Which is Correct, “Speak English” or “Speak in English”?

Learning Sep 25, 2021

The shortest answer to this question is, yes both! I “speak English” and I “speak in English” mean the same thing. But that does not explain how and when to use “speak English” or “speak in English”. Both constructions are grammatically correct but the important difference comes in when we discuss usage and context, as both phrases can be used in a variety of English-speaking contexts. When to use the correct phrase may be clear to native English speakers but could be a source of confusion for multilingual speakers who are still coming to grips with English. Let us look at the different contexts:

Speak English

1. This phrase can refer to Language Ability:

How to use “Speak English” in this context:

  • I speak English to my teacher.
  • I want to learn how to speak English better.
  • Can you speak English?
  • We listened to the couple who spoke Spanish but we were speaking English to them.

2. A sarcastic, snarky or emphatic comment:

In this context, people usually use this phrase when other people are talking about something using excessive jargon or very technical terms. In American usage this is a very emphatic or sarcastic way to ask the other person to use clear and simple terms to describe the thing they are talking about.

How to use “Speak English” in this context:

  • A friend tells you that you have FUD because they have been mining bitcoin all day and have made a whole bunch of Sats. You would ask them the “Speak English!”. (Asking them to clarify all of the cryptocurrency  jargon into understandable English).

"Speak in English"

1. This phrase refers to language preference:

  • Could we speak in English?
  • During class we have to speak in English.
  • I only speak in English to my friends.
  • I enjoy watching to Netflix shows where people speak in English.

The Grammatical Difference:

As previously said the basic difference is language ability and language preference however there is a slight difference in construction in these phrases.

“Speak in English”

  • Here “English” is an object of the preposition “in”. “In English” is the prepositional phrase that is acting as an adverb. This adverb explains how a person is speaking.
  • For example, “Speak in French”: This imperative tells whoever the speaker is addressing, how to speak.

“Speak English”

The use of these two phrases may seem complicated now but it is something that will become natural to ESL Students the more they practice and build their fluency in English. For another common language problem, the difference between speak, talk and tell take a look here. Remember to practice speaking in English!

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