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Learning languages - verbal vs. written

A discussion of the peculiarities of languages and the differences between them.

Learning languages - verbal vs. written

Postby sharonha » Wed May 24, 2006 5:07 pm

Does anyone have any good ideas or other references about how people learn written languages?

I'm a native English speaker and could read fluently at the age of 3 or 4. I've always maintained that I acquired written English as a primary language - not by sounding out words and relating the text to speech. Most people seem to think this is a crazy idea. As support for my theory, I find it difficult to understand when people read things out loud, and I never hear words in my head when reading something.

I also figured that deaf people can learn to read without relating it to spoken/heard language (i.e, they acquire the written form but not the spoken form), but then I learned that written English acquisition is in fact difficult for deaf people. However, if that's true, possibly this is because ASL is not English, so that's like asking someone to speak Spanish and write English - and not because of a difficulty relating the spoken/heard and written forms?

What do you guys think? How does the brain work in learning written vs. spoken language? Are all written languages acquired as "second languages" because we typically learn to speak first? Does it make a difference if you are learning the written form of your native language vs. the written form of a second language? Have any studies been done on people who learned the written form of their native language as an adult (having spoken since childhood)?
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Postby Huia Iesou » Wed May 24, 2006 6:11 pm

Interesting question. That made me test myself, and I discovered that I'm actually pronouncing the word as I read it. I never noticed that before, perhaps because I read so fast (It's a little scary when I decide to put the bookmark in and find out that I've already read the first few lines of the next chapter in the time it took me to insert the bookmark).

Anyway, I'd be interested to hear someone's ideas on this. Perhaps it's a little like learning Chinese, in which I understand that the written language bears no relation to the spoken sound.
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Written vs. spoken language

Postby sharonha » Wed May 24, 2006 6:39 pm

Hey, you're right. Somehow I overlooked the fact that not all written languages are phonetic. Now I need to go find a Chinese speaker/reader...
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Postby bnjtokyo » Thu May 25, 2006 2:58 am

You should also consider Japanese. It has the interesting feature that a single character can have multiple pronunciations.

Nonetheless, I think Japanese is taught to people by associating a given group of characters with a particular pronunciation. That is children first learn to understand and speak the oral/aural language and then later are taught that certain marks on paper correspond to these sounds.

They are also taught to associate a particular mark with a concept (or several related concepts)

And another question you should ask yourself: When you see a new word, can you pronounce it? And how do you know what it means? Also consider words like "chaos" that many people do not associate the written form with its correct pronunciation.

Cheers,
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Written vs. spoken language

Postby sharonha » Thu May 25, 2006 3:15 pm

Of course I can pronounce new words (and am quite good at names), but there are many words that I know and understand the meaning of from reading, but have never had the occasion to pronounce (and I never think about the pronounciation). Sometimes if I have to read out loud I am embarrassed to pronounce incorrectly a word I've known forever.

An interesting case is the word "misled." I gathered from written context that this word was a rough synonym for "confused" and would have pronounced it MIZ-uld with emphasis on the first syllable. Years later I heard somebody say it out loud and only then realized the derivation:
mis + le(a)d (--> lead wrongly)

In English, particular characters also have a wide variety of sounds that can be matched to them ("A" can be "ay" or "ah," for example). Regarding Japanese, is it true that there are two kinds of script, one phonetic (which could be used even for things like Western names) and one ideographic? Which are you referring to? How are ideographic scripts taught? Anybody know of any interesting studies/papers in this area?

I read a sci-fi story recently with a theme that the writing system of a culture both mirrors and shapes its world view. In the story, an earth linguist is assigned to learn the language of visiting aliens. As she does, how she perceives the world (in particular, time) changes. It was very interesting.
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Re: Written vs. spoken language

Postby gailr » Thu May 25, 2006 8:16 pm

sharonha wrote:An interesting case is the word "misled." I gathered from written context that this word was a rough synonym for "confused" and would have pronounced it MIZ-uld with emphasis on the first syllable. Years later I heard somebody say it out loud and only then realized the derivation:
mis + le(a)d (--> lead wrongly)


A non-trad student in my drawing classes always said "I've been mizzled!" We just thought she was being funny and laughed along, until it gradually dawned on all parties...

I read everything I could find as a kid, encountering many words that I certainly never heard spoken. Not until years later did I learn that the Submariner, (the protagonist in some of the old comic books in grandma's attic) was not pronounced "submarine" + "er". :wink: "Logic" does not always help with written English...

You pose an interesting question, sharonha, and you're bound to find some interesting theories here.

