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I know that the two mentioned abilities are different. I always find it quite straightforward to understand a foreign language when reading. provided I have a good knowledge of its grammar and a large vocabulary. But when it comes to speaking it, so, to create a new, personal and creative content, I may experience an added difficulty. The words I look for in order to use them may not immediately come to mind, even though when I read them I don't have to think about their meaning.

So, is there any psychological reason why is it less difficult to understand than to speak, even when the same vocabulary and rules are involved?

Of course, I may be wrong in this claim.

  • I'm posting here since I don't think it's an answer but... As you said, they are different abilities and they are developed differently and in different times. I'd rather compare reading and listening, which are the two passive activities for written and oral language respectively. [continued] – Alenanno Jun 30 '13 at 13:44
  • [continues] Speaking is an active ability and it presents similar difficulties to writing. I think that this might be the key: passive abilities are easier because you have the info and it's easier to associate it with some knowledge in your brain, it happens instantly sometimes. Speaking/writing is harder because you must first gather the correct info from your brain, then elaborate it and produce meaningful utterances. Speaking is harder because it's real-time. – Alenanno Jun 30 '13 at 13:46
  • I know. But what happens to me is that the same word I read and understand with no problems (and immediately) may take a while to come to my brain when speaking. I compared reading and speaking because they are, to me at least, the easiest and the most difficult among the four abilities. I'm referring to a language for which I have a lower-intermediate proficiency (say, a B1). – martina Jun 30 '13 at 13:59
  • I agree with you, they are indeed the easiest and hardest abilities when learning a new language. I see now why you decided to compare these two. :) – Alenanno Jun 30 '13 at 14:01
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    Speed. If you could get people to slow down to the rate that a language learner reads, their comprehension should go up. – MatthewMartin Jun 30 '13 at 15:01
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There are several factors in play here, all of which differ according to each person's situation:

  1. Many people in fact find it much easier to learn to speak a new language than to learn to read and write it.

  2. There seems to be a split between people who pick up speaking more easily and those who pick up comprehending more easily.

  3. When comprehending a language, either by listening or by reading, you don't need to know as much minutiae of the grammar since context resolves a lot of unknowns and ambiguities. But when speaking or writing some people are more concerned with being very grammatically correct than just being understood. And perhaps more so in writing.

  4. It's naturally easier to comprehend a language closely related to one you already know. Now some language pairs such as Danish and Swedish are orthographically very similar but phonologically quite different. Other language pairs such as Hindi and Urdu are very similar in phonology, lexicon, and grammar; but have radically different orthographies.

I have some advice if you are quite good at the passive side of a language - comprehending via either reading or listening, but not so good at the active side - speaking or writing:

  1. Immersion = The deep end. If you spend time in a place this language is native you will be forced to use it to meet your needs, and you will be surrounded by its appearance and its sounds all day every day.

  2. Relax = Let go. You will make more errors but just like learning to ride a bicycle you need to keep trying so you can get the practice you need to improve. So don't worry about correctness and just try to communicate.

  3. Alcohol helps with 2. (-;

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    It should be pointed out that #3 is not just funny, it's true! – Mark D Jul 2 '13 at 19:51
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Is it always, though? Try reading some Mandarin, Tamil, Hebrew or Japanese, and you might have a different take on it. Actually, I'd argue that reading Mandarin is probably harder than speaking it.

One reason it's often easier to read foreign languages is that they often use similar writing conventions to the ones you already know. The script is the often the same (or related); spaces and punctuation are used in a similar manner to encode word boundaries and prosodic features. Also, in languages related to each other, related vocabulary often retains similar spelling even if actual pronunciation has diverged. One might also point to stylistical features of written languages - while register and modality (spoken vs. written) are separate features (you can colloquially write a chat message or very formally give a speech), there's a high degree of correlation: so written language tends to be more precise, use more international vocabulary (at least in some languages), and avoids more obscure or recent idioms.

