Depending on whether you’re speaking in a classroom or in a kitchen, the English you use changes.
When you’re chatting with friends, you may use slang and the names of household items. Your words may be a little unclear, but you can use body language and facial expressions to clarify your story. You can play fast and loose with grammar rules.
In contrast, when you’re explaining ideas in an academic setting, you must use specialized terms from your field of study. You avoid slang like the plague. When writing academic English, you must organize ideas in carefully worded sentences and paragraphs. Your grammar must closely follow the rules.
While social English helps you build friendships, go shopping, and enjoy daily life, academic English lets you succeed in school subjects like science, business, and liberal arts.
Overall, social English is informal and academic English is formal. That may be obvious. But what does that mean specifically?
For instance, in terms of English grammar, which of the following should you say?
“My friend and I take an Intensive English Program in Boston.”
“Me and my friends take an Intensive English Program in Boston.”
Of the two choices, which grammar form will an academic English proficiency test accept? Which grammar is technically “wrong” but gets spoken every day in social English?
In part 2 of this article, the answer will be revealed.
First, let’s explore the importance and characteristics of academic English and social English.
Is learning Academic English more important than social English?
The simple answer is no.
The more complicated answer is that they’re both important, depending on your goals.
If you’re moving to the US but not attending university, you can get by without using English for academic purposes.
But you can’t get by without learning phrasal verbs like get by, which means to survive. Phrasal verbs are essential in social English. Academic English, less so–except when they’re the best way to get an idea across (get across–another phrasal verb).
By learning social English in an Intensive English Program, you build foundational English communication skills like asking questions, producing clear pronunciation, and using idiomatic language like phrasal verbs.
But maybe you’re coming to an English-speaking country for school or work. That means you need to learn complex vocabulary and grammar, right?
Here’s the thing: you need to learn social English before learning English for academic study. The two go hand in hand.
You can’t skip the basics of English verb tenses, article usage, and question formation. You can’t jump straight into academic writing for non-native English speakers without a strong foundation of verbs, nouns, adjectives, and so on.
Keep in mind that academic English and social English are not two separate languages. Both depend on the same grammar, punctuation, and pronunciation rules.
Before learning academic English, you need to be able to hold conversations about daily life, tell stories using a variety of verb tenses, and identify common everyday objects, actions, and emotions. Social English is connected to, not separate from, academic English.
Next, let’s look at your path of progress from coffeehouse English to quantum physics English.
How can ESL students progress from social to academic English?
The path from social to academic English is not necessarily a straight line, but it does follow a logical path from beginner to intermediate in an academic English course.
The goal of a beginner class is not to get into university. The goal is to get into an intermediate ESOL class. You do this by developing general English such as:
- participating actively (but not perfectly) in conversations using English
- reading simple texts without needing to translate from your language
- writing short but clear sentences with mostly (but not totally) accurate verbs, nouns, prepositions, articles, spelling, and punctuation.
- meet the needs of daily life in English, like placing orders, going to the bank, consulting a doctor, getting a driver’s license.
Note the practical aspect of social English. Sure, to succeed in college you need technical terms, research abilities, and critical reading skills. But you also need to call tech support, speak with professors during office hours, fill out forms, conduct interviews, collaborate with classmates–all of which are skills related to social English.
Once you’re proficient in social English, then you can move up to an intermediate class, where you begin practicing academic English with instructor support.
How do I know if I’m ready to learn academic English?
You’re ready to take an academic English course when you’ve demonstrated proficiency in social English in a beginning level English course.
What level of English are you? First, consider that a beginner level of English is A1/A2 on the CEFR scale. This corresponds to less than 42 on the TOEFL iBT and below 5 on the IELTS.
To assess yourself, look at this list of can-do statements from the CEFR framework. Can you do these things in English?
- Can relate events from your past, including your weekend activities and interesting stories.
- Can entertain someone in your home or visit a friend or colleague in their home.
- Can discuss your vacation plans and tell friends and colleagues about your vacation afterwards.
- Can talk about the natural world and travels to see animals and natural areas in your country.
- Can describe an accident or injury, get medical help from a doctor and fill a prescription for medicine.
- Can engage in basic business socializing, welcoming guests, attending networking events, and participating in meetings.
- Can understand and make basic business proposals in your area of expertise.
- Can talk about and explain the rules of games.
Those are just a few of the can-do statements from the A-2 level, which is pre-academic. If you can do these things, you’re ready for an academic English course. If not, you should join an Intensive English course that includes a non-academic English or English beginner (A1/A2) option.
Beyond formal assessment data like CEFR levels and IELTS scores, your first consideration should be your speaking ability.
Pronunciation is key. You need to be able to say common English words accurately before you can speak academic English clearly.
You can’t pronounce academic vocabulary until you master the sounds of English consonants and vowels.
For the record, English has 5 vowels–but about 20 vowel sounds. Among the remaining 21 letters in the English alphabet, there are a total of different 24 consonant sounds.
Depending on how you count the sounds, there are 42 to 44 different sounds in English.
And that’s not even getting into stress, intonation, accents and relaxed conversation sounds.
Without clear pronunciation, your impressive vocabulary and textbook-perfect grammar doesn’t matter. Listeners won’t grasp your meaning if you don’t speak clearly and confidently.
If your speaking ability is strong, you’ll be able to communicate effectively. You’ll be able to do group work with partners, speak up during classroom discussions, and seek help from professors during their office hours and tutors at the writing center.
Importantly, you’ll do a better job pronouncing academic vocabulary, which is often new, unusual, and difficult to remember, let alone say. You need to clearly pronounce technical terms that are seldom used outside academic and professional settings.
Plus, keep in mind that universities expect students to speak up in class. In fact, class participation is usually a big part of your grade. How will you be able to contribute to discussions and group projects without social English?
The best–and possibly ONLY–way to speak English fluently is to master pronunciation first in a community of English learners.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this article to learn more characteristics of academic English as well as the answer to our grammar question of what’s difference between “My friends and I applied to an Intensive English Program” and “Me and my friends applied to an Intensive English Program.”
Related articles about how to learn English
While you book your Intensive English course or other academic English or business English course, improve your language skills by reading our free English articles or watching our free English lesson videos. You can learn about writing academic English, ways to show skills that academic English proficiency tests accept, and get more details to answer the question “What is academic English?”
- Read about Top 7 Reasons to do an Intensive English Program in the Summer
- Study how to improve English for academic purposes.
- Learn how business and academic English lessons can broaden your mind and open up a world of opportunities.
- Learn techniques for brainstorming essay ideas for typical assignments in Academic English lessons or business English courses.
- Learn techniques for outlining essay ideas for typical assignments in Academic English lessons or business English courses.
- Watch fun and informative videos with English tips useful for work, school, and creative writing. We continuously update our free English playlists of easy-to-understand videos.
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.
By Chris Elliott, IEP Academic Coordinator and ESOL Instructor