Everybody is a Native Speaker, Nobody is a Native Writer

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Does writing English cause you pain? Maybe that’s because you’re not a native writer of English. But then, none of us is a native writer of anything. We all learned to talk before we could write. Linguists say that, in a real sense, written English is a different language than spoken English. That’s true of every language. Writing down your words changes what you’re saying. For one thing, your tone of voice disappears.

Written letters and characters may not correspond directly to the sounds of speech (especially true of English, unfortunately). Readers are less tolerant of missing or added words than listeners. A speech may make sense to the original audience members and even move their hearts, but the initial transcript may seem shockingly illiterate and even incomprehensible: “And the reason… you know… not that I would recommend… no, I’m serious…”

When students have trouble learning a foreign language, it’s often because their teachers treat the written language as primary, when actually the spoken language is primary. Chinese was considered a forbidding language for Westerners (“all those characters!”) until people such as Henry C. Fenn and Gardner M. Tewksbury at Yale’s Institute of Far Eastern Languages had the brilliant idea of teaching their students to speak Chinese before teaching them to write it. From personal experience, I can testify that they were right. To me, Chinese is simpler and more sensible than many other languages, especially I never had to learn to write it. (I still have problems with pronouncing tones, which change the meaning. But all Westerners do.)

What prompted my thinking about writing vs. speaking was a question from a reader named Linda, who read my article The Yiddish Handbook: 40 Words You Should Know, and asked,

“If a Jewish person was singing, what language would they sing in: Hebrew or Yiddish? I sort of thought that Hebrew was the written language, but Yiddish was the spoken language of the Jewish people – but I don’t really know. Thank you!

I answered:

They usually sing in their native language – most Jews aren’t fluent in either Hebrew or Yiddish. But Hebrew is the official language of the state of Israel, and Yiddish is the common language of the haredi, commonly called the ultra-Orthodox. So there are popular Jewish songs in both languages. Of course, Hebrew is the language of religion, and was often considered “fancier” or more formal than Yiddish, so it might be used for certificates and so on. Chants and prayers during worship are in Hebrew, and Yiddish is written in the Hebrew alphabet, but Eastern European Jewish folk songs and klezmer songs usually have Yiddish titles or lyrics.

Hebrew is an example of a religious language that is read more than it is spoken. In my experience, many young Jewish people learn Hebrew only well enough to read it (often shakily) for their bar mitzvah ceremony. In Eastern Europe churches, Slavic Orthodox worshippers use the Church Slavonic language, but they don’t speak it outside church. Language acquisition expert Tom Brewster told me that conservative Protestant Christians are able to understand the 1611 King James Bible only because they’ve become “partially bilingual” in Elizabethan English. I’m told that citizens of Greece can understand the first century Greek Bible about as well.

Just as Muslims pray in Arabic without necessarily speaking it, for centuries Roman Catholics prayed in Latin. At first the language of the church service was simply a formal version of the Vulgar Latin (sermo vulgaris, “folk speech”) spoken in Europe. But over the centuries, as Vulgar Latin evolved into languages such as Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan and Romansh, Catholic worshippers understood less and less of what the priest was saying. In the 1960’s the Vatican began to allow the Mass to be said in local languages.

Writing coaches often urge their students, “Write the way you talk,” and that’s good advice. Your writing can be friendly and conversational, just as your speaking is. Aim to be understood, not to impress, in both your writing and speaking. But understand that written English and spoken English are two slightly different languages. When you write them down, your words can become even more expressive and precise than if you spoke them.

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6 thoughts on “Everybody is a Native Speaker, Nobody is a Native Writer”

  1. Hi Michael,

    You have given me a gift of hope. For some weird reason I started to write a blog novel in English, which is not my first language. Critics came, good and not so good.

    But when I read a critic telling me that they could not understand my writing, I was devastated. I felt I would never be able to learn to write fiction in English.

  2. Your point about losing the tone of voice is very important. The use, or overuse, of e-mail and resulting arguments can be a good illustration of this effect. Take a look at if you want to see how I described this small part of your overall point. An excellent post as always (your’s, that is, not mine).

  3. Your web site is excellent. I teach students from all over the world- including Engliand – to write essays in English academic language. They vary in skill from the Iranian and Russians to the undergrads with such heavy dialects that their spoken language doesn’t sound like English often! Oh yes, and all of them are dyslexic! Thanks fro your help. This article is reassuring.

  4. I teach at a Jr. High school in Japan and have noticed a few problems from switching between speaking and writing. In Japan, most Jr. High text books are filled with informal and conversational writing. They are often short skits and are filled with grammatically incorrect sentences (i.e. they lack a subject or there is an over use of contractions). The written form and the spoken form seem to be taken as the same thing. Students are being taught that sentence fragments are sentences albeit indirectly.

  5. Hey man, great job you are doing here. I just got kicked out of a content mill where I write due to the fact that my writing quality is not as good of a native speaker. I contemplated quitting writing, but you have just pulled a string inside of me and I am challenged not to quit. I’ll be back when people clamor for my write ups.

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