Can You Speak A Language But Can’t Read It?


There are a plethora of modern inventions easing the difficulties of language learning, due to this we can learn them practically anywhere. This leaves most of us to learn at our own pace, and in turn allows for varying levels of proficiency. Many then wonder if you can only be proficient in one part of a language, directing them to ask:

Can you speak a language, but can’t read it?

You can speak a language, but not be able to read it. This can be for a variety of reasons, predominantly relating to young children not fully able to read while knowing how to speak. Speaking is a separate skill found within a language, apart from reading or writing.

Speaking, writing, and reading are the main parts of a language’s structure. All of these parts compliment each other while remaining distinct. Yet, anything relating to language can hardly be solved with a few words. For instance, can you understand a language while being able to read it? Or, can you speak a language but not be able to write it?

Can You Understand A Language But Not Read It?

Our main topic relates to whether or not one can know only a part of a language, and neglect it’s other features. This usually revolves around the spoken speech of a language, and one facet of that is understanding. To speak a language, one must understand it, right?

Thus, many wonder: can you understand a language, but not read it?

You can understand a language without being able to read it. Whether it is about speaking it yourself, or at least understanding others who do speak it, both can be done separate from reading. This does imply a lack of skill or perfection in one’s speech, usually associated with children.

If one is not able to read or write in a language, this can negatively affect how you would speak. The best way to think of it is that you could sound like a language learner, rather than someone who is fluent in the language.

The Difference Between Understanding A Language, And Speaking It

What is the point in distinguishing between understanding and speaking a language?

Understanding a language is a prerequisite of speaking it, whereas that is not the case vice versa. You can understand a language and not speak it.

This means that one has a very rudimentary understanding of the language though. To understand a language, one normally speaks it. Anything to the contrary is exceptional to the rule, and as such not very interesting to consider.

If you’re interested in more topics about language learning, read some of my other articles.

Why Can We Speak A language But Not Read It?

If it is possible to speak a language and not be able to read it, why would this be the case? Both speaking and reading are vital parts of a language, making it odd for anyone to focus only on one.

Why can we speak a language, but not read it?

Those who can speak a language and not read it are usually very young children growing up. Anyone below the ages of six or seven are not fully equipped to read, but can still speak to some degree. Young children learning a second language tend to focus on speaking it first too.

Another way this could be possible would be a family language, where one learns to speak a language by hearing it growing up. In these cases, it usually revolves around immigrant families trying to keep their native languages alive in their kids.

As an example, a child from an Italian immigrant family to the US might be able to converse with his parents in the Italian language, while still not being able to read in that language. This is due to adopting and focusing on the most widely spoken language in his/her new country, in this case English.

In this study, it discussed how partially bilingual children don’t have the same cognitive benefits as other children who are fully bilingual. This means that it isn’t ideal for a child to only speak their native or second language, and not be able to read or write in it.

Can You Read A Language But Not Speak It?

We’ve talked about someone who could know how to speak but not read a language, yet could the reverse also be true? If languages are essentially just reading, writing and speaking, what’s to stop someone to just focus on reading?

Can you read a language, but not speak it?

It is possible to know how to read a language, but not know how to speak it. This is due to speaking, reading, and even writing being all different parts of a language. They are all certainly related and benefit one another, but can be learnt separately.

This is done mainly by studious individuals who study a language’s written speech as opposed to the spoken speech.

In High School for instance, language classes can help students to learn to read a language. Language classes in High School are notoriously known for not helping one to learn to speak a language.

They generally focus on the grammar and vocabulary of a language, and this can help a student learn to read a language if they go the extra mile. This isn’t the most common instance of this, since College is where one can learn more in-depth about a particular language.

In College, languages like Latin, Greek, and sometimes Hebrew are common choices for those who only focus on the written speech. These languages are used mainly in academic settings, like the medical field or in theological/biblical studies.

Unlike with our main topic, being able to read but not speak a language regards almost exclusively teens and adults.

What Is It Called When You Can Speak A language But Can’t Read It?

Having discussed individuals who can speak but can’t read a language, it would only be right now to learn what to call them. To help us further understand our topic, we should ask the question:

What is it called when you can speak a language, but can’t read it?

