Oral vs. Written Language–Two Talks on Twitter

In the last 24 hours, I’ve participated in two different but intersecting discussions on Twitter—one on phonics, the other on autism. Their point of intersection: the question of oral vs. written language.

First, Phonics

The phonics discussion was one I couldn’t help jumping into. A distinguished education professor and specialist in reading instruction dismissed someone’s linguistically accurate observations about consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) patterns by telling them they should take a class in linguistics. I’ve taken many classes in linguistics, so I piped in as follows:


While this comment of mine went uncontested, a subsequent one raised hackles:


A different reading specialist reacted this way:


Subsequent replies revealed that there is indeed both (a) confusion over the terms “vowel” and “consonant” and (b) some people who do use these terms to refer to letters:


I’m not too worried about rigorous terminological consistency, but I do think it’s important, when teaching reading, to distinguish between “vowels”/”consonants” as sounds and “vowels”/”consonants” as letters. Reading, after all, is all about mapping the oral language to its written code, and it probably helps to keep these two systems conceptually distinct.

Next, Autism

But Language with a capital L is different—and this is where autism comes in. Many individuals on the autism spectrum are considered “nonverbal,” but what does that mean?


Again, we have the distinction between lay definitions, which tend to equate “verbal” with “spoken” (as in “verbal agreement”), and the linguistic take, which, when it comes to words (as opposed to vowels and consonants), is agnostic about whether the words that make something verbal are spoken, written, typed, or (as with deaf people) signed.

Linguistically speaking, deaf people are just as verbal as everyone else—as are people who are unable to speak but communicate by (independently) typing, writing, or pointing to words (or even picking words out via eye gaze). Some in the latter group suffer from paralysis or oral-motor dysfunction; others are autistic and for some reason find written language more accessible than oral.

As I noted on twitter, there’s a gigantic difference between being non-speaking and being (in the linguistic sense) nonverbal:


There’s a second reason to maintain a distinction between non-speaking and nonverbal. While it’s possible to be non-speaking yet verbal, it’s also possible to be speaking yet nonverbal.

This is because being verbal (in the linguistic sense) entails that you’ve learned the abstract semantic meanings of words, phrases, and sentences. You’ve learned, for example, that “cup” refers to all possible cups, not just the particular cup that you like to drink from; that “outside” refers to the outdoors in general; not just to your yard; that “go away” isn’t just what you say to make others go away, but something that others can say, too—with similar intent.

But you don’t have to know the meaning of a word or phrase or sentence in order to speak it. Just like someone who convincingly parrots the phrases of a language they’ve never studied, a child can parrot back speech without knowing what they’re saying. The phenomenon, common in autism, is known as echolalia.

Indeed, some autistic kids speak almost entirely in echolalia. The degree to which they’ve attached abstract semantic meaning to what they say is hard to measure, but at least in some cases such kids, regardless of how much they speak, are arguably mostly nonverbal.

Beyond the confusing terminology, the difficulty in knowing how many words a non-speaking person knows, and the difficulty in knowing how much an echolalic child truly understands, there’s a final factor afoot—one that takes us back to Neurodiversity.

One of the agendas of the Neurodiversity Movement is to contest the widespread criticism that its autistic members only speak for a tiny minority of individuals with autism: namely, those with strong enough verbal skills to effectively self-advocate and to (purport to) advocate for others. To combat this claim, it’s useful to use the term “nonverbal” in the narrow sense of “non-speaking.” One can then counter that the autism self-advocacy community encompasses people across the spectrum, including people who are completely “nonverbal.”

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