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Postby Brazilian dude » Thu May 25, 2006 9:26 pm

And I (mis)pronounce adversary as adVURsury and respiratory as risPIREatory. :shock:

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Postby tcward » Thu May 25, 2006 10:16 pm

Gail! I always pronounced it sub-mareener too! I've never met anyone outside my family who did before...

And I've told the "bulbed" lights story before... Not really a pronunciation thing, but a word thing at least.

Another word I mispronounced as a kid was society... which, despite the precedence established with social, is NOT pronounced "soshety"...! :lol:

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Postby Huia Iesou » Fri May 26, 2006 4:33 pm

I have a history of such gaffes, often with foreign loanwords (especially French, like faux pas, etc).

I always laugh when someone from my church pronounces Abednego as Abendego...
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Postby Stargzer » Tue May 30, 2006 5:24 pm

tcward wrote:Gail! I always pronounced it sub-mareener too! I've never met anyone outside my family who did before...
. . .
-Tim


I guess it comes down to which word you learned first: submarine or mariner. Now if we had all read Coleridge before Marvel, and not learned much about ice, . . .
Regards//Larry

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Re: Learning languages - verbal vs. written

Postby Stargzer » Tue May 30, 2006 5:40 pm

sharonha wrote:Does anyone have any good ideas or other references about how people learn written languages?

I'm a native English speaker and could read fluently at the age of 3 or 4. I've always maintained that I acquired written English as a primary language - not by sounding out words and relating the text to speech. Most people seem to think this is a crazy idea. As support for my theory, I find it difficult to understand when people read things out loud, and I never hear words in my head when reading something.
. . .


Are you able to speed-read? I remember from high school that the object in speed-reading is to see (and comprenend) whole phrases or sentences at a time (something I can't really do) and not read them to yourself word-by-word. One of the English teachers could speed-read. The others in the Department tested him one day during the lunch period by giving him a several-hundred-page novel he had never read. He read it, took a test they composed, and passed it with something like an 85, all in about 45 minutes.

I do notice that in typing, some character combinations such as "tion" or "the" just seem to be produced rapidly by my fingers without much thinking. Other words seem to get spelled out letter-by-letter.

I guess it's all a matter of pattern recognition, how large a pattern you can recognize, and whether or not you need more than one kind of input (verbal, aural, etc.) to recognize it.
Regards//Larry

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Postby sluggo » Wed May 31, 2006 1:09 am

Huia Iesou wrote:I have a history of such gaffes, often with foreign loanwords (especially French, like faux pas, etc).

I always laugh when someone from my church pronounces Abednego as Abendego...


Or how 'bout substituting Cavalry for Calvary? I hear this from singers.

Learning a new word from written text is always precarious since it doesn't supply its history. I first encountered "weapon" in a childhood comic book and assumed it was "wee'-pon".
Stop! Murder us not, tonsured rumpots! Knife no one, fink!
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Postby Flaminius » Wed May 31, 2006 2:45 am

Huia Iesou wrote:Anyway, I'd be interested to hear someone's ideas on this. Perhaps it's a little like learning Chinese, in which I understand that the written language bears no relation to the spoken sound.


As many characters have a component that represents sound, the written and spoken Chinese are not completely discrete. Yet I am of opinion that they are separate enough to allow learners to master one or the other independently.

My spoken Chinese is too poor to conduct a meaningful conversation in any varieties of that language but I often enjoy lengthy Chinese chats over instant messaging services, whether the content is meaningful or not is irrelevant here. :P

I write in a literary variety called 雅言 which I studied at Japanese high school with a peculiar system called kambun (hmmm, sometimes even I can spot when Wikipedia errs). My interlocuters typically write in a variety that they "natively" use.

Except when I occasionally need to "traditionalise" simplified characters that my counterpart from Mainland writes, I have little problem understanding them. They may be finding my using the high-flown 雅言 funny for discussing sundry topics that occupy my mind but I make myself clearly understood if I am careful not to let my native tongue interfere with what I write to them.

Here, at least on my part, phonological content of the characters plays little role. I know what I want to talk about and the ideas pop up in Chinese characters. Then I arrange them in suitable order, add grammatical words such as of, to, from, perfect marker and so on. Finally, when I feel like doing, I add emotive particles to the sentence. As often as not, I even don't know how some of the words are pronounced because they did not get imported into Japanese.

I suppose learning a second language solely from its written form is not impossible yet I can see great difficulty in building vocabulary without help of a ready-made mnemonic system such as Chinese characters.

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