Monday, 2 October 2017

4 Core Foreign Language Skills You Need to Develop

In conversations around foreign language abilities, it is the word ‘speak’ that you hear most often.

‘I spoke Spanish with a Spanish guy I met on holiday’, your friend narrates beaming with delight.

‘I can speak four languages’, your colleague announces proudly.

‘I haven’t spoken French for ages, so it has got a bit rusty’, you tell your new neighbour who turned out to be French.

Speak, speak, speak. No wonder that when one starts learning a foreign language, speaking is the first thing they have in mind. Speaking is not the whole story though. There are other core skills to be developed as well. They are reading, writing and listening.

So, when planning your foreign language study, you need to make sure you have all four skills covered.

Why is it important, when do you need to start developing each of these skills and how do you do it?


Why. Reading is that necessary input without which you won’t produce any output, be it in the form of speaking or writing. Reading as much as possible is the key here: the more you read, the more you come across the same words and grammar structures in the wild, recognise them, observe their behaviour and learn about their habits in their natural environment.

When. You can already start with reading from level A (elementary), once you know some two hundred words. Starting reading early is vital as this will give you that language fluid that you need to keep things flowing and keep things real as opposed to just studying grammar rules and doing textbook exercises.

By the way, I am not saying that studying grammar rules and doing textbook exercises is bad. It’s a great shortcut to understanding how language works so it would be silly not to use it and rely only on your empirical observations, i.e. reading and listening.

How. As your primary task with reading is to keep things flowing, you need to ensure that the reading materials you use are suitable for your level, so that you don’t get stuck. For example, books specifically designed for learners are marked as suitable for levels A, B or C (elementary, intermediate or advanced).

Research shows that unknown words should constitute only about 5% of the given text. If it is much more than that, it is likely that these reading materials are not suitable for your level. In this case, reading can turn into constant looking up of unknown words and a real struggle, so eventually you get fed up and give up.

Saying that, looking up unknown words when reading is essential. And it’s not only because it helps you understand what you are reading. Consulting a dictionary ultimately helps you grow your vocabulary.

So, a dictionary is your best friend when you read. With modern technology, you have online dictionaries and (even better!) dictionary plugins, so there is no tedious leafing through paper dictionaries. And no excuse not to look up new words!

However, it is not enough to just look up words to grow your vocabulary. It is more effective to record them so that you could revise them later. It is especially the case if you don’t read a lot or if your language level is quite high (intermediate and above). In both cases you won’t be coming across the same words many times, in the latter case because the words you don’t yet know with your high level are words that are not used too frequently.


Why. Like reading, listening is that input that ensures you can produce output in the form of writing and speaking. Unlike reading, listening happens at a speed over which you have little control. And with pronunciation different from your native language. And with a variety of individual accents of speakers. And with possible surrounding noise on top of it all. So, you need to practise listening in your target language regularly to be on top of all these challenges specific to listening.

When. As in the case with reading, with listening you also need to start early to keep things real. After all, it’s a language people use in real life, well, unless you study, for example, Latin. Simple dialogues are really good for those who have just embarked on their language journey so that from the very start you are exposed to the speech and not just separate words. The difference is not only in quantity (more words at once) but also in quality, as words change how they sound depending on what other words surround them. Also, not all words in a sentence are equal: some are stressed while others are not and you might not hear them clearly.

How. Again, as with reading, you need to make sure listening materials are suitable for your level. Audio materials that are specifically designed for learners of elementary and intermediate levels do not only have easier content in terms of vocabulary and grammar (simpler words, simpler grammar structures) but are also read slower, more distinctly and often with a standard pronunciation, i.e. not with some region-specific accent.

Knowing that, once your level is high enough for you to start using authentic materials designed for native speakers and not just learners of this language, you might need to deliberately include materials with various regional and even foreign accents, by people with different social and educational background, of different ages and speech abilities, etc.

Even with audio designed for learners, it’s not always easy to understand everything that is being said. One thing that helps is turning up the volume or, better still, putting on headphones. Or sometimes both!

Listening is also a means of growing your vocabulary, especially if you cannot spare too much time for reading but are perfectly able to listen, for example, on your way to work, while cooking or cleaning, etc. In this case transcripts can be really handy. Once you get a chance to look at them, you can locate the words you don’t know there to see how they are spelt and record them for learning. It will be a piece of cake to learn this vocabulary if you listen to this audio materials more than once.

And very often you do need to listen more than once. For example, if you have read something in your native language and haven’t understood it, what is the next thing you do? That’s right, you reread it. It also works when you read in a foreign language: even if you know all the words in a sentence, it sometimes doesn’t make sense so you have to reread it. The same trick works with listening. Very often listening tasks in textbooks ask you to listen to the same audio twice. When listening for the second time you understand the text even better and are able to make out more details as well.


Why. While reading and listening are input, writing and speaking are output, so we are talking about creating in your target foreign language not just consuming. Most modern languages are written languages, so, unless your target language doesn’t exist in a written form, you need to practise writing as a separate set of skills. Even with the Internet where video content is highly popular, writing is still an important creative language activity people engage in, examples being posts, comments, short instant messages and emails.

