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I am trying to help a visitor improve her English but I am struggling to explain the difference in usage between speak, say, talk and tell. as a native English speaker I have never thought about it nor had need to explain it before. Anyone know a simple way to explain to an elementary level learner of English as a foreign language?
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It's kind of difficult to explain since all four words have similar meanings but often only one is used in a specific usage. Here are some good links I found:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/radio/specials/1535_questionanswer/page34.shtml

http://www.speakspeak.com/html/d10i018_english_grammar_speak_talk.htm

http://faculty.washington.edu/marynell/grammar/tellsay.html

This looks like from a german site:
http://www.uni-bielefeld.de/lili/personen/mpaetzold/0405ws/lexis/lexis 09_additional_report%20material_on_say_speak_talk.pdf
This is from a french site (with many other good links):
http://www.ac-nancy-metz.fr/enseign/anglais/Henry/say.htm
AnonymousI am trying to help a visitor improve her English but I am struggling to explain the difference in usage between speak, say, talk and tell. as a native English speaker I have never thought about it nor had need to explain it before. Anyone know a simple way to explain to an elementary level learner of English as a foreign language?

Tricky!
There is not much difference between "speak" and "talk". Both mean "to make intelligible sounds". Speak does not imply dialog - you can speak before an audience.Talk is used in informal situations for describing a conversation - They talk about their children and the weather. They talk to each other once a week.
Speak is generally more formal - He spoke with his doctor about the test results. The president spoke to the country about the economy.

Say is used for quoting speech, especially in a dialog.
He said "Good morning, how are you?", She said "I am well, thank you".
"What did he say?"

Tell is used with an object - He told me a secret. She told me a lie. (We don't use speak, talk or say in this way).
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Anonymous a simple way to explain to an elementary level learner
Avoid idioms until the student has mastered the basics.

Basics:

If you mention what was said and who it was said to, use tell.
Lucy told Jerry that ...
Someone told me that ...
Can you tell us ... ?

Avoid until later: to tell the truth; to tell a lie; to tell time; to tell the difference between

If you mention what was said but not who it was said to, use say.
Lucy said, " ... "

Nobody ever said that ...
I didn't hear him say that ...

Avoid until later: to say to him, etc., since we usually use tell in that case anyway.

If you don't mention what was said, use speak or talk.

speak can more naturally be "one-way". I speak. You listen. talk can more naturally be "two-way". We talk (to each other).

If you concentrate on how the utterance is made, use speak by preference.

Speak softly. Speak up. Speak out. Speak more clearly.

Gary spoke loudly. Louise speaks with a lisp. Chuck stutters when he speaks.

If you concentrate on a formal presentation, use speak by preference.
The president spoke at a recent meeting of the American Medical Association.
If you mention a language, use speak by preference.
Karen can speak German, but she can't speak Italian or French.
If you are referring to conversation between two or more people, use talk by preference.
We used to talk on the phone for hours.
If the situation is informal, and the topic of discussion is mentioned, use talk (about) by preference.
We talked about politics.
They never talked about religion.
Harry and Sally talked about the film they had seen.

Avoid until later things like to talk someone into something; to talk sense into someone; etc.

Once your student masters these, then you can get into the exceptions and idioms and into more flexible uses of these words.

CJ
thank u very much
CJ,

I'd like to use your explanation in my classes. Do you mind? All the best.
Site Hint: Check out our list of pronunciation videos.
Willy WilsonI'd like to use your explanation in my classes. Do you mind?
No, I don't mind at all. In fact, everything on the forum is available for you to. These posts are not copyrighted.

CJ