observations and thoughts on spoken language

Two women conversing on a bench.

I’ve recently been doing some transcription work as part of an evaluation of a training program. It’s rarely necessary, at least in an instructional design context, to review specific statements from subject matter experts or members of the target audience at this level of detail. The anthropologist in me revels in this work, though, in spite of the time-consuming labor it requires.

The thing that fascinates me is how people use spoken language. Speech doesn’t work at all like written language, really. A written message can be revisited as many times as the writer wants. It can be pruned and polished until it conveys the writer’s message in as perfect a manner as possible.

People revise when they speak, too, only it happens in the moment, as they are speaking. It’s commonly said that you can’t take back something you’ve said, but if you listen to people, you’ll notice that they loop back on themselves all the time: restating things, correcting, clarifying. You’ll hear someone struggle for a moment or two, trying to express a particular thought in just the right way … and then suddenly she’s got it and she’s racing ahead again, the words coming in an easy flow. And then she’ll hit another critical point, and again she’ll have to linger while she works out a phrase, the articulation improving with each attempt, her ideas becoming more and more concrete ….

When you’re listening closely to speech like this—such as when you are trying transcribe the spoken word into the written word—you can really appreciate the rhythms this real-time revision creates. It’s a rhythm you rarely find in writing, a rhythm that’s perhaps not always well-suited to writing. I find it compelling that you’re able to trace the speaker’s path as he works through an idea, like following a trail of breadcrumbs.

The other thing that amazes me as I’ve listened through these interviews is how universal a skill language is. We think of writing as being a special skill that sets certain individuals apart as “writers,” but almost all of us are speakers. We all strive to be understood through the things we say. Some are more practiced and more eloquent than others, but everyone has something to say, and everyone has their own distinctive voice with which to say it.

Again, the comparison with writing—writing skills and writing processes—is something that interests me. How similar are written and spoken language? How transferable are the skills? How can we improve one by thinking about the other?

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