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What is the difference between written and spoken language?

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saleemn1 | Student, Grade 11 | eNoter

Posted July 13, 2010 at 11:43 PM via web

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What is the difference between written and spoken language?

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akannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted July 14, 2010 at 2:22 AM (Answer #1)

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The previous posts were really strong.  The fundamental means of expression is one of the major differences between both forms of language.  I agree that written is one of the most difficult competencies to achieve.  Part of this is because speaking, in contrast, is so much easier.  Individuals can speak quicker than writing.  It is a quicker process to say something than to write it out.  I think that there is a philosophical reason to this, as well.  Language, by its very nature, is imprecise.  It is a means to an end.  The end is the complete and lucid transferral of what is subjective to an external and objective realm.  This is very difficult.  Language helps us do this, but there is always a level of clarity that cannot be penetrated, a realm where we have to accept the reality of things and that some level of imprecision will always be there.  Speaking helps to minimize this.  If we are uncertain, we can always say to another, "Do you know what I mean?"  We can also say, "It's like this..." and use hand gestures, non verbal communication and other elements to convey our thoughts.  The writer cannot do this.  They must use language in a very solitary process, completely different from the collaborative speaker.  The writer must refine their thoughts and ensure that language does give clarity to the subject and to the reader.  The writer cannot say, "Do you know what I mean?"  If the audience responds in the negative, there are problems.  This might be fundamentally why speaking and writing are two different realms, with the latter more difficult than the former.

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shaketeach | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

Posted July 14, 2010 at 2:47 AM (Answer #2)

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Essentially we have three vocabularies---reading, writing and speaking.  Obviously the largest is our reading vocabulary.  When we write, we can take the time to find the words that accurately reflect our thoughts.  When we speak, we are inventing on the spot, so to speak, but the spoken language can be very effective for several reasons.  Sometime, it is not just the words but the sound of the words that help communicate our thoughts.  We also use body language and hand gestures to help us communicate.  The intonations we use can often convey the subtleties not found in the written words.  Emotions play a role in our speaking and a listener can often be affected not just by the words themselves but also the emotion behind the words.  It is not just what we say but how we say it.  In a sense this is how we bring language alive.  

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted July 13, 2010 at 11:57 PM (Answer #3)

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The major difference between written and spoken language is that written langauge is much more complex and formal than spoken language.  This is because a person writing can really think about what they are saying and can put it down in a more perfect way.  It is also because a person reading can comprehend much more complicated sentences.

If I am speaking, I have to figure out what I am saying as I go along.  I cannot take the time to make it sound elegant or to have lots of clauses in my sentences.  I will tend to forget what I am saying.  I might say "um" and stuff like that.

When you are listening to a speaker, you have to process what that person is saying in "real time."   You can't go back and look at the beginning of the sentence to try to figure out what is being said.

For these reasons, written language is much more formal and complicated than spoken language.

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted July 14, 2010 at 1:14 AM (Answer #4)

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I agree.  Written language is generally more formal than spoken language.  Think about when each of them is used.

Written language is used when you want to make sure your thoughts are organized and you're saying exactly what you want to say in the way you want to say it. Politicians use written scripts when they care about getting the wording of their positions exactly right or when a speech is very important.  It's also used when you want to make sure there is no misunderstanding, which is why contracts and other legal documents and laws must be put in writing. The language is more formal (no contractions or slang, usually) and the ideas are more structured (organized). 

Spoken language is much less formal and generally not particularly organized because it happens in informal settings--and there is usually an audience to hear it.  We have conversations with friends, teachers speak informally to classes, successful sales presentations are given without scripts, and any business transactions (banks, stores, libraries) are conducted by speaking, rather than writing.  That means sometimes we have to say "that's not what I meant" or "what I meant to say was...."  We don't always get it right the first time when we speak, but we do usually get to keep talking until we fix it since the person is right there.  Spoken language also has the advantage (or disadvantage) of being accompanied by body language to help the listener(s) interpret what is  being said. 

Both types of language are important in day-to-day life. Imagine all communication taking place only in writing or only by speaking.  I know it was that way once, but it sure would not be practical in today's world.

Lori Steinbach

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