Is it better to learn formal or conversational language skills as a government employee?


Marianne Stenger

Strong language and communication skills are essential for government employees, as they will need to be able to communicate effectively with members of the public and also command respect and confidence from their peers and bosses.

But, while you’re probably already aware of the importance of language skills in your line of work, you might be wondering which language skills would best serve you.

Conversational language skills, for example, will benefit you in your face-to-face interactions at work. Formal language skills on the other hand, are important for phone and conference calls, emails, memos, reports and presentations.

So what should employees be focusing on during their government language learning? Let’s start by looking at the differences between formal and informal language skills.

What’s the difference between formal and conversational language skills?

A big part of maintaining a professional image at work is being able to use the appropriate type of language for each situation you may find yourself in. If you’re wondering whether to learn conversational English or focus on improving your formal language skills, you should first understand the key differences between the two.

Conversational language skills

Conversational language skills are best for more casual day-to-day interactions, usually with people you know well, such as friends and colleagues. With that said, most English conversation classes do focus on many different aspects of the English language, from listening, speaking, reading and writing to grammar, vocabulary and common idioms.

Formal language skills

Formal language skills are needed for interacting in professional settings or with people you don’t know very well. Formal language skills are also essential for everything from preparing reports and official documents to public speaking and job interviews.

Which type of language skills are better for government employees?

Given the differences between conversational and formal language skills, which ones should government employees focus on?

The truth is that both of these styles of communication are important, and they are often used interchangeably. This means that the type of language skills a government employee should learn first will depend a lot on their job role and the types of situations they will need to navigate on a daily basis.

So in short, the level of formality that’s required when speaking a language is dependent on the context in which it’s used. So with this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the specific scenarios that would require formal language, as well as the ones where conversational language skills would actually be more suitable.

When are formal language skills needed?

Formal language skills generally usually take longer to acquire than conversational language skills due to the more complex sentences and sophisticated words that are used.

Formal language is important when dealing with any topics that are more serious in nature, and is frequently also used in written communications. This is because formal language can help to convey a sense of importance and authority.

In general, formal language is less personal and tends to use longer words such as “Require” rather than “Need” or “Want,” and “Assistance” rather than “Help.” Contractions, abbreviations and acronyms tend not to be used at all in formal language.

Examples of situations where government employees may need to use formal language include preparing public service announcements, reports and legal documents or giving speeches and lectures.

When are conversational language skills needed?

Conversational language skills should not be confused with casual or informal language, which is what you might use with your close friends and family members. Instead, conversational language skills are still polite and professional, without being too formal.

In fact, many companies these days now use a conversational tone in their interactions with customers, because they want to sound natural and friendly, without coming across as too familiar. Examples of situations where you might use conversational language skills at work include face-to-face interactions, as a social or public health worker for instance, and in written communications such as blog posts, advertisements or social media.

Fortunately, modifying the level of formality you use in your interactions with colleagues, customers and members of the public isn’t too difficult. It does, however, require a general understanding of syntax and word choice.

Are you a government employee looking to improve your formal or conversational language skills? Or maybe you’d like to ensure that your employees are able to reach their full potential at work?

Berlitz provides language programs specifically designed for different government segments, from classes for military personnel and veterans to government service administration.