Have you ever wondered why there seem to be so many words in English, and why it’s so hard to know when you should use one word and not another word?
On this page, I will explain my theory of the Levels of Language in English. I’m not the only one who’s ever tried to do this, but I think my system makes sense and is easier to remember than other systems. You can find more about the House of English in specific posts in that section of this website.
English as a house
I see English as a multi-story house. It has five levels, corresponding to the layout of a typical Western house: the ground floor, where you enter from the street, has the kitchen, the living room, a dining room, and maybe a television room. The second floor has the family bedrooms. The third floor (if there is one) might have a study room or book room for Father or Mother. The attic stores things that are not used normally, and the basement, in many American houses, is a secluded den where teens might hang out in some privacy, away from the grownups.
Just as we do different things in different parts of our houses—eating in the dining room or kitchen, studying in the bedroom, or upper rooms, hanging out in the basement or “rumpus room,” we use different “languages” (originating from actual different languages) in different areas of our lives.
On the ground floor, you’ll find our “home language.” This is where the kitchen and living room are, where we relax, cook, and eat. I call this Level I, and it would correspond to Tier 1 in the Common Core standards that many US schools are using. The language we use at Level I isn’t “special.” The words aren’t long. Everybody understands them: do, don’t, cook, burn, take off, put on, shirt, shoes, try, foot, finger. I think that, not coincidentally, most of these words are Germanic or early French. From birth until they begin school, native speaking children acquire their Level I language naturally, orally, without study.
During early childhood, children are mastering the basic vocabulary of Level I. By five or six years old, kids have acquired thousands of words and know how to use them accurately, but of course they don’t yet know how to read. Their vocabularies are significantly larger if their parents read stories to them than if they don’t. Their first couple of years in school will be spent learning how to write the words they already know how to speak and understand.
Level I English
Phrasal verbs are key to learning home language, or Level I language, and to sounding natural in English. At home, native English speakers tend to use relatively short words of Anglo-Saxon or Norse (or early French) origin. We check on the baby instead of observing changes in condition. We use work for someone instead of be employed by someone. We use get into something instead of be deeply interested in something.
We use a tremendous number of phrasal verbs, which are mostly built on Anglo-Saxon or French main verbs, to express concepts that we could express with single French-origin words, except very often we don’t want to. Describing a failed romance, we might say, She turned him down vs. She refused him. Describing a broken car, we might say, The car broke down instead of The car malfunctioned. These choices are really unconscious for native speakers. We don’t say to ourselves, “I will use broke down instead of malfunctioned.” But we do it, and we notice when non-native speakers don’t do it.
Level II English
Level II is the second floor of my “house,” where schoolchildren write their homework and study more advanced vocabulary words. Children begin acquiring Level II vocabulary in word-building programs and vocabulary-acquisition exercises, and they have to practice reading and writing language that they might not use in speaking, using words like expansion, voyage, exploration, application, employment, tenacious, memorization. Most of these words came into our language as French words.
Many native speakers don’t become fully familiar with Level II words if they don’t read very much. or if they leave school without graduating. If they don’t learn the “fancy” words, they may have to take remedial courses at community colleges to help them bridge the gap before attempting college-level courses.
English language learners often use Level II words when Level I would be more appropriate, or vice versa. If you do this, you may say some very funny things, particularly if you learned your vocabulary from TOEFL books (which focus on Level II and III words); unfortunately, most English speakers speak at Level I, so those language learners end up talking “like a book,” not like a human being. This sounds very strange and often very amusing to native speakers.
Level III English
It is on Level III, the third story, where some adult is working at a specialty like philosophy, astronomy, or medical research. In high school or college, as the level of study goes up, so does exposure to and mastery of Level III, words from Greek or directly from Latin. In graduate schools, students learn the professional languages of science, politics, law, psychology, literary criticism, and other specialties. The words here are long, multisyllabic, and not everyone knows them—words like mnemonic, cynosure, semiotic, sclerotic. This is the level of scientific and philosophical language.
The top and bottom of my “House of English” are like the attic and basement of a normal house. “Poetic” words are words that I put in the “Attic” of my “house.” Like old suitcases and trunks and love letters, you keep them in storage until you want them. Poetic words aren’t used very often, but we like to have them handy when necessary. Often, they are antique; they might have been used 500 years ago, but not many people use them now. Words like “demure,” “efflorescence,” “evanescent,” or “ethereal” might be considered poetic words.
When I was young, my friends and I hung out in the basement apartment of the house across the street. My friends’ parents virtually never came down to the basement because they didn’t want to know what was going on. Definitely a wise decision. The language we were flinging around was not, repeat not, for adult ears. If parents had heard it, we all would have been confined to our homes for months. I call vulgar words “Basement” words.
These words are mostly Anglo-Saxon words. Several have only four letters and are known as the “four-letter words.” The phrasal verbs derived from them are included in Appendix I of my book How We Really Talk because ESL students should understand what these expressions mean even if they don’t use them.
How We Really Talk: Using Phrasal Verbs in English is available from Amazon.com.