I’m so overwhelmed by the need to discuss this topic that I can barely contain my excitement! It’s been a controversy all along the way and it seems to me that many foreign English speakers still don’t differentiate much between spoken and written English. But those two creatures are from different planets indeed, and here’s why it’s important for you as a foreign English speaker:
By learning English the traditional way you can become very good at writing but you still won’t be able to speak English fluently ❗ Fluency in either of them doesn’t necessarily guarantee fluency in another!
Majority of foreign English speakers and also natives aren’t aware of the huge differences between those two. But it’s that simple indeed – judging by your writing you might be mistaken for a native English speaker but when you open your mouth you might be constantly running into difficulties with verbalizing your thoughts and expressing yourself properly!
Have you ever encountered such issue? I bet you have – so keep reading this article and you’ll find out a whole lot more about it!
I know this for a fact because I’ve been a good English writer for a long time – long before I achieved speaking confidence. And I also know it too well that being an excellent writer can actually have a detrimental effect on your spoken English. Are you surprised to hear that? Well, it should come as no surprise at all if you just dwell on it a bit!
If a foreign English speaker has achieved fluency in English writing, he/she is risking becoming too complacent and not paying enough attention to English speaking ❗
The awareness of being a very good English writer reinforces one’s notion that they’ve achieved the utmost English fluency. And if you’re clapped on the back for being an excellent English writer by others with comments like: “Your English is perfect, you’re better than most native English speakers that I know!”, you really risk losing the grip of reality!
And here’s a very good example that explains exactly what I’m talking about.
When I visit online forums and websites like Yahoo! Answers I often see a question “how can I improve my English?” coming up. And it’s often followed by a paragraph or two written in impeccable English! A typical response a person gets on such an inquiry is – “Your English actually is really good judging by your writing, I don’t think there’s much you can actually improve!” or – “Looking at your English writing I can tell you that you speak excellent, better than most native English speakers that I know!”
You know – if I were that foreign English speaker, I would put the question in a different way, like this:
How can I improve my SPOKEN English?
Please don’t comment on my WRITTEN English skills, my English SPEAKING skills don’t even come close because I’ve spent long years on traditional English studies focusing on READING and WRITING. So please, if anyone has any idea on how I can improve my SPOKEN English, please let me know! 😉
Are you getting the idea?
The person in question is most likely unaware of the differences between spoken and written English. I mean – although he/she feels that some area of his/her English needs to come along, the notion of what EXACTLY needs to be improved is sometimes very vague and clouded. Are you surprised? Do you think that all foreign English speakers realize that they need to focus exclusively on speaking because it should be obvious to them that it’s their spoken English that needs improvement?
My friend! The cold reality is that unless someone points it out to that person, the likelihood is that he/she will carry on without being consciously aware of the real situation!
It’s shocking, it’s weird, and it’s crazy, but it’s true nonetheless! 😡
On 90% of occasions foreign English speakers can’t even figure out EXACTLY what area of English they should work upon, simply because everyone says: “Your English is great, your English is really good, hey – you write like a native English person!”
I was having the same issues – my Latvian friends were clapping me on the back saying: “Robby, your English is great, no really, personally I can’t even write in English properly!” So every time I was complemented for having great English knowledge, it reinforced my conviction that I have to work even more on my English grammar, vocabulary and writing because I was having frequent fluency issues.
Now when I’m looking back at myself, I want to scream – “Robby, for Christ’s sake, don’t you get it that it’s your spoken English that needs to be improved so you’d better focus on speaking!” There was no-one though, to shed the light on me back then, so I kept struggling for years with traditional studies!
OK, let’s get back to the main topic; I’m getting a bit carried away! 🙂
So my point is that sometimes in life you need to be pointed out the EXACT thing, and if it’s not done, chances are that you’ll keep wandering in the English language woods being completely unaware of the world outside!
