‘Speak’ and ‘talk’ both mean ‚to communicate something’. However ‘speak’ is more formal, we use ‘speak’ in more serious situations. ‘Talk’ is the usual word we use in informal communication. Are they completely interchangeable then? Let’s see.
We usually use the verb ‘speak’ to express our feelings; therefore the focus is mainly on the person producing the words. However, it basically means ‘to say words using a particular language’. Therefore, when we refer to languages and also speech on the phone we use ‘speak’.
- He speaks fluent Spanish.
- Can I speak to David, please? (asking on the phone) / Speaking. (This is David.)
- She spoke of her joy over being chosen to play for the A team.
- He speaks very highly of the new company director.
‘Speak’ is usually followed by the preposition TO, in more formal situations we can use the preposition WITH:
- I finally managed to reach and speak to Alice yesterday.
- May I speak with you for a moment, please? (formal, also preferred in the US)
- May I speak to you for a moment? (less formal, also preferred in the UK)
‘Speak’ is also used when we want to refer to the form of communication, e.g. language, speed, intelligibility:
- Can you speak more slowly, please?
- He was speaking French; I couldn’t understand a word he was saying.
With the verb ‘speak’, direct objects can be used sometimes (very rarely, though), and usually in the form of idioms:
- Speak your mind. = to say what’s bothering you, express your feelings and opinions directly
‘Talk’ has a very general meaning; it means to ‘have a conversation, to chat, to speak to someone, to discuss something with someone’. It is used when we refer to a mutual conversation and not a speech of a single person. We do NOT use ‘talk’ when we refer to someone’s ability to speak a foreign language.
- I can talk French.
- I talked to Thomas last week. He just got back from India.
- I haven’t talked to him in ages.
- We went for a drink and talked about good old times.
- I’d really like to talk to you about something. Meet me at the cafeteria?
‘Talk’ is usually followed by the preposition TO, the preposition WITH can be used as well but it is less common:
- I’d like to talk to you.
- I’d like to talk with you. (less common but still correct)
‘Talk’ (as well as ‘speak’) can be used with direct objects, but these expressions are all idiomatic:
- It’s time to talk turkey! = to discuss something frankly and honestly
- My father is obsessed with talking sports!
Difference between ‘speak’ and ‘talk’
The difference between these verbs is not very significant. With a few exceptions, these verbs can be used interchangeably without causing any mishaps in communication. The use of each verb depends mostly on the tone of conversation.
- I’d like to speak to the manager, please. = formal or serious situation, perhaps in need of solving complaints or problems in general
- I want to talk to the manager. = less formal, have a small chat about something causal, not as serious
The irregular verb speak has the following forms:
- Infinitive: speak
- Past simple: spoke
- Past participle: spoken
The regular verb talk has the following forms:
- Infinitive: talk
- Past simple: talked
- Past participle: talked