Communicating at university does not just mean talking to your lecturer or delivering a presentation – it also includes living in the city and taking part in tasks such as making an appointment at the bank, chatting to your classmates in a coffee shop, asking for advice from university staff or making friends with local people.

How you communicate at university in the UK will depend on many things such as the course you are studying, the area you are living in and the individual people you meet. There are no easy rules about when we use formal or informal language – you need to think carefully about the context you are in. To understand whether the context you are in requires formal, neutral or informal language, you should think about the following things:

Relationship

You should consider your relationship to the other person:

  • Equal relationship status, eg classmate
  • Unequal relationship, eg your boss or your tutor

Familiarity

You should think about how well you know the person:

  • Do you know the person well?
  • Does the person use formal or informal language when they address you?

Location

You need to consider the place where you are communicating:

  • Formal – eg workplace, lecture, bank, a friend’s parent’s house
  • Informal – eg bar/pub, classmate’s house, coffee shop or study space
  • Online – when communicating online you need to be very clear about what you say as your words can easily be misinterpreted without the extra information you get when you are communicating face to face

Purpose

You should think about the reason for your communication:

  • Do you want something? If you are asking for a favour or to borrow something from a person, you would probably use more polite language, unless you know them very well
  • Are you apologising? If you don’t know the person and need to apologise, you are more likely to use polite language
  • Are you being assessed? In an exam situation or a job interview, you are more likely to use formal language

When you are being assessed in either speaking or writing, it is important to use formal language. The type of formal language will change depending upon your task, genre or discipline but you will need to follow the norms of communication in your academic community and not use informal language.

In the rest of this step you will focus on some of the situations you may encounter at university where you will have to speak and think about whether you should use formal, neutral or informal language.

Academic style also applies to speaking. It is important that you recognise and understand the common features of formal and informal speaking styles and can decide when it is appropriate to use these features yourself.

Look at the two examples of spoken communication below. Both examples are making the same request (to speak louder) but one is with a friend in a social setting, the other is with a lecturer in a more formal setting. Can you decide which example is which?

Example 1: Mate, I can’t hear a single word you’re saying, you’re gonna have to speak up a bit!

Example 2: Hello, I’m really sorry, but I can’t hear you. Would you mind speaking a bit louder? Thanks!

You should have noticed that the first example is less formal and would be appropriate for speaking with a friend in a social situation, not your lecturer. When speaking with good friends, we can be more direct and informal.

However, in more formal situations such as lectures, seminars, meetings and interviews, we use more formal and structured language.

The second example uses a distancing phrase (I’m really sorry but) to apologise for interrupting the lecture and soften the impact of criticising the volume of the lecturer. The speaker then uses an indirect question (would you mind speaking a bit louder?) as a polite way of requesting.