76. Conversational English vs Business English vs Academic English: What’s the difference? (English Vocabulary Lesson)

In this episode of thinking in English, I’m going to introduce you to conversational English, business English and academic English! It is incredibly important to understand the differences between each type of English, and hopefully after this episode you will be able to decide which type is for you!


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Vocabulary List

Register (n) – the style of language, grammar, and words used for particular situations

People chatting at a party will usually be talking in an informal register

Proficiency (n) – the fact of having the skill and experience for doing something

The job ad said they wanted proficiency in at least two languages 

Repetition (n) – the act of doing or saying something again

His books are full of repetition

frequency  (n) – the number of times something happened within a particular period 

Complaints about the frequency of buses rose in the last year

To encounter (v) – to experience something, especially something unpleasant

When did you first encounter these difficulties?

Dimension (n) – a part or feature or way of considering something

His personality has several dimensions 

Credibility (n) – the fact that someone can be believed or trusted

He complained that we had tried to undermine his credibility within the company  

To interpret (v) – to decide what the intended meaning of something is 

It’s difficult to interpret these statistics without knowing how they were obtained

Complex (adj) – difficult to understand or find an answer to because of having many different parts

It’s a very complex issue to which there is no straightforward answer 

Functional (adj) – intended to be used

My furniture is functional, but unattractive


In this episode of thinking in English I want to introduce three different styles of English: conversational English, business English, and academic English. I’m sure you are all aware that English is one of the most common languages in the world, and the most common second language. And, like every language, we use different styles of speaking and writing in certain situations. These different styles are known as “registers.” As an English student, just because you can have a fluent English conversation with a close friend or a stranger in a bar, it doesn’t mean you will be able to pass a job interview, have a successful meeting, or take a university class. The vocabulary and grammar rules, amongst other things, can be significantly different depending on the register you use!

As an English tutor and podcaster, I have often been asked to teach classes and give advice about all three types. And it is certainly important to understand what is meant by academic, business, or conversational English, because many English classes, online courses, proficiency tests, and textbooks are advertised or aimed at a certain English. Hopefully, after listening to this episode you’ll comprehend the meanings and differences between the three categories, and it might help you to decide what you want to study! 

However, if you want to be fluent in English, you can’t just rely on one style for your whole life. I use conversational English when I’m talking to my friends, academic English when I’m researching at my graduate school or writing papers, and business English during meetings and interviews. The English I use changes depending on the situation. Moreover, there are a lot of similarities and overlaps between the three styles, so you cannot just learn business English, for example, and forget about everything else!

Conversational English 

Let’s start with conversational English!  I’ll only talk briefly about conversational English, as I’ll continue to refer back to it for comparison later in the episode. For the vast majority of people, this is the first type of English they learn and the one that they are best at! Conversational English is the language used in everyday, ordinary situations, and is certainly the most informal register I’ll be talking about today. We use it when we are talking with and writing to family members and friends. 

Who should learn conversational English? Well, I think everybody should, but especially people who don’t want to work or study abroad. If you want to travel, make friends, or are just starting your language learning journey – conversational English is for you! And almost every language school will teach conversation classes, and every book store will sell conversational textbooks!

There are a few interesting features of this register of English. One such feature is the repetition of words. Conversational English uses a lot of what is known as “high frequency vocabulary.” A high frequency word is a common word that makes up the majority of a normal English conversation or text: think of he, she, you, I, eat, but, and, have, and good). An average adult native English speaker knows between 18,000 and 20,000 words. That is a lot. But don’t worry, as a second language learner you definitely don’t need that many. In fact, if you learn the 1000 most commonly used words, you will know 80% of the vocabulary used in fiction and conversational English, 75% of the vocabulary in newspapers, and over 70% of the words used in academic English. I’ll leave a link to the list here in the blog. And if you learn the 2000 most common words, as well as the 570 most common academic words, you’ll be able to survive in most situations!

Compared to the other two registers, the vocabulary choice is also much simpler. Conversational English uses a lot of slang expressions, abbreviations (like ASAP or BTW), and contractions (such as don’t instead of do not). Importantly, in conversational English sentences don’t necessarily always follow grammar rules. I can ask you’re hungry, instead of are you hungry?

