Writing or speaking – what is better memory-wise for learning languages?

What is better for learning new words – writing or speaking?. It is definitely one of the questions that come up frequently in different language-related discussions.

I have seen many different answers to this question.
Some were quite right. Some were just plain wrong.

That’s why I decided to show you a memory-based/science-based answer to this question.

Let’s dive right in!

Why Both Speaking And Writing Are Great

I don’t want to be this terrible host who welcomes you with a creepy toothless smile and spits on your back as you walk in. I want you to feel nice and cozy!

That’s why I would like to begin on a positive note – both writing and speaking are great learning methods. There are many reasons for that but let’s start with the three which can be deemed as the most important.

1) The Production effect

The “production effect” was initially reported by Hopkins and Edwards in 1972. Unfortunately, for many, many years it has escaped the attention of the scientific world.

The production effect indicates the improved recall for any information which is produced actively compared to the one which is just heard or read silently.

For example, we tend to remember better words which are read aloud compared to words which are read silently (MacLeod, 2011).

Simply put, learning actively helps you to remember better.

2) Deep processing (aka The levels-of-processing effect)

This phenomenon was identified by Fergus I. M. Craik and Robert S. Lockhart in 1972,

The levels-of-processing effect suggests that information is better recalled when it has been actively and effortfully processed.

In other words, deeper levels of analysis produce more elaborate, longer-lasting, and stronger memory traces than shallow levels of analysis. Depth of processing falls on a shallow to deep continuum. Shallow processing (e.g., processing based on phonemic and orthographic components) leads to a fragile memory trace that is susceptible to rapid decay. Conversely, deep processing (e.g., semantic processing) results in a more durable memory trace. – Source.

In the world of language learning, creating sentences is actually one of the most meaningful ways of achieving deep processing of words. That’s one of many reasons why I am against using mnemonics in language learning (in most cases).

 

Writing or speaking - what is better for learning languages?

3) The reticular activating system (RAS)

Another cool advantage of both writing and speaking is that they activate a part of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS).

Why is it important?

Let me explain.

Even though the RAS is a small part of a brain, it plays a very important role – it’s the filter of information that is let into the conscious mind 

Every second of every day, it tirelessly scours through the tons of information provided by your sensory organs in order to choose the one which is relevant. Without the RAS you would be constantly flooded with excessive amounts of information which would virtually overload your brain and impede thinking.

Fortunately, that doesn’t happen as the reticular activating system helps your brain capture what matters most to you and what is relevant to you based on your values, needs, interests, and goals.

As you can clearly see, both speaking and writing help put the words you use at the forefront of your mind.

Other Advantages Of Writing

 

The previously mentioned benefits are certainly great. However, let’s dive into some other advantages which are more specific to writing.

1) Writing is a great learning method for the advanced students.

Many people, once they move past the B1 level, tend to get stuck at the so-called intermediate plateaus. They use the same old grammar constructions, the same trite expressions and speech patterns.

It’s very hard to get out of this rut unless

  • a) you consume the staggering amount of input
  • b) start making effort to use new grammar constructions/words

Can you do it just by speaking?

Not really.

Speaking with others, more often than not, requires keeping a conversation alive. You have to think “on your feet” to express your thoughts as quickly and precisely as you only can – if you flounder or stall too long, you might be able to notice a silent agony on your interlocutor’s face.

Writing, however, gives you all the time in the world to jigger your words into something resembling an elegant thought as opposed to the typical intellectuals slurry.

If you puke a little bit in your mouth every time you hear yourself saying “The movie was nice because actors were nice and it’s good that it was nice”, you know what I mean.

Memory benefits of writing

 

memory benefits of writing in foreign languages

 

Some research suggests that writing seems to tickle the RAS and memory centers in your brain a tad harder than speaking.

Here are results of one of such studies

“The results show that on the immediate post-test, the Sentence-writing group performed the best, followed by Gap-fill, Comprehension-only, and Control. On the delayed post-test, the Sentence writing and Gap-fill groups equally outperformed the two other groups.” – ScienceDaily.

However, as you will soon discover, it’s only a half-truth.

As a side note, experiments which I have conducted regarding the efficiency of writing vs speaking show almost no difference between those two.

Longhand vs writing

Interestingly, most findings of research papers concern longhand writing not typing.That causes people to believe that the latter is actually an inferior method.

In the 2014 article published in Scientific American, we can read that:

“When participants were given an opportunity to study with their notes before the final assessment, once again those who took longhand notes outperformed laptop participants.  Because longhand notes contain students’ own words and handwriting, they may serve as more effective memory cues by recreating the context (e.g., thought processes, emotions, conclusions) as well as content (e.g., individual facts) from the original learning session.”

On the surface, it might seem true. After all, the cognitive and physical effort needed to write manually is bigger than the one needed for typing.

