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English Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Oral Language: Introduction

Oral language is about speaking.

This section describes what happens when people talk. For most of the time, we take oral language for granted. Young children appear to learn to speak without the intervention of parents or teachers. It just seems to happen naturally. When something goes wrong with speech - through deafness, strokes, accidents - we begin to realise what a complex achievement it is. Someone learning or teaching English as a second language will also be conscious of the complexities of oral language.

In writing this section, we were very aware of the unsuitability of the written medium for discussing spoken language. It is much easier to describe syntax and morphology because these appear in the written form of the language, which is what books are designed for. Writing involves no sound; the symbols are taken in by the eye. When we speak, however, we are using organised sounds that are taken in by the ear. It is very much harder, therefore, to convey spoken language because understanding depends on being able to hear different sounds, rhythms, and patterns of intonation. The examples need to be heard rather than seen. This part of the book can deal with only some of the concepts and information about speech and suggest other elements to look for. A videotape, entitled Oral Language, accompanies this book. We were also aware that for most teachers, the study of oral language is completely new territory. We can assume that most people have a nodding acquaintance with nouns or verbs. We cannot assume that people know much about the mechanics of speaking. However, although the unfamiliarity of the content in this section might cause some initial alarm, the material is not intrinsically difficult.

Many teachers now have in their classrooms students for whom English is a second language. To be able to assist these students with learning to speak English, it is important that teachers understand about oral language.

Our greatest use of language is in speaking. In the past, however, language study in schools concentrated almost entirely on the written language. Because of this emphasis, the written form was often perceived as somehow superior, spoken language being regarded as a poor and imperfect reflection of writing. Some early school inspectors' reports record harsh criticism of students who did not pronounce every letter in a word or who used the elisions and assimilations of natural spoken English. Such criticisms were based on false assumptions of how spoken English works. Spoken and written language are different. Although the rules of syntax described in The Grammar Toolbox apply to both spoken and written language, there are significant differences in their use.

To understand about spoken language is to understand about one of the most remarkable and versatile human faculties that unites us all, old and young, girl and boy, Maori and Pakeha, teacher and student.

Lend Me Your Ears

Students should explore and develop an understanding of phonology, including sounds, stress, and intonation.

English in the New Zealand Curriculum, page 17

Language begins with the ear. From the moment we are born, there is a strong connection between hearing language and producing language. We can readily observe the connection between hearing and speaking in a child's language development.

A new-born baby is wonderfully attuned to his or her mother's voice. In experimental studies, day-old babies were presented with three different voices: the mother's normal speaking voice; the mother's voice on a monotone; and the voice of a stranger. Each baby responded only to its mother's normal speaking voice.

Babies who are only a few days old will turn their heads towards sounds, and at two weeks they prefer human voices to non-human sounds.

Between two and four months of age, babies respond to different tones of voice - cross, cheerful, playful, soothing - and by about six months understand a few words, such as the names of family members. By twelve months, they understand a considerable number of words and, around that time, begin to produce words for themselves. Hearing people talking is extremely important for any baby's speech development. Children who cannot hear cannot develop spoken language. It is believed that about ninety-five percent of babies who are born deaf have some residual hearing, and so they are fitted with hearing aids as soon as possible to support their language development. The development of sign languages, such as American Sign Language and New Zealand Sign Language, enables deaf people to communicate manually.

A child who has normal hearing develops the sounds of speech from interaction with people close to him or her and, by doing this, lays the foundations for other oral skills, such as turn-taking in conversation.


In English, we have a certain number of sounds that are put together to make words, which we combine to make sentences.

New Zealand English has forty-four distinctive sounds. However, for an increasing number of people, there are only forty-three because they do not distinguish between ear and air.

The technical name for these forty-four or forty-three contrasting sounds is phonemes.

It is as if we had forty-four phoneme boxes in our heads.

When we listen to English, we put the sounds we hear into these boxes; and when we speak, we take the sounds from these boxes.

Exploring language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009