Say What Now? Orality, Literacy, and How We Should Be Learning Language

An Unexpected Encounter

My family and I were in Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia, several years ago.  Tbilisi is one of those hidden gems of the world.  Nestled in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, the city is filled with beautiful sights, warm, welcoming people and, in my humble opinion, the most delicious food in the world.  One day, my family and I decided to take a walk down the street and look for a good khachapuri vender.  For those of you who don’t know, khachapuri is a salty cheese bread that, when consumed straight from the oven is perhaps the most addictive substance on the planet!  We will post a recipe for it later. 

As we were walking, we were approached by a small boy who held out his hand and said something we couldn’t understand.  We knew from the sound of it that he was speaking Georgian, but the only Georgian phrase I knew at that point was, “Bodishi, Kartuli ara vitsit,” which means, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Georgian.”  He switched to Russian, and away we went.  He asked us if we had any change to spare or if we could buy him some bread, so we went to a nearby store and got him a bite to eat.  We sat talking for a while and learned that he was 5 years old and a member of the Roma community in the city. 

I will post later about the Roma community, but I want to take a second to advocate for them and say that the Roma, also known as Gypsies, often have a bad reputation based primarily on racial biases and not on individual acts.  In our time overseas, I have had the chance to meet quite a number of Roma, and they are a very charming, kind people if you take the time to get to know them, though having an advocate to bring you into their community is essential, as they are often very uncomfortable with outsiders after centuries of persecution. 

Now, back to the little boy and the point of this post.  As we talked with him, he enjoyed a few minutes of playtime with our children, who were five, three and one at the time.  We learned a little bit about his family and why he was begging.  We also learned that he, at the age of five, was fluent in three languages – Georgian, Romani and Russian – and knew quite a bit of English as well.

Educated or Intelligent?

As I have traveled the world, I have met many people like this young boy who are able to speak three, four, sometimes even five languages.   There are many minority people groups I have encountered where, because of their situation, they are unable to receive quality education, and thus are not literate, yet at the same time, are often highly intelligent.  They are able to reverse engineer car parts to figure out how to replace them with something homemade.  Often, they have a wealth of community history memorized through stories, songs and chants. In many situations, they are multilingual.  And while they may not be able to read a book, they can read a person from a mile away!

These people, unlike pretty much anyone who reads a blog like this, do not belong to literate cultures, but instead belong to oral cultures.  When I first started learning about this phenomenon of orality a decade ago, a lot of what I was encountering was putting orality on one end of a spectrum with literacy on another.  But as research has progressed, and as I have seen in my own experience, orality and literacy are not mutually exclusive. 

Really, a better way to talk about orality and literacy isn’t about ability so much as preference.  Oral cultures are ones in which the preferred method of communication is through oral (spoken) means, whereas literate cultures prefer written communication.  I have met many people in Central Asia who, while highly literate, often with college degrees earned in Russian-speaking universities, function on a purely oral level in their own language. They tell stories, they sing songs and recite poetry, but for the most part, they choose not to read book. Truth be told, in the west, Youtube and the internet are starting to shift us back towards orality.  Think about the last time you needed to fix your car.  Did you go to the library and find a Chilton’s manual, or did you look for a video online on how to replace the CV joint on an Oldsmobile Alero?  It’s not that you are illiterate.  But seeing the car and hearing a mechanic walk you through the steps was more comfortable.   The wiring of our brains is more naturally suited to learning this way than decoding information in the form of writing.  It is easier, so we prefer it. 

Orality and Language Learning

In my graduate studies (which I am still in the middle of), I have taken a keen interest in studying oral cultures, and when I started comparing what I was learning to what I already knew about language learning, I was struck by something.  As I mentioned in a recent post, I believe one of the most effective methods of language learning today is called Total Physical Response.  Much of this methodology leans on repetition, speaking and listening, and can incorporate stories, songs, and oral games that sound a lot like chanting sometimes.  These are the exact same elements that oral cultures rely on for passing information on from person to person or generation to generation.

I believe that many of us have confused literacy (the ability to read and write) with intelligence (defined in my Abbyy Linvo dictionary as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills”).  Because of this, we feel that the most “intelligent” way to learn something must involve reading and writing.  Language, however, by its very nature, is something spoken, not written.  Writing is something that was developed to turn spoken speech into something visual.  Writing was (and in many cultures, still is) primarily a tool to aid oral communicators in memorizing large or complex chunks of information.  You see this in India, where Hindu religious teachers will sit with a book and chant long portions of the text out loud for a crowd of listeners.  The community is learning the information through hearing and repetition, the teacher is simply using the book as a guide to help him keep his place in long stories.  Muslims will also do this to aid in the memorization of the Quran.

I believe this is a huge contributing factor in why there are so many multi-lingual people in oral cultures, yet in literate cultures like America or Russia, you have a much higher percentage of monolingual people who struggle to learn a second language.  We unknowingly hold our noses high in our books and consider these ancient, tried and tested oral methods to be relics of the past, only left alive in “uneducated, illiterate” corners of the world. 

I firmly believe, based on what I have seen in these cultures and experience in my own life with my own family’s attempts at learning language, that a return to orality would see a drastic improvement in Westerners’ ability to learn foreign languages.  I believe there is still a place for books even if we’re focusing on oral learning methods.  Literacy is not a bad thing, but like any tool, it has a right and a wrong way to be used.  We can and should still enjoy novels, poetry, and witty blog posts.  We should wield literacy in creative ways to shape and improve our cultures. But when it comes to actually learning a language, I believe that the initial place of literacy is in organizing lesson plans and assisting oral activities like spoken repetition and storytelling.  Just like a child who spends years listening and learning to speak before they ever even touch a pencil, we would do well to focus on first learning the language (which is an oral phenomenon, or with sign language, a manual phenomenon) and then later invest in learning how to read it, write it, and analyze its grammar.    

About the Author: David

1 Comment

  1. Reply Ralph of the Alps

    I appreciate the distinction you make between educated and intelligent. I think we focus too much on books and getting a piece of paper and not enough on truly internalizing and applying what we learn.

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