Why do vocabulary sets used by one person within the same context differ as a result of the environment of execution? For example: reading, writing, speaking, listening, etc.

What are the "environments of execution" of significance that are observable?

Are there any constants in the usage clustering? For example, all spoken words are a subset of written words, but words read are not a subset of words written. I don't believe this to be the case, just giving an example.

EDIT: Limiting the scope of the question to only English is fine.

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    This is unclear; can you elaborate? What do you mean by 'defer'? Do you want to know about the difference of vocabulary between written and spoken varieties of one language or about all languages? Or are you concerened more babout differences between individuals? What is an example of an 'environment of execution'? Please give examples and context in your question to help us answer you better.
    – Mitch
    Oct 12, 2011 at 16:07
  • @Mitch: Otavio Macedo fixed the typo related to "defer"; which should have been "differ". Sticking to English is fine, and I'm interested in the average usage patterns. An examples of an 'environment of execution' are: reading, writing, speaking, listening, etc. If there's anything else that's unclear, just let me know. Thanks for the feedback.
    – blunders
    Oct 12, 2011 at 16:16
  • do you have any other environments other than spoken and written? (as it is this is way too broad a question).
    – Mitch
    Oct 12, 2011 at 16:19
  • @Mitch: Yes, as I stated, besides spoken and written "environments of execution" or vocabulary usage -- others might include reading and listening; thoughts might be another, but that's not easy to observe. Meaning that it is possible a word heard by a person might be understood, but never spoken by that person; a word that a person is able to read, might never be used in that person's writing.
    – blunders
    Oct 12, 2011 at 16:25

1 Answer 1


The question is broad so I will only try to hit some highlights.

  • Recognition is -always- easier than recall, so that one can read a word that one might not be able to produce, but not the other way (unless with some bizarre neural dysfunction). This is the case with respect to reading vs writing and separately for speaking vs listening.

  • One would think that as written language would include spoken language, because one needs more education to read/write. But it turns out that it is a classic situation of foreign language learning that one can learn to enough of the formal variety of a language to give a plenary talk at a symposium on subatomic particles, but then not be able to order a sandwich at a roadside stand.

  • yes, I agree, it is difficult to assess the vocabulary of one's thoughts without recourse to the other 'environments' (as of 2011)

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    @blunders: oh, sure, I guess 'orthographic depth' plays a role for writing. In some sense, you can have written vocabulary that doesn't even have a corresponding spoken version (not uncommon Chinese derived writing). I don't find that writing systems (as interesting as they are in their own right), have much of linguistic interest to them. Languages are spoken first and that is what linguistics studies (and learning to read a foreign language is a fairly modern and artificial act).
    – Mitch
    Oct 12, 2011 at 21:27
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    A quick google search found support for the (pretty obvious) idea that reading Chinese writing take longer to learn than reading with the Roman alphabet
    – Mitch
    Oct 12, 2011 at 22:41
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    @blunders 'written language acquisition'?! Writing systems are learned, not acquired. Writing is secondary, and parasitic on spoken (or signed) language. There is research showing that deep orthographies are harder to learn than shallow. This makes sense, as a deep orthography is one with a more complex relationship between phonemes and graphemes, so there's more to learn. Think of English compared to Finnish, or Spanish. Oct 13, 2011 at 9:35
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    @blunders Hi, within linguistics 'Language acquisition' refers to first language acquisition and 'language learning' refers to subsequent learning of a language. In language acquisition there is little (if any) 'teaching' and much learning by children is mysterious as there's no clear source or input. From this was coined the term 'the poverty of the stimulus'. Writing is never a first 'language' and is not something that occurs naturally. We wouldn't say call morse code or semaphore a language and writing is on par with those. Oct 13, 2011 at 22:35
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    @blunders Refs for 'orthography depth and difficulty of learning to read' (google that for more): 1, 2, 3. Oct 13, 2011 at 22:38

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