Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening: The 4 Basic Language Skills, and How to Practise Them
Reading, writing, speaking and listening – the four foundational skills of language learning.
You can’t build a house without a strong foundation (well, that’s if you want the house to stay upright in all weather!). Similarly, you won’t become a well-rounded speaker of a language without building upon the four foundations of language learning.
It took me quite a while to realise this.
I studied languages for years at school – and even after school without much success. I even moved to Spain to learn Spanish. It was a lightning bolt moment that made me realise I could spend hours learning how to read or write Spanish, but I had to actually start speaking to achieve fluency.
As you continue language learning, you will probably discover that you’re stronger in some areas than others. Typically, people struggle most with listening and speaking.
How I Discovered My Achilles Heel: Listening Comprehension
Listening is the big one for me.
When I was learning German I set myself a goal of passing the advanced CEFRL exam. I passed four out of the five sections of the exam.
It was only my listening that wasn’t up to scratch.
I didn’t mind too much – I could hold confident conversations in German, after only 3 months of intensive study. That being my aim, I was happy with my result.
However, the experience helped me see that I need to focus more on listening when I’m learning a new language.
The key factor of the four basic language skills is that they complement each other. As a science nerd, I know that Newton’s third law states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So, if you want to be a well-rounded language learner, you need to ensure that you’re giving each skill the attention that it needs.
What are the Four Basic Languages Skills?
These are the cornerstones of learning a language.
The skills work in pairs. When you’re reading or listening, you’re consuming a language.
However, when you’re writing or speaking, you’re producing a language.
Once you’ve mastered these skills, you can safely say that you’re fluent in that language.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how you can strengthen each individual skill, to ensure that you’re making the most out of your language practice.
How to Improve Your Reading Skills
There’s a very obvious place to start for those wishing to improve their reading skills: books!
Books not only help you learn a new language. They’re also a way to discover the culture behind the language.
Thanks to the Internet, paper books aren’t your only option for reading practice. Most languages have thousands of books available to download online – many of them free.
Here are just a few of my favourite reading resources, to get you started.
1. Picture or Comic Books
Picture books are an excellent resource for beginners. Chances are, you used picture books to help you learn to read in your native tongue. So it makes sense you’d start here with your target language too.
Once you’re beyond the absolute beginner stage, I recommend comic books. They’re fun to read, and the pictures help you follow the story even if you don’t know all the vocabulary.
2. A Good Dictionary and a Pocket Notebook
A dictionary is a language learner’s best friend. As you delve deeper into your target language, you’ll frequently come across new words. By having a dictionary on hand, you can find out what those words mean right away, and jot them down in your notebook.
I recommend investing in a pocket notebook. That way you can carry it around, add notes to it or review what you’ve already complied when you’re waiting in line or on public transport.
You can do the same thing digitally. Almost all languages these days have a dictionary available as in app form. And with a note-taking app like Evernote you can keep your notes organised into virtual notebooks – for example by topic.
3. Dual-Language Books
Reading one book in two languages concurrently is a great way to improve your language skills, and it can give you a big confidence boost as you realise how much of the language you already understand.
4. Newspapers or Online Journals
With newspapers you’ll not only improve your knowledge of a language, but you’ll also find out more about the politics, art and attitudes of the countries where the language is spoken.
Many newspapers are available to read online for free.
Whatever your interests – food, fashion, fitness, or just about anything – chances are there’s a blog about them in your target language.
I can guarantee there’ll be enough material online to last you a lifetime… and then some.
How to Improve Your Writing Skills
Perhaps all this reading will get your creative juices flowing, encouraging you to sit down and do a little bit of writing!
For many language learners, writing is the first time they actively try to produce language, rather than consume the language. And even though I advocate speaking from day one, I see writing as an important part of this process. I always recommend preparing a script before your first conversation.
Here are a few other ideas to get you started with writing.
1. Write a Letter to a Pen Pal
Did you ever take a language class at school where your teacher encouraged sending a letter to a pen pal in a far-off land? Well, they were certainly onto something there.
If you’re at a beginner’s level, you can keep it to a few lines on a postcard. If you’re more advanced, set yourself the task of penning (or typing, if your handwriting is difficult to read!) a page-long letter.
It doesn’t even have to be a letter that will ever see the light of day. Address it to your Mum, a friend, or even your dog. It doesn’t matter. As long as you’re writing, that’s the key factor here.
If you’re looking for a friendly person to write to, italki is a good place to start.
