This week I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Prof. Roland Carter at the School of Education here at the University of Leicester. This was a privilege indeed because he is a well-known linguist, famous worldwide for his publications on English language teaching.
In a nutshell, his argument is that, considering the considerable differences between the most frequent words in written and spoken English, if we want our students to be fluent speakers we have to teach them to use the words and expressions that are used by competent, fluent users of spoken English.
Certainly this position raises a number of other issues such as the status of native speakers and their prerogative to determine the priority we give to their form of speech. We should also consider then on which corpora should we base our selection of the most frequent spoken words, and to what extent existing corpora represent the language spoken in the contexts in which our students live and interact. Certainly we have more questions than answers, also because, as Professor Carter pointed out, we still know very little about spoken language since just in the last few decades technology has allowed us to record it.
There is one thing thought that I’m not so sure about. He said that our communication is becoming increasingly oral. There is little doubt that visual/audio interaction are booming as never before, but at the same time is the written language. People have never read and written so much: more and more books are published each year, and we are drowning in newspapers, magazines, webpages, blogs, wikis, chats, mobile texts, tweets, you name it. I do not have statistics, but my impression is that technology is not killing written communication; on the contrary, it is taking it to unimaginable levels and hybrid forms.