(This is probably a poorly-formed question, but I'm really just trying to find out if there's any research in this area.)

Most children pick up a spoken or signed language at an early age, and this gets referred to as their native language. Can a person's native language be in the written medium, rather than the signed or spoken?

I'm asking based on my own experience, so this is purely anecdotal. When I was a child, I didn't start speaking until later than expected. Then, in an incident that surprised everyone, when I was two, my parents discovered that I knew how to read when I asked them what "carbohydrates" meant off a cereal box. Decades later, when speaking to my wife, I often realize I don't know how to pronounce a word that I've been using all my life -- because I've been using it in writing, not in speaking.

Is there any research at all looking at children picking up written language before or in conjunction with spoken language? Is there any research on children learning written language on their own?

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    Hmm. My immediate reaction was "silly question", but the more I think about it the more I think it is a good question. I'm pretty sure the answer is "no", because written language is a human invention in a way that spoken and signed languages are not. But I'm not sure I have a convincing argument why the answer must be "no".
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 15, 2012 at 16:46
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    I don't think there's any a priori logical reason why the answer must be "no." But as far as I know, the answer does turn out to be "no." As far as I know, nobody has ever acquired a written language before having acquired any spoken/signed language. Commented Jun 15, 2012 at 20:08
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    I feel that the new title wording does not express the same meaning it had before.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jun 16, 2012 at 23:52
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    Hi @hippietrail, in the past children who were born blind and deaf acquired no language but nowadays deafblind people are able to learn tactile signing. I know of no work on the acquisition of tactile signing as a first language by infants. Finger-spelling is equivalent to literacy so requires the same kind of orthographic awareness, which is based on already having a knowledge of the language. Commented Jun 17, 2012 at 10:28
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    What about those bonobos who were taught from early in their childhood to communicate by either pressing keys in a computer or putting differently-shaped cards on a panel? Could that count as a "written" native tongue?
    – Joe Pineda
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 19:26

4 Answers 4


Probably even the visual learning you had only happened because you were spoken to, even if you didn't speak yourself. It is not unusual that someone does not know how to pronounce a word he/she knows how to write or the opposite, not knowing how to write a word he/she uses in spoken language

You can learn a language through visual or acustic signifiers – be it English, Portuguese or other.

The thing is, it is hard to teach written language to deaf children, at least concerning the kind of writing we are using here, because it is "sound based", i.e., letters correspond to sounds. So a deaf person in general needs to go through an "oralization" process, to learn reading and writing well.

As to pictographic writing, like chinese, maybe it could be learned withouth oralization, but this is just a speculation, as I have no experience with this.

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    Actually, most Chinese characters stand for words, not ideas. That's why, these days, Chinese characters are called 'logographic' rather than 'pictographic'. The bulk of Chinese characters, and characters in other logographic scripts for that matter, do contain useful clues to how the words sound. See John deFrancis' excellent book, "The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 1:59
  • deFrancis is a great book on this topic! I just wanted to say that most Chinese words are no longer a single character. 2-character words are the majority but single-character and multiple character words (and set phrases and proverbs which are sometimes hard to distinguish from words in Chinese) are also common. Oddly in my experience Chinese and Japanese people memorize by rote which characters make up a word and often don't stop to think of the semantics of the individual characters. This is counterintuitive to us westerners - it seems much more like English spelling than we would expect! Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 8:53
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    That is a minor problem in teaching written language to deaf children. The much more difficult problem is that children born deaf do not generally have a command of the grammar of a spoken (and hence written) language. If they can sign, they will have the grammar of their signed language, but the grammars will be very different.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 0:42

I greatly doubt that it could. Evidence from acquisition suggests that children are primed to extract speech from ambient noise as neonates. Acquisition of sign languages is commensurate with acquisition of spoken languages. However, the neural basis of reading is so delayed that some professional advice is that little is lost, and something may be gained, by not teaching children to read until the age of seven.


I think if people were exposed to written language from infancy in situations to provide context, in the same way that most are exposed to spoken or sign language, they could probably become fluent readers, although writing is a lot harder than speaking or signing just because it requires use of a tool.

The most difficult part of this hypothetical situation would probably be that of the already fluent speakers, instead of the baby's. The easiest way I can think of to make this all possible would be to cary around a dry erase board and a marker wherever you go.

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    I think there is little evidence to support this opinion.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 31, 2013 at 0:25

Hmmm .... it has been/is common for educators of deaf children to demand that their charges learn the written form of language in place of the spoken language that they have no access to. This is/has often been accompanied by extreme measures taken to assure that the child NEVER SIGNS! (ask any deaf person for horror stories about this). By all accounts, this practice has been a miserable failure. So, no.

The reading process depends on the use of Phonemic Awareness to perform Phonological Recoding, both of which require a pre-existing language for analysis. Extracting “minimal distinctive units” from writing doesn't seem possible.

a good reference: How do Profoundly Deaf Children Learn to Read?

  • Again, acquiring the grammar of a written (i.e., spoken) language is generally more difficult than dealing with the phonology.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 0:44

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