Few speak English well.
Far fewer write well.
That’s what I’ve seen time and again among people from multiple walks of life.
(Note that speaking here refers to regular conversations we hold and not to public speaking. And writing doesn’t mean SMS or quick 2-3 line emails. It means writing paragraphs, essays, reports, proposals, and the like.)
I’ve spoken to and reviewed application essays for international MBA programs from people working in reputable organizations, including multinational companies. I found most to be fluent speakers, but, by and large, only few could write well. And here I’m not talking of people working in any random organization. I’m talking of top-notch organizations, where we expect employees to have impeccable speaking as well as writing skills.
I’ve also reviewed writings of people from academia, government, students, and few other backgrounds, and I’ve found the same pattern repeating – huge gap between spoken and written English.
However, most aren’t even aware where their written English stands. When you ask people to compare their spoken and written English, only few say their written English lags significantly.
Why is writing more difficult than speaking for most people?
(Note that I’m not saying writing is more difficult to acquire than speaking. I’m only saying that most people are better at speaking than at writing because of few reasons. Most people, in fact, will find speaking tougher to master because of affective filter – hesitation, fear of making mistakes, etc. – and producing an output in real time. Some theorists such as Bailey and Savage suggest that speaking is the most demanding of the four language skills.)
I’ve observed two clear reasons, and both are so commonsensical.
1. Fewer naturally-occurring opportunities to write than to speak
Consider your daily routine.
How many opportunities to speak in English come your way naturally in a day? It’ll depend on your circumstances, but at least few.
What about writing?
Few emails. Plenty of SMSs. Comments on social media. That’s it, for vast majority.
But do they count as writing?
‘Thru’ instead of ‘through’. ‘Ur’ instead of ‘your’.
‘Let’s meet at 4 PM in the conference hall.’
‘What’s the status of the project?’
Few short sentences, at best. Sometimes, not even complete sentences.
You may be writing 500 words every day – which, BTW, is significant – but such fast and junk writing isn’t writing. We get better at what we do regularly and here you get better at writing junk… not regular writing. You’ll struggle to put together few simple sentences to form a coherent paragraph if you’ve only texted and emailed. Many, BTW, aren’t aware that their writing is not up to the mark. They probably believe all the texting they do to be writing.
A good parallel to speak vs. write opportunity will be walk vs. run opportunity in our daily lives.
Without making conscious effort, you’ll get at least few opportunities to walk every day, something similar to opportunity to speak. But without making conscious effort, you’ll rarely run, something similar to opportunity to write. This rings the words of Steven Pinker, the popular science author:
The real problem is that writing, unlike speaking, is an unnatural act.
To sum this part, in the natural course of your work, you get few opportunities to speak, but hardly any to write. As a result, we speak more than we write, and at the fundamental level it’s number of hours we spend doing an activity that determines how good, or bad, we’re in that activity.
It may sound baffling to you, but precisely for this reason even Americans (who can obviously speak well) struggle in writing in English. In U.S., you’ll find many more businesses offering products and services to improve writing and reading than speaking because the market for the former (natives as well as immigrants) is much bigger than for the latter (mainly immigrants).
However, on average, Americans are much better in writing than people from countries such as India (where writing isn’t practiced enough) because their education system, especially undergrad and grad programs, requires lots of reading and writing. Courses there typically have multiple minor writing projects and few major research papers running into several thousand words.
You become what you practice.
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2. Writing is more rule-based and therefore is harder
Writing is more complex than speaking, which makes the former inherently harder. To quote Carol Chomsky, American linguist who studied language acquisition in children:
The written language is potentially of a more complex nature than speech, both in vocabulary and syntax.
Unless you’re participating in a debate where you’re expected to follow a structure, not fumble, and not make mistakes, you can speak your own sweet way on most occasions. In most conversations, you don’t think too hard on how you’ll structure your conversation. You just start speaking spontaneously, interject occasionally, and respond to others’ points. You can use fillers. You can use fragments (or non-sentences). And more.
That’s why transcripts of conversations are full of embarrassing mistakes, if viewed from the lens of writing. Tim Ferriss, in his book Tools of Titans, underscores this point when he says how awful transcripts (written version of his podcast episodes) of his conversations with guests on his podcast look:
Transcripts can be unforgiving. I’ve read my own, so I know how bad it can be.
In the heat of the moment, grammar can go out of the window, to be replaced by false starts and sentence fragments. Everyone starts an ungodly number of sentences with “And” or “So”. I and millions of others tend to use “and I was like” instead of “and I said.” Many of us mix up plural and singular. This all works fine in conversation, but it can hiccup on the printed page.
But writing is different. While speech is transient, writing is permanent. People can subject your writing to forensic scrutiny. Punctuation. Vocabulary. Grammar. Flow. And so on.
You can get away with this while speaking:
“I gotta leave now but I’ll see you tomorrow same time.”
But readers will frown if you write the same way. You would be better off writing the above sentence as:
“I have to leave now, but I’ll see you tomorrow at the same time.”
You’ve got rid of the conversational ‘gotta’ and introduced a comma. Punctuations get noticed when reading, but only fleetingly (through pauses) when listening. If you leave a single space before a punctuation mark (like with this comma) , it’ll be noticed.
We associate Greenpeace International with many battles they’ve fought against large organizations violating environmental norms. But the organization states that it has a larger goal of ensuring life in all its diversity on the planet. BTW, it’s a non-governmental organization and it has offices in over 39 countries.
Most of us associate Greenpeace International, a non-governmental organization with offices in over 39 countries, with its crusades against organizations that violate environmental norms. The organization, however, states its goal to be much more encompassing: “ensure the ability of the Earth to nurture life in all its diversity”.
Can you guess which one is more likely to be part of conversation and which, part of writing?
The latter is part of writing.
Do you see the difference?
In the conversation, the additional information of Greenpeace being a non-governmental organization has been added casually toward the end. Whereas in written form, it has been added as an appositive (a non-governmental… countries).
Second, conversations rarely use words or phrases showing relationship between clauses, sentences, or paragraphs outside of the regular ones such as and, but, and because. Phrases such as however and nonetheless are rarely used in conversations even though they may be more appropriate in a particular situation. (What about you? Do you use such phrases in speech?)
Third, in the written form, Greenpeace’s goal has been quoted as it is and therefore has been put in quotes. This isn’t a requirement – you can write in own words as well – but you can’t do it if you don’t know the punctuation rule for quotations.
Few more points of difference that make writing tougher:
1. One needs to organize and reorganize sentences and paragraphs to bring structure and compactness to writing. Speaking though can be free-flowing, loose, and even repetitive. As linguist Michael Halliday said:
The complexity of speech is choreographic – an intricacy of movement. That of writing is crystalline – a denseness of matter.
2. Writing requires higher degree of clarity and precision because you don’t have the luxury of visual cues, pauses, and intonation.
3. Subordinate clauses and other means to add variety in sentences occur more frequently in written form than in spoken. (Too many short and disjointed sentences can work in conversations, but not in writing.)
This section can be summarized through this extract from Caroline Goyder’s book Find Your Voice: The Secret to Talking with Confidence in Any Situation:
Speaking is a flow of energy: fluid, changing, alive, imperfect. Writing is fixed on the page: perfect, finished.
One is imperfect; the other is perfect.
Most people are better at speaking than writing because there are far fewer opportunities to practice writing while going through the rigmarole of our lives. Secondly, writing requires sticking to many rules and nuances than speaking does.