Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Written vs. Spoken English
I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of teaching students the difference between written and spoken English. This first comes into play when ESL/EFL teachers notice that their students are quite prone to writing "wanna" and "gonna" in academic writing. Students are taught these two sound reduction forms (and others) so they might understand what is being said when a native speaker talks to them at anything approaching normal speed. They are not, however, taught that these forms are not for use in writing.

That, though, is only the tip of the iceberg in considering the ways in which written and spoken English differ, I realized. One might also classify it, as my students tend to do, as the difference between English according to prescriptivist rules and English in actual use. This is, of course, an extremely overly simplified distinction. Yes, written English does pay far more attention to grammatical rules. Yes, English you hear spoken on the street is much more likely to contain "mistakes" contrary to all the rules you learn in class. But there is a reason.

The real difference, I have decided, lies in whether English is being used interactively or not. Spoken English contains all kinds of elliptical statements, fragments, dependent clauses all by their lonesome, sound reductions, and basically everything your English composition teacher told you not to do. Spoken English, and any kind of spoken language in the world, can get away with this because it is interactive. When we are involved in a conversation, we don't have to worry about presenting all the background information before getting to the main point, because we are free to assume far more knowledge on the part of our audience, and if it turns out we have assumed too much, the audience is free to question us, and, in essence, rewind the conversation. The conversation in itself is a collaborative effort of communication, built collectively of all the statements, questions, and fragments from all of the participants.

Written language is not like this. Writing demands that the writer consider his or her audience in a hypothetical manner, and present all of the necessary information at once. When writing, we only have one chance to provide background, present our opinion, and support the opinion adequately. If we fail to do any of these things, we leave the reader confused, misinformed, or at least unconvinced. There is no chance for the reader to ask, "What do you really mean here? Am I understanding you correctly?" because the reader is left all alone with his or her own opinions and interpretations. If the writer fails to include all of the necessary information, or fails to present the information in a logical and convincing manner, then the writer has failed to communicate at all. There is no collaborative effort; there is only one person, flinging his ideas out into the wild to fend for themselves against the criticism of the masses.

Because writing is so unforgiving, teachers spend a lot of time making students practice it. I think students would be benefited by having the differences in written and spoken language pointed out to them more often, so they might begin to see the areas where the two productive skills intersect (expression of ideas) and where they diverge (modes of expression.) The two skills are so often taught as separate entities that it is hard for students to see how they can support each other. Speaking, instead of being seen as the intimidating, insurmountable task, should be seen as the forgiving communicative activity that can help a person organize his or her thoughts and opinions before embarking on the task of expressing those thoughts and opinions definitively and singly.

Coming next... Why writing on the internet is so confused

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