I took a few semesters of Mandarin in college. It was a lot of fun. The thing is, the curriculum was mainly focused around reading and writing, and there wasn’t a whole lot speaking and listening going on.
In my opinion, a lot of school language curricula focus too much on reading and writing and not enough on speaking and listening. In a way, it’s hard to blame them. It’s much easier to give a test on reading and writing proficiency than on speaking and listening skill. Unfortunately, as I mentioned last week, the way we go about learning languages in schools is usually not optimal for actually learning the language, and the cramming-testing-forgetting model is just one reason.
Here’s why focusing on reading and writing, at the expense of speaking and listening, is a problem:
Different skills involved
Humans have been capable of oral language for around fifty thousand years, give or take. Written language has only been around for a few thousand years, and most of that time only a very small proportion of people could use it. In fact, to this day there are still many languages that have no writing system, but that are, by definition, spoken by all their speakers.
Written language is a development patterned directly after spoken language. Some writing systems, such as the ones used in Korean and Spanish, are highly phonetically correlated to their spoken forms. Other systems, such as the ones used in Chinese, some Japanese, and, to a much lesser extent, English, sacrifice phonetic correlation for a variety of reasons, such as retaining etymological spellings, or because of dialectal variation.
All written languages exist as tools to preserve speech in time. Whereas speaking and listening are exercises that involve timeliness, with reading and writing, you can take as long as you want, and go back and reread or rewrite the written material if you need to, as many times as you want.
The thing is, speaking and listening use mental processes that aren’t used when reading and writing, so if you’re learning your language in order to talk to real, live, people, then you’ll have to use certain skills you won’t develop if you focus mainly on reading and writing.
Overextending yourself early on
Here’s another thing worth considering: because written and oral language use different mental processes, and the difference depends on how phonetic the writing system is, you might be overexerting yourself trying to learn to speak, understand, read, and write in the language all at the same time.
Let’s use Mandarin as an example, because it has one of the least transparently phonetic writing systems, although this could also apply to languages with scripts you merely haven’t been able to learn yet, such as Arabic or Hindi. When you learn a new vocabulary word in Chinese, you have to learn how to say the word and how to write it.
This means that for every word you learn, you have to keep track of two new facts, effectively doubling the work you have to do. If, instead of trying to learn all these new words and how to write them all at once, you first learned how to speak and understand the language, and then, after you have a decent grasp of the words, you learned how to read and write the language, a lot of the guesswork will be done for you. You’ll have created mental stepping stones to get you to your goal, rather than trying to reach it all in one leap.
Here’s where we get into the “yeah, but”s. If you can’t read at all in the language, you limit yourself to valuable input. In the Mandarin Chinese example, there is a commonly used Romanization system called pinyin, which uses the Latin letters familiar to speakers of European languages to write Mandarin, but it’s much less common to find books, news articles, blogs, etc., in pinyin than in Chinese characters.
If you’re learning the language to further your business prospects, you’ll most likely want to learn to read and write eventually. And of course, if your language goal is purely to learn to read the language, such as for literature in languages such as Biblical Hebrew or Classical Latin, then the advice here is basically moot.
I don’t mean to suggest that you should avoid learning to read and write. Just remember to not overextend yourself in the written language at the expense of the spoken language. Don’t use relatively decent writing and listening proficiency as an excuse for poor speaking and listening. After all, what use is it to be able to read street signs in your language if you’re unable to actually speak to the people you learned the language in order to be able to communicate with in the first place?