Fluency and literacy

Is it possible to achieve spoken fluency in a second language without being able to read it?

This question was sent in by Ian McGilloway and comes, in part, from a discussion he had on holiday where the local staff at a diving company in a small fishing village on an island spoke pretty good English with English accents but could barely read and write. He wondered how far they could take their range of language and if they would plateau out without the extra input from reading.

He thinks it possible to speak a second/foreign language fluently without being literate in it, but it would be considerably easier if you could read it. Largely because the range of vocabulary you’d be exposed to would be far greater. In particular, with languages which have different registers that depend on the social status of people in the group and so on.

In some cases language learners might learn to read a language only in transliteration if it’s written with a different alphabet or other writing system. This is especially true for Chinese and Japanese. They can achieve spoken fluency in such languages, I think, but might miss out on some literary aspects.

Have you learnt to speak any languages without learning to read them?

Or conversely have you learnt to read any languages without learning to speak them?

13 thoughts on “Fluency and literacy

  1. Only about a third of the world’s languages have a written form so there are many thousands of languages spoken across the world that you can only learn by speaking and hearing them. I have met (and worked with as a linguist) Australian Aboriginal people who speak 5 or 6 languages (including English) with no difficulty and yet are not literate in any of them. There is no connection between a language being written and being able to learn to speak it. Speakers of European and large Asian languages tend to have a hang up about literacy.

    It is also possible to learn to read a language without speaking it — generations of students of Classical languages have demonstrated that. For my linguistic research work in Indonesia I have learnt to read Dutch though I cannot have a conversation in it.

  2. I have some friends in Thailand that have lived there their whole life, but they parents are not Thai, and they speak Thai fluently. they are even good translators (english-thai-english) but cannot read a word in Thai neither write.

  3. I am learning to read Chinese before learning to speak it. I want to learn several dialects soon but I am concentrating on written first.

    Written Chinese is quite independent of the spoken forms.

  4. I imagine this is a condition you’ll find in the children of immigrants, who may learn to speak a language but not read or write it.

    My mother tongue is Hindi, which I spoke fluently till the age of 5, whereupon I moved to Canada. I did not learn to read Hindi until much, much later in life — most immigrant children probably don’t bother to do so. I tend to agree that not having been able to read Hindi did stunt my fluency in the language and to appreciate classical literature.

  5. I have to agree that it’s possible and that the language skills are very much dependant on the ways of acquiring the language. When learning English years ago, most of my input was reading and most practice writing. For a few years I’ve been using English at work, but only in the written form. I’ve only had few conversations (literally) at that time. I felt confident in reading and writing, but not at all in speaking. Even after 2 years of living in an English speaking country, my spoken English is still lagging behind my reading and writing skills. When I compare writing skills of people who have similar spoken fluency to mine, there is usually big difference in favour of my writing.
    Quite opposite to that, the way I’ve learned to speak Czech was only through interaction with real people. I’ve moved to a foreign country, alone, with no friends and after ending up in in a house with group of Czech people, very close friends to each other, I quickly became friends with them. As they were in majority and using their native language between themselves, it was only natural thing for me to adapt. After one year I was able to easily understand their language and express my opinions most of the time. I felt comfortable to talk about almost anything with them. That was nothing I was working on or planning to achieve, it just happened naturally. What’s important, while being quite comfortable using spoken language I was hopeless at reading and writing. I only knew how the words sounded but never learned how they were written.

    Here’s an interesting story of a guy who learned to speak very good Hebrew just by interaction with native speakers (he never learned to read or write):

  6. That hebrew article is very interesting. Of course reading is very helpful, especially if you are in a context where you have limited spoken imput, and it´s necesary to be able to write well. I actually started reading books in my second week of Spanish (the first one as a book on the history of latin america,and then I moved onto detective novels). I´d read at near english speed, looking up words only when I couldn´t guess a suitable meaning.

    With the Hebrew example, it´s important that he was getting pretty much daily extended exposure in the context of friendship,and getting corrections, which often, so often, does not learn, especially if your status is higher than the people you are spending time with.

    It would be interesting to know more about the 4 natives who listened to his conversation: so much of people´s perception of accents/fluency is about THEM, not the speaker.

