The Four Language Skills: What They Are, How to Max Them Out
Have you ever wished that you could just mix the right ingredients, say the magic words and—poof!—be fluent in the language of your choice?
In the real world, it’s not that easy: Language learning requires concentration, dedication and skills.
Now, while these skills may not be easy to master, they are at least easy to understand and name.
Allow me to introduce you to the four essential language skills and how to use them!
- The Four Language Skills
- How Much Should You Focus On Each Language Skill?
- The Magical Mixture: How to Master All Four Language Skills
The Four Language Skills
Learning a new language can be difficult. There are so many new words, sounds, idioms and nuances. Some days you think you’ve got it, and the next day nothing makes sense. