How do you talk with your friends, your colleagues and your bosses

It seems that people like to vary the way they speak in different occasions. As Alice L. Trupe (cited in the website) points out that, “we use language in one way in a chatroom, in a slightly different way in your family, in another way in schools and of course, in another way in your working place”. The way that you speak would be totally different when you are in different communities. Besides, people seem to adjust their language unconsciously to the situation in which they find themselves. They usually do this naturally and automatically, without thinking about the changes they make.

Thus, in my essay, I would like to investigate this topic. Firstly, I would like to discuss the concepts of discourse communities. I would try to distinguish between the use of spoken and written English in different communities. Then, I would like to discuss the factors to cause people vary the way they speak in different communities. Thirdly, I would like to list out some of the ways such as style shifting and code switching that people usually use to vary the way they speak in different occasions. I would also use some examples to reinforce my discussion. Finally I would sum up my main findings in a conclusion.

Definition of discourse communities

According to Mr.Podis (2004), “discourse communities are groups of people with special ways of communicating to each other about topics in which they share an interest. They employ specialized styles and formats, writing in conventionalized genres”. The use of spoken and written English in different communities may be therefore different. For example, people in the upper class usually are professions or educationists. They like to use more formal language and specific vocabulary. On the other hand, people in lower class may use more simple or less informal language instead.

Nevertheless, “People are not a single member in a single community. We are each members of multiple discourse communities.”(Miles Little, 2003, cited in the website) For example, we are members in a family/school/ working place or even a society. As I have mentioned above, discourse communities are groups of people who share common ideologies, and common ways of speaking about things. In order to get the identity in each community, people are likely to use different types of English in different contexts. For example, when you chat with your friends or your family members, you’re likely to use the casual speech. While you are talking to your boss or giving a speech in the public, you’re likely to use formal English. In general, we use a more standard and formal English at work than at home.

It is unarguable that people alter the language they use according to where speakers are, who they are speaking to and what they are speaking about. Indeed, the way people talk will be different according to several contextual factors. Here are some factors that Joan Swan(2003) suggests:

To get the identity in different social groups.

As we are the members of different discourse communities, in order to get the identity in a particular community. It is a useful way to adapt the ways people usually use in that particular community. For example, people in the upper class like to use more formal language and emphasis on the accents. On the other hand, people in the lower class are likely to use less formal language. As Heller argues that “the use of a particular language can give access to rights and obligation associated with that identity. Therefore, speakers use language variation consciously or unconsciously to signal different kinds of social identity and social aspiration.”

Speaker’s perception of the audience.

The languages we use also depend on our target audience. As Allan Bell developed a theory of audience design(cited in Graddol,2003) which suggested that “the person or people you are speaking to will have the greatest effect on the type of language.” For example, if you do an interview with your lecturer or have a meeting with your boss, you would like to use more formal English to communicate with them. On the contrary, if you talk with your younger daughters or sons, you are likely to use informal language instead. It may help you to be closed with your family.

The topic of conversation

The topics are also an important factor to make people vary the language they use. When we talk about some causal topic, we seem to use more casual speech. However, if the topic is changed to be more specific like scientific topic, the speaking style will change automatically. As in the scientific topic, it may involve a lot of technical terms. You may need to use more formal language and some prestige vocabulary in the conversation.

The environment setting

As John Swan (2003) points out that “speakers used more ‘prestige’ or high-status in more formal contexts, and more vernacular features in more informal contexts.” For example, when the governor gives a speech to the public, he is probably used more formal language. On the other hand, when he just chats with his friends or family, he may use more informal languages or vernaculars instead.

Age differences

The British linguist Peter Trudgill (1986) (cited in Graddol,2003) also suggests that “some forms in some varieties are preferred by younger speakers and others by older speakers.” For example, due to rapid development of information technology over the past decade, young people are more exposed to new technology and media of communication. As a consequence, young generation creates own forms of spoken English language in ICQ through the internet and mobile phone which the elder generation rarely speak in that way. Therefore, people may use different speaking styles between different generations in order to make the conversation efficiently.

