If you are at an intermediate or a more advanced level on your language learning journey, you might be frustrated by the fact that you find that you can understand some native speakers without much difficulty whilst others might be incomprehensible. Perhaps, for instance, you might be able to understand instructional videos on Youtube pretty well, yet you find it hard to understand children or people at a bar.
It is often the case that difficulties in comprehension come down to unfamiliarity with a particular accent or a set of technical vocabulary, but generally speaking misunderstandings stem from unfamiliarity with different language registers, which we will briefly cover in this article. During your language learning journey, you will inevitably be more familiar with some registers and less familiar with others — if you want to have a better understanding of films and of native speakers in general, then you have to identify which registers you have difficulties with and pay more attention to those particular registers.
In 1967, the linguist Martin Joos identified five registers or styles in the English language, being the frozen, formal, consultative, casual, and intimate registers.
This register always remains the same and is encountered in sources such as the Bible or in national anthems.
This register is used in academic or professional writing and includes a particular syntax and a wide range of nuanced vocabulary. The formal register generally has a higher ratio of nouns to verbs. This register is mostly understood by people in the upper and middle classes of society.
This register is the spoken version of the formal register used by, for instance, lawyers, doctors, teachers and by professionals in general.
This register is used by friends and family and is largely supplemented by body language. Sentences in the casual register tend to be shorter and generally have a higher ratio of verbs to nouns.
This register is generally used between lovers or close siblings. It would generally be inappropriate to use this register with the wider public.
Coming back to the previous example, where a given language learner can understand English instructional videos on Youtube well, but less so children or people at a bar, perhaps this particular learner is more familiar with the consultative register and less familiar with casual and intimate registers; the consultative register is the natural register to use in a classroom or a professional setting, whereas casual and intimate registers are used with friends and family, which would be more frequently used by children or by people at a bar. At home when consuming English language material, this particular learner from the previous example should consume more material containing casual and intimate registers, which might involve watching reality TV or cartoons or reading comic books or even reading comments on Youtube videos.
Most adult learners of a second language understandably aspire to sound more intellectual and pay a lot of attention to the consultative and formal registers. However it must be noted that what makes a native speaker a native speaker is the fact that native speakers have spent their childhoods absorbing the casual and intimate registers — if you neglect the casual and intimate registers in pursuit of intellectualism, your speech will sound robotic and unnatural. The casual and intimate registers should form the foundation of your knowledge of any language. Practically speaking, it is advisable to focus more on phrasal verbs and on vocabulary related to movement and physical actions in order to develop a good level of familiarity with the casual and intimate registers.