'want to,' 'need to,' and 'going to.' Social language includes informal words like 'wanna,' 'needa,' or 'gonna.' Ask students to give you other examples of formal and social words or phrases that have the same meanings, but different pronunciations.

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