Lynne Murphy is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex
On my second night as an American abroad, I was stereotyped in a most unexpected way. After I had held forth on who-remembers-what, my South African host expressed her admiration for the (perceived) ease with which Americans can argue fluently and cogently on a variety of topics. I had expected the negative versions of that stereotype: that Americans are loud, self-important in their ignorance, and just won't shut up. The positive version was so unexpected that the conversation has stuck with me for 27 years.
That wasn't the last time I came across that particular generalisation about my fellow Americans. For instance, in The Golden Door: Letters to America, A.A. Gill was impressed by television vox pop interviews with Americans. "When Americans talk, they talk with ease and confidence. They seem more comfortable in their own mouths than the English do."
I think about this when I come across discussions of oracy in England.* The word oracy itself is British. Invented in 1965, it never really took off in American education:
Figure 1. The word oracy in British (blue) and American (red) books
Perhaps England needed the term oracy more than the United States did. The feeling of deficit expressed by Gill (and others) demands curricular attention. It's not hard to think of cultural reasons that English/British attitudes, educational practice, or (alleged) abilities in public speaking might differ from American. These include political systems, notions of citizenship, accent biases, the existence of a National Curriculum, the use of exam-based qualifications, and the social rifts in education that lead some educational institutions (and thus ways of speaking) to be extremely overrepresented government and media. I expect that all these factors contribute to transatlantic differences in oracy and oracy education. But I'm intrigued by another difference: the degree of division between the spoken and the written.
When I asked an American schoolteacher about oracy, her answers were phrased in terms of oral literacy. This might seem like an oxymoron—how can literacy, ability with letters, be oral? But it reminded me of an argument I make in The Prodigal Tongue: The Love–Hate Relationship between British and American English, that the conception of English—as a school subject or a cultural object—has different centres in the UK and US. In England, the heart of English is literary; in the US, it's a citizenship-oriented literacy. In my book and elsewhere, I explore how English is culturally anchored in different ways and how this affects our relationships with dictionaries, with grammar and editing, and with the academic discipline of English. For example, in the UK, English is divvied up at A-level and university: English versus English Language. The real "English", the unmarked version, is the study of literature—other people's writing. In American universities, while literature is certainly what takes up most of an English degree, English departments typically also provide the first-year rhetoric and composition modules that most students have to take, regardless of their degree course. Such modules are based in a deeply held belief that the tools of effective communication and argumentation can be taught and learnt (with assiduous practice and feedback).
I'll admit it's strange to approach oracy by talking about the teaching of writing, but I was led down this path by more of A. A. Gill's stereotyping. Near the passage about Americans' comfort in their own mouths, he writes:
Most European writing—all English English writing—is about writing. It’s silent, cerebral. It has never been said out loud. It’s never meant to be heard. But read Twain or Steinbeck, Mailer, Hemingway, Updike or Wolfe, and you can hear it. It’s constantly repeated that we are countries separated by a common language, but that doesn’t sound right. What is more likely is that the Old World’s English is a written language, and the New World’s a spoken one. [my emphasis]
All of Gill's examples of American English as a 'spoken language' are written—but for him (and others) they evoke speech. The Declaration of Independence, he notes, is "a declaration, not an essay, not a paper, a missive, a memo, a Magna Carta". While it is written, it has "a clear voice that has shouted round the world: we proclaim these truths. It is from a spoken language." The US is not an oral culture, but a culture of what Walter Ong called "secondary orality". It's the orality of a literate culture, where writing is for speaking.
Figure 2. Secondary orality as a result of literacy
(slide from English in the United States module, Sussex University)
Secondary orality is endemic to literate anglophone cultures; the differences among and within Anglo cultures are slight and nuanced. The interaction of writing and speech is something that often seems to be missing in discussions of oracy, as far as I've noticed. British oracy education discourse often seems to be framed in contrast to literacy. And literacy education is heavily oriented toward reception: learning to read, comprehend and critique. Where it is oriented toward the production of writing, it is often steeped in artificiality. While I'm a great supporter of grammar teaching in the curriculum, as a parent I've been horrified to see the post-Govian National Curriculum's use of poor models of grammar in writing instruction, where students' work is assessed in terms of whether it uses "fronted adverbials" and other concepts that (from my perspective as a linguistics researcher) seem bizarrely chosen and applied. This is not writing as proclamation.
Gill was not wrong in supposing that American writing is generally more like speech than British. Sociolinguists have been tracking trends in published English, and America leads the way in many aspects of colloquialisation: the use of less formal, more speech-like expressions in writing. This is not to say that American writing is just speech in print. American English also leads the way in many aspects of linguistic densification: expressing more information in fewer words. This trend generally conflicts with colloquialisation and is in part due to a strong emphasis on editing—in other words, a very deliberate approach to communicating in writing.
I am left to wonder whether the perceived American ease with spoken argumentation is at all connected to that slightly smaller gap between the written and the spoken—both in the language and in the curriculum. Writing is an excellent tool for discovering what one thinks before one says it aloud, and if an implicit goal of writing is a colloquial style, the jump from writing to speaking might be smaller. Where literature rules notions of 'teaching English', creative writing gains, but argumentative writing is limited. Where English education incorporates rhetoric more explicitly, there is more an emphasis on the student's transferrable communication skills. If the goals and outputs in teaching writing and teaching speech are similar, then they presumably can feed into each other more easily. Writing is practice for speech; speech is practice for writing.
* I'm preferring English/England over British/Britain in this discussion, since the histories of education and the curricula differ across the British nations and my experience is mostly in England. American education historically has more in common with some aspects of Scottish education than English.
My thanks to Dawn Hedrick for her help.