The characteristics of spoken language

Some courses fail the learners in that they fail to distinguish between spoken and written language. The litmus test for this assertion is to ask whether the syllabus/curriculum treats spoken language as something distinct from written language with its own grammar, syntax and lexicon. If productive skills work is a vehicle for the teaching of structures rather than training for skill and sub-skill acquisition then the course would probably have to be described as a grammar based course, no matter how communicative it is hyped up to be.

Here then, are some of the features of spoken language as I have identified them.

  • It is both time-bound, and dynamic. It is part of an interaction in which both participants are usually present, and the speaker has a particular addressee or addressees in mind.

  • The complexity and speed of most speech acts make it difficult to engage in complex advance planning. The pressure to think whilst speaking promotes looser construction, repetition, redundancies: fillers, hesitations and rephrasings and.

  • Sentence boundaries are at best unclear though intonation and pause divide long discourse into more manageable chunks.

  • Participants are usually face-to-face and so can rely on feedback (extra-linguistic cues to aid meaning). The lexicon of speech is usually characteristically vague using words which refer specifically to the situation. Deictic (see: deixis) expressions are very commonly used, for example: that one, in here, right now.

  • Spoken language makes greater use of shared knowledge than written language.

  • Many words and constructions are characteristic of, especially informal, speech. Lengthy co-ordinate sentences (joining sentences with co-ordinates such as “and” are normal and are often of considerable complexity. Nonsense vocabulary is often not written and may have no standard spelling (whatchamacallit). Obscenity may be replaced with graphic euphemism (S*D *T).

  • Speech is very suited to social (phatic – i.e. “chewing the fat”) functions, such as passing the time of day or “creating an atmosphere” or any situation where unplanned and casual discourse is desirable. It is also good at expressing social relationships, opinions, and attitudes in part due to the vast range of nuances, which can be expressed by prosody and accompanying non-verbal features.

  • There is an opportunity to rethink an utterance whilst it is in progress. However, errors once spoken cannot be undone. As such, the interlocutor must live with the consequences.

  • Negotiation of meaning is common and often a large part of any conversation.

  • Interruptions and overlapping are normal and are generally very common.

  • Frequently displays ellipsis.

  • Speech makes use of many formulaic expressions.

  • Speech acts are usually considered ungrammatical in terms of traditional Latin-based grammars. Modern grammars, namely socio-linguistic analysis of natural language, take an entirely different view however.

  • Negotiation of topic is also very important: yes but…, anyway…, right then…,

  • Interlocutors give and receive immediate feedback.

  • It has many routines and this can make it very predictable. For example you never say, “Give me a banana” in a bread shop. But, each situation has its own discourse which have been historically and socially defined.

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