Learning to Speak is More Important than Learning to Write

February 13, 2024

Anthropologists and linguists are of the opinion that the origin of the use of proper language may be between sixty to seventy thousand years ago. As humans spread into Middle East and Eurasia from East Africa, after the evolution of Homo sapiens, they would have easily carried with them several of their assets and signs and sounds with meanings could have been one of them. Fossil records dating back around forty thousand years are available as expressions of art and musical instruments being used by the humans then. It is possible that the Intellectual Revolution that would have happened around sixty to seventy thousand years ago would have given shape to the sounds that were used by the humans to communicate with each other and thus language could have taken a definite shape through people's expressions. The Agriculture Revolution which would have happened ten to twelve thousand years ago made humans make communes of their own and settle down in a particular place, especially after they had learnt to cultivate, more precisely because wheat as a consumable had been discovered necessitating continuous stay in one place, giving up foraging for short periods by a section of the community, necessitating greater amount of communication. Around two thousand five hundred to three thousand years ago and after the discovery of language in written format with specific structural governance, literature came from Homer, Sophocles, Vergil, Vyasa or Valmiki. Thereafter, it took several hundreds of years to have a Petrarch or Chaucer to be effective writers. Their products were followed by excellent literature to be made available to humanity during the Elizabethan age. Another couple of hundreds of years later, we have romantic poets who sang the best of songs in different languages. Come twentieth century, we have excellent use of communication in different countries in different languages. Learning different languages and speaking using the learnt languages have become a cultural behaviour of the humans today. More people who study the history and development of languages are doubly sure that the underpinnings of all languages are shared by all humanity.

Laura is a small town in Queensland, a state in northeastern Australia, and is known for the gold mining industry. It is also known particularly for the brutalities of European settlers on the aborigines in those areas. The reference to this place is necessitated because of the Laura Festival of Aborigine Art and Culture held biennially in a large filed in the outskirts of Laura town.

Spencer Wells

Spencer Wells, in the chapter, Coasting Away in his book The Journey of Man, writes about this festival, particularly to refer to artistic depictions on the boulders surrounding the town. His need is to establish that the ancient connection of the aborigines to their homeland gives us greater information than those of the Europeans who colonised their continent over the past 200 years. Among many, his pieces of information include the discovery of such symbols of cultural heritage of the aborigines that existed in about forty to sixty thousand years earlier. Throughout the book, in different chapters, he goes on to argue that all the cultural symbols available are signs of communication that existed between and among people.

The film, Kolya, that was released in Czechoslovakia in 1996 was created with the Welvet Revolution in the background. The film won Academy Award for the best feature film, and Golden Globe Best Foreign Language Award.

Kolya and Louka

The major character is Louka who never wanted to marry and for the gain of some financial support, marries a Russian who already had a child named Kolya in her first marriage. She marries him to get a Czech passport to move over to European countries which she does by leaving the child with her husband Louka shortly after the marriage. Louka speaks Czech and the child speaks Russian and both do not know any other language. Ultimately, in a short while, Louka learnt Russian, Kolya learnt Czech and they communicated with each other effectively. Many researchers refer this film, on an acceptable thesis that anyone can learn any language given the need to express oneself.

Undoubtedly, there are several challenges for learning a new language. Primarily, it may be because one does not know how to learn a language because the mother tongue would have come through the person automatically without knowing the methods of learning a language. In addition, to learn a language, there should be a strong necessity, thought about and felt by the learner. Any skill, speaking is a normal skill, needs plenty of practice for its development and also needs associated guidance to perform. More than both physiologically and psychologically, the brain has to construct new cognitive framework, other than those made available to learn the first language, and it has to happen based on several reasons as stated above. Also, the wiring of the neural connections in the brain may not be done to retain new linguistic skills. More importantly, there must be a goal or a benefit by learning a new language. Similarly, psychologists are of the opinion that new languages are easily learnt till the age of seventeen or eighteen and the best age to learn a new language is from eight to twelve. Simultaneously, there is a need for one to learn a language by listening to the same language being spoken by others. This availability matters. Further, consistency in using a language by avoiding continuous durations of not living a language can also be an impediment for learning a new language.

The theory of natural intelligence propagated for the use of language by Marvin Minsky, the Father of Artificial Intelligence, and a professor at MIT and an American cognitive and computer scientist, in his 1986 book is worthy to be referred. The Society of Mind, his book, reveals to any reader that speaking is a part of the mind as a skill.

Marvin Minsky

In one of his chapters he gives example of drinking a cup of tea. He puts the society of mind at work during the tea-drinking in four stages. The first is 'Grasping' where the agents of the mind is making a person want to keep hold of the cup. The second is 'Balancing' where the agents of the mind are putting the efforts not to allow the tea spill out. The third is 'Thirsting' where the agents of the mind want to drink the tea. The fourth is 'Moving' where the agents of the mind want to get the cup to the lips. So, for a simple action of taking a cup of tea and drinking, according to Minsky, there is a society of mind at work. Similarly, communication happens when the agents of the society of mind collectively function together to the ultimate transfer of one's thoughts using the available language. Hence, any learning of the spoken communication ought to consider several agents of mind that have to work collectively to make a language function orally with the transfer of thoughts.

There is a group of linguists led by Edward Sapir, anthropologist and linguist who believe that language is purely human and non-instinctive. Sapir is of the opinion that the spoken language is an evolution of connected symbols that are acquired through consistent efforts and that is very special to the humans. Also, the use of language is not instinctive like the use of any of the limbs or bodily force. Hence, there is a need to train people to speak a specific language and practice it which is far more important than learning vocabulary, grammar or syntax, not that they are not wanted. They are secondary.

The most important contribution that Sapir and other linguists like Noam Chomsky, Roman Jakobson and Ferdinand de Saussure have brought to those who appreciate the spoken language, let it be any, is an extremely important theory. They say that the way a person speaks influences the way that person thinks about any reality. From this perspective, it is important that people learn to speak as many languages as possible.

Noam Chomsky

The linguist's answers raise an immediate pertinent question whether learning many languages, thus, may confuse a person. However, the linguists are of the opinion that a person who knows other languages than the first language will be able to think differently about realities that are around. So, all academics ought to remember that learning to speak different languages will help a person think differently which may not be possible by only learning to write.


Hence, learning to speak more languages helps each person's development of the mind. Therefore, speaking is more important than writing. To top what has been said about what these linguists think, one should quote Aristotle's statement that written words are only symbols of spoken words. Hence the latter's importance.





By Prof Sunney Tharappan
Prof Sunney Tharappan is Director of College for Leadership and HRD, Mangaluru. He trains, writes and lives in Mangaluru.
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Comment on this article

  • k b r, Mangala Uru

    Sun, Feb 18 2024

    many people learn to speak butler English ...

  • Avi, Bajpe

    Sat, Feb 17 2024

    May be the author is referring to current dispensation where one can use ChatGPT to write professionally by just typing few words.......once you have done the job of creating impression .....by your smart talk!

  • prof.anand, bengaluru

    Thu, Feb 15 2024

    Speaking will get you entry into the job, but ability to read/write will allow you to keep and grow on the job.

  • Rajan, Mangalore

    Wed, Feb 14 2024

    Prof Sunny was in ST ALOYSIUS -- a very Good teacher--A very erudite article--

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