Why Written Language Skills Are Important

This morning I took a placement exam for the semester-long language program I am going to be doing here in China. I have been studying Chinese off and on for nearly 8 years – and my test results were not exactly encouraging.

As I worked on the placement test (which was 100 percent in characters – no pinyin) I was happy to discover that I could answer some questions, at least. When the two teachers pulled me aside for the oral exam, I did quite well, although I am certainly less than happy with my speaking skills in Chinese. I went back to finish the placement test, and was disturbed to discover that there was, at the end, a writing section. For some reason I thought I would get away with just doing multiple choice. No luck.

The instructions on the writing part said to choose one of the prompts, and that people who wanted to start at a mid-level class should choose the third prompt. The first one was to introduce yourself. The second was to say why you wanted to learn Chinese. I have no idea what the third prompt was, because it contained at least 4 characters I didn’t know.

I had wanted to think that I would be in a “mid-level” class. Well, I guess that won’t be the case. When I turned in the exam, I was the only one left in the room (there were just four of us to begin with). The woman took a look and that she had thought I would be in an advanced class based on my oral exam, but that my written test was so poor they would have to put me in a lower level.

All of this is to say that it is not enough to learn a language just through speaking. I had similar a similar discussion with a tutor in France: She had commented on how well I spoke French, and I had brought an essay to correct. My essay was filled with errors, some of them simple accent errors but other errors that were more serious. She was surprised, because I speak French so well.

Learning to “speak” a language is easy for me. Learning to “write” in a literate way is difficult – ironic, since I’m a writer, but true. While it’s true that speaking is a very important part of language learning, being able to write is also very important, especially if you want to use the language professionally.

It’s worth noting that if I had been able to type my Chinese exam, I probably would have done much better. I wouldn’t have made errors on my characters, and I would have been able to use a much wider array of words that I know how to say, can recognize the character for them but can’t write the character on my own.

I would not have done any better on my exam this morning if I had spent more time speaking Chinese. The only things that would have helped would have been reading and writing (and studying characters on Skritter).

Many people talk about how important it is to use the language when you are learning – and especially to speak. For some people, speaking is the hardest, but it is the easiest part of learning a language for me.

Fluently speaking a foreign language involves speaking, listening, reading and writing. They are all important skills, although some might be more or less important depending on your goals for learning the language. Pay attention to all of them.