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How To Teach Formal And Informal Language

Practical ideas for teaching polite language and friendly language.

Although getting formality really right is a sign of a truly advanced learner (and is also the last thing native speaker teenagers pick up), even beginners can gain from being told the formality differences between “Can you…?”/“Could you…?”, “Good morning”/“Hello”/“Hi”, etc – and even more so nowadays when students with limited English often already have to use it in their work and travels. Even though people speaking to them will probably understand that it is a lack of knowledge that is making them say “Please give me a coffee” to the secretary, that is unlikely to completely take away the offence. There is also the less commonly considered danger of sounding unfriendly by being too formal, e.g. continuing to address people “Dear Mr Smith” long after the replies from overseas have switched to “Dear Yuji”.

Patterns in formal and informal language

As well as teaching formality differences as you go along, e.g. with each functional language/everyday-English point (greetings, meeting people, offers, etc) that you cover, there are also useful generalisations you can make or ask students to spot. Formal language tends to include longer, Latinate words, often with prefixes and suffixes, e.g. “cooperation” rather than “help” and “inconvenience” rather than “bother”. These words tend to be in longer sentences too, and making a functional phrase such as a request longer (e.g. adding “possibly” to “Could I…?”) almost always makes it more polite. Formal writing also tends to follow the more prescriptive grammar and punctuation rules that native speaker kids are taught at school, e.g. not starting sentences with “and” and “but”. In emailing, there are also plenty of archaic forms that don’t make sense in modern grammar or speech, e.g. “I look forward to…” and “Yours faithfully”.

Informal language tends to have shorter words and sentences. The shorter words are often put together into phrasal verbs and other idiomatic phrases like “hold on”, “let me know” and “give me a ring”. One reason the sentences are shorter is that they often lose particular grammatical words, e.g. subjects and auxiliary verbs as in “Looking forward to seeing you soon”. All these things are also true of informal writing, and in general informal writing is similar to speech. Other features of informal writing include abbreviations (including textspeak ones like “CU” and “gr8”), and strong language and punctuation (“fabulous”, “no way”, exclamation marks, multiple punctuation, etc). With emails there can perhaps be said to be two kinds of informal ones, the business-like ones that have no greetings and just names as salutations (if that), and ones that have lots of friendly language like “Pass my love onto…” and “Write soon”.

Classroom activities for formal and informal language

The first thing students need to be able to do is to identify the two kinds of language. One nice game for this is giving each student one card with “Formal” on it and another with “Informal” on it. They listen to phrases the teacher reads out like “Wassup?” and “I hope this email finds you well” and hold up the cards to indicate what they think about the formality they hear. They can then label the same phrases on a worksheet and try to draw up rules for formal and informal language from those examples.

You can also introduce common mistakes when doing this point, this time giving them cards that say “Informal” and “Wrong” to hold up when they hear “Looking forward to hearing from you” and “I look forward to hear from you”.

There are several other ways of taking this kind of TTT (Test Teach Test) approach. One is to give them mixed up formal and informal conversations or emails to sort out. This can be a formal exchange and an informal one to divide from each other and then put into order, or an email exchange (that gets more and more informal as it goes on) that you ask them to put into chronological order. The worksheets should be designed so that the students can use meaning and context clues to help them even if they are unsure about the differences in formality. They can then work together to identify the points that make the differences in formality obvious.

A simpler version of the activity above is to just give them phrases or emails and their responses (e.g. “Hiya. How’s it going?” “Great. You?”) that they should match up from formality and meaning clues.

If there are certain formal and/or informal phrases that students are likely to need often, there is also a memory game called Grammar Reversi that they can play. Make a set of about fifteen to twenty cards that have a formal sentence on one side and an informal version of the same thing on the other (e.g. “Dear Mr Smith” and “Hi John”). Students lay them in vertical line on the table in front of them, representing the ladder that they must climb. It doesn’t matter which side is showing. They climb the ladder by guessing/remembering the exact wording of the other side of every card, moving all the way from the bottom to the top. Any mistakes mean play passes to the next person, and all players must start at the very bottom each and every time. Cards remain turned over if they guess correctly, meaning the next person must change the formality the other way round.

A more well-known activity is to get students correcting formality mistakes. I find this works best if the formality problems are mixed up with spelling mistakes, paragraphing problems, etc. You can give them a conversation or email exchange with a mix of such problems to sort out, or give them a succession of tasks that just have a single kind of problem that they should identify and then correct. For example, the first email and response you give them has 15 spelling mistakes; then once they have found and corrected all of them you give a similar worksheet with 15 formality problems on it.

Perhaps my favourite activity for presenting or practising formality is to give students very informal sentences that they should compete to make more and more formal, e.g. going from “Pass me the salt, will you?” to “Could you possibly pass me the salt for just a moment or two, if it’s not too much trouble?” and beyond. When they give up or the last sentence was actually less formal than the previous one, the last person gets a point and they do the same thing with a different sentence.

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub | April 2012
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.