What is the difference between Speak English and Speak in English?

Which one is (more) acceptable in this sentence:

"You must speak English/ in English in class."

Or, are both correct? If yes, what is the difference?

Another question:

I know it is incorrect to say to talk English. What about to talk in English? Can you use it instead of speak in English?

  • 1
    If you are trying to hold a conversation with a Spanish girl and you suddenly find she is fluent in English, you can say: "Oh, let's talk in English".
    – Centaurus
    Jan 4, 2015 at 19:49
  • 1
    A rather different meaning of "speak English" (or "speak in English") is illustrated by this article, Citigroup announces repositioning actions to further reduce expenses and improve efficiency. Translated to English, that gobbledygook becomes "Citigroup announces 11,000 layoffs. CEO expects a big bonus." Languages such as gobbledygook, technobabble, bureaucratese, and requirementese look like English (they use English words, English sentence structure), but no, they aren't English. Jan 4, 2015 at 21:11
  • 1
    The core of this question has been asked on English Language Learners. Jan 4, 2015 at 22:07

1 Answer 1


There really isn't much difference in meaning between "speak English" and "speak in English" from a practical point of view. However, the two phrases use a slightly different meaning of the verb "to speak".

In the first the meaning is "be able to communicate in a language" such as "he speaks English fluently", in the second you are describing the manner of speaking; consider for comparison: "he speaks in a high voice".

See wiktionary. where we have a couple of different meanings:

    1. (intransitive) To communicate with one's voice, to say words out loud.
    1. (transitive) To be able to communicate in a language.

Note the difference can be deduced from (amongst other things) whether the verb is transitive or not.

With respect to talk, the work "talk" there is a great deal of overlap between the meanings of "talk" and "speak", insofar as there is a difference "talk" tends to mean a back and forth communication between more than one person, and "speak" tends to emphasize the actions of a single person. However, that is only a general rule, since "a talk" can also specifically mean a lecture, which is mostly one way.

In regards to "talk English" that is not allowable because it is a special, specific meaning of "speak" as indicated in the dictionary entry I cited above. However, "talk in English" is perfectly acceptable, though perhaps not idiomatic; it means a conversation conducted in the English language (or alternatively a lecture delivered in the English language.) Again, the proposition "in" here denotes the manner in which the talking is to be done.

For more on talk see wiktionary.

ADDENDUM In response to a comment below, I thought a contrast would help. The comment was "is there a difference between 'he can speak English well' and 'he can speak in English well'".

The answer is that practically speaking there isn't really any difference between the two. However, let me offer a contrast. To say "he can speak English well, but doesn't understand it at all" does not make any sense, since "speaking English" implies an facility with the language. However you could say "he can speak in English well, but he can't understand it" is semantically acceptable, since speaking is different than understanding. However, obviously it doesn't make sense for a different reason -- namely that from a practical point of view you cannot really speak with your mouth a language without understanding it. In fact, truthfully it is usually the other way around -- usually people understand a language better than they speak it.

However, there is one exception, typified by this example: when someone who knows no English uses a phrase book with certain fixed sentences, such as "Please tell me where the bathroom is" or "Please take me to the airport." In this case the speaker does not understand the words he is saying, reciting them merely by rote from a phrase book. In this case he can speak in English, but he does not speak English.

Hope that makes sense.

  • Clear and to the point.
    – Centaurus
    Jan 4, 2015 at 19:41
  • @Fraser Orr : So you mean one can say "He can speak English well" and "He can speak in English well", with no difference in meaning?! Jan 4, 2015 at 19:55
  • There really isn't much difference in understanding. But I added an addendum to my answer to offer a contrast.
    – Fraser Orr
    Jan 4, 2015 at 23:01
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    -1, sorry. It's true that "to speak English" can mean "to be able to communicate in English", but that is certainly not its only meaning. I see no problem with the OP's "You must speak English in class". And whereas "who speak English at home" is normal and well-attested, "who speak in English at home" is bizarre and gets only two Google-hits.
    – ruakh
    Jan 5, 2015 at 0:04

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