To read or not to read: the importance of reading and writing in language-learning

It is a common misconception among second-language learners that acquisition depends on speech and that speaking, therefore, must be the foundation of language learning. While this may be true of our first language, which we learn through speaking rather than reading and writing, this belief assumes that we must acquire a second language the same way as we did the first. It also leads to the undervaluation of the unique skills of written language and to a lack of attention on the demands that writing places on the student of a second language. A spelling mistake is as important as a pronunciation mistake, perhaps more so in a formal or business setting. Pronunciation mistakes among non-native speakers are generally accepted as normal whereas spelling mistakes carry tones of illiteracy.

We English speakers, inventors of the spelling bee, are used to the trials and tribulations of the English writing system, which requires memorisation and corresponds little to the pronunciation of words. Learners of Spanish, Italian or German enjoy the transition to a more consistent relationship between their writing systems and corresponding speech, while learners of Chinese must make the transition to a “meaning-based” writing system that has little to no bearing on speech. Nevertheless, for anyone who acquires a second language after having learned to read, or who wishes to use it in a professional setting, its writing system is imperative to a successful learning experience. Much of our communication takes place through writing, be it a formal email to a colleague or an informal text message to a friend. In these situations, register, syntax, spelling, and punctuation become as important as pronunciation to prevent ambiguity or misunderstanding.

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Understanding a language’s writing system is crucial to correct expression. For example, in Spanish, the accent sign dictates a change in stress on the syllable, which often changes the meaning of the word. In written French, the repetition of nouns or names is generally avoided and synonyms are used instead, meaning a newspaper article about France will use terms like “The Hexagon” (l’Hexagone) and “The Republic” (La République) rather than repeating the name of the country. Learning the punctuation rules of the second language is of equal importance, particularly in formal writing. In Spanish, the correct placement of upside down question marks and exclamation marks is necessary to avoid confusion, while the Frenchleave a space between the end of a word and a punctuation mark. Perhaps more importantly, some languages express numbers differently to English. In Spanish, 350.000 means three hundred and fifty thousand, as opposed to three hundred and fifty point zero, while a comma signifies a decimal point. A thorough knowledge and understanding of a second language’s punctuation is key to effective communication, but it is also essential to avoid confusion and errors in a professional setting.
Language learners should acquire this understanding of different writing systems in context, much as they would acquire speech. For most people, languages act as a tool for communication in a variety of contexts, where expression and comprehension are a means to achieve something else. A student may take comfort in learning a second language through reading, which allows them to build an understanding of the structure and vocabulary of the language. Diglot books are designed with this in mind, allowing the reader to absorb elements of the language subconsciously, while also teaching the reader to use those elements in context (Check out our collection here). The ability to read a language will also expand their linguistic capacity beyond that of day-to-day conversations and interactions, which may involve a limited use of language. The apparent diversity in language-teaching methods may seem confusing, but it ultimately reflects the complexity of language and the range of student needs. Language acquisition by reading is every bit as effective as acquisition by speaking.

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This blog was written by Claudia Bond, a graduate of European Studies at TCD. Claudia's languages are Spanish, French and Portuguese. Find Claudia on LinkedIn.


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