Reading German But Not Being Able To Speak It

I was reading a book on Jesse Pomeroy,he was a 14 year old boy who murdered two people and mutilated a bunch of others, in the 1870s.

He was found guilty and sentenced to death which was commuted to life imprisonment in solitary confinment.

It was actually isolation rather than solitary. Anyway he was allowed books and such, and when he went for parole hearing after 40 years to allow him to mix with the general prison population, he was asked what he had been doing with his life for 40 years.

He replied studying and that he learned German, French and other languages. When asked to say something, he said that he could only READ them, he couldn’t speak the language.

Now I’m not sure if I’m following this, my question is why couldn’t he speak the language?

Is it because not having anyone to talk with for 40 years he couldn’t be sure how to prononuce things? Like for instance he would say the German word for “I” - “Ich” as itch, (like scratch an itch), so while he knew what the word translated to he didn’t know how a German would say it.

Is that it? Or is there something else I’m not getting here?

Learning to read a language is very easy compared to learning to speak it. Once you know that “ich” (or je or jag) means “I” you know it. You don’t have to worry about pronouncing it.

Pomeroy probably looked at the German words and translated them into English in his head. No prounciating required.

When learning German at school I could read and understand it before I spoke it. Learning to read and learning to speak a language are two separate things to learn. Neither requires the other to learn it. Knowing one should help when learning the other.

To add to that, it’s almost impossible to become a fluent speaker of a language in a vacuum. You need someone else to speak to in it.

You need practice hearing it, as well as speaking it, otherwise your pronunciation, accent, etc will be way off. Hearing and speaking are related. They reinforce each other. Without practice, you probably would be able to follow just a little of the spoken language before getting lost. We speak without the space between the words and without punctuation. You can see all this plus almost never lose the context when you read. Trying to form a coherent sentence, let alone carrying on a conversation, without practice in how to form your lips and tongue is daunting, you go back to forming one word at a time - Me Tarzan, you Jane at the best.

I can read French and German well enough to understand an article in my field, but I can barely ask where the toilet is, let alone follow in depth a French movie on TV. I simply don’t practice. My niece is profundly hard of hearing, but she has absolutely no problem reading. Her speech however, is affected by the lack of feedback. Modern language programs, such as Rosetta Stone, have recording and evaluation software built in to let you hear yourself and compare. Books don’t.

No, we don’t. There are pauses between words, and between sentences. They’re not as significant as they are depicted in writing, but they are there.

It was funny to see this in a thread on German, because one of my German professors in college would sometimes accuse students who dropped their pronouns and articles of committing “Tarzan sprache.”

I can read almost anything in Latin, but I can’t form a coherent sentence to save my life.

Translating (and thus, reading) is much easier than writing (and thus, speaking).

I am reasonably proficient at reading, even writing French but my pronunciation and comprehension of spoken French is terrible.

I can read Spanish easily and write simple sentences. But while speaking, it takes a while to think of the words and put them in the right order, so:




[del]such as[/del]



[del]xxxxxgoddamn it[/del]


screw it.
And forget about the pronounciation.

As others have said, speaking and reading are different things.

On the opposite side, I had a college friend who spoke Polish fluently; he was hired for an engineering co-op job partly because of this skill (they had offices and factories in Poland he would communicate with). He couldn’t write Polish to save his life. After many Polish conversations over the phone, he emailed one of his Polish co-workers in Polish, who replied to him in English, saying, “let’s use English in writing; I could not make out what you were saying in Polish!”. :slight_smile:

A few other issues that arise in speaking a language:
– when I’m reading, I only have to make sense of something that a fluent speaker or writer has already organized. When I’m trying to speak or write, I not only have to understand the words but I have to organize them correctly and remember any grammatical changes without prompting. Yes, all of these are also involved in reading comprehension; but when I’m reading, the writer has done some of the work for me.
– there does seem to be some evidence that different parts of our brain are involved in reading as distinguished from speaking or hearing. (It’s my impression that stroke sufferers can sometimes lose one set of skills, while retaining the other.) I know that I have a great deal more difficulty hearing another language and making sense of it than I have seeing the same content.

In normal conversation, you do not pause after each word.

To…do…so…would…sound…very…strange …and…artificial.

You might say something like “Todoso (pause) wouldsoundverystrange(possible pause)andartificial.” That’s how I would vocalize it. It looks funny in print because we are used to seeing the spaces.

There can be pauses between thoughts and constructions (pauses for clauses?), but seldom (minus emphasis) for individual words in a clause. Pauses between sentences do occur, but not always. Besides, not everyone speaks in complete, logical and grammatically correct sentences. No one has ever accused me of that particular crime.

As others have said, reading and speaking are different skills. I will disagree that it has to do with pronunciation, though. I read German far better than I speak it (not that I read it particularly well), but my pronunciation is quite good.

Reading is simply recognition. You don’t need to learn the intricacies of grammar and conjugation to recognize words. And you never actually have to come up with anything on your own. But to speak you need to know these things and produce them appropriately.

FWIW my spoken French is quite good after two years in an all-French environment. But I have trouble reading newspapers and can’t write at all.

Is there a similar distinction between the ability to understand a spoken language well and the ability to speak it? Not just because the person is self-conscious about their poor pronunciation, say, but because they have only learned the language passively and are not used to formulating their own sentences?

Linguists know this to be incorrect. Here’s one cite. (The most relevant sentence is the last one on the page: “The fact is that speakers do not normally pause between words.”


I took a German class last year in which all we did was read and translate texts. Now I can (with a dictionary) read and translate German, but I can pronounce it only very slowly and with difficulty. If I’d never heard a teacher pronouncing German, I’d have no clue how it was pronounced at all.


Dare I suggest you’ve probably worked on your pronunciation more that the average learner? :slight_smile:

I’d agree with those who say it is possible to understand what others have written without having learned the skill of writing a sentence of your own. Personally, I wouldn’t say someone has learned the language if they couldn’t also express themselves in it, but I’ve no idea what you would call it when someone only understands the language - a Read Only Speaker?

You might call them a classicist. Classical Greek and Latin are typically “read only” languages. I believe there is a good deal of uncertainty over exactly how ancient Greek sounded (at any given period or location), things like tonal qualities have to be estimated. Latin is on a little better foundation. The Vatican uses Latin as it’s official language, and I guess people familiar enough with it could carry a spoken conversation. I remember taking a Latin composition class (B, thank you), but it was clearly a written exercise (we did read them aloud), not meant to be conversational.