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Adventures in Shiiba - May 1994
Erik Kassebaum

Learning a second language is not the easiest thing in the world. One of the biggest problems has to do with the fact that written language is quite different from spoken language. Unfortunately, most textbooks do not acknowledge that there is a difference between the spoken and written forms of a language. Spoken language is different for a number of reasons.

When you speak with someone who is nearby, you communicate with actions as well as with words. Your movements and the tone of your voice are a type of "body language." Books don't have body language - books only have text. Body language is difficult to transcribe and put into a dictionary. Body language also varies from culture to culture.

It is not unusual for people to say one thing but to have their body react in a totally opposite manner. Think about the last time someone gave you something to eat that you hated. Though you might have said "delicious" your actions might have indicated that you really didn't like the item and that you are trying to be polite.

When you speak on the phone with someone you cannot see them. Without body language, communication becomes more difficult. Using the phone is usually one of the most difficult things for someone who is learning a new language.

The grammar and vocabulary of spoken language are different. Think about the words and phrases that you use when you speak. How often do you utter complete sentences that are grammatically correct? Unless you are very strange - you will not make every utterance a complete sentence.

Spoken language changes more freely. Think about how words and phrases become popular and then after a while they become quite rare. Written language has less freedom. When you write something you freeze it in time, whereas when you say something it only lasts for an instant. It is easier to duplicate something you wrote than something you said.

People who are learning new languages have a lot of difficulty with things such as slang, idiom, and dialect. This is related to the difference between written and spoken language. Slang, idiom and dialect are often regarded as the "sub-standard" or "bad" parts of a language. This is not true! With respect to spoken language these are vital parts. If grammar, vocabulary and rhetoric make up the body of a language then slang, idiom and dialect are what make up its soul.

For me languages are not long vocabulary lists and sets of grammatical rules to follow. When I came to Shiiba, I decided to work on my ability to speak and understand spoken Japanese - not written Japanese. This is because children learn how to talk before they learn how to read, write and answer test questions.