To describe those who speak a language but cannot read it, words like “conversational” or “conversant” are used. There is no colloquial term to refer to these individuals. However, terms like conversational especially, can be used in the right situations highlighting speech over text.

If there is no direct term, an individual must understand their context to appropriately convey what they mean. This really matters when discussing one’s abilities on a resume or other circumstances of that sort. In these cases, someone would want to be concise while remaining as accurate as they can with definitions.

On the other hand in normal conversations, it should never be a problem because one can easily explain what they mean. Yet, if you want to be as accurate as you can, the definition are:

  • Conversational: able or ready to converse; given to conversation. (definition provided by Dictionary.com)
  • Conversant: having knowledge or experience —used with “with“. (definition provided by Merriam-Webster)

How would you use these words then?

One could say:

I’m fluent in Spanish, and conversational in French.

Or, something along the lines of:

I’m conversant with French, while entirely fluent in Spanish.

That is how these terms, albeit imperfectly, could be used to describe those who speak a language while unable to read in it.

Is It Possible To Speak A Language Without Knowing How To Write It?

If we now have a better understanding of what it means for someone to speak a language without knowing how to read it, could that apply to writing as well? Is it possible to speak a language without knowing how to write it?

It is possible for someone to know how to speak a language, without having the ability to write in it. Children and beginner language learners are those who would most likely be in this situation. Speaking a language is a separate set of skill from reading and writing.

Akin to how you can speak but not read a language, so too can you speak but not be able to write in a language. For the most part, children could feasibly be in this circumstance, and even then they will eventually learn to write.

There are those that learn to speak a language for practical purposes, but have no desire to learn to write. Reading being easier than writing due to passive versus active skills required will more than likely be learned on some level. But there are those that simply won’t see the need in putting for the effort to learn to write.

Is It Easier To Speak Or Read A Language?

If there are those who learn to speak and not read a language, or vice versa, does that mean for some people that one is inherently harder than the other? Is it easier to speak or read a language?

Speaking is considered to be the hardest part of a language, since it requires a very active approach. Whereas reading is seen as being the easiest when compared to speaking, listening, and writing. The active nature of some and the advantage of time in others become major factors.

When speaking a language one has to converse with someone else, and this naturally adds a level of difficulty. Then, you must think on the fly of what to say and how to respond.

A partner is not necessary to write in a language, but it does still need you to come up with what to say in your own “voice”. In other words, the emphasis is still on you.

Reading in a language is where it gets a little different, since someone else is not needed in real time. Nor does it put you in the pilot seat, instead you’re merely along for the ride.

Does this change depending on if one is a child or an adult? If children do learn to speak first, does that mean it is easier to speak for children?

Is Speaking Or Reading Easier For Children?

With children, it is less about if speaking is easier, but rather not being mentally capable to learn to read at all. This goes for most kids under the age of six or seven, with the exact age depending on a particular child’s own circumstance.

The family’s goals and beliefs will really change the ability of a child to learn too. If the parents don’t want their children to learn something, they certainly will not.

As a child gets older, learning to read doesn’t become easier, but actually becomes an option. After they are capable of doing so, they will learn to read a language much easier than learning to speak it.

Is Speaking Or Reading Easier For Adults?

The main consensus regarding the difficulty of speaking or reading for adults, is that speaking is harder than reading. With speaking, it puts a individual on the spot and that can be very stressful when only a beginning language learner.

Whereas when reading you can take your time and don’t face embarrassment.

This is not to say that learning to read is inherently easy, but rather that it is not that much of a hassle compared to speaking.

Some adults are by nature more outgoing and will then probably like learning to speak a language, but they might mistake this to mean they find it easier. What it does mean is that they are willing to put more effort into it.

The Final Talking Point On Speaking A Language Without Being Able To Read It…

Though it is an odd situation that usually revolves around children, one can speak a language but not be able to read in it. Adults can actually experience the opposite of this, by being able to read a language for studious purposes but incapable of speaking it.

If interested in other topics regarding language learning, then check out my other articles.

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

Recent Posts