Halliday on Spoken and Written Language

language and education hallidayThis blog serves as a repository of my favorite quotes and a few notes on Halliday, M. A. K. (1989). Spoken and written language.  Oxford University Press and Language and Education, Volume 9 in the Collected Works of M.A.K. Halliday, (2007).

Both Vygotsky and Halliday came to the same conclusions about the role of language in learning even though they did their thinking in different disciplines: one in psychology and the other one in linguistics. In the example below, they converged on the role of the oral language as a tool for learning, not a final product, but a vehicle for learning.

Halliday (1989) said “Traditionally the first task of the school has been to ensure that children can read and write. Once a child is literate, it is assumed that he or she can use written language as a tool for learning, in the same way that he or she has always learnt through spoken language. In fact, until recently it would never have been expressed like that; the spoken language was given little or no recognition in educational thinking, and was certainly not thought of as a vehicle for learning. Even today, though speech has been given a place in the classroom, it is seen more as a skill desirable in itself (the need to be articulate, or ‘orate’, to get on life) than as essential equipment for learning other things” (Halliday, (1989). p. 97). Vygotsky also stressed the importance of social interactions as a tool which mediates learning.  He claimed that cognitive development and stems from social interactions.  Likewise, language for Vygotsky was a social concept that developed from interactions.

Here are some of my favorite quotes on the importance of spoken language and differences between spoken and written language.

 “Most of what we learn, we learn through language.  This is true even of our commonsense knowledge, all that we learn before, and outside of, our schooling: but it is especially true of educational knowledge.  Language is so central to the whole of the educational process that its role was never even talked about, since no one could conceive of education without it.”

At the same in their practice teachers have always shown recognition of the learning potential of the spoken language, because they have expected their pupils to listen to them.  Furthermore, they have assigned a certain place to speech in their classroom activities.  In part, this has been determined by the pattern of speech roles that the spoken language sets up: it is quicker and more effective to check whether a student knows the answer by asking a question orally in class than by setting a written test every time.  But there is more to it than that.  Anyone who teaches has a sense of what is communicated by speaking and what is communicated by writing; and the two are not identical.  If we start with the general notion of learning through language, then some learning takes place more effectively through the spoken language and some through the written.

Of course, there are individual differences in learning style – some learn more through the ear, others through the eye.  And there are differences in teaching style; a teacher may be more at home in one or the other medium.

“But above and beyond these differences are the different world views that are embodied in speech and writing.  Put from the learner’s point of view: reading/writing and listening/speaking are different ways of learning because they are different ways of knowing.”  Halliday (1989, p. 97)


The written language presents a SYNOPTIC view.  It defines its universe as product rather than a process.  Whether we are talking about a triangle, the layout of a house, or the organization of a society, the written language encodes it as a structure or, alternatively, as a chaos – but either way, as a thing that exits.  In principle, we can freeze it, attend to it, and take it in as a whole.  The cost of this perspective may be some simplifying of the relationship among its parts, and a lesser interest in how it got the way it is, or in where it is going next (p. 97).


The spoken language presents a DYNAMIC view.  It defines its universe primarily as process, encoding it not as a structure but as constructing – or demolishing.  In the spoken language, phenomena do not exist, they happen.  They are seen as coming into being, changing, moving in and out of focus, and as interacting in a continuous onward flow.  The cost of this perspective is that we may have less awareness of how things actually are, at a real or imaginary point in time’ and a lessened sense of how they stay that way (p. 98).

“In the literate culture, we tend not to take the spoken language seriously.  This is not surprising, since not only has writing taken over many of the high prestige functions of language in our society, but also our highly valued texts are now all written ones.  Written records have replaced oral memories as the repositories of collective wisdom and of verbal art.”

“[Traditional] Linguistics has played a significant part in sanctifying the written language.  It is only after language is written down that it becomes an object accessible to conscious attention and systematic study; so grammar begins with writing, and it codifies the written language.  The so-called ‘traditional grammar’ that came into the ‘grammar schools’ was a theory of written language.”

That’s why Halliday spent a considerable amount of his theory development by describing the grammar of the spoken language and giving it prominence in linguistics.

“Since in writing we only preserve the final draft, such a grammar gives an idealized picture of what language is like.  Furthermore, it tends to be used in a normative way, as an ideal that everyone should strive to attain.  And as there are always plenty of people around who cannot attain [or are not interested in attaining] that ideal – children, dialect speakers, foreigners, the illiterate – it provides a useful means for evaluation, of separating the verbally sophisticated sheep from the ungrammatical goats” (p. 97-98).

The quote above is not meant to say that we should be judging people, but that’s what happens: people use the written form of language to judge others who have no use for developing the written mode when all of their life revolves around using the spoken mode which is governed by different rules.

“Learning is essentially a process of construing meanings; and the cognitive component in learning is a process for constructing linguistic meanings – semantic systems and semantic structures.  These systems of meaning, the ideational and interpersonal realities that we create in and through language, embody, … two complementary perspectives: the synoptic and the dynamic.  When we learn anything, we construe it simultaneously as a universe of things and as a universe of processes – doing and happening.  We can think of this most easily in relation to a piece of machinery: in order to understand a machine, we need a synoptic view of its construction as an organic whole, out of parts and parts of parts, and we need a dynamic view of what it performs and how it works” p. 98.

The last quotes are from Language and Education, Volume 9, 2007.

“There has been a considerable amount of research into the role and functions of spoken language in non-literate cultures. But because of the great prestige of writing, there has been very little notice taken of the role of speech in literate cultures. And yet we do not stop talking, when we are able to read and write; and – what is important here – we do not stop learning through talk. … We have to take seriously the contention that people learn by using language. … But while the written language is good for organizing dense and complex structures, which we can work on in our own time and with fully conscious minds, spoken language is good for following intricate chains of argument that move along at a rapid pace and may even remain slightly below the level of our conscious attention” (Halliday, Language and Education, p. 302).

And my favorite quote of how Halliday describes spoken and written language:

“So, while speech and writing can both be very complex, the complexities tend to be of different kinds. The complexity of speech is choreographic – an intricacy of movement. That of writing is crystalline – a denseness of matter. In linguistic terms, spoken language is characterized by complex sentence structures with low lexical density (more clauses, but fewer high content words per clause); written language by simple sentence structures with high lexical density (more high content words per clause, but fewer clauses). We could express this even more briefly, though at the cost of distorting it somewhat, by saying that speech has complex sentences with simple words, while writing has complex words in simple sentences. The difference, it should be said very clearly, is one of degree; I am far from wishing to suggest that spoken and written language are separate, discrete phenomena. They are both manifestations of the same underlying system. We all know speakers, and writers, who manage to achieve both kinds of complexity at once!

What I have been illustrating are general tendencies; and I have chosen examples which display rather clearly the differences I have been discussing. Most texts lie some way in between.” Halliday, Language and Education, Vol. 9, p.77.


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