Is a writing system necessary for language?

Learning to read and write can seem to many of us an essential step in acquiring a language. Yet, the majority of language learning happens before children begin to develop literacy skills. Learning can begin as early as in the womb!

A language can be acquired without ever learning to read or write. Actually, over half of the world’s languages have no writing system: they are only spoken (an oral language) or only signed. These languages are just as complete and complex as those that have writing systems, or even more so! For example, Yélî Dnye, an oral language, has 90 different vowels and consonants. This is a whole lot more than English, a written language. Some languages without a writing system even have some surprising features. For instance, Silbo gomero is a language where the sounds are whistles, and whistles carry further than consonants and vowels. Consonants and vowels can carry a couple hundred meters depending on how loud the speaker shouts; but whistles can carry over 3 kilometers! Imagine talking to your friend who is 3 kilometers away, face-to-face. Languages that use whistles are often found in regions that are hard to access, like mountains or dense forests. 

Languages are first and foremost oral or signed. These are the foundations that literacy is built on.

The scientific sources for our comic:

Levinson, S. C., & Majid, A. (2013). The island of time: Yélî Dnye, the language of Rossel Island. Cultural Psychology, 4, 61.

Robinson, Clinton and Karl Gadelii. 2003. Writing Unwritten Languages: A Guide to the Process. UNESCO.

Eberhard, D. M., Simons, G. F., and Fennig, C. D. (2019). Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 23nd Edn. Dallas, TX: SIL International. Available at: