So my sister used to be a nurse. She quit because she hated living in a world of blood and piss and feces, which I find ironic because she loves Sex and the City. A neat thing about nursing is that it’s a job that, for whatever reason, draws a large pool of attractive, international young women. One of these attractive young women I met was Russian; I think her name was Xenia Onatopp. Xenia spoke English like a native, and barely had an accent. She must have read lots of English books and possessed at least an intermediate writing level given her near-native spoken fluency, right? I bet she was highly literate…right?
Wrong. She used to batch out emails to all the nurses at the hospital (for girl things like “Let’s bake muffins and talk about Tampons”), and that’s when the world found out that this woman appeared to have the writing level of my in-bred cousin Taärguus who we keep in the basement and feed a bucket of fish heads every night. She possessed the absolute minimum level of literacy necessary to earn a nursing license, yet her spoken English was fantastic.
An anecdote: This beautiful German girl came to check out the homestay house I’m living in. We chatted for a while, and she was, literally, a native-like English speaker. I didn’t even suspect she wasn’t American for over five minutes. She laughed about purchasing a Korean textbook, and said she hadn’t learned anything and that “textbooks are, you know, less than useless.” She learned her English from, surprise, English media and interacting with us foreigners.
Another anecdote: We had an Italian dude stay with us at the house for a week. His English was definitely ladled in Italian accent-sauce, but it was also rapid-fire and heavy in everyday English idioms/turns of phrase. He had never been to America, but watched a lot of American TV, which was not surprising. He sent me a Facebook message last week; let’s just say it took a lot of “uh, I guess he meant to spell X” on my part to decode it.
It’s amazing to contrast these fluent-speaking, barely literate people to the Koreans I deal with every day, who have been raised with an opposing philosophy: one should put maximum effort on literacy and grammatical knowledge. The K-girls in the house I live in have both passed the TOEIC test with great scores, which is an absolutely brutal exam when it comes to grammatical accuracy in reading and writing. In short, they know their shit. YET… when they speak, they sound like I did in 2nd semester high school Spanish- it took five minutes to think of, translate, then vomit up a complete sentence. “Well, that’s not fair because in Korea, X and Y and blahblahblah.” Allow me to retort: one of the girls had just returned from England, where she lived for seven years.
A quick glance at her Facebook page and, what do ya know, it appears she hung out with Koreans the whole time. Even worked at a Korean company while she was there. But she sure hits the books when it’s time to “study” English, and her written English is flawless (I actually thought the Craigslist ad for the homestay, as well as the ‘house rules’ signs around the house, were written by a native speaker).
I really think that overemphasizing the written word is a serious problem for language learners. Seriously. I think it’s going to be in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I’ve seen so many blogs and comments that like this:
“I can read everything in Final Fantasy XXVI: Crystal Comet Fancy Tiara Adventures, and I’ve got no problems with my high school wizard novels, but I can’t understand a podcast or an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. I guess I need to Anki even more!!!!!”
Why do some people place such a high focus on literacy? Because it’s easy to measure, and easy to improve. Because it’s way easier to make an Anki deck out of audio-less words and sentences. But I suspect the biggest, darkest reason of all, is that it lets us imagine that we are better than we really are at our L2. For a lot of people, merely watching TV and movies, listening to podcasts, and playing dubbed videogames makes them feel a sense of shame, and even anger.
Shame: “Why don’t I understand?! Why do I still suck?!”
Anger: “This is frustrating because I’m just sitting on my ass watching TV and I don’t feel like I’m getting better and my puritan work-ethic mind tells me I need to stand up and start doing something to speed this up!”
This is where the Reading Trap(TM) begins. The learner turns away from the organic waves of native audio to the cold logic of ink on pages and letters on screens, and suddenly everything is measurable; language acquisition can be a methodical process, it can be controlled by the learner! Your brain says “I don’t know this word; I will look it up and paste the definition in Anki.” You do it. You get a squirt of dopamine. “Ooh yeaahh… that felt good, now I ‘know’ this word. Mmm… let’s do that again.” Pretty soon you’ve got thousands of audio-less cards and you can read great and and your listening and speaking still sssuuuccckkk.
Picture two rooms, each containing an attractive young person learning English.
ROOM 1: a girl is watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and laughing her ass off when Cameron kicks his dad’s sports car out the window, and crying softly when Sloane says “He’s gonna marry me…” She wipes a tear away and throws a tissue into the trashcan next to her collection of Weezer and Green Day CDs. She is doing this instead of her ESL homework. Her grades will suffer, but she doesn’t care about that boring stuff. She has huge breasts.
ROOM 2, a guy is clicking away at an Anki deck of soundless words and sentences. Great! 90% correct! He finishes, then gets out a grammar worksheet and begins to quietly fill in the blanks. He finishes by taking a practice TOEIC test. Wow! 100%! He truly is becoming a master of English!
Question: Who is getting better at English? Answer: both of them, but they are practicing different skills. The girl is learning colloquial, spoken English and American culture. She is improving her knowledge of the sounds of English. The guy will absolutely blow her out of the water on a standardized test.
A better question: Who is becoming fluent at English? Based on my Real Life(TM) encounters with Russians, Germans, Italians, Koreans, Japanese, and so many other people here in this bustling Asian mega-cities, I now say with the utmost confidence that the girl in ROOM 1 is getting fluent, and the guy in ROOM 2 is not (although he will get a good TOEIC score and make an excellent Samsung wage slave). Adapting the old “I know porn when I see it” argument, I am hereby declaring fluency to be more closely related to audio than to text, because I’ve seen the results.
To use imagery appropriate to The Language Dojo: The listening/speaking learners are like fighters who get in the ring and spar every day; the reading/writing learners are like the commentators on the sidelines, observing and able to give accurate play-by-play commentary on the details of what’s happening, but who immediately have their underwear pulled over their head when they actually try to step in the ring. Getting stuck in the Reading Trap allows us to sidestep our problems with impatience and shame, but it makes us train for an entirely different sport than we originally intended. Reading is an important part of fluency, but much less so than the aural components- listening and speaking.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Audio trains us to be players; the Reading Trap trains us to be fans.