Conversational vs. Academic English: What Are the Differences?

Although English language learners may speak English on the playground, this does not mean they have mastered the academic and cognitive language of the classroom, especially when diving into an international environment.

Conversational vs. Academic English: how they are different?

Basically, Conversational and Academic English refer to formal and informal English respectively. Take a look at the table below to see the different applications for Conversational and Academic English:

Conversational English Academic English
Definition Social language is the simple, informal, everyday use of English we use when talking face to face with family members and friends Academic language is very formal,  with more sophisticated vocabulary and expressions
Purpose Used for daily conversations Used in academic and professional environments.
Context Everyday interactions in the spoken/written form Textbooks, research papers, conferences in the spoken/written form
Vocab in use Repetition of words, high frequency vocab Variety of words, more sophisticated, low frequency vocab
Slang May use slang expressions or abbreviations Does not use slang or abbreviations
Learner Appeals to those who are not looking to study/work in the academic field Necessary for those who are seeking opportunities in higher education internationally
Grammar Sentences do not necessarily follow grammar conventions (e.g., ”you’re hungry?”) Sentences begin with appropriate transitions, heavier emphasis on grammar and vocabulary. (e.g., ”moreover,” ”in addition”)


Example: Can you choose the right one?

Now that we know the differences between Conversational and Academic English, let’s take a look at the four examples below and guess which two are using Academic English:

Let’s examine the table on page 65. Let’s sit at that table, over there.
Went to the store and bought a few things like bread, milk, and peanut butter. Didn’t have enough. Wanne let me borrow a dollar? The character proceeded to the grocery store where she purchased a few necessary items. However, she did not have enough money.


Can you figure out which is Academic English?
Now you get the idea!
→ To be a great communicators, we must be able to listen, speak, read and write both Conversational and Academic English. The most successful students come not only to learn how to communicate socially but also to become academically proficient in English.

Academic English is the language of school

As you can see above, Academic English is essential for those who want to succeed in international schools and workplaces. We use academic language to describe and comprehend complex ideas, process higher-order thinking, and understand abstract concepts. It is through the use of academic language that students read, write, listen, and speak about the topics they learn at school.

When a Vietnamese student enters an international school without prior exposure to academic English practice, she faces a disadvantage compared to her friends, and may struggle tremendously when it comes to academic language. For example, if the topic is Social Studies, an English-speaking student will have a lot more background knowledge than a non-English speaker. Thus, to survive in international schools, it is crucial for Vietnamese students to start developing their academic language in English early because they will need this knowledge in order to succeed and understand more in-depth information that they will learn in future schooling.

So, if you are planning to send your children abroad, get them ready: since academic language is the language of school, prepare your child to acquire good academic English skills, beyond just the capability of everyday communication.

Academic English requires much more time and effort

Students can learn conversational English through exposure, practice, and interaction. Conversational English can be developed by watching videos, chatting with foreign friends, taking online English courses; even if they don’t go to any English classes, they can still confidently communicate with native speakers.

Academic English, by contrast, is more demanding and complex. Students need direct, explicit instruction of academic language. For example, when students are given an academic task, the student may understand what the concept is, but not be familiar with the wording of the question itself. Therefore, direct instruction of academic language insures an accurate assessment.

They say that it takes an English Language Learner 3 months to a year to achieve conversational English, but as much as 7 years to acquire academic language. That’s why students should begin preparing their Academic English skills as soon as possible.

Academic English needs to be developed within a meaningful context.

Since Academic English contains many low frequency words, students have to find an environment where they can practice and practice as much as possible. Some students already have a basic understanding of English skills, such as recalling and memorizing, summarizing and writing short paragraphs. All they need is more high-level vocabulary words to increase their ability to express their ideas and knowledge.

Academic English can be gained by providing students with engaging topics and many authentic opportunities to practice it.

Let us help.

E2 wants to provide that environment for students with our English Language Arts program. The program aims to take students who already have basic conversational English to the next level by enhancing and deepening their academic knowledge. With this course, we hope that we can empower Vietnamese students to be more confident to overcome challenges of overseas study and become more open, confident and independent.


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