Academic English

Let’s move on to academic English. I actually use academic English considerably more than business English, as I’m a student and researcher rather than businessman. Academic English refers to the language used at university and beyond, as well as in certain magazines, journals, publications, and documentaries. Although many people can speak conversational English, they really struggle when it comes to reading and writing at an academic level. Therefore, academic English classes and textbooks are really popular with students, as they try to teach the skills and knowledge required to perform well in the courses that you will encounter at higher education. Academic language is very formal, and uses more sophisticated vocabulary and expressions. It is used in a variety of academic and professional situations – so if you’re planning on studying or researching in English, you need to learn academic English!

You don’t particularly need to know this, but educators divide academic English into three different dimensions when teaching: the linguistic dimension, the cognitive dimension, and the socio-cultural or psychological dimension. 

So, let me give you some examples of the difference using these three dimensions. There are numerous linguistic features of academic English. While conversational English focuses on the everyday sounds of English (such as the difference between ship and sheep, or sheet and cheat), academic English focuses on the more complicated differences in intonation and stress (as in demógraphy vs demográphic). Phrasal verbs commonly used in conversations like find out and look for should be replaced by vocabulary including investigate, research, or seek. It is also important to use the correct vocabulary in the correct context – ask your friend what’s up? but ask your professor how are you doing, sir? And academic English encourages the use of advanced transitions including nevertheless, moreover, once upon a time, instead of but or it was.

While conversational English concentrates on the knowledge of the facts, academic English needs knowledge of ideas, concepts, definitions and stories. Academic English is also used to interpret data, determine the credibility of a source, or to support an academic argument. It is the style we use in formal presentations, official writing, cover letters for jobs, online scholarship applications, or invitations to meetings.

As the topics and subjects found in academic writing are more complex than what we write about in our day-to-day writing, academic English needs to use more advanced and low frequency vocabulary. University professors want you to use more advanced English because of this reason.  Academic English allows you to describe and comprehend more complex ideas. For example, so far this week I have written about and had discussions on the sociology of Bourdieu and his ideas of habitus and field, and about the history of migration to Japan. Without using academic English, it would be impossible to truly express my opinions and ideas about these topics. However, I also talked to a friend about recent football results –  and I definitely didn’t use academic English in this situation! Furthermore, at university, the audience for your writing and their level is more advanced!

There’s a lot more to talk about with academic English, but I don’t want to bore you here. However, I will leave a link to a useful list of academic vocabulary! 

Business English

The third and final register that I’m going to talk about today is business English. This is the most requested form of English that people ask me about, and probably a form that you want to learn. However, it is also the register I know the least about. I’m not a business person, and I have spent a lot more time in university libraries compared to company boardrooms. However, I’ll give you a few examples of how business English is different from academic English! 

Business English is a subset of English that is used by, and useful for, entrepreneurs, students entering the job market, and people who work in industries like law, business management, accounting, recruitment, and financial institutions. It is usually studied by non-native speakers who plan to enter business, or are already in business with, English speaking countries (such as the UK or Australia) or countries that use English in business (like India or the Netherlands). Business English is often specific to a particular business sector or field because each industry has its own sentence patterns, registers, and abbreviations. It is used in sales presentations, business reports, and financial newspapers!

I mentioned before that teachers use three dimensions to teach academic English. For business English, there are normally two dimensions: vocabulary study and functional study. Essentially, you need to study the specific vocabulary used in your industry (like baking, oil, import/export, marketing), and study the language skills needed to perform business activities such as negotiating or giving presentations.  

Business English focuses on using the English language in practical and professional settings, like the workplace, while academic English is used in universities. However, in business English there is more room for abbreviations, idioms, and phrasal verbs. I’ll link a few episodes I recorded months ago that introduce business English vocabulary!

Final Thought

In this episode of Thinking in English, I have tried to introduce three different types of English that you will encounter as you study. If you go to language school, or buy a textbook, or take an online course, you may be offered the chance to focus on conversational, business, or academic English. Conversational English is the everyday language we use in social situations. Academic language is the formal language of universities, classrooms, and research. And business English is used in the workplace and business dealings. The main differences between business English and Academic English are their purposes and their places of use. 

Hopefully, now that I’ve introduced these categories, you have a clearer understanding of the differences and can now decide which to focus on! If you’re learning English for your vacation, study conversational English. If you want to study at an American Graduate School, study Academic English. Or if you want to expand your business to the UK, study business English. However, remember that the most advanced students will be able to use all three. After all, almost every successful business person studied at university and has a social life. 

What type of English do you want to learn?


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