‘Can you write it?’

I remember many years ago going to Mandarin Chinese lessons. I lived in London and it was before the internet was much of a Thing, in 1998 or 1998 – evening classes were easy to come by. We followed quite a rubbish book, and lots of people dropped out very early on, but I stuck at it to prepare for my trip to China. And I remember a refrain that was asked of the teacher over and over again, when we were taught new words, was ‘can you write it?’

Children learning their first language don’t ask this – they learn entirely aurally in the first few years – and so some language teachers think we should do the same learning a second language. Indeed, most of us have some stock phrases in another language which we just know, and know aurally / orally much better than we could write.

My first few words of Thai through Llingo felt like this as well – the ‘hello’, the boy, the girl, the woman, the man, the bicycle and the boat. But now I’ve done three sections of the app and I’m really really noticing that seeing the word written helps enormously in getting it into my head.

So, for the most recent section, I have had a series of ‘transportation’ words – bus, train, plane, etc. In most cases the app will let me hear the word, and see it spellt, and transliterated (although I have to toggle between these last two), as it gives me a picture. TO start with I didn’t notice that I could toggle to a Roman alphabet and was trying to sound out the words with the Thai alphabet (which helps – I’m definitely clear on the letter น now, and enjoying all the varieties on the g / k / glottal stop sound that ก makes).

In my Chinese lessons I can’t remember whether I was one of the ones who was frustrated by the ‘can you write it’ requests, or whether I was asking for them. But in this case I can tell that seeing it written is really helping me.

I think there’s something about phonemic awareness going on here actually. That’s all about understanding what sound(s) a letter makes, and with it, understanding that this is language-specific – a good example is that ‘j’ says something different in English than in German, and in French it’s different again. I suspect that there are language teachers out there who refuse to ‘write it’ when asked specifically because they have noticed that a lot of their students are not phonemically aware; instead they simply apply the pronunciation rules of their first language onto whatever they are reading, and in doing so, at the very least totally butcher the language they are trying to read, or worse, make themselves utterly incomprehensible.

Because this is something that really needs to be taught, and worked on, and revised, and worked on some more. It takes time to unlearn the reflex action of making a certain sound when one sees a certain letter, and to remember that the rules are subtly different here. It’s a really big job to get it sorted, and it needs constant revision, and it’s much easier to lay the foundations right than to try to fix it after errors have become embedded (even fossilised) – it’s a constant thread in my own teaching, and I’m so proud of my year sevens whose pronunciation is so good.

Seeing it written is helping me enormously. I can even picture the words written out in some cases (rot-yan = car) – although for other words I have a sound-memory of the word. How weird is that? Why is the word for train being stored auditorally but the word for car is being stored orthographically?

Anyway – can you write it? Yes. Just remember when you’re reading it, that it’s not English!

Image result for chiang mai sign

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Author: Kedi Simpson

I'm a teacher of modern foreign languages in a UK school and have nearly finished my Master's in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition at Oxford University. Former journalist, doula and childbirth educator.

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