Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

How the 4 Language Skills Boost Each Other

When you're learning a new language, how much do the four skills – reading, listening, writing, and speaking - boost each other?

For example, how much does reading help your listening or speaking? Or, when you practice listening, does that help your reading or writing? The answers are yes, and quite a bit. But there are limits.

No doubt, reading will increase your vocabulary and your understanding of how the language works. Still, reading alone does not make you a fluent conversationalist. By the same token, listening alone will not make you a brilliant Facebook chat partner in your new language.

READING

Many adults today start learning a new language by reading, and listening to corresponding audios. Apps and online language courses are ideal for that, with hard-copy textbooks, classes, and tutorials providing support and/or alternatives.

Once you've mastered the basics - essential words and phrases and the fundamentals of grammar - reading will certainly accelerate your progress. Reading is a fast and pleasant way to increase your vocabulary and internalize the structure of the language.

Most of all, reading sharpens your ability to guess the meaning of unknown words. When reading new texts, you'll encounter unfamiliar words, and often it's the context that helps you guess what they mean. This ability will get better the more you read.

To keep you reading, it's crucial that you read books and articles that genuinely interest you. And whenever you can: Read aloud. The Internet has become a huge resource for foreign language materials. Besides online courses, you can find an endless supply of newspaper articles, social media posts, books for downloading, etc. 

Reading is clearly essential for learning a language. However, reading alone is not sufficient if your goal is also to speak and write fluently, and to listen to fast speech and understand what you're hearing.

LISTENING

Understanding foreign sounds and words seems initially more difficult than reading: by correlating the sounds of the words to their spelling one tries, at the same time, to understand what they mean.

If you're part of a conversation, you can ask for something to be repeated. Aside from that, as with a rapid-fire conversation in a TV episode, you can't double-check and analyze what you hear. 

For the beginner, spoken language always seems fast. But with a little patience, you can build up your listening skills right from the beginning. Start with listening to individual words and phrases, then songs and short podcasts, and eventually, TV episodes and/or radio.

As you're training your ear to distinguish the end of one word and the beginning of the next, you'll notice the fast stream of words gradually slowing down.

You'll need good listening comprehension when you're in a conversation with others. Practicing to just listen is an excellent way to sharpen this skill. And once you have progressed beyond the basics, reading will increase your listening vocabulary, and speaking will help you apply it.

WRITING

Writing freely in a foreign language may be harder for some than speaking. If you want to exchange Facebook chats or emails with foreign friends, or even post comments in the language you're learning, you have to be able to spell and put sentences together that others can understand.

A good first step for writing is to copy suitable words and phrases, and to start using these when you write. Then continue doing this with full sentences, or even longer texts.

The point is to write a lot and to write often. When you're ready, begin keeping a simple, daily journal in your new language. It's okay to make mistakes. If you can get your writing corrected - either by an email friend or on a foreign language writing site - you'll make progress fast. 

SPEAKING

If you want to learn to converse in a foreign language, you have to practice speaking. It's as simple as that. Of course, listening with understanding is necessary too. However, conversing in a language presupposes that you can produce the foreign language in a way so that others can understand you.

This involves mastering the correct "mouth mechanics." And, it's not enough to remember the vocabulary, you also have to be conscious of the underlying grammatical fabric – and what's different from writing – you have to do so in real time, without consulting dictionaries and grammar books.

Practice speaking by listening and repeating words, phrases, and short sentence. Then record your own voice, play it back, and compare yourself to the native speaker. Do this until you have acquired a series of common, useful expressions. In addition, read aloud whenever you can (see above).

But nothing beats engaging in real conversations. So once you've mastered the basics of pronunciation and intonation, find a "practice" partner to converse with over coffee, on the phone, on skype, etc. Don't become one of those people who say: "I learned French for four years, I can read Harry Potter in French, but I can't really speak; all I can say is 'Bonjour' and 'Au revoir'."

THE BOTTOM LINE

I've only touched on some of the ways in which the four language skills are both distinct and related. Each person may experience language learning somewhat differently or want to practice one skill to the preference of another.

But the bottom line is that a language learner who wants to master all four skills will need to practice each of these - reading, listening, writing, and speaking - with a certain amount of special attention.