Speech Compared to Writing

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Separating Spoken English from Written English

For ESL/EFL teachers, the differences between the language of speech and the language of writing are of fundamental importance.  We know that our students need to learn to handle various versions of English--to chat with their friends, give presentations in class, watch tv, write and read email messages, read the newspaper, read textbooks, write tests, and more.  To help them prepare for these many tasks, we must think carefully about the content of our language programs.  We don't want them to talk like books or to write formal papers with inappropriately informal vocabulary and grammar.

Here are some questions we will pursue all semester--and the rest of our careers as ESL/EFL teachers:

What is spoken English like?  Well, to be more exact, what is conversational English like?  What is the language of a classroom presentation of research like? 

What is written English like?  Well, to be more exact, what is an email message like?  What is the written English of an academic paper like--in which disciplinary area?

The Primacy Issue and a Garden Path It Led Us Down

Certainly we all speak before we read and write.  Certainly all languages existed as spoken languages before their written versions developed.  Certainly most people spend more time talking than writing--although some of us seem to spend as much time reading as we do talking.

Not too many years ago, however, ESL/EFL went down a wrong direction because of the "primacy" of spoken language.  The theory was that if as children we speak and listen before we read or write, then the most effective way for adults to learn a new language would be to start with speaking and listening before moving to reading and writing.  Teachers were told to refuse to use writing until students had learned to speak and listen.  The problem was that the students were being ignored, especially those adults who were taking ESL/EFL in high school and university programs.  Those students had come to ESL/EFL with highly developed skills at using written language as a tool in their learning.  While the theory continued to be preached for a while, teachers did what we always do when there's a conflict between student needs (and demands) and the theory: we sneaked in some writing and reading.

The issue of which form is more "primary" than the other is probably not as interesting now as figuring out how they interact with each other.  How does speech influence writing?  How does writing influence speech?  Are there any features of grammar or vocabulary that belong only to speech or only to writing? 

What's Conversational English Like?

The Longman Student Grammar of Spoken & Written English presents research that has analyzed large samples of English. We will learn about that research and about the 4 types of discourse focused on in that reference book. We will see that conversational English features the following grammar:

1. questions--including the use of do as a pro-verb (probably because of the heavy use of present tense verbs--see #4) along with wh-words for information questions

2. pronouns you and I

3. contractions

4. present tense verbs

5. speech fillers--uhs and ahs

6. "private" verbs such as assume, doubt, think, know, believe (that are used to express our inner thoughts)

7. negatives formed by adding n't to the auxiliary (or pro-verb do)

Conversational language is 
1. interactive--we talk back and forth in short pieces of language--not in complete sentences--taking turns

2. pushed by time limits--we have to listen and respond under time pressure without much leisure for thinking about what we will say

3. repetitive--we repeat ourselves and use the same limited vocabulary over and over

4. error-prone--because of the time limits we use the wrong word, pronounce something wrong, use the wrong grammar--and sometimes hear the mistake and back up and correct ourselves but sometimes just keep going

However...these features can be found in written materials: novels, advertisements, and scripted speech (such as television news as well as dramatic shows and films).  Thus, these are features of what has been called "interactive language" that has its most characteristic but not exclusive use in informal conversations.

Questions for Us as ESL/EFL Teachers

Knowing what we do about how "conversational" language works: 

What should the curriculum for a class in spoken English look like?  

What would a student need to learn to do?  

How might cultural differences in some of these areas enter in? Turn taking, for example, surely must differ from culture to culture.


To learn more about the characteristics of spoken and written English, try some of the following resources.

Biber, D. (1988).  Variation across speech and writing.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Journal of English Grammar on the Web.

Byrd, P., & Reid, J. (1998). Grammar in the composition classroom.  Boston: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

I look forward to thinking about these issues with you this semester, especially as you do the reading and thinking required by the papers you will write.  What is English grammar like when it is used for particular types of communication? How do we as teachers implement our knowledge in courses, lessons, and materials?  

My email is patbyrd@comcast.net.  Please send your questions and comments to me at that address.  Thanks.