    I have experience of learning languages I don´t speak (Latin, classical hebrew, classical greek). For me this is a nightmare, and my big regret of my master/ PhD was not taking 3 months out twice over to learn the modern forms of Hebrew and Greek. Oh well. 😉 I´m finding that really digging into a language is more rewarding that having smatterings of a dozen.

  7. I’ve had experience of both (learning a language exclusively by speaking or reading)…

    I spent a couple of months in Malawi two years ago, living among people who spoke chiTumbuka. I learned a fair bit of it – entirely by ear, without reading it. Coming from a Gaelic/English background, it was difficult to absorb a lot of the vocabulary (without seeing it written) as none of it bore any resemblance to Indo-European language.

    When I was doing my theology degree, I learned to read and write Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew. My speaking ability in both is abysmal!!

    For my PhD, I have had to learn to read Dutch and I can speak it at the level of a 4 year old child.

    Also, my wife’s first language is Gaelic. She did all of her primary school education in Gaelic, though she could speak English fluently by the time she was about 6 or 7. She didn’t learn to read or write English until she was about 10 or 11, I think.

  8. For learners of Thai, in response No.2, I think it’s different. Even many foreigners learn Thai without knowing the alphabet, they still use transcripted text material. So it mean they don’t absolutely learn the language only by speaking and listening.

    But I think it’s possible to learn language with only speaking and listening. As in response No.1, I also heard that people from hill tribes learn languages of each other. And of course, they do not have text material. But they still can speak fluently.

  9. I agree with Vickram that . Some of the students I teach came to Canada at an early age. They speak their home language fluently but cannot read. In particular, I’m thinking of a student from Hong kong and a Tamil speaking student from Sri Lanka.

    I also have a friend from Sri Lanka whose first language is Singhalese. She studied English at university and went on to become a lecturer in English. She can read Singhalese but is much more comfortable with English. If there is a book by a Singhalese author she wants to read, she looks for the English translation.

    I also agree with Peter Austin when he says that Europeans and Asians have a hang up about the written form. In fact, I get the feeling that many Chinese speakers are talking only about the writing system when they talk about Chinese, and that speaking is some ephermeral side effect of The Language.

    I don’t think not being able to read and write need necessarily adversely affect someone’s language learning ability. You can get great vocab from watching BBC world and then asking a native speaker.

    While it is natural to learn a language while not being able to read or write, being able to read a language while not getting an opportunity to speak it is extremely difficult. I’ve been plugging away at Old English and Old Norse now for 12 years and wouldn’t be able to pass a GCSE in any of the skill areas. Some people manage to do it, but it isn’t natural.

    Don’t forget, we only invented writing about a few thousand years ago.

  10. I have a friend who learnt how to read Mandarin Chinese without learning how to speak the language. Since Chinese Characters are unique ‘pictures’, a Chinese text seems like a series of pictures to her. She learnt enough characters to read Chinese newspapers without knowing how they sound like. However, she speaks conversational Cantonese.

  11. “I have a friend who learnt how to read Mandarin Chinese without learning how to speak the language. Since Chinese Characters are unique ‘pictures’, a Chinese text seems like a series of pictures to her. She learnt enough characters to read Chinese newspapers without knowing how they sound like. However, she speaks conversational Cantonese.”

    As a native Mandarin-Chinese speaker, that seems rather unbelievable to me and very similar to the myth of Chinese characters being “just pictures”…

    With that said though, I’d be interested to learn about any formal studies being done to see how difficult or easy, and if possible, to learn JUST written Chinese.

  12. Weili: Unbelivable? Why? I know many people who can just read and write english, why do you think it is impossible with chinese?

  13. I know many phrases and even some conversational pieces in many languages which I do not speak, and definitely cannot read. Think Mandarin. I know several phrases in Mandarin but if you showed me the written characters, I would be clueless. I think this can happen in almost any language, though I admit, for me to actually learn a language, I need to read and write it too, which I find does help with speaking.

    As far as the reverse situation, I am sure this happens just as if not more frequently. I speak Spanish, but can read reasonably well almost any major romance language (Romanian being somewhat an exception). I would think the same would hold true for German speakers with Dutch, and much moreso with Norwegian/Danish, etc.

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