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Is any difference between "speak English" and "speak in English"?

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4 Answers 4

"speak English" refers to an ability. "speak in English" refers to a language choice.

  • Can/do you speak English?

    Meaning: Do you know English well enough to use it verbally?

  • Can/could you speak in English?

    Meaning: I'd like to request that you speak English instead of some other language.

  • Do you speak in English?

    That sentence doesn't make much sense, because "do" is asking about a habitual/continuous situation, whereas "in English" refers to a language choice rather than ability.

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Maybe different across the wet stuff, but here in the UK if I said to someone speaking French, "Can you speak English?" and they said "yes" and then continued speaking French, they would be considered to have misinterpreted my question for humorous effect. So "Can you speak English?" certainly can mean, "I request that you speak English instead of some other language", albeit it's somewhat rude since I didn't say please. "Please would you speak English" requires no "in". –  Steve Jessop Aug 23 at 14:14
    
@SteveJessop Good point, that there is some cross-over due to meta-communication. Also, in the explanation of the second bullet above, I used "speak English", not requiring "in". –  200_success Aug 23 at 17:34
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"Are you speaking (in) English?" would be a valid way to ask someone if the thing they just said was in English as opposed to some other language. My ear thinks "in" can be included or not with no difference in meaning. However, I think that would be more naturally said as "Was that English?" –  Zack Aug 24 at 1:37

In American usage, anyway, "speak English" also has a sarcastic meaning. When someone is speaking English but is very unclear -- perhaps because they are using technical or legal terms -- you can say "speak English" to mean "say that more clearly." It would be very odd to say "speak in English" for this purpose.

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Both are correct. And it depends on the context.

If I am telling or instructing (As I do that with my daughter), I'd use...

"Speak in English."

If I'm asking someone whether they speak that language, I'd prefer

"Do you speak English?"

BBC video of the latter is here.


Worth mentioning a joke that we play here in India. I'm writing this because it's related to this question!

In my mother-tongue, speak (without in) in this context refers to the word which means say. So, if someone forgets putting the word in, they get a funny reply

I can speak Spanish ~ I don't believe. Speak it

'Spanish'!

But if I tell that I speak 'in' Spanish, it means I have to speak sentences in Spanish and not the word 'Spanish' that otherwise happens without 'in'.

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The same pun appears in The Lord of the Rings. The enchanted gates to Moria are engraved, "The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter." To enter, one must say the Elven word for "friend". –  David Richerby Aug 23 at 20:17

"Do you speak in English?" does make sense in situations when the questioner KNOWS that the people are polyglots. For example, in a family with a German mother, a Spanish father can be asked "Do you speak in German to your children?"

Or, as another example, in some international company, new employees might require what the office language is.

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