Language registers

I came across a discussion somewhere about what language register is acceptable for a foreigner to use. One person thought that if a foreigner speaks a too literary language it sounds ridiculous and they should learn colloquial language, but another one, who himself wrote a very literary language, thought that it would sound ridiculous if they used too much colloquial language and slang. Personally my opinion on this is that if you insist on using very correct and literary language all the time you may sound like a snob and therefore it may be a good idea to tone it down a bit, but on the other hand maybe you shouldn’t use very colloquial words either such as “ихний” (Russian adjective which is built on the possessive pronoun “their”)? How do you feel about this? Where does your limit go for what kind of register someone can speak with a heavy foreign accent before it sounds ridiculous? Of course this discussion applies to all languages.

Well, with Japanese (I am told Korean is the same way), fluency depends on the ability to navigate between different registers of the language. In a Japanese work environment or any formal occasion, you have be able to use polite (丁寧語/teineigo), humble (謙譲語/kenjogo) and respectful (尊敬語/sonkeigo) forms correctly. Each of these have their own conjugations and vocabulary that are used.
On the other hand, using this kind of language would sound ridiculous in an informal setting, as you would sound stiff and aloof, so being able to speak in casual form (sometimes called タメ口/tameguchi) is also a must. It’s not always a choice to use a certain register as much it is a requirement to function properly in society.
This is less true with English as there is not as big a gap between formal and colloquial speech.


I feel like you can use slang and curse words when you’re well into being “fluent” and you perfectly know how to use these words. However, the most important thing is to get your point across and to feel good about it. I learned Spanish in Mexico and Eric Cartman taught me English. I obviously speak these two in a very colloquial manner but it really never has been a problem.

I think that by now you’ve noticed how to Russians you wouldn’t come off as a snob for speaking in more educated manner. That should also be taken into account. Russians and French people are similar in that sense. They value “speaking properly” more than, say, North Americans.

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Then again, I suppose a foreigner trying to speak like Yakuza could sound pretty silly, just as a Japanese person trying to sound like an American gang banger would haha

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lol I suppose you’re right. It depends on what kind of associations people have with the register you choose.

It was my impression at one point that Russians value correct speech and now you’ve reminded me of it. Norwegians on the other hand don’t care about registers at all it seems. They use what I would consider kindergarten-vocabulary even in the news, which can be annoying. As for me I like to experiment with vocabulary (I found a chance to use the phrase “boy howdy” yesterday!) but I wouldn’t go as far as using childish language. All in all I find language registers an interesting phenomena and I’m glad I’m (even if only barely) starting to see the Russian registers!

Language learning is also “culture learning” and use of registers have more to do with the cultural side. The more you’re familiar with the culture, the more you’re able feel out what’s appropriate.

With French and German it was easy to figure out when to use formal vs. informal because culturally they were closer to me. Korean is another story, but I’m starting to get the feel of that as well.

In my experience, you should air on the side of the formal language when you start – and most language courses will start with formal and work down, which I think is appropriate. It’s better to sound stuffy than rude.

Those who learned the language colloquially, through friends etc., sometimes will lack the skills to handle formal situations which I think in most countries would be considered worse than the other way around.

And slang? No one will fault you for not knowing a slang word, or for not cursing every other second, however, people often think that using slang is a way for them to show that they’re “in the know,” but usually the effect is the other way around. Overusing slang prior to being completely fluent in the culture shows that you have a long way to go.


I like the idea of “fluent in the culture”. I think it’s a good point you’re making there, stressing the importance of paying attention to the cultural aspect of things too. I certainly have a long way to go before I know the Russian culture well although I’m learning. For example, I was told once that Russians are informal online but this is not always the case. If you address some youtube channel owner who teaches Russian you should be formal, I’ve noticed, because (with few exceptions) whenever people address them informally in the comments they respond with formal address. The same goes for online forums it seems. I suppose on a meme site maybe they wouldn’t care. Anyway, it’s all about experiencing these people in reality and being open to adopting their customs.

In French foreigners who use slang sound ridiculous to me. Slang needs to be used in given contexts / moments, with the right intonation. Even when native speakers from other French speaking regions or countries use slang, it sounds weird to me.

So I’d say except if you have a very good accent and understanding of the language and the culture, don’t use slang in France.

As for colloquial vs formal, it depends who you are talking to. If you speak formally, people will praise your knowledge of the language, more so than if you speak colloquially, and you won’t be taking the chance of coming off as rude.



The exact context is always important, but in general I would entirely agree. Speaking “high” language might sound snobbish coming from a native speaker, but in the case of a foreigner this will usually be tempered by having a foreign edge to his or her pronunciation and (let’s face it) by making some errors.

I also think foreigners tend to get more respect from natives by trying to speak in the most elegant way possible. It kind of gives the impression that one is an educated person who has formally learned the language, as opposed to someone who has just picked up the language on the street. I can think of an English guy I knew in Bayern who had learned German this way. He spoke a kind of (well, how shall I say?) grammar-light mixture of standard German, Augsburger dialect, and slang. It was, frankly, pretty darn dreadful. (Sorry MJ! :-D)