Then there's also the fact that spoken information in general is volatile and, due to background noise, production errors and perception errors, has a low-quality signal. By contrast, written language - at least in its digital variety - is very unambiguous and can be reread as often as you like (much easier even than rewinding on an audio track for example). But try reading foreign language handwriting and you'll see how much this breaks down when letters are not so clearly distinguishable anymore.

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Learning to speak and understand a language is a difficult task, and involves coordinating many physiological and mental activities, like pronouncing sounds that may be unfamiliar in different contexts, parsing constructions at speed, recognizing words from others' pronunciation (which is usually quite different from "standard"), and recalling their meanings.

Reading, on the other hand, is not language, but technology. There is no human adaptation to literacy as there is to spoken (i.e, real) language, and in fact some humans never manage to master literacy in their native language, while others find it very simple.

So it's not that it's easier, but rather that it's easier for you. People vary enormously in language abilities, and that's squared and cubed for writing.

Like all technologies, there are lots of arbitrary features in writing systems, and many systems to choose from. I think anyone finds Mandarin easier to learn to speak than to learn to read in characters, for instance. But it can be written in Pinyin as well as characters, though that's not standard, and if you can speak the language, you can learn to read Pinyin easily enough.

Similarly, /ɪf ɪŋɡlɪʃ wərɪtən fəniməkli, ɪtəd be iziər tərid/, after a little practice, at least. And with added spaces and punctuation. But all writing leaves out important aspects of real language, like pronunciation, rhythm, gesture, gaze direction, facial expression, and intonation.

Consequently virtually all written sentences are multiply ambiguous, like these Garden Path sentences, which exist only in written form; as spoken, there is no problem.

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  • Thanks. The sentence "some humans never manage to master literacy in their native language, while others find it very simple" is not clear. What do you mean? Moreover, I know that reading involves the "technology" of grammar, but one needs to know it in order to understand what people say. You're saying that which one of the two processes arrives first is something subjective. – martina Jun 30 '13 at 16:15
  • Indeed. What I meant was that some people happen not to grow their neural systems in a way that allows easy transition from visual coded input (i.e, writing) to their language centers (i.e, spoken language, which we all learn without teaching at about the same time as we learn to walk). There are many varieties of "dyslexia", which is a symptomatic term, not a clinical one -- there's nothing to correct, really. – jlawler Jun 30 '13 at 19:52
  • As for the "two processes", I'm not sure what you mean. – jlawler Jun 30 '13 at 19:53
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    Look up "dyslexia". And reading is not biologically comparable to speaking, any more than driving a car is biologically comparable to walking. Both driving and reading are technological; walking and talking are biological. They really can't be compared, and shouldn't even be mentioned in the same context. – jlawler Jun 30 '13 at 20:37
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    @martina: Grammar is not the technology. Grammar is natural and exists in every pre-literate language in the world. Converting language to written symbols is technology. Having said that, the process of standardizing language often involved creating rules with arbitrary levels of naturalness versus "logic", and that could certainly be viewed as a kind of technology. – hippietrail Jul 1 '13 at 3:23
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In most cases it is easier to read than speak it because in reading you can take your own time and there is usually no doubt about what word is used. In speaking you need an active knowledge of words, their meaning, and pronunciation. That is just a lot more than a passive knowledge required for reading.

Of course this may all be different in languages that use a different alphabet... like Japanese, Hindi, Thai, Arabic, or Greek

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  • Welcome and thanks for your contribution! Can you please edit your answer for spelling and capitalisation, otherwise it is hard to read. – robert Sep 21 '14 at 8:19
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That depends mainly on whether a learner is an introvetive or an extravertive person.

For extravertive persons, speaking and live communication is more natural and it takes less efforts, but the best way to memorize words, rules, etc. is to read and to practice language studies alone.

For introvertive persons, the opposite strategy is more efficient. That is, introverts spend less energy while reading or doing study-alone language practices, but the most efficient way to memorize anything is to do some group training/real-life communication activities.

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