Why Written English And Spoken English Are So Different
People assume that once you write in very good English, your speech is the same – well articulated and rich. I’ve actually seen questions specifically about spoken English on Yahoo Answers answered with: “But you speak very well already, you don’t really need to improve it!” – as if they had heard the other person speak! 😀
I think this myth stems from notion that a well educated person who’s become fluent at English writing automatically masters English speech, too. It’s hard for the average Joe to comprehend that foreigners haven’t learned the English language like native children do. Children would pick up speaking skills first and only then learn to write and spell.
Most of foreign English learners, however, go a completely different route by learning to read and write first! This approach can leave a deep mark in ones ability to form fluent speech later on, because the first thing that person imagines as he/she needs to speak is – English words written in front of their eyes!
Yes, they will most likely try to visualize the English sentence they’re building as they speak – as if they’re writing it on a piece of paper!
But it’s so, so wrong… I can’t even put it in the right words how wrong it is, because this approach has a really big detrimental effect on a foreigner’s ability to communicate! The resulting speech is slow, full of hesitation and stuttering – simply because the person in question tries to write English text in mind and then speak rather than speak instantaneously and naturally!
Have you got any doubts left now that English writing and speaking are from different planets and don’t always get along fine?
If you have – keep reading and I’ll dissipate all of them! 😉
Spoken English means Improvizing!
Spoken English is instantaneous. When you open your mouth and say something, you can’t take it back – what’s said is said! When you write, on the other hand, you can think about what words you use and in what order you put them! If you’d go this path when speaking English, your speech would become very hesitant, with constant ‘hmmms’ and ‘eeerrs’ and you’d correct yourself all the time by picking better fitting words.
When you write, you create the piece of English text by working on it. When you speak, you’re IMPROVIZING, you don’t create anything, only ‘raw’ language stuff comes out of your mouth ❗
This factor explains very well why so many foreign English speakers are so good at writing but their spoken fluency is quite poor. They can create impeccable written English texts because they’ve got time to think on word choice and grammar structure. It’s something we’ve all learned in a classroom, we’ve passed English exams by using the same academic skills and we feel quite confident about our English knowledge. Real life isn’t academy, though! The moment you have to start chatting with a real English speaking person, writing skills are no help whatsoever!
Written English utilizes all of your vocabulary – passive and active!
It’s not hard to understand, therefore, why your written English texts might be filled with rich vocabulary so that it gets even natives amazed. Once you have enough time to look up relevant words from your ‘inner’ vocabulary, your English writing skills are only limited by your imagination!
When speaking, on the other had, you are able use only your active vocabulary! It’s those English words and phrases you’ve been actively using and you can speak them automatically – as opposed to passive vocabulary which consists of words you recognize but can’t use in a live conversation.
And here we can draw a logical conclusion – if you haven’t been paying much attention to speaking in English, your active vocabulary can be significantly smaller than your passive one! On top of that you have to consider the factor that spoken English fluency depends on your socializing experience.
If you’ve spent very little communicating with other English speaking people, no writing skills will help you form a fluent and natural speech!
Simple awareness of your active vocabulary’s existence makes it so much easier to understand why you can’t use all words that you know when speaking English. Majority of foreign English speakers and learners are simply unaware of this fact and they have difficulties with explaining the significant fluency level differences between their written English and spoken English. They usually resort to even more traditional studies believing that will help them overcome the issues… Simply because that’s the only way of improving English they’re comfortable with! 🙁
You can correct text before finalizing a written piece of information
It’s especially easy in this day and age when most of us use computers instead of a pen and a paper. Don’t like something that you just typed? Just delete it! Does it sound too awkward? Make it sound more naturally by adjusting a few bits here and there! And even if you write something in a traditional way, it’s very easy just to take time and create the sentence in the head first and then put it down on the paper.
Have you ever had this feeling of knowing the exact thing to say right after you’ve replied to someone in English by using bad grammar or not the best fitting words? It’s typical for those who’ve learned English the traditional way! You’re so used to creating English sentences on a piece of paper in a slow, considerate manner, and you simple can’t think fast enough to speak fluently! Your mind constantly lags behind your mouth, and this is yet another proof that spoken English is an entirely different animal than the written one!
