Saturday, April 19, 2008

Reading and Writing and Speaking and Listening

I guess everyone learns to speak and listen before they learn to read and write, but most people learn a second language by learning to read and speak pretty much simultaneously. Like even now I could read German reasonably well, after a little practice.

And with most languages, if you can speak and read, you can write- even with crazy English spelling, if you could read and speak you could write down some approximation of any word that you can say.

But with Chinese, everyone has to decide if they'll learn to read, and if they'll learn to write. Someone could speak fabulous Chinese and not know any characters. Or you can be in my boat- I can read some characters (I'm surprised by how many) but I can write very few by memory- maybe only a dozen. I can copy them if I see them but I can't produce them from memory.

Another weird thing is that you can know what a character means in English without knowing how to say it in Chinese- a lot of foreigners who can barely speak any Chinese can read parts of street signs and menus but in English, kind of. Even I have a few characters like that. Also you can know how to say a character without knowing what it means- I can recognize and pronounce a lot of family names and characters that are popular in town names without knowing what they mean.

And I guess most people's listening is always a few steps ahead of their speaking ability, but there are a lot of people in Taiwan who can understand a lot of English but can't speak any. Part of it is that they study reading and writing more in school and I guess often hear English TV shows and movies. So you will get people who really can't string 3 words together in English, but if I'm speaking Chinese and I don't know how to say something, I can sometimes say it in English and they understand.

No comments: