How to Improve Foreign Language Skills: 20 Secrets to Find Balance and Build Fluency
If I asked you how many languages you speak fluently, what would your answer be?
Now, if I asked how many of those languages you write fluently, would your answer still be the same?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Just because someone can speak a language, it doesn’t always mean their reading and writing abilities are on par with their verbal communication skills.
Language proficiency is measured in several different ways.
In order for you to reach native-level fluency, you need to balance your time between all the foreign language skills.
Find out how to do that in this post!
- What Are the 4 Foreign Language Skills?
- How to Improve Speaking Skills in a Foreign Language
- How to Improve Listening Skills in a Foreign Language
- How to Improve Reading Skills in a Foreign Language
- How to Improve Writing Skills in a Foreign Language
- How to Improve Grammar and Vocabulary in a Foreign Language
What Are the 4 Foreign Language Skills?
The four language skills are speaking, listening, reading and writing, all of which are interconnected in some way, shape or form.
Here are the ways that these skills relate to each other:
- Working on your language listening skills helps you mimic sounds for speaking.
- Reading helps you recognize more vocabulary and grammar structures to improve writing.
- Speaking and writing are known as active or productive skills.
- Listening and reading are known as passive or receptive skills.
Looking at all these different language skills, you might be wondering if it’s necessary to devote equal amounts of time to develop each one.
Because the whole point of learning a new language is to communicate, many linguists argue that speaking is the most critical language skill. This is often why active skills are highly emphasized in the beginning, with the development of passive skills following later in the language journey.
But does that mean you should only focus on speaking and listening? The answer is no.
Besides, language proficiency tests measure your ability in all four areas, so you’re really shooting yourself in the foot if don’t put any effort into developing your reading and writing skills.
Isn’t it difficult working on all four skills at the same time?
Remember that none of these skills are ever isolated—when you put in the work for one skill, you’re automatically improving another.
It also helps to diversify your learning activities for foreign language practice to minimize the boredom and frustration with repetitive exercises. The variety also takes away the monotony of studying.
As you move onto the intermediate and advanced levels of foreign language acquisition, you might start focusing on certain skills over others, depending on your endgame. It’s the difference between an aspiring interpreter and a striving translator, where the former would need to be a fluent speaker and listener, while the latter would need to be advanced in reading and writing.
Whatever your motivation may be, we’ve outlined all the best tips to develop all four foreign language skills.
How to Improve Speaking Skills in a Foreign Language
Speaking in a new language can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be! To boost your speed, confidence and overall fluency in speaking, keep the following tips in mind.
Improve Your Pronunciation and Accent
One of the biggest reasons why people feel uncomfortable when speaking in a new language is because they sound drastically different from natives. That discomfort goes away once you perfect your foreign language pronunciation.
It’s completely normal to sound awkward when you’re a beginner or an intermediate learner. To be honest, there are even advanced learners out there who still haven’t quite nailed their accents yet. Rather than obsessing over that awkwardness, put the work in to improve your accent. By taking the time and effort in refining your pronunciation, communication between you and native speakers will eventually improve, ultimately boosting your confidence in the language.
Therefore, don’t overlook those seemingly tiny pronunciation issues. Whether you need to learn how to roll your Rs or how to pronounce Chinese pinyin, acknowledge those issues and make a conscious effort to mimic the proper mouth and tongue movements for better pronunciation.
Find a Language Exchange Partner
If you aren’t ready to casually converse with native speakers or are too anxious to attend language meetups, find a language exchange partner instead. This language exchange partner could be a friend who happens to be a native or fluent speaker of your target language. It could also be a fellow learner interested in studying a language you’re proficient in.
Aside from meetups, you can search for a language partner online through language exchange websites and apps, perhaps participate in some language exchange on Skype. You can also go on WhatsApp for language exchange to connect with like-minded language learners.
The great thing about online interactions is that they take away the social anxiety of being face-to-face, allowing you to discuss a variety of language exchange topics without the stress of small talk.
If this type of social interaction is just not your thing, you can always find a language tutor to help you with speaking, in addition to the rest of the language skills.
Always Read Out Loud
Why only work on one language skill when you can kill two birds with one stone?
Reading is obviously a very important language skill. Though if you ask me, silently reading in your head is a missed opportunity for improving your verbal communication skills.
Whenever you find yourself reading any kind of text in your target language, say the words out loud! It doesn’t matter if you have a book in front of you or if you randomly spot a vocabulary sticker on your fridge—if you see words in your target language, vocalize them.
Volume isn’t totally necessary for this exercise. If you’d rather whisper because you’re reading in a public space, that’s totally fine. What’s important is that you practice the mouth movements to help you feel more comfortable when speaking in a foreign language.
Speak Often—and Make Mistakes!
If you want to know how to speak a language fluently, be vocal as often as possible. Any opportunity you have to speak in a foreign language, do so! Talk to fluent speakers, make those mistakes and learn from them.
And when you fumble on a word or translation, try your best to describe it in conversation rather than resorting back to English. By doing this, you stop translating in your head and start having a natural conversation instead of spitting out textbook responses. It’s achievements like these that push you closer towards language proficiency.
I should add that you don’t have to be with other people to practice speaking. In fact, when you’re on you’re own listening to or watching foreign media, you’re more than welcome to do language shadowing exercises to learn how to speak as naturally as the natives.
How to Improve Listening Skills in a Foreign Language
Your speaking ability depends on your listening, so let’s discover how to improve listening skills in a foreign language for better verbal communication.
Listen According to Your Interests
Listening may be a passive skill, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be an active listener.
Active listening requires you to be engaged with the audio. To make sure you pay attention during your listening activities, choose resources that you’re actually interested in. You’ll be more devoted to the content when you listen to language audiobooks that aren’t only appropriate to your level but also fall under genres that you genuinely enjoy.
The same goes for foreign language audio and video clips. When you listen to and watch foreign language videos that align with your interests, hobbies and whatnot, you tend to pick up new words and concepts quicker because you’re invested in the topic.
Whether you enjoy pop culture or like to keep up with the news, FluentU has an extensive library of authentic audio and video clips. On this platform, you get to learn languages through your interests, making your language learning journey entertaining yet educational.
Every video is equipped with both foreign language subtitles and English subtitles, so you have all the information you need for comprehension. In case you need more info, you can also click on individual words in the captions to read extended definitions and sentence examples.
You can start learning through your interests in ten different languages by signing up for a free trial.
Diversify Your Listening Resources
Podcasts and audiobooks are great and all, but they aren’t the only listening resources at your disposal. Don’t forget that while you’re watching foreign news and movies, you’re also listening to the language. Although some might consider those examples as unconventional ways to learn, you’d be surprised with how much you can pick up from unlikely sources, such as international films and foreign language cartoons.
Diversity keeps you on your toes, so don’t hesitate to branch out from podcasts to mix up your listening activities.
Don’t Forget about Passive Listening
Active listening is crucial for learning a new language. Arguably, so is passive listening.
Passive listening language learning is language immersion for the subconscious mind where you’re mentally disengaged with the audio. An example of this would be listening to foreign language audio for entertainment purposes or falling asleep to foreign language songs.
Although passive language listening is hotly debated as a method of learning, you can’t deny that it’s an effortless way to immerse yourself in the target language. By immersing your subconscious, you’re basically covering all the bases in order for your brain to retain the language.
Continuing the idea of mindless learning, our final tip on how to improve language listening skills is by putting on foreign music or language podcasts while carrying out other tasks, such as household chores, silent hobbies and workouts.
This isn’t a typical immersion language training technique per se, but if it allows you to learn outside of your designated study hours, why not give it a go? And on days where you’re too busy to squeeze in a quick study sesh, you can at least listen to a podcast while you’re driving, on a coffee break or even on the treadmill.
How to Improve Reading Skills in a Foreign Language
While language audiobooks are a godsend for learners on the go, they aren’t a substitute for the written literature. Reading, both foreign language e-books and books on paperback, broadens your understanding of the target language as you discover the subtleties between the written and spoken forms.
Here are the best tips for learning a language by reading books.
Take Advantage of Parallel Texts
Reading in a foreign language can sometimes be discouraging for language learners, especially for beginners. But you can’t really blame them, considering how much time it takes when you have to continually pause your reading to look up unknown words in a dictionary.