When. As you consume content in your target language while reading or listening, technically you are still engaged in passive language activities. You are still an observer and a recipient of all this language goodness. If you want to make those words and grammar structures that you see and hear, part of your active vocabulary, you need to start using them yourself. Writing provides this opportunity. Thus, you need to start practising your writing skills from the very start. It doesn’t have to be essays, of course, putting just a couple of words in a finished sentence at the start will already do you a ton of good in terms of building your active vocabulary.

How. With the Internet, you have loads of opportunities to develop your writing skills in a natural way. You can write comments to the posts you have read, reviews of the products and services you have used, participate in different discussions and forums, post on social media, send personal instant messages and emails to your language partner/s and teacher, etc.

The only thing I would strongly recommend here is to make sure you do it not only to practise your language skills but you actually have something to say. It’s such a waste of everybody’s time (including your own) if, for example, you bug someone with questions just to practise constructing interrogative sentences in the language you are learning and have no interest in the answer whatsoever. If this is something you need to do in order to practise putting together this kind of sentences, it’s totally fine to write them, just don’t address them to anybody pretending that you need an answer. It’s just not nice at all.

If you study alone though and could do with some feedback and have your mistakes corrected, please use the specific places where you can post your literary masterpieces for them to be checked by the community of learners and teachers. One of them is italki’s notebook. It’s important you check the credentials of the person who corrected your piece though, as these corrections can be made by people whose language level is not much higher than yours. Still, it’s a great way to get a fast feedback for free without bugging innocent people.

Another popular activity you can engage in via the Internet is sending instant messages and emails to other speakers of your target language. Exchanging instant messages (for example, via Skype) is an important writing skill which has its own peculiarities. Instant messages tend to be short and you need to write them fast. It can be quite challenging especially if your level is not too high (don’t worry though, you will get there with some practice). Native speakers are likely to use spoken language in this kind of communication, abbreviate some words or just not write full sentences.

Writing emails is a different kind of writing as emails are not intended for real-time communication and are longer messages that have a certain structure. Emails are also more formal though nowadays they tend to become less and less formal with friendly conversational style being more and more preferable even in corporate settings. With emails, as well as other personal messages and online comments addressed to a specific person, you need to make a habit of rereading them to make sure they sound nice and polite, as it’s not face to face communication where you can use your voice, gestures and facial expression (smiling) to communicate your best intentions. It’s worth putting an emoticon or even an emoji sometimes, if your message sounds a bit blunt.

In any of the forms described above, writing is a great way to grow your vocabulary. When you use the new words you have been learning, you solidify your knowledge of these words by including them into your active vocabulary. It means you learn how to use these words and start using them yourself as opposed to just recognising them while reading or listening (passive vocabulary). For this, you need to actively try to use the new vocabulary you have been learning. For example, you can revise these words just before writing an instant message or a comment and pick out the ones you might use.


Why. As I mentioned earlier, just like writing, speaking is a creative language activity, it is means of expressing yourself in your target language. And while you can get away with just writing when it comes to distant communication, with face to face communication speaking is the only alternative. So, (surprise!) you need to learn to speak in your target language.

When. Speaking, as well as writing, is a means of learning how to use words and grammar structures yourself and building your active vocabulary. So the earlier you start developing your speaking skills, the better. While with writing you can usually go back, read through your piece and edit it if needed, there is no such luxury with speaking. You have to think on your feet which can be challenging if your level is not too high. There is nothing to worry about though. Compared to writing, speaking tolerates loads of imperfections like incomplete, broken sentences, interjections and even relaxed grammar. Bearing this in mind you should just go for it and practise speaking from the very start.

How. For those who have just started learning a language, there are super simple dialogues that you can memorise to make your first steps in interacting with others, for example, to introduce yourself and talk a bit about the weather. Busuu has them for quite a few languages. Memorising simple conversational phrases will boost your confidence, as there is nothing more amazing than being able to have even a simple conversation in the language you have just started to learn.

At first you might struggle with pronouncing separate sounds, words and especially whole sentences in your new language to the point that your conversation partner might not understand what it is you are trying to say. And this is completely normal. Your organs of speech are trained for the sounds of your native language or the language you speak the most. So, at first, there will be a physical struggle with some sounds and combination of sounds that do not exist in your native language. And you can forget about any decent speed of speech. Little kids who are just learning to speak, sound cute and funny for exactly the same reason: their organs of speech are not developed enough to articulate all sounds properly.

With time your organs of speech will get used to this new job you appointed them to do and things will get easier for you and for those who try to understand what you are saying. It doesn’t mean that your pronunciation will be perfect, well, unless you work hard on making it such. It’s not a big problem though. Some adults learning a foreign language never get around to getting rid of their accent completely as it doesn’t hinder communication in most cases. Foreign accents are sometimes considered by native speakers sexy too.

On the other hand, if your accent is so thick that it makes it difficult to understand you, it is the phonetic practice that you need to engage in. It usually boils down to learning about the sounds and intonation specific to this language in theory and practising correct pronunciation.

Even if your level is quite high, you can actually express yourself in the language you are learning and your pronunciation doesn't hinder communication, you might still freeze up when you need to speak to someone in your target language. Very often it has nothing to do with your foreign language abilities and is just a psychological issue, for example, fear of making mistakes.

Just like writing, speaking is a great way to grow your active vocabulary. Again, you need to look through the words you have been learning before speaking and choose the ones that might be suitable for this particular utterance or conversation. Make sure you know how they are used and maybe write them down to remind yourself to use them when you speak.

Happy reading, listening, writing and speaking!

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