Is there a specific word to express when you only understand the written form of a language?

For instance: I can read Portuguese, but I can't understand it when it's spoken to me.

  • @JLG: "able to read and write" is too strong. I can read Portuguese, but I can't write in it.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Apr 28, 2012 at 19:47
  • Jsuissa: Can you write, as well as read, Portuguese?
    – JLG
    Commented Apr 28, 2012 at 20:45
  • possible duplicate of What word means "the ability to read more than one form of writing"? Commented Apr 28, 2012 at 20:50
  • In my case no -- but that's interesting, did you have a certain word in mind?
    – jsuissa
    Commented Apr 28, 2012 at 20:52
  • 1
    Literate, which means the ability to read and write. You could say you are proficient in reading Portuguese. Linguists talk about reading proficiency, especially with regard to a second language. ling.lancs.ac.uk/activities/891
    – JLG
    Commented Apr 28, 2012 at 20:58

4 Answers 4


Presumably you want a word to describe a non-native or learner of the language. For Europeans learning other European languages (where the writing is in the Roman or Cyrillic alphabet and learning to read is trivial in comparison to speak and listen), you would say that a person has

having reading proficiency

in the language. For a single word adjective, I don't think there's a wod for any particular ability like 'speakability' or 'readability' (that means what you want it to mean).

For languages where the accepted writing system takes much more study like Chinese or Japanese, most people learn those languages academically where the proficiency in both go at about the same rate (it's almost like learning two different languages at the same time, spoken and written).

For the other side, for native speakers, there is only the issue of whether they can read their own language and for that


captures the idea.

'Literate' could also work for the non-native learner, but even though intended for only the reading skill, might be misunderstood for 'well-educated' in the language, meaning both able to read -and- speak well.


You will have to coin a new term. I suggest

solumliterate - literacy without other language ability

Similarly, for someone with speaking ability but not literacy you could say

solumlingual - speaking ability without literacy

which is better than "illiterate" which is a pejorative these days. You could also say

solumnumerate - numeracy without literacy or spoken linguistic ability

as in "until recently computers were solumnumerate".

The "solum" is from the Latin "solum" when used as "only" or "merely"

  • I thought about semiliterate or half-literate, but they both appear to be somewhat derogatory, with the connotation of being uneducated. I don't think most people would understand your prefix. And you still have the problem of literate referring to both reading and writing. The OP stated that he doesn't have the speaking/listening ability, so lingual doesn't really work as an answer to this question.
    – JLG
    Commented Apr 29, 2012 at 12:09
  • Edited answer to address comment. Commented Apr 29, 2012 at 13:28

How about non-aurally fluent?


According to Wordnet, there is no such term.

  • The entry you linked says that adjective literate means "able to read and write". It does not say there is no term for being able to understand only the written form of a language. Commented Apr 29, 2012 at 1:23
  • 1
    But it shows all the sister terms for literate. If there were a word, it should be there. Commented Apr 29, 2012 at 11:54

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