Social vs Academic English

In part 1 of our article comparing academic English and social English, we discussed the importance of both and how if you’re ready to begin studying English for academic purposes. We also touched on some specifics regarding the characteristics of academic English.

We also set up a grammar question related to social English and academic English: what’s the difference between saying “My friends and I applied to an Intensive English Program” and “Me and my friends applied to an Intensive English Program.”

Part 2 provides more characteristics of academic English as well as the answer to our grammar question.

Overview of characteristics of Academic and Social English

Colorful square letter tiles with the word vocabulary spelled out in the middle.

One big difference is vocabulary. Academic English requires the use of specialized terms from school subjects like science, math, social studies.

For example, in order to get by in the US, a resident needs to know the bank word teller but not the biology term zygote.  Likewise, in order to get by in biology class, a student may need to know the term zygote.

Beyond vocabulary, there’s a lot to learn about academic English in order to succeed at a US university.

Looking at the table below, you’ll notice two types of differences.

One type of difference focuses on words themselves. For instance,  in academic English writing you might use the connecting word thus, while in social English you’ll probably avoid thus and say so.

The other type of difference relates to academic culture and the expectations of an academic environment.

a sign that says Facts and Opinions

For instance, social English is more subjective, which means you talk about your personal opinions, feelings, and experiences. In contrast, academic English is objective, which means it talks about things that are not personal: facts, logic, and analysis. This difference requires different vocabulary choices and grammar structures.

Furthermore (another connector used in academic English!), to succeed in university you need to be able to do research from a variety of scholarly materials. This means no wikipedia. Instead, you must be able to locate specialized academic journals from the library–and then summarize using your own words without plagiarizing from the text. That takes the kind of wide and deep English knowledge not necessary in everyday communication.

The main differences between social and academic English

Social EnglishAcademic English
Can use non standard grammarMust use standard grammar
Can use slang and idiomsMust avoid most slang and many idioms
Can use short phrasesMust use complete sentences
Can use long run-on sentencesMust use correct punctuation to end and begin sentences of different lengths
Can repeat the same wordsMust use varied and wide vocabulary
Can repeat simple sentence structuresMust vary sentence structure and length–a mix of simple and complex
Usually uses contractions, like “I’ve,” “It’s,” and “Maria’s finished.”Usually avoids contractions, preferring “I have,” “It is,” and “Mara has finished.”
Requires the vocabulary of household objects like a stapler, a lamp, a coffee table.Requires the use of specialized terms for the field of study
Connect ideas with words like but, and, so.Connect ideas with words like therefore, consequently, conversely.
Can use wikipedia as a source of informationCan NOT use wikipedia; must research sources of information carefully
Can write texts and emails with loose punctuation and capitalizationMust follow all rules of punctuation and capitalization
Can be subjective, using phrases like “I think…” and “I feel…”Must be objective, using evidence and reasoning to support opinions
Can make strong statements of opinion, like “The movie is terrible!”Prefers moderate statements with modal verbs, like “The policy may lead to unintended negative consequences.”
Writing skills center on personal communication and filling out formsWriting skills center on essays with a thesis statement and supporting arguments

How long does it take to learn English for academic purposes?

If you’re just starting out, you may be able to develop A2 level social English in as few as three months. That’s especially true if you can immerse yourself in an English-speaking environment by joining an Intensive English program and living with a home stay.

But what level will an academic English proficiency test accept? Sometimes B1 (Intermediate) can satisfy the minimum requirement to attend university. Usually, B2 (Upper Immediate) is required.

Reaching high intermediate English proficiency usually takes between one year and two years of English study, ideally in an immersive environment.

Much depends on you–your study habits, interests, and background. Online English classes can help, even if they’re part-time. A group academic English course works best to learn all the essential skills, from taking notes to debating issues to revising papers to paraphrasing sources.

While you can pick up social English from TV shows and phone apps, you need an experienced, knowledgeable ESL instructor to guide you through the process of developing academic writing for non native English speakers. 

It’s a process that takes time and patience, not to mention passion, which feeds the fire of your motivation.

The answer to “You and I” or “Me and you” in social and academic English

Drum roll…

As you may have guessed, the proper English form is “My classmates and I are interested in writing academic English.”

Like a polite person holds the door for somebody, you let your classmates go first in the sentence and follow behind. That’s the form you use in academic English, business English, or any kind of writing where standard English is appropriate.

But some social English is technically wrong for formal situations but common in daily life. “Me and my classmates take an academic English course in Massachusetts” reflects the kind of English normal people say every day. 

Which is “better?” Neither.

It all depends on whether you’re writing academic English or speaking social English.

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?”

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.