What is the difference between Academic English and General English?

Imagine walking into a party where everybody speaks English. 

What kind of English will you hear? What English will you speak to make friends?  While socializing, you will use General English, whether chatting with new neighbors or ordering a pizza.

Now imagine sitting down in a university classroom in Boston, Massachusetts. What will you hear the professor say? What will you say in class, read for homework, and write on the exam? 

Whether collaborating with classmates on a research project or drafting an essay for your degree, you will use Academic English.

In other words, you use Academic English at school (and maybe work) and General English pretty much everywhere else. To study and work in the USA, you need Academic English skills.

General English can include the use of slang expressions, more relaxed (but still correct) grammatical structures, and vocabulary for everyday objects, activities, and feelings. In other words, General English is what you’ll hear and use when people are at ease, communicating freely with friends and family. General English is the foundation of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation upon which academic English stands.

Academic English uses specialized vocabulary, careful sentence structure, and objective facts, details, and reasoning. Similar to general English, you need control of basic verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions. However, you also must be able to understand and use academic English vocabulary, such as that found on the Academic World List, in addition to advanced vocabulary specific to your career. 

An English proficiency test for a US university will measure both General English and Academic English. That means you can’t skip general English knowledge, which includes verb, noun, and adjective forms, and hurry ahead to academic English, which requires accurate word formation to create complex sentences.

Next, we’ll look deeper into where you use academic English and define Limited English proficiency.

Later in this article, we’ll talk about the different levels of English proficiency, academic English proficiency tests, and university expectations for English proficiency.

First, a few more words about the usefulness and ubiquity (it’s everywhere, even if you don’t notice it) of academic English.

Where do you use Academic English?

Whatever your major–business, literature, or science–you hear, speak, read, and write academic English when you attend an American university. 

In the classroom, you use academic English when working alone, with partners, and with instructors. That means pretty much all the time, except when you socialize during your free time.

Where else do you use Academic English? On a college campus, you use academic English to visit the writing center to get help revising an essay assignment or creating a resume.

Speaking of jobs, you use academic English to get advice about internships in the US at the career counseling center.

In the science lab, you use academic English to read instructions, perform experiments, and report results. 

At the library, you use academic English to do research, ask for help from the librarian, and collaborate on a group project with classmates. 

The list goes on about all the ways to use English for academic purposes on campuses in the US, from Boston, Massachusetts to Los Angeles, California, from a dorm room study group to an auditorium lecture.

The American workplace often involves academic English, too. 

Developing a product at a tech company? Researching data at a marketing firm? Managing a retail environment

While you may use general English to interact with customers and collaborate with colleagues, you may use academic English to write reports, present at conferences, and produce official documents for the company.

Even in daily life, academic English comes in handy. News articles use academic English to explain global events.  TV and radio interviews with smart people use academic English to explore ideas. Science fiction movies use academic English to describe technology.

The good news is that you can develop Academic English proficiency every day in your free time. You can watch TED Talks related to your major.  You can listen to the BBC or NPR news in English while driving or exercising, not to mention downloading podcasts on science, business, politics, or technology. While waiting in line, you can read The New York Times or Wall Street Journal on your phone. 

All these free, everyday sources expose you to fact-based reasoning, precisely worded sentences, and impactful verbs, nouns, and adjectives.

Then, by joining an Intensive English Program you practice speaking and writing academic English, benefiting from peer collaboration and instructor feedback.

What is ‘Limited English proficiency’?

Limited English Proficiency (LEP) is a term used in the United States to describe a person who cannot use English fluently. Individuals with Limited English Proficiency may need an interpreter or special assistance to access US government services, meet daily needs, and communicate with native English speakers.

An individual with Limited English Proficiency lacks the ability to speak, write, and understand both General English and Academic English.  Limited English Proficiency means it’s difficult for the English user to navigate life in the USA, doing things such as getting a driver’s license, visiting the doctor, or interacting with clerks.

If you’re living in the USA and have Limited English proficiency, the U.S. government is not allowed to discriminate against you. In fact, the U.S. government is required to treat you fairly, offer all services and benefits, and provide assistance in your native language. 

An individual with Limited English Proficiency is not ready for Academic English preparation or applying to college in the USA. The best place to start is by joining an Intensive English Program at a beginning level to build general English.

After building a strong foundation of general English, an individual can move on to achieve academic English.

Next,  let’s dig deeper into the details of academic English and answer the following questions:

  • How many levels of English language proficiency are thereNicholas Cage pointing and saying (and where does Academic English fit in)?
  • How do I know my English proficiency?
  • What level of English do I need to get into a university in the USA?

Academic English proficiency levels

In part 1 of this article, we touched on differences between general English and academic English and defined Limited English proficiency.

