Language Register in TEFL Teaching

Language Skills, Linguistics

Formal vs Informal Footwear

Which shoes are appropriate in which situation?

In linguistics‏‎, the term Language Register is used to talk about the type of language a person might use in a certain social context, in other words, how formally they will speak.

For example:

  • A speaker might say I never done nuffin’ when talking to their friends, but when presented before the Queen that same speaker may well change the way they speak and say I have never done anything.
  • A barrister will use a certain set of vocabulary or jargon‏‎ in their formal work in court and a completely different set when they are explaining the same case to their lay friends at a dinner part the same evening.
  • An English teacher may talk to their colleagues about verbs but talk to a class of 7 year-old children about doing words.


No register is right or wrong per se. What determines this is how appropriate the language used is in a certain situation.

Suppose as a teacher a student asks about the meaning of the word cop. It is simple to explain that the meaning is police officer but it is used in certain situations or as part of a certain register. An individual might refer to a police officer whilst giving a formal statement to the police: Three police officers arrived in a car ten minutes later. However, later when speaking to their friends, the same individual might say: Three cops turned up in their car ten minutes later.

Thus, register depends on:

  • appropriateness
  • context
  • the speaker’s status
  • the listener’s status

Register In the TEFL Classroom

As a general TEFL teacher the most common reason register comes up is when dealing with what language is suitable in formal vs informal situations.

It is probably not worth having a lesson on language register per se, but as you cover the various situations requiring English (e.g. asking directions, ordering a meal, explaining a process, discussing the weather) you can look at who is involved in the conversation and how this will affect the kind of language which is needed.


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