Primacy is for Primates

Thomas Leverett, August 2008

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It's possible that I'm not reading in the right circles, or that I just haven't done my research; if either is true, I hope to change this paragraph. But this passage deals with what I consider to be a central question about the nature of language and language learning that has never been answered to my satisfaction.

The Primacy of Oral Language is a principle that has been around forever, but is dangerous to the extent that people make assumptions based upon it which might not hold for all people or all language. It goes something like this: 1) The spoken word came first, at least for most languages that we know of today and for language in general; 2) Spoken language was around for generations before written language came along, and survived and grew very well without written language, but written language is dependent upon spoken language, even based upon it; 3) In many languages there never was a written language, because it wasn't needed; but that was ok, because if the spoken language was evolved completely, that's all that was necessary to make it a mature, complete language. 4) When written language came along, written symbols were based on sounds; therefore, sounds were still central; the written alphabet was basically a secondary set of symbols that only had their meaning through the first.

Now, you may say, I have gone too far, and in fact this is where I start questioning it. I do not know who first made the above claims, but the historical accuracy of the top ones is beyond question, except for a disturbing sub-argument involving deaf languages. The complex nature and development of deaf languages has shown, I believe, that an oral component is not necessary to have a fully developed language, but still, there is no doubt that for the majority of languages, the oral component is primary, at least historically.

Then, essentially, my questions are as follows. Were the first hieroglyphics primary symbols? Is it possible for written symbols to be primary, without referring to sounds or operating through the symbolic nature of sounds? I believe that, yes they were, and yes it is. Just because most languages are based on sounds, doesn't mean that all are, or that all have to be, or that all will be from now on. I also believe that chat and variations on it will change written language as we know it, and will change the nature and relationship of written and oral languages as we have known them for years.

Back to the central questions of language and language learning, which, as I'd like to mention, are still questions. I propose answers to some of these, but have to admit that, as far as I'm concerned, all are still open questions.

When we learn a language, we organize what we know, in our brains, according to our own organizing system. Now I know that much is written about this, but still I haven't found the answer to still more of these questions. First: presumably we organize by sounds, especially the first sound of a word; thus, we hear the sounds and try to figure out what the word is based on what we hear, starting with the first sound. When we put the sounds together, we go back toward meaning; by that I mean, the sounds t-r-e-e are connected somehow to a mental image of a tree, which is a picture in some cases but in others a kind of concept. By the oral primacy principle, written versions of t-r-e-e must connect to the sound version before connecting to the image/concept; thus reading would be inherently less efficient than hearing, having one more layer of connections to navigate. And second language reading or listening would also be inherently more difficult and complex than either skill in first language, because of the extra connections, and because, semantically, a second language variant of tree might cover different semantic space than what we know in English as "tree".

So here's the question: would it be possible to learn reading without going through the sound component? Certainly it would be, as the deaf do it, and so do others who have mastered reading without ever hearing. Is it possible to speak of the time when the second-language learner skips the step of going through the native language, that makes second language listening and reading so much less efficient? I would think so. But, more to the point, is it possible that we have become accustomed to sounds as the base or the primary step, only by historical accident, and that, given other circumstances, we could have an entirely different kind of language? I donÕt see why not. It seems to me that, if the deaf could skip the step of understanding everything through its oral component, hearing people could do the same, except that they might more likely do it for the convenience of it, as opposed to doing it out of necessity.

From this discussion I'd like to propose a couple of ideas. By the way I'm not sure if they are off-base, or if they are perhaps irrelevant in the domain of language teaching. But I believe they are important nevertheless, and I'm curious about any argument for or against.

First, it is of primary importance how a learner proposes to organize his or her information internally. We often assume that they will organize like we do; perhaps it takes an unorthodox or disorganized person like myself to point out that not everyone will do it the same way, nor should we make assumptions about anyone, even based upon experience. Any new learner might be different. There certainly are patterns; some cultures are more visual; some tend toward organizing sounds primarily, some for their own reasons develop cultural attitudes about the written or spoken word. But within those cultures, there are people who organize differently, for their own reasons; there are the deaf, for example, who can't organize by sound; there are the blind or near-blind, who must develop acute hearing but then organize around it, not relying on the visual symbols at all. Much has been made recently of "learning styles," the field of which points out the incredible diversity people show in the ways they take in information successfully, and it's true: there is also great variation even in people with full hearing and full sight; people organize, and understand, in a wide variety of ways. One result of this is that we have to understand organizational systems in order to understand why acquisition is a different process for each learner.

Second, it is instructive, at any point of a language learner's quest, to ask how they are actually taking in and understanding words: do you understand best by hearing? When you read, do you sound out the words in order to understand them best? Does seeing what you hear help you understand words and sentences better? I think we should address the discrepancies we see in some learners, those who have developed one kind, say listening, very well, but are bogged down in reading, whether because it is incredibly inefficient, or even because the sound-symbol correspondence system is weak or poor. What I mean by this is that, for some students, relying entirely on listening is easier than mastering the entire system that would allow them to read, funnel the words through sounds, and then put them together into meaning. Others have the mirror-image problem: it is easier to put everything in writing, where one can at least see it, and not try to master sounds that are so difficult that one can't tell what words they represent. These extreme kinds of learners occupy language classes all the time, and it is difficult to open this conversation with them, because it is rather personal. But the fact is that nothing will influence their learning more than their personal learning systems and how they go about the task in front of them.

The Communicative movement took a stand on this and claimed that oral language, specifically conversational language, was primary and basic to communication, and should be mastered before other things were tackled. In terms of functioning in modern society it's probably true that a measure of conversational fluency was probably the best place to start for the vast majority of learners; I don't have an argument with that. But it's not necessary to start there, nor is it necessary to learn all written language through the sounds it represents; this is imposing an order upon people's understanding that might be natural, or usual, for most people but not all, for most learners in the past but not necessarily those coming to us in the future.

Those who teach blind and deaf students for the first time know that the first order of business is to remove assumptions about how language must be learned or understood; as well, remove demands about level of competence with respect to either the written or oral versions of a language, as it is difficult to gauge which demands might be unrealistic. One also learns that it is fortunate that a language has two equal aspects, oral and written, so that those who are essentially locked out of one can still participate fully in the other version of it. What I'm advocating here is more flexibility in our assumptions about what language is, and what one needs to master it and function effectively. As for the primacy of oral language, I'd say: historically, yes, the spoken came first, at least for most languages we know of today. And, yes, this conversational mode does seem to be very basic, given the way society functions every day. But it may not stay that way; nor did it have to be that way, always, for every learner. Making these assumptions based on the way most people understand things may rob us of insight that we could gain by widening out, and taking in other ways of getting from point A to point B - that could still work perfectly well, for some kinds of learners, and for us, if we try.

Thomas Leverett, 8-08

bibliography (unfinished)

Leverett, T. (2008, Feb.) Communicative theory rocks the late 20th century. Google Docs. Available: