How to Use Speak, Talk and Tell: Differences, Expressions, Idioms

Learning Jun 18, 2021

Do I speak English or do I talk English? Who tells me English? These are all important questions and are a common point of confusion for many ESL students. This will hopefully clear up any confusion.

1. But let us first look at the various forms of the three words:




Present Tense




*Regular Verb

*Irregular Verb

*Irregular Verb

Past Tense




Past Participle




Used with

‘to’ & ‘with’

‘to’ & ‘with’

Speak - I speak English online.

He/She/It speaks English online.

We/They speak English online.

I will speak English online. 

I am speaking English online. 

I spoke English online. 

I have spoken English online.

Talk - I talk.

He/She/It talked about English online.

We/They talked about English online.

I talk about English online. 

I am talking about English online. 

I talked about English online. 

I have talked about English online.

Tell - I tell you about online English classes.

He/She/It tells me about online English classes.

We/They tell me about online English classes.

I will tell you about my online English classes. 

I am telling you about online English classes.

I told you about online English classes. 

I have told you about online English classes.

2. Is there a difference in meaning between Speak and Talk?

There is no major difference between the meaning of speak and tell. Except that in terms of nuance and tone, speak comes across as more formal and polite. For example, when approaching a superior like a boss or a professor for a discussion. Whereas talk is used in casual and friendly settings in everyday conversations. For example, with a friend over coffee or on the phone with your mother. But the two can be used interchangeably without having to change the grammar of the sentence.

For example:

  • I will speak/ talk to your mother on the phone.
  • We should speak/talk about your behaviour this weekend.

3. Speak is always used in reference to language:

Speak, never talk, is used in reference to what you do, say or describe about language. For example:

4. When do we use tell? 

Tell is used when someone is trying to convey information over to someone else. For example, when you ask someone for directions, they will tell you where to go. Or your mother will tell you to stop watching Netflix.

  • Did I tell you that I saw Kobe Bryant at the shop?
  • Sarah tells me that she has tickets for the IPL.
  • Your mother tells me that you are unemployed.
  • I told you to stop watching Tiktok.
  • I told you that Wimbledon will be starting soon.

5. Common Idioms with:


Don’t speak too soon - a warning not to say something that will be proved false very soon.

Actions speak louder than words – The idea that a person’s actions and behaviour is more indicative of their values than their words, which can be empty.


Sweet talk – To use flattery to convince people to do things for you.

Talk in riddles – To talk in a manner that is unusually complicated and lacks directness.


Tell it how it is – to address an issue or make a comment about an issue in a very direct way.

Live to tell the tale – to survive a traumatic experience and then tell your story.

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