Word for verbally/aurally illiterate?
January 16, 2012 8:49 PM   Subscribe

What is (or is there?) a word for the speaking and listening equivalent of "illiterate", as it pertains to a particular language?

I'm looking for a word to describe not being able to speak or aurally understand the local language of a place.

If I could speak and listen, but not write or read, I'd be illiterate. Deaf / mute don't seem to apply hear because I'm not physically incapable of hearing or speaking; I just don't know how to speak the language.

Perhaps someone more literate in google thesaurus use can help me. :)
posted by herrtodd to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Inaudiate? Inserminate?
posted by michaelh at 9:01 PM on January 16, 2012


Disfluent isn't a perfect match, but it's somewhat close.
posted by allen.spaulding at 9:13 PM on January 16, 2012


Inarticulate?
posted by gingerest at 9:22 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Definitely Nonfluent.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:30 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Unintelligible?
posted by null14 at 11:05 PM on January 16, 2012


Definitely inarticulate (referring to speech).
posted by bie81 at 11:09 PM on January 16, 2012


If you can understand a language when you read it, I don't think it's possible to not understand the spoken version at all. There might be a variance in comprehension levels, but it can't be reading=10 and listening=0. So I don't think there is a word for this, since it's a condition that probably doesn't exist.

Speaking is the hardest part of learning a language, since you actually have to use grammar rules instead of just understanding how they affect meaning, and you don't have as much time to plan and correct yourself as you do when you write. It's not uncommon for people to spend a lot of time learning how to understand and read a language, yet remain unable to communicate easily.

I think non-fluent is the best match for what you're looking for.
posted by lali at 11:21 PM on January 16, 2012


lali: How about for dead languages, or tonal languages if you're a non-tonal speaker? If you've been taught these languages from a book, you'd probably get very close to 0 for listening...
posted by redlines at 11:49 PM on January 16, 2012


If you can understand a language when you read it, I don't think it's possible to not understand the spoken version at all. There might be a variance in comprehension levels, but it can't be reading=10 and listening=0. So I don't think there is a word for this, since it's a condition that probably doesn't exist.

There are also cases where the writing system matches (and is pictographic) but the spoken languages are completely unrelated. For example, my friend who is fluent in Chinese can read Japanese signs and newspapers well enough to get the gist, but has no idea how the words are pronounced and cannot speak or understand Japanese at all.

I don't think there is a commonly-accepted word for this, but my vote would be to make up a Latinate or Greek-based one, such as michaelh's suggestions.
posted by lollusc at 11:54 PM on January 16, 2012


After posting, the word "conversant" popped into my head to describe being unable to speak/listen, but that's not language-specific and stretches the definition a bit.

I hesitate to use "fluent" because if somebody says "I'm not fluent in Spanish" that implies they know some amount of Spanish, they just don't know it well.

michaelh: Great job on the words. This thread made it to the Google already. :)

lali: Mandarin and Cantonese as an example of two languages that share the same written language, but the speakers can't talk to and understand each other. Apparently in China it's not uncommon for people who don't share a spoken language to communicate in written Chinese.

(And China is why this question came up. I am trying to succinctly describe the experience of being unable to communicate with anyone around me in their native language.)
posted by herrtodd at 1:25 AM on January 17, 2012


I've seen this expressed most often by omission, I.E. "I read and write Japanese."

Still looking for the perfect word though.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:46 AM on January 17, 2012


BTW if you're going to be making up a word, -glossia could be a handy suffix if carefully applied.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:57 AM on January 17, 2012


Uncomprehending
posted by bq at 6:42 AM on January 17, 2012


I'll suggest asonant (not to be confused with assonant). It implies trouble with sounds in the same way that "illiterate" indicates trouble with letters and "innumerate" indicates problems with numbers.
posted by logicpunk at 6:45 AM on January 17, 2012


You may wish to contact this fellow, who has almost certainly given the question some thought.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:17 AM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is no single word for it, and no reason for there to be one. We say "I don't speak Chinese," which seems to me perfectly succinct and intelligible. What is the point of inventing a word that might convey the same idea if it existed? Nobody will understand you if you try to use it. And no, the words suggested above (disfluent, inarticulate, etc.) don't even come close.
posted by languagehat at 9:27 AM on January 17, 2012


There are also cases where the writing system matches (and is pictographic) but the spoken languages are completely unrelated. For example, my friend who is fluent in Chinese can read Japanese signs and newspapers well enough to get the gist, but has no idea how the words are pronounced and cannot speak or understand Japanese at all.

I know Japanese, so I can understand some signs in Chinese, but that does not mean I am reading Chinese. It can be very misleading since Japanese uses character definitions from ancient Chinese (or definitions that don't show up in Chinese at all), and they don't always mean the same thing in modern Chinese. Your friend definitely cannot read newspapers well enough to get the gist, because all the grammatical parts of a sentence (and many nouns) are written phonetically, so he/she is missing the biggest chunks of meaning. That simply doesn't count as being able to read Japanese, so it's not an example of someone who can read a language while having zero oral comprehension.


Mandarin and Cantonese as an example of two languages that share the same written language, but the speakers can't talk to and understand each other. Apparently in China it's not uncommon for people who don't share a spoken language to communicate in written Chinese.


Speakers of minority languages in China do not communicate through a shared written language; they communicate through a shared written AND spoken language: Mandarin. Mandarin and Cantonese are not written the same, and neither are other Chinese languages. Cantonese speakers and speakers of other languages learn to write in Mandarin because it's the official language, and in doing so they have to learn it phonetically as well, since they use Mandarin pinyin to type. Some people are trying to expand the usage of written Cantonese.


(And China is why this question came up. I am trying to succinctly describe the experience of being unable to communicate with anyone around me in their native language.)


Are you saying that you can read Chinese, but you can't understand it at all when spoken? That would mean you know the English definitions for some Chinese characters, but you aren't reading in a way that native speakers would recognize as reading.


And yeah, nobody is going to understand whatever word you come up with. Just say, "I don't speak ____, but I can read it."
posted by lali at 9:38 AM on January 17, 2012


I would say unproficient.
posted by threeants at 7:06 PM on January 17, 2012


> I would say unproficient.

That does not mean "I can't speak [Chinese]," that means "I'm not proficient [at Chinese]," which is utterly different.
posted by languagehat at 7:20 AM on January 18, 2012


« Older What should I do with 4 days in Israel?   |   How to become a mechanic? With SA? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.