Teaching formal and informal language register to native English speakers

As a university level-Spanish instructor, I often find that native English speaking students who have never studied languages before struggle with the concept of formal versus informal forms of address. In Spanish, it’s usted (formal) vs. (informal). The concept exists in many other languages, too. Here’s how I teach it:

1. Present the formal and informal words in the target language.

2. Explain that both the informal and formal equal “you” in today’s English.

3. Give some examples of when it is appropriate to address someone formally and when it is OK to address someone informally. Explain generational and regional differences.

4. Point out that we used to have both formal and informal in English. (I love this part!) Watch their faces scrunch up as if to say, “Huh?” I ask if any of them have studied Shakespeare, watched Shakespeare movies or heard language from that time period or before in movies. (If you’re teaching the secondary, post-secondary or adult levels, you’ll likely get a few nods if you try this.) Then I give them this example from Romeo and Juliet:

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art ___________?

What goes in the blank? Thou, of course. Juliet addresses her lover informally.

I point out other related words such as “thee” and “thy”, which also fell out of use in favor of “you” and “your”, which was traditionally our formal form of address. We dropped the informal, in favour of using only the formal.

I don’t discuss religion much in my classes, but given that most of Latin America and Spain are Catholic, it is an interesting cultural note that God is addressed informally. (I could never figure that one out, myself. I mean, if there was one being who merited the respect of a formal address, you’d think it might be God, but what do I know?) If you’re teaching in a Christian faith-based environment, you can also point out that “classically” the “Our Father” prayer used “thou” and “thee”, too. Many churches have updated that to “you” nowadays, but “hallowed be Thy name” can still be heard in some places. Traditionally, God has been addressed informally in the Christian faith.

I also point out other well known phrases and verses using the traditional informal such as:

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

“To thine own self be true.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet)

“How great thou art.” (Christian hymn)

Once the students have made the connection that the formal and informal both used to exist – and be used quite regularly – in English, it is easier for them to transfer that knowledge to a new second language. That takes care of the conceptual block and all they have to master is when to use each form correctly.

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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.



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