Balancing formal and informal vocabulary

A native German, kittyiseverywhere, commented on my May German vocabulary list, at Language Geek’s former location ( (Here is the complete vocabulary list for May.) Here’s her comment:

Hey there, some words you have on here are pretty uncommon in daily life ;) if you still need sample sentences, I’m happy to help (I own three blogs here – you can write me under (her email address) in MSN ^^)

Her comment highlights an issue that all language learners must deal with: what words are used in everyday life, and what words are typically reserved for news articles or other registers?

Even though words might make sense in a sentence meaning-wise, they might seem peculiar, in that they don’t really fit into the context. For example, let’s look at some English adjectives that have similar meanings:

  • great
  • awesome
  • exquisite
  • marvelous

Now, all of those words, while not exact, mean similar things. Someone learning English might find it okay to use “exquisite” in a sentence, when the word they really should be using is probably “great” or “awesome.” A native speaker of English would probably recognize this issue right away, i.e., which of these sentences sounds like something you’d hear in an everyday conversation:

  1. Our trip to the amusement park was exquisite / marvelous.
  2. Our trip to the amusement park was great / awesome.

There’s nothing really wrong with the first sentence – a native speaker of English would understand the message being conveyed – but it still sounds pretty bizarre.

So how does one deal with this issue? How do you figure out what words a native German (or Russian or whatever) would use, and what words they’d find to be a bit odd in an everyday context? You deal with it through lots and lots of exposure to different types of language material. A language learner has to realize that the language style and vocabulary that the news site Deutsche Welle uses will be quite different from the language style and vocabulary that say, a personal German blog uses. The differences can be easily seen in your native language (English, in my case). Do I write on my blogs the same way journalists write on, say, BBC News? Do I use the same vocabulary? Of course not.

It’s easy to forget this, however, when learning a foreign language. A language learner can fall into the trap of seeing all foreign language material as basically “the same” – it’s in the same target language, so all of the vocabulary, styles, expressions, etc. can be used in any context. This is wrong, and you need to watch out for it. You don’t talk the same way at a rock concert as you do at a formal wedding dinner, do you? πŸ™‚

So, when learning a foreign language, make sure you have lots of examples from various sources – both formal and informal. More formal or “reserved” examples are easily found on lots of news sites. On the other hand, with the explosion of blogs during the past few years, there are countless sources for informal language all over the internet. Reading personal blogs in particular is a good way to gain access to everyday speech in your target language. Casual podcasts in your target language are another source for everyday speech, for example, Schlaflos in MΓΌnchen offers a huge amount of casual German speech for learners of German.

Finally, it should be noted that most decent dictionaries will tell you if a word is strictly used in informal situations or is typically offensive. In one of my German-English dictionaries, for example, many words are marked as “umgangssprachlich” (colloquial). Other words are marked as “formell” (formal), impersonal, offensive, etc. However, this is rather rare in most dictionaries, in that while these markers are applied to some words, most words have nothing of the sort. You are given the meanings of the word, and are not told whether the word is formal, informal, offensive, etc. It’s up to you to know how the word is used, and in what context. To be able to do that, you have to be exposure to various forms of the language you’re studying.

By |2007-06-02T14:31:59+00:00June 2nd, 2007|German, Language Learning, Vocabulary|4 Comments


  1. Nils June 10, 2007 at 6:47 am - Reply

    Although this trick will work better with nouns than with adjectives, try Google image search at times. Mountain top, pinnacle and summit can all mean the same, but I’m certain that the image results will differ a lot. I’m certain even that the ‘atmosphere’ you get from googling exquisite and awesome will be quite outspoken too, and will help you to make a choice.

  2. Josh June 10, 2007 at 9:22 am - Reply

    Thanks for the tip. I actually used this about a week ago when trying to figure out which German word was for the “train” I wanted (the transportation type). The dictionary gave two words for it: Zug and Schleppe. It gave no hint as to what context the words meant “train.” Searching on Google Images solved the problem easily enough. πŸ™‚

    Zug is the transportation type of train (among other things); Schleppe is the train on a wedding gown.

  3. kittyiseverywhere November 1, 2007 at 9:19 pm - Reply

    Since that article is somehow dedicated to me (how flattering πŸ˜‰ i can maybe give a tip for all of you concerning german and in general language learning.

    First of all to the dictionary problem of Josh: Most dictionaries, if appropriate, will give you the most common translation first, when it’s an “allday word”, so by objects you can be pretty sure the first word is the right one. For example look for the german word for “the light” (sunlight, light from a lamp) and you will probably find at least 3 different words, maybe: Licht, hell, leicht (blond, duenn, gering…), first of all if it’s german you probably know [nouns are ALWAYS written with a capital letter] so you could be a smart ass and just pick the one with the capital letter πŸ˜‰ or you could try my advice and pic the first one. Because “Licht” will stand there with a hint to the article (das) and since you were looking for THE light, you can replace the english “the” with the german “das” and you know ‘that’s what i’m talking about’; in 90% of all cases that will work.

    When I learned English in fifth grade, I had to find an appropriate english word for “Verstand” in the sentence

    Er verlor seinen Verstand.
    (today I know: “He lost his sanity.”; “He lost his mind.”)

    the dictionary gave me various options; for example:

    “intellect”; “mind”; “sanity”; “sense”; “brain”

    As someone new to the language I had no idea what is what, so first of all I looked what the medical term is (usually a lil med. stands before medical terms), it showed me “brain”. So I looked up the word brain and found out ‘oh brain is more the organ itself then the thing that sits in it’, so I crossed it off of my list.

    Then I looked closer to the words that were left and found out that there are similarities to the german language! We have the word “intellect” too (der Intellekt) what brought me to the conclusion that it can’t be the right one for my sentence, since it’s not too likely that some looses his ability to be clever (at least when the sentence not indicate any accident or illness).

    So I had 3 words left: sense, mind and sanity.

    I decided to look up the first one of the leftover list (sense) and it told me that sense is more the perception of something, the feeling – made sense (haha) to me so i crossed it off the list.

    So I continued looking up sanity & mind and found both appropriate for the sentence.

    That I finally decided to chose sanity over mind was simply cause of the sample sentences the dictionary gave me.
    It told me by mind: “She’s out of her mind!” and “Never mind” what sounded kinda rude to me, sanity instead had a clear psychological background and since no other information were given in the sentence, I decided to pick the psychological one.

    I know all of this sounds like a lot of work but it was a 5 minutes thing (I’m probably just bad in describing something faster ^^)

    Maybe that helped someone.

    PS: I’m currently learning spanish and after learning english and french, I realized spanish is way easier than I thought, simply because so much words resemble english, german and french (and in general european languages) so ou guys have good chances to manage german, since english and german are out of the same language family πŸ™‚

    Stay tuned and study well


    PSS: I apologize in advance for any horrible english-language mistakes >^.^

  4. Josh November 3, 2007 at 4:56 pm - Reply

    KittyIsEverywhere: Thanks for the comment. Indeed, often, with a little thinking (or, depending on the word problem at hand, a lot of thinking), you can narrow your choices down to a few words, rather than a dozen different ones. I’ve had my fair share of mishaps, however, in using the wrong word for something. πŸ™‚

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