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How to speak English informally

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

Many non-native English speakers sound artificially formal when they speak. This can be caused by various things such as learning very formal vocabulary, being taught from a book or having a teacher that believed it was important to sound formal (I have a student like this!). There's nothing wrong with sounding formal, of course, as long as you're in a formal setting. In a more informal setting, you might sound a little strange if you are unable to use informal language. Having an understanding of informal language helps you to blend in and sound more natural. In this post, I'm going to share three tips on how you can improve your ability to speak informal English. 1. learn slang and idiomatic language Skilful and authentic use of slang and idioms is notoriously tricky to master in a foreign language! It is, however, one of the best ways to make yourself sound more natural and informal. It presents a challenge for you as a language learner because most slang is not taught in formal language education and while course books do include some idiomatic language, most learners still find this aspect of vocabulary hard to deal with. This is especially true if you are not able to spend time in the country your language comes from as you won't hear the target language in its natural environment. To compensate for this, you can take steps to create a good environment for learning slang and idioms at home:

  • find a language partner. A language partner is someone who wants to learn your language in exchange for helping you learn your target language. For example, if you are learning English and are from Japan, you can find an English native speaker who is learning Japanese. Even if your own language is not one of the main global languages, I bet that someone, somewhere, wants to learn it! The beauty of a language partner is that they are not trained teachers and therefore will not be checking your grammar or giving lengthy explanations. Instead, you can meet up online and chat about things and as such, you'll be exposed to some informal slang and idioms.

  • watch TV shows and films in your target language. If your listening skills are strong enough, watch reality TV shows rather than dramas other scripted formats (a script is the words that the actors have to learn for the show or film). Reality TV shows are unscripted and therefore show native speakers talking in a very natural way. One of my favourites is a show called Gogglebox. Unbelievably, Gogglebox is a TV show about people watching TV. Sounds dull, right? However, it's a real window into British culture and can demonstrate how British people actually speak when they are at home.

  • listen to songs in your target language. A lot of the language used in songs is informal and can be a great way to expose yourself to more of this relaxed way of using the language. Rap and hip-hop in particular can be a great way to learn informal slang.

2. learn phrasal verbs Most non-native English speakers don't use enough phrasal verbs. This is understandable as phrasal verbs are tricky bits of vocabulary; they have multiple meanings and changing the preposition can completely change the meaning! However, as you probably know, native speakers use phrasal verbs all the time and relying on the latinate verbs* rather than a phrasal verb definitely contributes to sounding overly formal when you are speaking.

The best way to learn phrasal verbs is simply to read as much as possible. The learners I have worked with who have had a strong grasp of phrasal verbs are always the ones who read extensively and widely. It's important to read a range of genres (not just formal articles!) such as short stories or simple novels, blog posts and even things like recipes. Just like when it comes to learning slang, songs can also be a great resource and a fabulous way of exposing yourself to more phrasal verbs in an authentic context.

3. use fillers

Fillers are short sounds and words that we use to fill in space or buy us some time if we don't know what to say next. In some languages, the use of fillers is frowned upon but in English they are used extensively in conversation. Depending on your age, you might use different ones; young people, for example, use the word like as a filler very often but many older people don't like this extensive use of like as a filler. Here are three common filler words:

  • like. Like as a filler can be used to show emphasis or even be used in informal reported speech: so I'm, like, walking down the road and I see this guy, right, and he's like, hey! you dropped your wallet there! So I'm like, cheers mate, thanks for the heads up! Like as a filler can also show an approximation or even just buy you some thinking time: There were, like, about 100 people there so it was, um, like, really busy and noisy

  • literally. Literally as a filler is used to show emphasis. In the same way that some people disapprove of like as a filler, literally is not always seen in a positive way. It is, however, very common in relaxed speech: oh my God! There's literally no seats left on this bus! We'll have to stand! I'm literally starving. When's dinner gonna be ready?

  • or something. Or something as a filler is used to refer or point to something unspecified. It's quite a vague word so can be used to offer a suggestion when you are not sure what the other person wants: Do you wanna just go to the cinema or something? I'm gonna eat chips or something, want some?

* latinate verbs are verbs that come from Latin.

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