If it was true and anyone could simply replicate their English writing style when speaking, all foreign English speakers who are very good at writing would be equally good at speaking. It’s not the case, however, because your speech cannot be corrected during a conversation! What you say for the first time is what counts, and even though you can correct or add certain words right after you’ve spoken, generally speaking you either speak well, or you don’t. There’s no going back to what you’ve said in order to correct it ❗
Spoken English is less formal, written English – more formal
Another difference between the two – spoken and written English – is in the type of vocabulary that is being used. Now I’m not talking about passive and active vocabularies, here I’m refereeing to what kind of words and phrases people go for when they speak. It’s about formal language versus phrasal verbs and less formal words!
As you may have noticed, spoken English usually sounds friendlier and it’s also easier to understand than written texts. Although not always, but there are more phrasal verbs and informal sayings used when speaking in English than writing. Of course, there are plenty of occasions when you’ll read a newspaper news column written in a very colloquial style and hear a very formal speech.
Generally speaking, everyday spoken English tends to be more informal than written instructions, magazine articles and novels or indeed – online content.
Well, I have to admit that I’m writing my blog articles in a fairly friendly style, too. Nonetheless, if had to convey this blog post’s message verbally, I would have probably chosen different words when describing certain concepts. Instead of “chosen” I would have said “picked”, “nonetheless” would have been swapped for “anyway”, but it’s in fact hard to say exactly what I would have said differently. As I said previously in this article – English speaking is more like improvising as opposed to writing!
But to see the most obvious difference between spoken and written English, just pick up some piece of English fiction. Read a page or two and try to imagine yourself or some other English speaker you know speak in such manner. Quite impossible, isn’t it? 😉
Which Fluency I Should Go First – Writing or Speaking?
The ideal scenario for any foreign English learner would be to learn both aspects of English – writing and speaking – simultaneously. If you follow an English studying plan based on incorporating new vocabulary and phraseology directly into speech and following it up by writing tests to get the spellings right and also develop broader writing skills, you’ll develop English language skills close to those of a native English speaker.
I’d say you have to begin with learning every new word and phrase by speaking it out loud and using it in a conversation. If you live in an English speaking country and spend most of your time with other English speaking folks – fair enough, you’re improving your English the natural way through conversation. In that case you actually put 100% of your focus on speaking, and you should devote at least some time during the day to work on your writing.
But if you’re studying English from home, taking classes or studying through institutional education, the chances are that you’re not making enough effort to develop your English speaking skills. Most of classroom time is dedicated to listening, writing and reading so you should make additional effort to read and repeat loud all you’re writing and reading.
You can discuss different topics with yourself or friends; you can read short passages from English newspapers and retell them using your own words and certain phrases and words that you’ve learned that day. And of course, you have to seek every opportunity you can to practice English in real life with real people!
All the above efforts combined will definitely give you an edge in a long run over those English learners who’ve been only developing their expression skills on the paper!
So my opinion is – develop both writing and speaking if you want to be able to communicate effectively and easily and also be a literate foreign English speaker. Apart from those who are brilliant in classroom but useless on the street I’ve known a few who can speak fluently but can’t write at all! As you can imagine, it also poses difficulties throughout professional life and inhibits your overall English improving progress.
However, if I was asked – “All right Robby, but if you had to choose between the two, which one would you go for?” – I’d say without a moment’s hesitation that I’d choose spoken English any time.
And if you think about it deeper, I think you’ll agree with me. English, just like any language, is means of verbal communication first and foremost ❗ Regardless all the other circumstances, you simply can’t do without interpersonal verbal communication! Back in the days when only the chosen ones knew how to write, people were still using language to communicate with each other despite being totally illiterate.
Therefore you have to agree that for humans as social beings spoken English is the most important aspect of the general English knowledge!
But of course, it’s all just theoretical consideration. In the 21st century you simply need to have good English writing skills if you’re to achieve at least something in your professional and also personal life. Imagine yourself being unable to write a decent e-mail to your future employer, for instance… You simply wouldn’t stand a chance of getting that job, right?
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