When learning a foreign language, it’s usually assumed that in addition to spoken language studies (listening and speaking) there will be a focus placed on written language (reading and writing). At first you might think the only difference is learning characters vs sounds, but there is much more involved. As a result there are some differences in how we learn these two aspects of a language.
Clearly, there is much in common between spoken and written language, in particular grammar, vocabulary/expressions, as well as some culturally related things. In informal spoken language there is typically deviations from “proper” grammar including changes in word order and omissions of words, but the fundamentals are the same. This is one reason I am a big proponent of a grammar-heavy study program, especially for beginning students. After all, I think it would be more acceptable to speak in “too perfect” grammar as opposed to misusing slang and informal expressions in writing.
But this is where the similarity between these two types of language stops. Besides the obvious visual and audial differences, written language typically uses a much wider set of words, longer sentences, and more advanced grammar. Some languages may have polite or formal expressions which may be more commonly used in writing.
For example, in Japanese there is the word “である” (dearu) which grammatically has a similar function to “だ” (da), which parallels to “is/are” in English (also called the “copula”). However, “dearu” has a certain formal tone and isn’t used very commonly in spoken language. To me, when I read this word in a book I get the feeling of “literature”, or serious writing. In English we have words like “notwithstanding” or “aforementioned” which are mainly used in written language, although I could see a professor or lawyer using one in a conversation.
In writing, one also has to be concerned with things like punctuation and paragraph boundaries. Depending on the language, there can be several tens to several thousands of characters that need to be memorized. In Japanese, the number of characters is complicated by the fact that each character can have several pronunciations (including irregular ones), and you can write a single word in several different ways. For example, “shokuji”, which means “food or “meal” can be written as 食事,しょくじ、ショクジ, or 食餌 (in order of decreasing frequency of use).
Spoken language also has the challenge that you must be able to comprehend and respond in real time (unless you are watching a recording which you can rewind). Pronunciation itself is also one of the most difficult things to master in a foreign language, especially for older students.
Besides the content differences between written and spoken language, what I feel is even more important is the different learning processes we use for each.
Conversation is most easily picked up in an immersive environment where communicating in that language is forced by circumstances. For example, in order to buy groceries, go to the doctor, joke with friends, or even earn a living one has to learn to comprehend and speak efficiently. I can guarantee that nearly anyone who is put in such a situation for 5-10 years will become quite skilled at spoken language, though grammar and pronunciation may suffer because neither of these have to be perfect in order to get your point across.
Reading and writing, on the other hand, cannot be learned naturally without significant effort of explicit studying, even in the most ideal immersion environment. This is evidenced by the fact in any culture there are always those who never learned to read or write properly, and even native speakers need many years of schooling to even begin to master written language. Becoming fluent in reading literature or some other special domain may take even more years of effort, involving reading tens to hundreds of books.
But enough of the academic talk. How does this knowledge of the spoken/written language dichotomy help a foreign language learner?
First, make sure you have appropriate focus in all areas (reading, writing, listening, and speaking), since it’s easy to have one or more weak areas, especially when studying on your own. Don’t think that listening to audio podcasts all day will help improve reading, because except for some grammar and vocab learned it will have little impact.
Second, grammar, grammar, grammar! I advocate memorizing as many grammar rules and structures as early as possible as these things will apply to all four areas. You can try to learn grammar naturally, hoping to pick up the meaning of something without directly looking it up, but unless you are linguistically gifted (or very young) that will leave holes in your understanding. Instead, actively search out things like grammar-heavy textbooks and grammar dictionaries, and look up patterns you aren’t familiar with during reading. Always make sure you can use what you learned in a sentence yourself, instead of just a “I think it means something like this….” vague comprehension.
Finally, be realistic about what you can master given your situation. If you are a self-studier of a language which is not a major language of the place you live, odds are you’ll never become a master of conversation. Rather than using this as an excuse to give up, instead try and find opportunities to converse more with native speakers, whether that means using an online service like Skype or on long-distance vacations. Consider using things like blogs as a study aid, since they typically have a conversational tone and sometimes phrases learned there can be applied to your own speech.
Conversely, don’t underestimate how far you can go with written language just by sitting at home and doing a massive amount of writing and reading. With enough diligence, you can feel proud to know there are probably some people using that language on a daily basis who don’t have the same reading/writing skills are you.
If you want to be truly native-level fluent in a foreign language, you’ll want to live in that country for a few years, speaking the language on a daily basis while you attend a college, work, or do both.