Spoken vs. Written English
Many years ago, I had a large number of Air Force Academy language teachers in an introductory linguistics course I was teaching and they told me that they had learned that given the limited time they had to teach foreign languages, they decided it would be better to focus entirely on teaching cadets to speak and understand the language, totally ignoring grammar. The principle was simple: it was better that the cadets be able to understand and be understood than to be grammatical given how much time would have to be spent on the latter to achieve any level of success. In foreign language teaching, if successful communication is the goal, then teachers should also eschew a concern with reading and writing the language.
What I have said above will be controversial. But the fact is that children learn to communicate in a language before they learn to read and write it and learning to read and write it takes time and a lot of effort. One of the reasons for this, especially in English or Chinese is the disconnect between speaking and writing. In Chinese, the disconnect is complete as the writing system is logographic. Because of this, speakers of different Chinese languages who are unable to communicate orally, can communicate via the writing system.
In English, the disconnect between speaking and writing is nothing like as complete as in Chinese. We have a very poor "phonetic" (actually "phonemic") system. A phonetic writing system would have a different symbol for each actual sound speakers make. This is not a good thing for, in English, we would have to have different symbols for the vowels in "cat," "cad," and "can." The first is shorter than the second. The third is nasal while the others are not and it is long, like that of "cad." Speakers of English are normally completely unaware that these are three different vowels. As a result we represent them by the same symbols. However, thanks to the fact that the vowels of English underwent massive changes after the writing system had settled down, there is a significant disconnect between how the same vowel letter in related words will be pronounced. The first vowels in "sane" and "sanity," two clearly related words, are pronounced quite differently. This is because of the Great Vowel Shift.
There is a significant disconnect between the principles for writing formal English and the principles that dictate how we talk. In the simplest case, we separate separate words from each other with spaces. If we equate these little spaces with short silences, then how we speak is way different from how we write. In his great Movie, Annie Hall, Woody Allen "an agitated Alvy [Woody Allen] explains to his calm friend Rob (Tony Roberts), that he thinks an acquaintance has made an anti-Semitic remark in a Jew-baiting incident:
You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said, 'Did you eat yet or what?' And Tom Christie said, 'No, JEW?' Not 'Did you?'...JEW eat? JEW? You get it? JEW eat?"
In fact, in casual speech, "Did you eat?" would likely come out "jueet?", that is, as a single sound sequence with no silences separating words and "did you" coming out as a sequence of just two sounds, the first sound in "Jew" and the vowel sound of "sue." The three sounds of "did" are reduced to a single "d" and this "d" is palatalized by the first sound of "you," which is a palatal glide much like the first sound of "yes, giving as its result a sound much like the first consonant of "judge." In short, this "juh" sound replaces "d + y." There are languages that routinely palatalize consonants. English is fond of doing that in casual speech.
Now, you would have to be a mad man to suggest that we write, "Did you eat?" as "jueet." It makes enormous good sense to separate individual words off from each other by spaces in written language for maximum clarity and enormous good sense to run the corresponding sounds together in casual speech by way of making speaking easier. Careful, precise speaking equals very slow speech and none of us have the patience for that.1
So, just focusing on pronunciation, we can see that speech and writing are quite different systems. Speech is primary, of course, since speech came before writing historically (and there are spoken languages today that aren't written) and children learn to talk before they learn to write. This disconnect at the level of pronunciation and writing is so great that if you write a short story in which you try to reveal how your characters actually talk using the English writing system, you will go mad. The only way to do this is to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a system many if not most linguists use to write down how people actually talk. If you did that, however, your readers wouldn't be able to read your dialog without learning the IPA as well.
There is also a disconnect between grammatical speech and grammatical writing but here is where right wing grammarians, who usually know nothing whatever about language, intrude their unwanted selves into the discussion by insisting that white middle class matrons, to take just one group, speak "correct English" or "proper English" as if "correct English" is like "correct answer" in an addition problem or "proper English" is like "proper dress." The reality is that people of different regions, different races, different genders, different ages, different social classes, and different language backgrounds (first vs. third generation immigrants, for instance) abide by different grammatical rules and calling one way of talking "good" and another "bad" is purely and simply the result of ignorance and prejudice.
Note well that I am talking about how we talk when I say that there are many "correct" or "good" ways of talking (as many "correct" and "good" ways as there are different ways of talking, as a matter of fact), but how we write English is an entirely different matter. It is of very great importance that everyone learn to write and spell (ugh!) a single kind of English for only if we do that can we hope to communicate with others within the borders of USA, as well as outside. I know that this blog is read by people around the globe. By now, it is entirely possible that at least one person in every country of the world has read at least a paragraph or two of this blog. As of 9:22 a. m. on Saturday, April 22, 2006, people from 15 different countries and a couple from unidentified countries had graced these pages. One can hope these "unknowns" are Chinese people who are thwarting the efforts of their government to censor what they can read on the web. As of that time, only S. America was unrepresented among the major land masses. This obviously would not be possible if I didn't write in something like Standard English. The real icing on this literary cake is that we can all read the English literature (literary, academic, religious, and historical writings as well as many other kinds of literature) of the past, going back as far as Shakespeare (with a little help) and Chaucer (with a fair amount of help). "Beowulf" (1100 AD), about three hundred years before Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," is written in a form of English we can't read. Had we standardized English writing at that time, then we would have almost as great a disconnect between our speaking and writing systems as is the case in Chinese.
1A closely related palatalization process can be found in the pair, "catch it" and "cat shit" and the pair "why choose?" and "white shoes." In both cases the pairs come out more or less the same in casual speech.