Friday, April 21, 2006

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.

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Blogger concerned citizen said...

Gosh! I think I understand what you are talking about, I mean I get the gist of it. :)

We have a tradition in our immediate family of reading a play by Roark Bradford every Christmas called, 'How Come Christmas'. It's A horribly politically incorrect tale (written before 1945 at least) of some poor 'Negro' children in a one room school house discussing with the 'reverend' who came first; 'old Sandy Claus or the de poor Little Jesus'.

WILLIE: I bet old Sandy Claus was clawin' chilluns before de Poor Little Jesus started studdin' about gittin' bawned, wa'n't he, Revund?

My point is; plays are meant to be read aloud & the actors(such as we are) have to fall into the pattern of the speech, to understand it ourselves & make it believable to the audience.
On the other hand, the point of writting coherently is so the reader can smoothly follow the line of thought, without having to sound out, switch words around or whatever they might have to do to understand what the writer is trying to say.

12:21 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

(One small correction: the Chinese system disconnect isn't 100% as many characters are composed of a general meaning-indicating "radical" and a phonetic element. Even after millennia of sound changes in the spoken language, there's still a fair amount of regularity. This naturally transferred into Japanese when the characters were borrowed; the simpler phonological inventory and resulting increase in homophony makes it easier to guess the pronunciation (at least) of unknown kanji in many cases.)

2:35 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thanks, as you may know, phonology and Chinese are not my strong suits.

7:09 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Phonology's not one of mine, either. : )

The above doesn't affect your argument, of course. Forgot to add that earlier.

About the controversial aspect of the approach to language teaching you mention in the first paragraph: I believe it's the one currently being taken by those teaching Arabic to troops headed for Iraq.

10:19 PM

Blogger s tsui said...

I've been reading your blog for a while. Great job in pointing out all the abuses that the English language is suffering! I'm from Hong Kong, where schools use English as the medium of instruction, not quite successfully though. Our problem is the reverse of what you've discussed - we focus on learning the English grammar first, but follow it with only a feeble and doomed attempt of conversing and communicating in the language. The result is that except for the tiny percentage of students who grow up in elite schools with worldly parents, the rest of us can neither write nor speak "proper" English.

Thanks again for your insight!

10:29 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thanks for your comments, s tsui. The situation you describe is what I and others had to endure for decades in the US. The problem is that the purpose for language learning was academic -- for people to be able to read stuff in other languages. That's fine if you are going to be a scholar in a field in which, say, Germans wrote a great deal of important papers and books. Otherwise it is a waste of time. It would have been better had my teachers taught me how to speak German.

This silly academic approach is why I ended up studying Latin in junior high and high school. Nothing could have been stupider than this. I wish I had had the wisdom to learn Spanish.

11:41 AM

Blogger Maureen said...

Hmm. Maybe it depends on how you learn. Having had at least introductory instruction in several languages (all but one of them Indo-European), in most cases using the grammar-translation method, I find myself wanting to know at least a little grammar to help me organize the new information. Unfortunately, in most cases, there was little concern about whether we could speak the language we were learning. My first French teacher had us reciting poetry, singing songs, and writing little skits in French which we read aloud, and my Macedonian teacher practically forbade me to use any texts during our lessons, but those were the exceptions.

My own prejudice is for grammar, but I'm all for getting students to SPEAK the language they're learning. Your receptive skills (reading, listening) are usually greater than your productive skills (speaking, writing); if you can speak fluently and with a reasonable degree of accuracy, then maybe the grammar will make more sense if and when you learn it.

2:38 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found your blog fascinating. I am a master's student in speech-language pathology. I'm taking a class in disordered language and literacy. We are exploring the components of literacy and how they all relate. You provided a "lightbulb moment" for me when you said that writing/speaking is expressive and reading/listening is receptive. I don't know why or how I missed that concept, but it puts me on a much clearer path in my search for interdependence of the components! Thanks for opening my eyes.

11:22 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thanks for your nice comments. I notexed thanks to Site Meter how many older blogs are read so it seems my way of archiving them is working.

There are all sorts of important ideas that don't get mentioned in lectures and books because they are not sufficiently on topic. You have to be reading/listening to the right thing to get it.

The distinction between speaking and listening is huge. The interdependence, if what Terry Patten and Barbara Becker and I say in our joint paper, referenced in my Cambridge U book, and what I said in that book (same thing) is true, is very complex.

8:58 AM

Blogger beneficii said...

Interesting. My parents tell me when I was a kid that I was hyperlexic, in that I read from a very early age (about 2) but had delays in speaking and listening. I wonder how that fits with this?

5:22 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I have never heard of such a thing. Delays in speaking often mean nothing because the kids catch up. I wonder about your reading though. Kids do sometimes learn to memorize books that are read to them over and over and can mimic reading. The fact is that written language, though parasitic on spoken language historically, and written language are different but closely related systems. You should donate your brain to science -- after death, of course.

5:38 PM

Blogger beneficii said...


LOL, hyperlexia is not too uncommon. From what I understand, hyperlexics don't actually fully understand what they read, but they can usually quickly associate the sounds of their language with the letters/words on paper.

I wonder if hyperlexia is a result of other conditions: perhaps a lack of ability for social interaction, causing the person to more or less retreat into their own world?

1:52 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

You doubtless know more about hyperlexia than I do since I have no actual knowledge on the subject.

3:22 PM

Blogger Rourke said...

My family also has that tradition of reading "How Come Christmas?"...small world.

9:59 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend of mine who recently moved to England has been attempting to learn English and she is finding it quite difficult, she already speaks 2 languages (French and Spanish) and claims English is the hardest to learn. With all our silent letters and words with multiple meanings English is tough to understand. Inspired by my friend I decided to learn French as second language to help better myself!

5:10 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

All languages have words with multiple meanings. We do have a very tricky spelling system.

You would do better to learn Spanish. French is no longer an important world language. Spanish is spoken in the U.S. and all points South but for Brazil.

6:41 AM

Blogger SDM said...

The Language guy,

Wow, Very very great blog mate.
Im a student studying Unit4 VCE English Language, In Victoria Australia.

What you are saying is direct link to what we are studying, amazed to see the detail you have gone into Phonetics and difference in two languages.

We also study the 5 Sub-Systems of language, and most of them came up in your blog.

Great to see a in-depth insight of what i am learning in a different point of view.

With much respect,

4:26 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thank you for your comments. During the last several years I taught sociolinguistics to undergraduates, I had my sociolinguistics undergraduate students read on line material from Australia.

10:20 AM

Blogger haney said...

i wonder that you are a stream of knowledge and i'm happy to found my relevant topic in your blog.i'm thankful to u.your blog is gonna help me in my assignment & through out my studies.i am a student of M.A English from Pakistan.Although written & spoken language varies,but essential to communicate.thanks &best regards.sidrah siddeiqye

4:27 AM

Blogger Mabel said...

Hi. First of all, congratulations on the blog. I'm from Brazil and I'm working on a book to teach English here. I'm interested to use an extract from this post on the book. We would add the credit to the text and publish your blog's adress on it. Would you authorize it for this use? If you would, please reply to my email: mabelmdb@gmail.com Thanks!

1:27 PM


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