The relation between writing and language

Recently in a post on a listserv a member showed a great deal of concern about a statement that an American had gone to France, got a job, and learned French that way. It was mentioned that he could not write the language very well. This poster determined that this was a real problem. How real is it?

Writing is an epiphenomenon – it would not exist without speech. It is a very imperfect reflection of speech. In order to write a language one must know two things: the language and its writing system (or some writing system e.g. I can read Urdu but not fluently in its own writing system. But in a romanized script, I can read it just fine – to the extent of my knowledge of the Urdu language. But if it’s in its own Arabic-based script, it takes me forever to read one line. So just an admonition there – any writing system that expresses the language).

Which is harder, to learn Macedonian or to learn to write Macedonian if you know the language? Wouldn’t most of us see the writing as much simpler than learning a language? Any disagreement there?

OK. Now to writing. Since everyone talks and only the educated write, writing becomes a mark of prestige. In a society such as ours with about 80% or more literacy, just being able to write doesn’t confer status but spelling correctly does. Thus we emphasize spelling. We move on up to paragraphing, then essay writing, and belles-lettres.

Now, when we say someone is ’literate’, what do we mean? There are two possibilities: we can mean he knows how to read and write, or we can mean that he is learned, erudite, well-read, highly educated. I can’t remember the word for that, where an expression like “highly literate” becomes just literate. But the process of upping the ante is common in society. We keep demanding more to separate out the “best” from the herd.

And for this reason, fl teachers tend to vastly overemphasize belles-lettres. How often have we seen on fl teacher listservs the complaint that a student had only got the basics of L2 in college classes before he was plunged into literature studies? It’s like the grammar is just the mechanics; pronunciation just a matter of talent and gifts; vocabulary a matter of more exposure. The REAL test is if you can write a poem in the proper meter.

To judge whether someone has “learned” a language based on how well they write, spell, use proper epistolary forms, etc. is like judging an athelete by how good he looks in his uniform. Uniforms are necessary for the game and it’s always nice to look nice, but if you can’t get the ball to the goal, forget it. Yet if you’re not in uniform, you can’t play!

So writing is important, but it’s an epiphenomenon.

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