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Talk the Walk, Write the Talk: Language Learning Isn't Child's Play

Since the Vietnam War, the myth that you can learn a language without learning to write it has been alive and well. If you're not ready for some hard truth, feel free to skip this post.

As we usually do, let's kick things off with a story. A month ago, we got a call from one of our student's relatives. "Don't bother teaching her to write," she said, "just how to speak." When we explained that's not how we roll at UAB, and actually, it's impossible to learn a language that way, she insisted: "Then just teach her street Hebrew." At that point, we threw in the towel and suggested she try another course.


Now, don't get us wrong. We're not blaming this woman. Learning a language is a long, complicated, and frustrating process, especially for adults. It's worth noting that during the Vietnam War, the Americans tried to fast-track things by having English teachers speak to local students without teaching them to read or write. The embarrassing results are now common knowledge: beyond basic conversation, the poor Vietnamese couldn't reach a reasonable level of English.


The truth of the matter is: if you speak a foreign language, you should also be able to write and read in it. This stems from the fact that adults (unlike kids) learn languages through reading and writing. Most of us are visual learners; we need dialogue in books, fill-in-the-blank exercises, even verb drills to understand how sentences are constructed. The next step for a competent language institute is to turn these exercises into spoken dialogue. Or, conversely, to start a brief conversation in class, then put that conversation in a study guide for students to practice at home.


The exceptions are migrant workers who, due to a lack of time and resources (which we find incredibly saddening), speak without being able to write or read. However, their grammar is skewed, their prepositions are off, and their vocabulary is limited. Instead of saying "אני אוהב את תל אביב," they'll say "אני אוהב תל אביב". Instead of saying "הייתה לי שאלה," they say "היה לי שאלה," and so on.


This is precisely why we at UAB insist on implementing a reading and writing program to supplement speaking. Make no mistake: none of our students will be penning a Hebrew doctoral thesis. But to be a Hebrew speaker, even to speak "street Hebrew," like that lady said, you need to read and write at a reasonable level. Only this can safeguard a speaker's language proficiency.


Now, it's your call: Do you want to speak fluent, accurate Hebrew, or just play games and chat around the table? The decision is all yours.



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