The use of a foreign language boils down to four basic skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. The structure of most language tests reflects this. Study programs usually have separate exercises for each or focus exclusively on speaking and listening. In any case, when learning a foreign language, we tend to focus on one skill more than others. The article muses on how to prioritize your learning efforts.
I can’t identify native English speakers, but in my experience, listening is the hardest skill when it comes to foreign languages. Especially if we talk about two phonetically different languages like English and Russian for example. Obviously spending a lot of time reading textbooks may produce some results but it does not guarantee a good enough speech comprehension skill to lead a conversation. I find this bookworm approach less problematic in the West although most language buffs I meet think of learning a foreign language primarily as a conversational activity. However, listening alone is not very common. Apparently, the progression isn’t obvious at first when you do a lot of listening, but this is how we acquire our first language nonetheless.
Speech, if you think about it, is the result of muscle activity. We control our breath and the tension of the vocal cords with muscles, and the tongue is also a muscle. Thus, by repeating the same sounds, words and expressions over and over again, we engage our muscle memory, that is, the same apparatus that allows an athlete to perform a complex movement or a musician to perform a virtuoso piece. Fluency in speaking a language comes from muscle memory. But it’s not about fluency. Apparently, engaging your muscles has some underlying binding effect on everything you learn or practice and makes it quick to remember what you learned even after not using it for a while (just like riding a bike).
If you want more of a brain-muscle connection and movement, I highly recommend This TED talk is by Daniel Wolpertwhere his main assumption goes “We have a brain for one reason and one reason only – and that is to produce adaptive and complex movements.”
Apart from fluency when we speak focusing on correct articulation, we improve awareness of our tongue which is strongly coupled with muscle control, thus engaging brain regions responsible for language acquisition (there must be a reason why “tongue” means “language” in some contexts and in language Russian, for example, both match the same word.) Additionally, by pronouncing the words of the language we’re learning, we get a better chance of understanding the differences between the sounds of a foreign language, which benefits our comprehension/listening skill as well.
reading and writing
Unless the language you’re learning uses hieroglyphs, you’ll likely start reading and writing in no time. You wouldn’t sweat over the alphabet, no matter how weird it was, right? It’s just a few dozen characters after all. But Japanese or Mandarin is a different story. Just as native speakers of Chinese and Japanese do, you will have to invest a great deal of time and effort into learning kanji, unless you are happy to just practice conversational skills.
It’s no secret that reading can benefit from writing: it’s much easier to remember a kanji after writing it a few times. Have you noticed how the positive effect is achieved by engaging the muscles and movement again, just like speaking and listening?
Top 4 out of 4
Finally, with all of the above considerations, here’s my priority list:
- to talk. Pronounce using your full voice. This is really a secret back door through which language registers with our brain. Quite obviously, we want to feed our muscle memory with as much authentic pronunciation as possible, and so we come in at a close second.
- listen very important. This is the basis of language acquisition. By sifting through this huge stream of information, our brain collects the statistics that are necessary for language learning.
- reading It is an excellent tool for expanding your vocabulary and revising your grammar.
- writing It may be your lowest priority, at least for me right now, but don’t ignore it! Putting your ideas into writing at your own pace, especially in the early stages of learning, efficiently uncovers blind spots, whether they’re missing vocabulary and expressions or wobbly grammar. Pen pals are not as popular now as they used to be, only to give way to instant messaging and language learning social networks like Livemocha.
But wait! What about grammar and vocabulary? You see, they’re instrumental in the four skills, not the skills themselves. This is great if you are willing to deal with it methodically, just make sure you still see the forest for the trees which is fine.