Sunday 24 November 2019

Spoken language: written language

The written language is not the same as the spoken language. Even if we can decode each word, it doesn't mean that we understand the syntax, sequences, clause structure, paragraph structure, narrative methods of continuous prose. How is all that learnt?

When we speak, we do a lot of things that we don't do when we write or read continuous prose (the language of stories, non-fiction, journalism, articles, reports and the like). 

When we speak and chat we do any or all of the following:

not finish the phrase, clause or sentence that we are saying;
hesitate, leaving pauses;
interrupt each other;
complete what the other person is saying or trying to say;
speak in short utterances that are not full 'grammatical' sentences (e.g. when we answer with a 'yes' or a 'perhaps' and the like but there are thousands of other examples);
repeat ourselves in many different ways;
use 'fillers' like, 'you know', 'I mean', 'you know what I mean', 'what it is, yeah' and many others;
use gestures to indicate places, people and even time;
use more pronouns without indicating immediately who we mean (he, she, it etc);
use in general fewer clauses up front in a sentence before we get to the main clause - ie not starting a piece of talk with several clauses that begin e.g. with 'when', 'if', 'although'. We find it easier when we talk to put these after the main clause (or main thought);
use fewer relative clauses (clauses that begin with e.g. 'who' or 'which' etc). We find it easier when we're speaking to start a new sentence and begin these with e.g. a 'This...' or a 'That...' or an 'It..' etc;
use intonation, volume, rhythm in our speech which we can't easily reproduce on the page- this is part of the meaning of speech; 
use many 'contractions' and shortened forms of words which in standard English we are expected to put in their full form e.g. 'I'd've' and many others that we hardly notice;

For anyone interested in this, the best thing to do is to e.g. record some people chatting about something, and then transcribe it, looking out for the details and features that I've mentioned. 

Then, compare what you have transcribed with a piece of continuous prose taken from a book, newspaper, article etc.

In the continuous prose, for example you will find that one of its key features is the way it's constructed around this thing we've invented: the sentence. This is something that was created out of the technology and history of putting argument, science, and story into written prose - especially by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Each sentence was constructed according to rules. 

One of the key features of this complex and sophisticated way of expressing ourselves is that any single given idea can be 'modified' or 'qualified' by other thoughts which tell us such things as when, where, why, how, under what conditions, under what logical contexts, and under what relative additions the single 'main' thought happens. Because these conditions are held within the sentence, there is a way in which the very idea of the sentence is to say that no single thought exists purely on its own. It is always within the circumstances, under the conditions that we add by using these other clauses of time, causation, contradiction, condition, concession and the like. 

This makes continuous prose an ideal vehicle for showing things like logic, abstract ideas, causation in history and science, and flows of feeling full of complexity, and shifts in time-frames that you find a lot in fiction, interior thought as it tries to figure out things - again, as you find a lot in fiction. 

Continuous prose in books can also sustain a longer sequence of thought than we usually do in speech: a kind of arc in meaning where events, characters, structures, narrations, patterns of language and image  are carried through over several or even many pages. We pick up clues, remember stuff that was related several or many pages earlier in order to understand what's going on as we read. We make connections that aren't necessarily stated specifically. We 'pick up' on these so that we 'get' the plot, or 'get' the shifts in character, or understand why a character is doing something based on the motives or history of that character from before. These are, if you like, the longer strategies of continuous prose. 

We can do most - if not all of this in speech but it's much harder to do it, without repeating ourselves, hesitating, interrupting ourselves or other people, asking questions of listeners as to whether they are following etc. Instead, continuous prose, avoids that stuff and just presents these logical sentences as finished and complete. This is usually done through revision: the writer revises as the writer writes and then again through re-drafting. If we revise in speech, we do it in addition to what we've just said, not instead of it. Once it's been said, it's been said. Writing therefore has an artificiality about it, in that appears to be more complete than speech and conversation - but that's only because we eliminated the revision prior to anyone reading it. 

Given how far this type of language is from the everyday speech of children and young people, I find that what I'm talking about here is what many find hard about 'reading for understanding'. 

Continuous prose is in its own way a bit like another dialect: you know it's in your own language (we're talking about English here), but these structures and operating methods seem unfamiliar or hard to follow. 

What are the consequences of this?

Some say, that the key thing to do is teach 'sentence grammar' - and loads of it, and that's how you get to learn the process. Then you import what you learnt from the sentence grammar into writing. 

Some say, me included, that the most crucial thing to do is immerse children and young people in a lot of continuous prose in its most accessible form for the children and students involved: this means as much story, and accessible non-fiction as we can get them to read. That's why it's important to encourage children and young people to read for pleasure in their spare time. 

This way, they are immersed in what I'm calling the 'strategies' of continuous prose, in enjoyable and interesting ways. Those children and young people who read widely and often find it that much easier to access the continuous prose that is given them in all school subjects.