Thankfully, bilingual e-books exist for you to transport yourself into the world of foreign literature without having to toggle between the story and a dictionary. Additionally, parallel texts allow you to see how words interact with each other in a descriptive setting.
Parallel texts are perfect for both intensive and extensive reading purposes. For an intensive reading activity, treat each chapter as a lesson where you take notes on new vocabulary, grammar or syntax. Once you’ve got a good grasp on vocab and grammar, you can move onto extensive reading, which simply means reading for pleasure.
Read Like a Child
Need another less intimidating way to practice reading in a foreign language? Go for easy language books. You know, the ones that use simple language and are filled with tons of pictures.
That’s right. I’m talking about children’s books.
Dual language children’s books let you embrace your inner child, learning language basics in the most adorable, imaginative and uncomplicated context. In all honesty, learning a new language as an adult can be complex and boring at times. Thus, reading children’s stories helps you dial back on the seriousness of language acquisition. It also lets you have some fun with it.
Children’s literature is an escape and an easy way to track your progress. Just as teachers do in school, you can use graded readers to level up your reading and thinking skills in your target language.
Venture into Comic Books
Believe it or not, you don’t have to love superheroes or be a graphic novel collector to benefit from foreign language comics. In fact, comics are ideal for visual learners, as the graphics offer picture translations of the comic captions.
Comics are a quick read, yet they also can function as extensive reading activities for teaching language. Instead of immediately blitzing through the comics, read through them in two stages.
First, skip the pictures, skim through the captions for unknown vocabulary, do basic translations and make a prediction about the plot. Next, read through the story, compare it to your prediction was and then reflect on the story overall.
Read Literature You’ve Read Before
Bilingual parallel texts are blessings for language learners. But once you reach a certain stage of fluency, you need to progress from bilingual books and move on to foreign language reading material.
To ease the transition, don’t dive into the deep end with new literature. Instead, opt for stories and books that you’ve read before. That way, you don’t get lost in all the foreign words since you already know the plot of the text.
What if you want to read the news in your target language?
For news articles, one of the foreign language reading strategies you can implement is reading related articles in English beforehand. Doing so will provide you with contextual information needed to understand the foreign language headlines.
How to Improve Writing Skills in a Foreign Language
Lastly, let’s discuss the ways to enhance your writing skills.
Write by Hand Whenever You Can
Writing in a foreign language can be quite challenging, especially character-based languages such as Japanese or Mandarin Chinese. But whether your target language uses symbols or the Latin alphabet, the fastest way to improve your writing skills is simply writing by hand. There’s really no other way around it.
Because many of us are learning through our gadgets these days, it’s more important than ever to put a pen to paper as much as we can. Take all the chances you can to write things down. If you don’t have a pen and paper, just handwrite it on your phone’s notetaking app.
Now, improving your writing skills doesn’t mean you have to write an essay by hand every day. Daily writing exercises can be as small as jotting down a list of groceries or as extensive as writing a book review. It’s less about the word count of each writing exercise and more about the frequency of writing to build that muscle memory.
Keep a Journal
A language learning diary is an effective way to monitor your writing skills and generally very convenient for daily writing practice.
If you have no idea how to keep a language journal because you can’t even write full sentences in your target language just yet, that’s okay! The truth is that you don’t have to be fluent to keep a language journal. The earliest entries in a journal always begin as a tracker for new words you’ve learned in your lessons. Once you’ve obtained enough knowledge to formulate sentences, you can start using foreign language writing prompts to guide your entries.
When you’re comfortable enough with your writing skills, you can treat the language journal like a regular journal, sharing your daily thoughts, feelings, accomplishments and happenings in your target language instead of English!
Install Foreign Language Keyboards
This seems counterintuitive considering the emphasis on the physical act of writing in the first two tips. Let me explain.
In order to write in a foreign language, not only do you need to learn how to write by hand, but you also need to learn how to type in that language. Typing Cyrillic on your phone or computer is a completely different experience from typing in English.
Foreign language keyboards aren’t just about the symbols. Even if your target language does use the Latin alphabet, having that foreign language keyboard installed on your devices is still extremely helpful since it instantly detects the right spelling in that language.
