Going from an elementary textbook to real-life usage often feels overwhelming and almost disorienting when learning a language. So often, phrases and vocabulary from a list and sample dialogues fail to account for variety or language styles.
This is an intermediate topic and is likely one factor leading to a learning plateau. There’s just too much information to absorb, and when you factor in language variety the amount of material can be difficult to break down.
But this is an important, niche topic. Especially when, according to our 2021 Language Learners report, 50% of learners stated that they were at the intermediate level, or between B1 and B2 in the Common European Framework. This is a significant number, but few apps or intermediate sources focusing on style are even mentioned beyond basic formalities.
So we’re going to review language style in this definitive guide.
As a language learner, what’s in it for you?
Getting the language style right can help you navigate different scenarios and sound more natural. But before you can begin integrating more complex learning strategies and analysis, we need to look at all the different types of styles.
What Is a Language Style?
When we look at language styles, there are different types. Are we talking about a writing style, such as Faulkner versus Hemingway? What about linguistic styles? Or are we looking at the formality of speech?
The fact is, there are a few definitions of what a style can be. And depending on what skill you are working on, you may choose to look at different kinds of styles.
In short, here are key types of language styles:
1. Literary Style – For language learners who love to read, looking at how an individual writes can tell you a lot about the language. You can learn new forms of grammar, how to create words, how to build complex sentences, rhythm, different ways of formatting, and so on. In addition, you can extend this review into how a different style is used by the same writer or how the writing changes across genres.
2. Style in Linguistics – In a linguistic study, we look more at the social interaction around language style. The idea is that our language choice largely depends on social context. One example is the difference between the formal and informal you in most languages, such as Greek, Russian, or Spanish. A formal style, such as speaking with a professor or announcing an award, often requires specific vocabulary, phrases, and vocabulary. Changing between these different modes is referred to as style-switching.
3. Writing Style – Most schools teach this as categories of writing than how one writes. For example, are you trying to persuade someone or narrate a story? Do you want to explain a recipe or product? Or describe a scene? Our language use and organizational process change depending on our ultimate goal. Language learners can inspect these different styles through how-to videos, books, reading websites in different languages, and writing your own examples.
What is the difference between code-switching and style-shifting?
Code-switching and style-switching are similar but not quite the same. For example, code-switching usually refers to changing between two languages or dialects. Style-switching refers to changing your speech or writing based on gender, formality, and other surface-level variations. In other words, when you change your style, you stay within the same language or dialect.
Style-Shifting vs. Style-Matching vs. Diglossia
Things get complicated fairly quickly when we look at different ways of communicating across language families and geography. One of the most amazing aspects of language is the extensive variety available to us, often within the same social context or even the same conversation.
For simplicity, let’s look at the different ways our language changes. For ease, we’ll review the possibilities in a list:
- Style-shifting – Imagine you are speaking to a male colleague in the office about your day in Japanese. Your female boss comes in and asks for a progress report. You then shift to using a more formal style and vocabulary to discuss your project.
- Style-matching – This is when two or more people use the same language pattern. A good example is your textbook dialogues for asking for directions or small talk. It can also extend to how we communicate via email. Consider what happens when you email a professor in a formal tone, and they respond with a simple, one-word answer. It’s almost too casual. In your follow-up, you’re likely to match that informality.
- Code-switching – As mentioned, this is when you’ll change your dialect or language to fit a certain social context. At home, you may speak AAVE or Hindi, or another language. But in school, you may speak standard English.
- Diglossia – Similar to code-switching, a diglossia is when two or more languages are used by the same community. A key difference between the two tends to be intentionality. For example, using Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) for news broadcasts and high literature, but the regional dialect of Arabic at home.
Arabic, in particular, is an interesting topic for looking at linguistic variation and style. In a paper on mixed Arabic, Norweigan linguist and professor Guvnor Mejdell at the University of Oslo studied the usage of MSA and Egyptian Arabic and discovered an extremely wide range of variation and language mixing. Some patterns did emerge regarding what MSA constructions were used, but overall styles could differ significantly by the speaker.
But where does this leave you, the language learner?
Understanding levels of formality is one thing. But leaning into a variation with limited vocabulary and grammar structures can lead to frustration. This massive gap in knowledge and ease of understanding slows down the learning process, partly because we are used to rigidity when language is flexible.
So, let’s talk about how you can add style to your writing and spoken language.
Language Style in Your Target Language
Bumping up your understanding of language style can help you understand and communicate more effectively in your target language.
Here are some tips for taking your language goals to the next level:
1. Categorizing Speakers and Scenarios
First things first, the style we need to use hinges on specific social interactions. Try to pick one or two social situations and consider variations in questions and answers.
Take this example:
You’ve been learning Bangladeshi Bengali through a textbook, but you plan to travel trip to Kolkata for a class trip. The dialect, you understand, could be slightly different from what you’re used to. You may ask yourself:
- What speakers will I likely talk to?
- Are there religion-specific greetings and terms I should know?
- What are the different ways I can ask for directions? What are the different potential answers?
- Are there key landmarks I should know to recognize?
- When going to a lecture, how should I address my teachers? What are formal terms I can use?
- If I need to write something down, what are alternative spellings or vocab words I can use?
2. Written vs. Spoken Language
In many languages, written and official language use require very formal vocabulary terms that aren’t used regularly—at least not among friends and teachers. But knowing official terms may help you to understand your surroundings better and appeal to authorities when necessary.
For example, take some time to consider different scenarios of visiting a visa office abroad. What are the differences in speech between the receptionist, the visa officer, and an immigrant waiting with you?
Imagine working in Munich:
- The receptionist might speak Standard German with a strong Bavarian accent and even slip in some dialect-specific words.
- Your visa officer might speak very formally and in Standard German—in fact, maybe he’s not from Bavaria at all but Frankfurt.
- And the immigrant next to you? Maybe they are from Greece and have been here for several years. They speak German fluently but may also use dialect-specific terms from time to time.
3. Analyzing Different Styles in Writing
Whether it’s a screenplay, novel, or poem, analyze how an author uses words. While intermediate learners are still working to amass a large vocabulary, it helps to sit back and see the forest for the trees.
If there’s a dialogue between two characters, how do they play off one another? Do levels of formality change? Is slang involved? How are characters who speak a certain dialect described?
Writing may not perfectly mirror speech, but it can help you devise new ways of communicating all the same.
4. Incorporating Styles into Your Practice
Finally, don’t just read or listen to different styles. Integrate them into your journal entries, school reports, and tutoring sessions. Ask your teachers how they view different styles and speakers.
In fact, in your next tutoring session, consider asking:
- What author in your language is considered long and boring?
- Which local authors are considered interesting and models for good writing?
- Which local author is popular right now?
- Do words in news stories differ from words used in conversation?
- What is a good movie for learning slang and conversation?
- Are there celebrities or public figures who you feel speak well?
More Resources for Language, Linguistics, and Style
- Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk among Friends by Deborah Tannen
- Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy by Vershawn Ashanti Young, Rusty Barrett, Y’Shanda Young-Rivera
- Diglossia and the Linguistic Turn: Flann O’Brien’s Philosophy of Language by Flore Coulouma
- Diglossia and Language Contact: Language Variation and Change in North Africa by Lotfi Sayahi
- Translation and Style by Jean Boase-Beier
- The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker