Wed, 12 Sep 2018
Language fluency in speech and print
Long ago I worked among the graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania department of Computer and Information Sciences. Among other things, I did system and software support for them, and being about the same age and with many common interests, I socialized with them also.
There was one Chinese-Malaysian graduate student who I thought of as having poor English. But one day, reading one of his emailed support requests, I was struck by how clear and well-composed it was. I suddenly realized I had been wrong. His English was excellent. It was his pronunciation that was not so good. When speaking to him in person, this was all I had perceived. In email, his accent vanished and he spoke English like a well-educated native. When I next met him in person I paid more careful attention and I realized that, indeed, I had not seen past the surface: he spoke the way he wrote, but his accent had blinded me to his excellent grammar and diction.
Once I picked up on this, I started to notice better. There were many examples of the same phenomenon, and also the opposite phenomenon, where someone spoke poorly but I hadn't noticed because their pronunciation was good. But then they would send email and the veil would be lifted. This was even true of native speakers, who can get away with all sorts of mistakes because their pronunciation is so perfect. (I don't mean perfect in the sense of pronouncing things the way the book says you should; I mean in the sense of pronouncing things the way a native speaker does.) I didn't notice this unless I was making an effort to look for it.
I'm not sure I have anything else to say about this, except that it seems to me that when learning a foreign language, one ought to consider whether one will be using it primarily for speech or primarily for writing, and optimize one's study time accordingly. For speech, concentrate on good pronunciation; for writing, focus on grammar and diction.
Hmm, put that way it seems obvious. Also, the sky is sometimes blue.
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