Language Comprehension in Speaking and Writing

What is easier to produce: easy to understand, grammatically correct, spoken language, or easy to understand, grammatically correct written language?

During my second degree I had a classmate from Italy. His wife was Brazilian, and he was studying in Britain. Despite Italian, Portuguese and English, he also spoke French, Spanish and “a smattering” of German. As a monoglot Brit, naturally I was impressed. English may have been his first non-native language, and he could speak it fluently without being misunderstood. However, when he wrote English, it always seemed awkward.

Similarly, some Chinese friends have varying levels of mastery of English. Two have perfectly functional spoken English: I am never in doubt as to what they mean. Both have error-prone written English. Another Chinese friend, with much less proficiency in English, can be understood with an effort face-to-face, but is often impossible to understand in an email.

This is surprising on the face of it: after all, when writing, you normally have more time to think through what you want to say.

Last year, my favourite blogger wrote this about real patterns of speech:

Words and whole phrases go missing, replaced by hand-waving, face-pulling, and other gestures. Sentence structure goes awry, taking second place to the exigency of breath control and the random twists and turns of thought, almost as if — hey where did I put my — wait, not there, there — we don’t think (or communicate) in formal grammatical sentences.

The truth (which we are carefully trained to ignore, from the very start of our reading age) is that casual speech doesn’t follow the formal rules of grammar or the structure of rhetoric.

Charles Stross, A writing experiment I plan to try

While I’ve never tried transcribing a recording of natural speech, I find this very easy to believe. I also suspect that we (or at least I) are more sensitive to poor English in writing than in speaking. So now I don’t think that people learning English as a foreign language speak worse than they write. Instead, I think we anticipate and deal with ambiguous or ungrammatical speech more easily than we deal with equally bad text.

Presumably this is because we can pick up on the “hand-waving, face-pulling and other gestures” to help our understanding of speech, but we have no extra cues to help us understand speech. So to answer my original question, I think that easy to understand, grammatically correct speech is easier to produce than easy to understand, grammatically correct writing, but the two are not word-for-word the same.

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