The Language of Print and the Language of Talk
Russell Hunt
[as published in Speaking of Words: A Language Reader, ed. James MacKillop and Donna Woolfolk Cross. Second Edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982. 23-26]

Although an announcement that written English is in many ways an entirely different language from spoken English is hardly the sort of act that requires a trumpet fanfare or a flourish of tympany, it is not precisely an insignificant or commonplace occurrence. On the one hand, such a statement contradicts the widely held belief that the best writing is that which most closely approximates spoken language; on the other, it seems to conform very comfortably to the notion that written language, unlike spoken, must be formally taught in order to be learned.

Okay. First let me try and tell you what I mean when I say written language is different. Um, take for instance that first sentence there, in the paragraph you just read. Read it aloud. "Although an announcement that written English is in many ways an entirely different language . . . ". Hear that? Doesn't sound a bit like anything a human being would say, does it? Couple things about it are worth looking at a minute. One is how complicated the, the way it's organized, the grammar -- the grammar and syntax . . . oh, syntax is the set of rules that tells us things like what order phrases come in. Where was I? Oh, yeah, the first sentence. Now, nobody who was speaking would have had time to plan his sentence that thoroughly. He wouldn't start with an "although," and he wouldn't use it to introduce a clause running to, um, let's see, . . . thirty-three words before you get to the main sentence. And he wouldn't likely set up a subject like "an announcement" and then hold off on the verb it's the subject of for, oh, fifteen words. And in the second sentence, that "on the one hand... on the other" business involves more planning than most people give to what they're saying. At least if what they're saying is really spontaneous talk, improvised talk the way most of what we hear is.

The differences between more-or-less formal written prose of the kind most students are asked to produce for classes (like that of paragraph 1) and conversation (paragraph 2, as near as I am able) run deep. The basic causes of the differences are twofold. One I have already hinted at: it is that writing holds still, so the writer can tinker with it. A writer can go back and reorganize his sentence, make it punchier, prepare you for the end of it or of his paragraph or chapter. (As an example, the first sentence of this essay originally began "An announcement that... " and had a "but" before the second clause. I changed it because I wanted to make the sentence sound more like writing, more premeditated; and I made the change halfway through the writing of the second paragraph. In conversation, of course, that would be impossible: once the words are spoken, they're gone, irretrievable.)

A second cause has to do with the reader's relationship to a written text. Because it holds still, the reader can backtrack, reread, jump forward, skip around, use graphic cues like paragraphs and spacing on the page, and assemble a complex structure out of what's presented on the page. That means that larger units can be related and organized. In order to help the reader do this, a writer may choose to signal the way in which his argument is constructed or his presentation is unfolding. Look at the previous paragraph of this essay, for example: it states that there are two causes of the difference, and numbers the first one. This paragraph refers back to that number by beginning "A second cause... ". Numbering these two items is not necessary to what I'm saying, of course: the numbers constitute a guide to the reader to remind him the two units are related to each other and to the main point. They are useful because the two units are larger than we would normally find being related in a conversation: the first one runs to about 120 words and the second (so far) to about 190. And if you look ahead to the beginning of the next paragraph you’ll see another structural signalling device, as I shift the subject from the causes of the differences to the differences themselves, and offer a suggestion that the reader should look for a series of differences, appearing in some significant order.

These causes produce striking differences between the way the language we're likely to hear is organized and the way what we're likely to read will be organized. The two will, as a result, sound radically different, as any writer of fiction or drama knows. They will sound different not only because of the presence of the kinds of organizing signals I've been describing, but also because of the nature of their sentences and even the kinds of idiomatic expressions and words they each characteristically use. The fact that a writer can tinker, and a reader can stop and go back, enables the writer to use a different and more complex kind of sentence -- a kind which would not only sound strange if uttered by a person supposed to be speaking spontaneously, but which would be very difficult to disentangle for an audience who could only hear the words detonating one at a time like a string of firecrackers rather than see their arrangement displayed on a page: this sentence, for example, would be virtually impossible to read aloud comprehensibly, but it's no real trick for a reader to follow it.

Even the kinds of words we tend to choose are different according to whether we're speaking or writing. In part this is a matter of having more time for precision when we're writing (and needing that time, since our reader, who also has as much time as he needs, might be a good deal more likely to notice a badly-chosen word). But it's also a matter of tone: there are certain words that we'd virtually never use in conversation, but which we write without a second thought. I don't mean the kind of polysyllabic jawbreakers comic strips use to show a character is intelligent (and therefore contemptible), I mean fairly simple ones like -- looking back at my first paragraph for examples -- "requires" or "conform to." Used in conversation in place of "needs" or "fits," they can very easily suggest a kind of snobbishness that we usually want to avoid.

All of this, then, adds up to an argument that in important ways the language represented by this essay, and by most student writing, differs from the language we speak. It differs so profoundly that it isn't silly to say that it amounts to a different language. From this statement it follows that a student learning to write an essay in Freshman English is learning a new language. And everything we know about the ways in which people learn new languages suggests that it's not going to be an easy process or a quick one.

We learn a new language by being immersed in it and by needing to say things in it. We learn it by being part of a society and a culture in which the language is important (more than important: it is normally the means by which the society that uses the language exists). We do not learn it by being told about it, by learning its grammatical rules and memorizing its vocabulary: we learn the rules and the words by using them and hearing them used. It's a gradual process, and the older we are the slower it's likely to be.

It's not hard to see, then, why Freshman English is a particularly difficult course for most students. The language they're being asked to use is one they've never used before and, even more important, one they've rarely seen anyone else use. Even students who have read a lot and enjoy reading have rarely read much expository writing other than textbooks (which tend to use still another language). And such students are not likely to be common: in our society it's far more probable that a student will be fluent only in one language -- that of conversation. Normally he won't have had any practice, either as creator or as audience, at dealing with sentences much longer or more complicated than the ones he might encounter on the six o'clock news. He won't be in the habit of paying attention to the phrases writers use to signal the way their ideas are being structured -- and therefore he won't generate them in his own writing. He won't have an ear for the idioms and diction of written prose. He'll know there's something wrong with his writing but he won't know what it is or how to correct it, so he'll be writing in a state of panic. And, most important, he'll be far from immersed in the language he's learning or the culture it creates and defines. He'll be in the position of a student who has French for three hours a week: he may come to an understanding of a few things about French culture and the way the language is organized, but he will not become bilingual. He won't even be able to buy groceries or find a bathroom in French. And very often he'll learn to detest the language that has been, for him, simply the occasion for meaningless exercises in following rules and manipulating sounds and signs.

The implications of all this for Freshman English should be obvious. The most basic one is that it simply won't do to expect students to write essays and penalize them when they don't. Another is that it's not going to be enough to restrict writing to a three-hour (or even five-hour) a week regimen: if the culture of literacy is to be absorbed, one must be immersed in it, and probably for a pretty long time. In language immersion programmes, it's common for the student to take a pledge to speak only the new language for the period of the programme. Perhaps we should all take a vow of silence. Not just writing across the curriculum, but reading, writing and silence across the curriculum.

For the student the implications are just as obvious: one is that we ought to expect it to be a slow process, proceeding (like any language learning) not in neat increments but in long fallow periods and unpredictable leaps. We ought to expect learning to occur as a result of practice, as a result of many occasions in which the student has found something he wants to say and has wanted to say it in writing. We should expect that learning will occur not as a result of explanations, but as a result of reading and writing -- of immersion in that entirely different language whose grammar includes the device whereby a writer refers back to the beginning of his essay to signal to a reader that he's reached the end.