Now let’s talk about the different levels of English proficiency, academic English proficiency tests, and university expectations for English proficiency.

How many levels of English language proficiency are there (and where does Academic English fit in)?

There are different tests and tools to measure levels of English language proficiency.

A good place to start is the CEFR (The Common European Framework).  The Council of Europe developed this framework to measure language proficiency for all languages, not just English. 

Used as the basis for many English proficiency tests, the CEFR is divided into six broad proficiency levels:

  • A1: Breakthrough. Just the basics of English. Beginner.
  • A2: Waystage. Skilled with the basics of general English. High Beginner.
  • B1: Threshold.  Skilled with general English and the basics of academic English.   Intermediate.
  • B2: Vantage:  Skilled with Academic English and often ready for university in the USA. High Intermediate.
  • C1: Proficiency. Proficient with Academic English and definitely ready for university (and possibly an internship) in the USA. Advanced.
  • C2: Mastery. Close to a native speaker. Fluent.

The results of an English proficiency test like the TOEFL or IELTS can be correlated to the CEFR proficiency levels.

For example, a score of 85 on the TOEFL iBT or a 6.5 on the IELTS correlates to a B2 English proficiency level, which is good enough for many (but not all) American universities.

In contrast, a score of 50 on the TOEFL iBT or a 5.5 on the IELTS correlates to a B1 English proficiency level, which is NOT accepted by most American universities.

How do you determine Limited English Proficiency?  While it’s hard to put an exact number on Limited English Proficiency, the following English proficiency test benchmarks give an idea:

  • A1 and A2 English proficiency levels according to the Common European Framework (CEFR).
  • 40 or below on the TOEFL iBT English proficiency test.
  • 4 or below on the IELTS English proficiency test.

How do I know my English proficiency?

The best way to learn (and improve) your English proficiency level is to join an Intensive English program. In the best Intensive English Programs, you study English in realistic academic situations, such as group projects, essay assignments, and presentations.  English for academic purposes includes the ability to obtain, analyze, and produce new knowledge.

When you invest in Academic English preparation, you should not focus on what you “know” or “understand” in your head. 

Instead, you should focus on what you can do in English.

CEFR English language proficiency standards are organized around “can do” statements that involve speaking, listening, writing, reading, and performing different language tasks. For example:

  • Can you write a 5-page paper defending an original thesis statement, opinion, or claim?
  • Can you give an oral presentation on a technical subject connected to your major or job? 
  • Can you take notes while listening to a lecture on a technological breakthrough, a scientific study, or other unfamiliar topic?

A quick way to test your English proficiency level right now is to go to the CEFR Self-Assessment Grid.  Follow the English link to read the grid, which contains I can do statements.

Read the I can statements and match what you think you can do with the English proficiency level, A1 to C2. 

Be honest. Which English proficiency level best matches what you can do?

A2 means you’re still building general English you’re not ready to take an English proficiency test yet. Keep working on basic sentences with verbs, nouns, adjectives, and connecting words, plus pronunciation and listening in conversations.

B1 means you’re beginning academic English and could be ready for university within a year by studying paragraphs, essays, and in-depth discussions. 

What level of English do I need to get into a university in the USA?

The short answer is that most American universities are looking for students with B2 English proficiency level or higher. Many top schools require C1, while others may accept B1 and possibly offer extra support to manage.

If you’re applying for university in the USA, you’ll need to take an English proficiency test to measure your Academic English.  An English proficiency test will measure what you “can do” through tasks that combine speaking, writing, listening, and reading Academic English (with some General English mixed in to assess your overall English proficiency).

Academic English proficiency requires precise vocabulary, accurate grammar, and clear organization. To succeed in an American university, you must also be able to do research, analyze data, and think critically.

General English, in contrast, means the language you use in daily life to survive, socialize, and travel. General English varies by region and includes different dialects, usage, and slang. For instance, if you travel around the USA, you’ll find slightly different ways of using and speaking general English in New England, California, and Texas.

In contrast, Academic English is basically the same everywhere, from Northampton,  Massachusetts to Northampton, England. Academic English proficiency levels require universal standards of structure, formality, and vocabulary.

In short, General English may vary from region to region, but Academic English is mostly the same everywhere, from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Cambridge, England.

Studying in an Intensive English program is like practicing going to an American university. You receive training, make mistakes, and overcome difficulties in a supportive learning community. Full English immersion in a welcoming community in the USA builds both your general English and academic English.

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Bringing decades of passion as educators, at ILI Massachusetts we believe in open access to education for language learners around the world, regardless of race, religion, gender identification, physical and mental abilities, economic standing, documentation status, and educational levels.