In truth, formal oral learning among Western cultures never really disappeared. However, how did literary learning become so pre-eminent in schools, Churches, and other social meeting sites? Blame Plato for that. During his lifetime (427-347 BC), he apparently did not like the fact that teachers controlled learning. The teachers taught orally and their teaching style was through poetry, often accompanied by dramatic performance. This combination of style and performance created mental images, and paired with poetry made learning and memorization easier.
By Plato’s time, the Greek alphabet provided a rich way to construct prose in ways that so many other writing forms had not been able to achieve. According to Eric A. Havelock (1986), this is when Plato sized the day, possibly to supplant the power of the poet/teachers by shifting learning to the written word. A tension existed between the poets and the writers of this time over the two mediums for learning. Plato pressed for the democratization of learning through literary methods. A little later, the two forms co-existed as revealed in plays and other oral/visual performances. In the West, eventually the written text became the dominate way to learn.
I heard a story recently about a Bible translation project in New Guinea. The people group had received the written Word with the help of Western translators, and then they lost the written Word due to jungle decay. Fortunately, the people had produced hundreds of Scripture-based songs from their new translation so even if the books disintegrated, the oral Word could continue, passed on by parents and pastors to the next generation. Sadly though, other missionaries had instructed the people to stop signing the songs and learn Western Church songs. That way, all the groups could sing the same songs during regional gatherings. As a result, the oral Word was also lost for a generation of people.
Now these people have a renewed interest in Scripture translation, and their communication method of choice is to install the same practice that existed for a time in Greece when the oral and written text co-existed, each bringing the richness and practical use that both mediums of communication provide. Could it be that we are now in a time when oral preference and literary necessity can peacefully co-exist? In regard to Scripture translation, acknowledging the importance of oral Scriptures will insure that it is no longer viewed as just a curious practice in the eyes of Western workers. Instead, oral Bible learning and telling of Scripture will expand so that the Word is not lost to future generations due to the corruptible nature of printed books.