Have a Native Speaker Provide Feedback
You could be writing every day. However, that daily foreign language writing practice wouldn’t be as productive without feedback.
Traditionally, feedback comes from language teachers and tutors. So what happens if you’re studying independently, with no authority figure to grade your assignments?
Text exchanges with a language partner would take care of that. If you want to go old-school, another option would be to have a foreign language penpal and communicate via snail mail. Whatever method you choose for feedback, be sure to pay attention to the colloquialisms in the correspondences and request for your language partner to mention any glaring mistakes in your writing.
How to Improve Grammar and Vocabulary in a Foreign Language
You don’t have to be a walking, talking thesaurus to communicate with native speakers of your target language. However, that doesn’t change the fact that your ability to communicate with them depends on your grammar and vocabulary knowledge.
Let’s face it. Without a strong grasp on vocab terms and sentence structures, your foreign language skills will never move beyond the beginner stage.
Vocabulary and grammar are the building blocks of language skills. Proficiency in those areas automatically improves reading and writing. Moreover, it increases your confidence in speaking and helps you recognize words and structures in conversations. Enhancing your grammar and vocabulary is critical for boosting foreign language skills, and there’s a myriad of language learning systems you can experiment with to help build that foundation.
Regardless of what language system you set up for yourself, make sure you keep these tips in mind.
Immerse Yourself in the Language
Language acquisition isn’t about adding another skill to your CV. To learn a new language means to open yourself up to an entirely new, unfamiliar world, as language intertwines with its country’s history, culture and social customs.
It’s essentially a lifestyle change because you can’t immerse yourself in the language without immersing yourself in the environment.
Think about how children learn a language. They learn it in school with teachers and friends, and they learn it at home with their parents. Children absorb new words and phrases quickly because they’re completely surrounded by the language. Immerse yourself likewise and you’ll be acquiring a language like them in no time.
Language immersion requires effort on your part. Luckily, this lifestyle change becomes more accessible when you have the right tools and resources to push you forward in your journey.
Apps like FluentU, which is stocked with real-world interactive videos, reveal the world your target language exists in, allowing you to learn the language in a natural context rather than through typical scripted phrases.
Turn Language Learning into a Game
Tests and quizzes totally take the fun out of learning a new language. Yes, assessments are necessary to see if you actually know your stuff, though why go with the common vocabulary quiz when you can challenge yourself with a game?
Foreign language games are board or card games that can be played with native speakers or fellow language learners. They’re also great as a family bonding activity if you’re learning a language together.
Games can also be a solo activity. There’s a whole collection of language learning video games and apps you can find online to fit your needs.
Watch Foreign Language Media
Don’t let a textbook or language course limit which words and grammar points you learn.
If you want to know which phrases are used in real life, you have to see how they’re used in a realistic setting. And what’s more realistic than foreign news, music, television shows and movies?
The truth of the matter is that foreign language media is one of the most underutilized secrets of grammar language learning.
If you’re wondering how to learn a language by watching movies, there are tons of ways to do so. You can watch dubbed versions of movies you’ve already seen, memorize songs from the soundtrack or change the captions on the streaming service to your target language.
Pressed for time or don’t have the patience for an entire movie? Another strategy is dividing the film into half-hour chunks, writing down new words and structures as you watch each segment. This also works well with television shows since episodes are much shorter. Ergo, they’re more digestible as vocabulary or grammar lessons.
Give Yourself a “Word of the Day”
To stay on top of vocab practice, make it a habit to learn one word a day.
By giving yourself this little language learning challenge, you’re turning passive vocabulary into active vocabulary. Rather than memorizing words on flashcards, you find ways to apply the new terms in your day-to-day. You can do this by incorporating your “word of the day” in conversations or in an entry in your language journal.
You don’t even need to read or write the word down, although it’s good practice to do so. Just thinking about the word is enough, given that you’re recalling the definitions and formulating sentences with the word in your head.
Wow, that was a lot to go through but so worth it! By separating the language skills, you have a better understanding of how to develop each on its own, as well as a skill in conjunction with another.
Now that you have all the tips and tricks to advance your foreign language skills, fluency is just around the corner! Just keep at it!