As I have mentioned earlier, people like to vary the way they speak in different communities. But how do people adapt their language use in different communities? Linguists who study the ways people use language may refer to this practice as style shifting or code-switching.

Definition of style shifting

As Joan Swann (2003) points out that “style shifting always occurs within the same language. It means to adjust or change from one style of speech to another. Depending on who we are talking to, and where we are. Style shifts are largely automatic or unconscious reactions to a situation, an audience, or a topic, but they may be deliberate”.

Taking an example, when you talk to your friends, your parents or your professors, your styles of speech may be different. You seem to use more casual speech with your friends, more formal but still familiar with your parents, and most formal speech with your professors. Joan Swann (2003) also points out that there are a number of dimensions along which we exhibit variation in speech style. These involve pronunciation, grammatical structures, and choice of words.


Susan Wright (2003) points out that “accents provide a way of marking one’s identity as a member of a social group. Thus, people accents vary according to contexts.” For example, you seem to use more ‘prestige’ pronunciations in the upper class. But when you talk with the people in the lower class, you may less concern on particular sounds such as /r/ or /t/.

Besides, English speakers in different regions have different dialects and accents. Allen Bell(cited in Graddol, 2003) studied the varieties of English used by newsreaders on New Zealand radio stations and found that their pronunciation differed on different stations. He also discovered that more formal pronunciation was used more often on a station with a mainly educated or professional audience.

Grammatical structures

Style shifting also occurs in syntax. As Susan Wright points out “those prestige varieties of English are associated with speakers and listeners with high socio-economic status and with settings and topics that have been characterized as formal.” Therefore, when you communicate with people in high socio- economic status, the grammar you used must be more formal.

Choice of words

Amparo Bertram(cited in the wedsite) suggests that “people all know which words are “dirty” words in their language and when they are acceptable and when they are not acceptable to use. They also know which words are high-brow words that they use to impress people”. Amparo Bertram(1996) also points out a case that “people often use more Latinate words when they want to sound formal and impressive and intelligent.” Furthermore, when topic of conversation is specific like Medical topic, people also need to select some words that can constitute the technical jargon of a particular field.

Definition of code witching

Apart from style shifting, code witching is another effective way people used in the conversation. According to the Amparo Bertram’s linguistic project (1996) suggests that “code witching is generally defined as the phenomenon wherein a bi-or multilingual speaker shifts from one language to another in the course of a conversation.” For example, code switching is present when a person moves from speaking English to speaking Thai, or from speaking Standard American English to African American Vernacular English.

Code-switching often occurs in bilingual communities or families. For example, a family that has recently immigrated to a country where a different language is spoken may switch back and forth between that language and their mother tongue, while they are learning the new language.

Besides, code switching fulfils certain functions such as negotiation, persuasion and instruction. According to Myers-Scotton’s markedness model, it suggests that “particular languages are associated with particular contexts.” For example a school principal who speaks English and Swahili. He wishes to call on a friend working for a large automobile sales and repair establishment. While speaking to the guard at the gate, he uses Swahili as an unmarked choice, but once inside the office, he switches to English as the unmarked choice there.

Furthermore, switching may sometimes operate to initiate a change to relationships, or to make salient different aspects of the context. For instance, a young man has come into the manager’s office in a Nairobi business establishment. The young man begins in English, but finally switches to Swahili, following the manager’s lead. Since each language communicates a particular identity in a given situation, when it is unclear with identity offers the speaker the most positive evaluation, the speaker may see codes witching as a solution. (Carol Myers-Scotton cited in Graddol,2003))

Besides, people may use code switch to fill lexical gaps. For example, information that is culturally specific, like names of certain food items. Even non-native speakers of a language may find themselves code-switching for this latter purpose.


Through the discussion in the essay, I have gotten some ideas why people vary the way they speak in different occasions. It also lets me to know some of the ways such as style shifting or code witching which people are commonly used to alter the language in different communities. I think to develop a conscious awareness of the adaptations we make will make us more effective speakers and writers in our communities.