2. Set Yourself a Daily Goal on Duolingo
Duolingo offers plenty of writing exercises at all skill levels so you can practise writing your target language as much as you want.
3. Start a Blog in Your Target Language
I’m consistently amazed by how many opportunities have come my way from starting Fluent in 3 Months. I’d recommend anyone who’s learning a language to start a blog. And if you’re doing that, why not write some posts in your target language?
Even before I started this blog, I used to create videos in the languages I was learning.
Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve realised is that everyone has a story that others will be interested in hearing.
You’ll find that starting a blog will have a double effect. You’ll be getting consistent practice writing in your target language, for sure. However, you may also gain a community of readers to support you along the way.
How to Improve Your Speaking Skills
Speaking: the skill of doom! Most language learners find speaking their new language a daunting prospect. I know people who’ve been studying for years and still haven’t had a conversation in their target language.
I get it. Speaking a foreign language for the first time to a native speaker is a massive task. What if you get something wrong? Will people be offended that you’ve massacred their language? Will they think you’re stupid and laugh at you?
Personally, I think speaking is the most effective thing you can do to improve your language skills. Yes, it’s scary at first. But once you’ve chatted with a few native speakers you’ll quickly build your confidence.
And in my experience, I’ve never had anyone call me stupid or laugh at me for messing up my speech. In most cases, I’m the one left laughing at any mistakes I’ve made, and the other person is just thrilled to see that I’m trying.
This is why I’ve made it my mission to help people get over their fear and start speaking in their target language from the day they start learning.
To strengthen this skill, you will of course have to find someone to practise speaking with.
Here’s how to do just that.
1. Find a Language Teacher on italki
italki is hands down my favourite tool for language learning, as it’s a quick, easy and affordable way to find people to chat with in your target language.
There are plenty of language teachers at all kinds of levels available on italki. Don’t be afraid to try a few, until you find one that’s perfect for you.
2. Find a Conversation Partner Online
If you’re just looking for someone to have a conversation with, rather than paid lessons, then try looking for a language partner instead. Italki is brimming with language learners like you who are looking for conversation partners to chat with.
Your conversation partner could be a native speaker of your target language, an advanced learner, or even someone who is at the same level of learning as you.
3. Go to Meetups in Your Area
Most cities have a community of language learners – and chances are you can find one online.
I’ve used Meetup in the past to find and connect with likeminded language learners in my city. This is an excellent way to find a potential language partner, or just make some new friends!
How to Improve Your Listening Skills
To have a conversation with someone it’s useful if you can understand what they’re saying.
I think listening is the hardest skill for language learners. I’m not just speaking from my own experience here, but also from what other language learners have told me.
One of the reasons for this is that it’s easy to fall into the pattern of passive learning. People seem to think that you can just watch a foreign film, or listen to some music and you’ll instantly be on your way towards mastering that language. They then get frustrated when they find they’re actually making little to no progress.
This is because you can’t just let the words flow in and out of your ears – your brain is part of the process too. You need to study what you’re listening to.
There are endless listening resources available – audiobooks, music, movies and podcasts. What we’re going to examine is how best to make these work for you… without falling into the trap of passive listening.
1. Short Bursts Are Often More Effective
There’s no rule saying you have to spend an hour a day practising your listening comprehension skills. In fact, I’d advise against it!
It’s far more effective to give yourself short five or ten minute bursts of study. That way you’ll be more likely to actually get on and do something, rather than feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of an intense language session.
2. Give the Audio Your Full Attention
You can play foreign music in the background while you’re cooking dinner or cleaning the bathroom, but it’s unlikely to improve your listening skills.
It’s much better to sit down and give the audio your full attention. Treat it like a study session, and you’ll get much more out of it.
3. Write Down Words You Don’t Recognise
When I’m studying audio, I tend to write down words I don’t recognise. After I’m done listening, I can look these up in my dictionary and add them to my vocab list for further study.
4. Listen to the Same Audio Multiple Times
Don’t just listen to the same piece of audio once. Learn it inside out, until you can recite it back to front. Once you’re completely sure of what’s being said, you can move onto the next thing.
Don’t be afraid to mix it up either. Study every resource you can get your hands on. This way you’ll keep the experience both fresh and fun.
5. Follow an Audio Course
An audio-based language course is one of the best ways I’ve found to improve my listening skills. My favourite courses the podcasts by Innovative Language. You can read more of my thoughts about them here.