Most of these studies, however, measure effectiveness of writing/typing under pressure – the said study took place during lectures. It doesn’t have much to do with the organized process of composing an e-mail or an essay at home.

The extra time you have for deliberation and for a coherent formulation of your thoughts should equalize (more less) any potential difference between writing manually and typing.

That’s why you shouldn’t feel pressure to choose just one of them to reap memory benefits. Choose the one you feel most comfortable with.

Problems with writing

As with every method, there are some potential problems you might run into.

 

a) not everyone wants to / needs write

I would dare say that the vast majority of the population of almost any country in the world doesn’t write that much.

Why would they?

If your job is not strictly connected with this skill, you might not find it useful

 

b) learning a new writing system

If learning a new language system takes you half the time you needed to actually speak and understand your target language, it’s understandable that you might be reluctant to do so.

Writing – recommendations for learning

Best suited for:

  • advanced learners (B1-C2) level
  • anyone who likes (or needs) to write

Other benefits of speaking

Speaking is repetitive

When you write, the fruits of your labor are limited only by your imagination. You can contemplate different word combinations, weave brilliant thoughts.

However, when you speak, you have to be quick. You have to rely mostly on the automated speech patterns and words which are already well activated in your brain.

That’s why most of the things we say every day, even in our native tongue, are very far from being full of imagination. The point isn’t to unleash your inner Shakespeare but to get the point across.

For the same reason, sentences produced by native speakers are also simpler!

Speaking is more natural than writing

The world in which people would use the sophisticated language, which previously could be only found in books, would be a hilarious place!

“Alas, the chains of palpitating agony fell on my little toe as I rammed it into the mighty oakiness of a cupboard!”.

Compared with, “I f*** hit my toe against a cupboard.”

The truth is that we usually speak in a much less formal, less structured way. We do not always use full sentences and correct grammar. The vocabulary that we use is more familiar and may include slang. We usually speak in a spontaneous way, without preparation, so we have to make up what we say as we go.

That’s why if your goal is being able to communicate, speaking should definitely be your default language learning strategy. At least until you get to a B2 level.

Memory benefits of speaking

 

It involves many sensory channels (i.e. it’s great for your memory)

Speaking is a rich, sensory experience. It activates almost all sensory organs and thus creates more stable memories.

In one of the studies about the production effect, we can read that:

Many varieties of production can enhance memory. There is a production advantage for handwriting, for typing, and even for spelling, although none of these is as large as for speaking (Forrin, MacLeod, & Ozubko, 2012).

So what about some studies which say that writing is better for our memory than speaking? Well, they might be some truth in it:

The data suggest that immediate form recall is better when words are learned in the word writing condition than in the word voicing condition, though this advantage seems to disappear after one week – (source: Word writing vs. word voicing : which is a better method for learning L2 vocabulary?)

As you can see, most of the benefits of writing usually disappear upon finishing this activity.

It is faster than writing

As I have mentioned earlier, even though there is some research that suggests that writing gives your memory some boost, this fact loses its importance once we factor in how much output we can produce with writing compared with speaking.

Here are results of one of the studies which took this seemingly irrelevant fact into consideration

The written group produced almost 75% less language than the spoken group did in the time available. This complements previous research discussed in section 3.6 which found more opportunities for language learning in the spoken mode compared to the written mode (e.g., Brown, Sagers, & Laporte, 1999).

Problems with speaking

a) it requires a relatively good activation of your target language

Even though I am a big proponent of learning a language via speaking there is just one small hiccup. If you want to chat with foreigners, your command of your target language should already be good.

That means knowing at least a couple of thousand of words and having a decent knowledge of grammar.

What would be the easiest way of circumventing this problem?

If you want to increase your oral output without having to speak with native speakers, you can simply start talking with yourself (learn more about here and here).

Speaking – recommendations for learning

Best suited for

  • anyone who learns to communicate

Relatively-well suited for:

  • anyone who learns to consume media in his target language

Even if you only learn a language to watch media in your target language, you should still spend some time on learning how to speak. It will help you to understand language much quicker due to your improved mastery of grammar and vocabulary and their interrelations, which will in its turn increase your language comprehension.

This is one of the cases where you get two for the price of one.

And the winner is … 

Writing or speaking - what is better for learning languages?

All in all, my opinion is that for the most people out there, speaking is the superior learning method as it allows you to practise what probably matters to you the most – being able to communicate.

What’s more, writing offers almost no benefits memory-wise compare to speaking.

Having that said, you should remember that the ultimate answer might be more complex for you. Some learn a language to write, some to watch movies and some to talk. Choose your goal and choose your preferred learning method in accordance with it.

Question for you:

What is your preferred way of using a language – speaking or writing? And why?

Share your thoughts. It does matter.