How Spoken and Written Languages Interact: What This Means for Language Learning

Spoken Language Recognition

Spoken languages rely on uttering and comprehending sounds made by the human mouth that impart meaning and that allow communication between humans–transfer of facts, opinions, and ideas. Most humans can, over time and with practice, imitate these sounds and can soon make the sounds to convey meanings that can be comprehended by each other. This is how languages are learned by toddlers. And it's been discovered that language patterns are most effectively learned and acquired before a human youngster reaches age five.

As we get older, it becomes more difficult to imitate the sounds and get the meaning right for languages other than our primary one–so by the time we're adults, we have more troubles learning foreign languages than children.

We can easily recognize foreign languages (those different than our native language), and some people are skilled at recognizing dialects of their and other languages. These sound patterns are different enough that scientists have found that dogs and birds, and a few other animals, can recognize speech patterns of different languages and can tell if someone is speaking the local language or speaking a foreign language.

Written Language Recognition

Eventually, with most of the languages that have a written system, youngsters start to experiment with making the marks representing the sounds that make up the language. At first, these attempts resemble doodles and random marks whether the youngsters used crayons, pencils, pens, or other markers. Adults with proficiency with the written system help children with their eye-hand coordination to arranging the marks correctly, creating strings of characters that make sense in that language when sounded out.

No matter which language, culture, or country–humans learn to speak, write, and communicate in this way.

Speaking and comprehending a language is a matter of learning the sound patterns and understanding the meaning of those various patterns as well as being able to enunciate sound patterns effectively enough to pass on a meaning.

Writing and comprehending that language is a matter of recognizing and understanding the markings and symbols that represent the sounds (and therefore the meaning) of the language.

Written Language Symbols – “Alphabets”

With some languages, the sounds are represented by abstract characters in a form called "alphabet" — named after the Greek "alpha" and "beta". These characters are assembled in specified ways to form words (called "spelling") and then these words are assembled in a certain way to form coherent sentences in that language (called “syntax” or "grammar"). Latin and Greek form a basis for many European (“Western”) languages–and a common recognizable vocabulary, alphabet, and many mathematical symbols are based on those of ancient Greek and Latin .

As Latin and Greek were spreading their influence across the known world, other cultures had established their own written systems that did not use similar alphabetic representation for their languages. Languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, and Hindi used individual characters to represent sounds in a similar manner as the Latin and Greek characters. But they wrote their characters from the right to the left, rather from left to right.

The Egyptians and Chinese, however, used hieroglyphics and calligraphy that were originally drawings of animals and other items. With Egyptian, each pictorial hieroglyphic character represents sounds in much the same way an alphabetic character does for Latin, Greek, Hindi, Arabic, or Hebrew. You can assemble Egyptian hieroglyphics to form words–that if sounded out would be understandable as the Egyptian spoken language. Eventually, the Egyptian hieroglyphics lost their original “picture” meaning and became characters that represent sounds as part of the spoken Egyptian language.

Logographic Characters as Written Language

With Chinese, however, the calligraphic "picture" (“logographic character”) has retained much of the underlying meaning of the illustration in addition to having a sound that could represent a word or part of a word. Although many times the Chinese characters can be used individually to be a “word” or “concept,” with new technologies and advances in philosophies the characters frequently must be combined to represent the more complex concepts. An interesting twist to Chinese is that of all the many languages of Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghai, and so on), although the spoken languages vary greatly in sounds, the written language is the same throughout.

Korean and Japanese – a Mix of Logographic and Syllabic/Alphabetic Characters

Of isolated language groups, Korean and Japanese have been noted as being unlike any of the other known languages because their origins are largely untraceable—linguistics experts differ on whether there's a perceivable path to the Korean and Japanese languages' current state beyond a few centuries.

Buddhist monks originating from India and then China introduced writing to the Koreans (called “hanja” in Korean) and the Japanese (called “kanji” in Japanese). In the beginning, Korean and Japanese writing used the introduced classical Chinese calligraphy. Soon, however, the Korean and Japanese elite and scholars determined that the Chinese calligraphy was not well suited to the sounds, syntax, and grammar of their native languages (“han-guk” in Korean, “nihon-go” in Japanese).

The Evolution of Modern Korean and Japanese from Classical Chinese Writing

Through help from the Buddhist monks and scholars, the Koreans devised phonemic (sound-representing) characters (“han-gul”) to accommodate the sounds of their language. Although they still used traditional Chinese characters, the Koreans started using more and more the phonemic characters combined into syllabic representations to form words and then sentences with the proper syntax and grammar. Now, most Koreans communicate by writing only with the phonemic characters and will rarely use the Chinese characters unless it’s in an academic or government document.

Likewise, Japanese scholars created symbols (“kana”) derived from cursive Chinese characters (“kanji”) to represent the sounds of the Japanese language. The kana are syllabic in that they represent syllables of Japanese words. They can be used individually or combined to form complex words. The kana can also be combined as prefixes, or suffixes (“okurigana”) to Chinese characters that form the root of a word in order to change from past tense, present tense, or to form the negative of the word. There are two modern forms of Japanese kana—“hiragana” are cursive forms of ancient Chinese kanji characters used to represent mostly words of Japanese origin, and “katakana”, which are more sharp-edged characters used to approximate the sounds of foreign words, brand-names, and technical terms. A third type of kana, “furigana” consists of the small hiragana characters either above or along the side of a Chinese character to aid children who might not have learned the pronunciation or meaning of the Chinese character.

Similarities and Differences with Written Languages – In Particular, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese as Compared to English

So, learning English might be tough because there are many words in English that do not sound like the way they are spelled. Additionally, there are many words that resemble each other in spelling but have different sounds. And, there are many words that have the same sound but are spelled differently and have different uses in syntax and grammar. Spelling in English is one of the biggest problems for most folks learning the language.

Spelling might not be a problem in Chinese, Korean, or Japanese. But because you be dealing with multiple sources of symbols with different interpretations and sounds, you will be facing different problems that resemble information “overload”.

Of these three languages—Chinese, Korean, and Japanese—my experience is that Japanese has been the easiest language for me as a Westerner to learn. The sounds of Japanese are straightforward and resemble Spanish in vowel and consonant pronunciation. Japanese grammar and syntax have a recognizable pattern to them that is relatively easy for substitution drills and for understanding how the prefixes and suffixes work.

To learn any language, in addition to having a reference book for vocabulary—it’s absolutely necessary to have some form of recorded conversations between older and younger and male and female participants. Without the recordings, it is extremely difficult to get the sounds right—in particular for those languages that have symbolic representations of sounds that are different from the Western style of Roman alphabet.