Formality, Yea or Nay? Help Your ESL Students Know When to Be Formal with These Useful Tips

Formality, Yea or Nay? Help Your ESL Students Know When to Be Formal with These Useful Tips

Andrea Pesce
by Andrea Pesce 4,719 views |

There is a lot about social interactions that can make quite a few of us anxious.

Moreover, when those interactions are with people from other countries. Now put yourself in your students' shoes. They constantly need to interact with people, mostly from other countries. And believe me, they have a lot on their minds. Our poor ESL students are plagued with worries. They are often scared about asking certain questions or bringing up certain topics. Regarding social interactions, there is one that really gets our ESL students worked up: formality. When to use formal language and when not to is one of the many issues our students have to deal with. Well, the good news is there is plenty we can do to help our beloved students in this area too. Take a look at the awesome tips below and put your students' minds at ease.

Help Your Students with the Formal Language

  1. 1

    What is the Difference?

    To start, the first thing we need to ask ourselves is what formal English is and how it is different from informal English.

    • Typically in formal language we don't use contractions, whereas we do with informal English. I would not like to vs I don't want to
    • When we use formal English, we use fewer phrasal verbs and more vocabulary derived from French and Latin. Generally, we use words that are considered more sophisticated.
    • Indirect language is also much more common in formal English. Using the passive, for instance, makes everything less personal.
    • The use of synonyms in order to avoid repeating the same vocabulary is another classic example.
    • Sentences are better organized and thought out, and they tend to have longer more complex structures.
  2. 2

    When Should It Be Used?

    Now that we know what it is, we should consider when it is appropriate to use formal English. So, in essence formal English is a way of speaking that you usually use when you are not well acquainted with the people you are talking to. Since you are unfamiliar to them , it is a great way to show respect and keep a distance. Distance is also important when talking to people who are higher in status or in the case of business, people who are in higher positions. Take a look at the following examples.

    • In academic environments, when writing essays for a class and when addressing teachers/professors.
    • At work, when writing an email to people you don't personally know.
    • Also at work when speaking to a customer/ supplier who is new or who you personally have never worked with.
    • Traditionally when speaking to someone who is significantly older than you, people have always used formal language to communicate merely because it is a sign of respect.
  3. 3

    Why It’s Important to Use Formal English in These Situations

    Now, to finish off our last point, here are some interesting questions I'd like to share with you. Why is using formal language so important?.What might happen if you don't use it? Could you be shunned from society or something like that? The answer to the last question is no of course, at least not most of the time. Formality is important because it shows that you can communicate in a professional manner, that you have respect for others and that you are willing to demonstrate that when communicating with them. It shows that you feel comfortable with social rules and that you accept them. In few cases, however, being excessively formal when it is not necessary can bring about the opposite effect. People might misinterpret the distance in formality as some kind of rejection. Even business related situations sometimes call for and depend on informal interactions. When in doubt, pay close attention to others and how they communicate in these situations.

For ESL students not everything is evident regarding social rules.

They have to understand that formality should be used only when it is necessary. They need to be able to tell when it is advisable and when it isn't. Help your ESL students demonstrate to others how they can go the extra mile. Help them show others they are capable of adapting and that they can handle anything.

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