Reading, listening, speaking, and writing are fundamental language skills for humans. Even though reading and listening may resemble each other much more than speaking and writing, but both pairs are still different in between them. Let us see what these differences mean and how communication is affected accordingly.
Back in the days, reading and listening were considered passive skills, while speaking and writing were active ones. In the mid 80s, research have paved the way to change those terms to receptive for the first and active for the latter. However, to describe all listening as receptive is a little broad.
Listening to the radio or a teacher is what is known as “non-reciprocal listening”. Listening to someone you're having a conversation with is different; it entails participating in that conversation or discussion, it requires interaction. Thus, it's called “reciprocal listening” or “interactive/interactional listening”.
I personally prefer the much simpler, and perhaps more modern, notions used in the below graph which I have found online: Input-Output and Spoken-Written.
Delivering words through writing or through actual speech are two different aspects of expressing ourselves and communicating with others. This distinction in the mean plays a major role in how the message ― the output ― of the conveyor shall or shall not be received. I do hold that everyone has something to say, but not everyone can deliver their words ― be it written or spoken ― in a coherent, or captivating, or catchy messsage-like form.
You see, I can read a page from a book that someone wrote and not understand it. Then when I read again I somehow get a better idea of what the words convey. Then perhaps if I read it a third time, possibly when I'm several years older, or after a fourth or a fifth time, I get a better chance to understand the input on a deeper level. The same goes with a whole book; you can close it, even forget about it for a while, and then reopen when you might be more ready or ‘equipped’ to comprehend its content. You may or may not comprehend at the end, but you can always keep reading it again and again until you do, or at least come close. Here, the speed of the input remains our own choice.
When it comes to the spoken word, the input/output takes on a different form. You can only attract the attention span of an individual, or the masses, for a certain amount of time. It's similar to performing on stage. Like listening, speaking requires effort and energy — body language, gestures, different techniques — from the speaker to keep the audience captivated for a while in order to be able to deliver a message, whether at the end of the ‘performance’ or through it or both.
If there is no effort or energy exerted, the audience will eventually get distracted, lose the speaker, or get bored in the process. Usually this means no real second chances for the speaker, at least from the perspective of those who have already tried to listen. When the book is closed here, it could possibly be closed for good. And that, in my opinion, is one main difference.
Another benefit of the written is that the words are documented. One can edit, reword, or change them in the future. But the ‘work’ remains, possibly forever. If we're not recording, we cannot say the same about the spoken word.
As for reading, one can skim through a book or an assignment before they actually start reading or working on it, to get an idea. We all did that at some point, I am sure.
A listener on the other hand, doesn't have this opportunity. Rewind buttons and the awkward act of asking for a repetition excluded, there are usually no second chances with listening. We do not get to control the speed of the input here. Consequently, to retain information in such a way is not as efficient as when you actually see written words with your eyes. Because the visual memory becomes included in the task of remembering.
One more plus to reading is that in writing, words are separated with spaces; while in speech, we don't pause after every word. Imagine if we did! So the act of processing the words and understanding the meaning of the sentences — the input — takes on different approaches according to whether we are reading or listening.
A final advantage to reading is that, linguistically, we learn much more when we get to read. We know how words are spelled, we know how they are used, and in what context. This promotes and builds our vocabulary skills as well as our intellect. In actual fact, children's books have 50 percent more rare words written in them than words spoken in an average showing of adult prime-time television. That's why TV should never replace reading. As we listen to someone speak, however, words could be easily lost in the middle of sentences. And again, there is no rewind.
For someone with Tinnitus, I had always despised audio tests. There really are no second chances. Give me something to read — or view — and ask me to write or speak about it, no problemo.
Interestingly, as I was told by one doctor, being trilingual makes it even harder. That is because, having a wider vocabulary, the words I hear could resemble many others words in my mind, which leads to confusion. The choice is narrower if you only know one language.
That said, for students the story may be a little different. Listening to a professor explain a certain topic could sometimes be more beneficial then them reading about it all by themselves. That's why a common technique used in teaching is letting them read first, then the explanation follows in class.
Similarly, for people with dyslexia who have trouble reading, listening could be a much more productive and enjoyable experience.
In a book called Listening Myths, Steven Brown lists the key difference between both pairs:
Listening and Reading:
- Speed of input.
- Use of cognates — word derived from the same root as other word.
- Reductions and blending of sounds (Williagotodmamall?).
- False starts and hesitations (I...uh - um, like).
Speech vs. Writing Related to Listening:
- Speech units tend to be shorter than written units.
- Speech uses more pronouns and generally vaguer language.
- Speech makes use of conjunctions (and, but, so) while writing uses subordination, in which dependent clauses are linked to independent clauses with words like that, which, when, or while.
- Speech is less fluent and filled with redundancies, fillers, and self-corrections.
- Speech uses less standard grammar than writing and more colloquial language, including slang.
- Speech uses gestures and body language to transmit meaning.
In a nutmeg, reading, listening, speaking, and writing are different means of communicating and they are all equally important. As we have seen, the first two form a pair in which reading seems to be a richer, more thorough experience than the one-time chance of the spoken word. As a writer, I can personally extend that advantage to include writing over speaking because of the same reason — the better opportunity to convey your message and present your ideas in a coherent, easy-to-grasp way.
However, these linguistic skills are not mutually exclusive. We are usually exposed to a varying degree of different input and output which work together. If one wants to be a successful communicator, mixing between the written and the spoken by mastering these skills remain imperative.
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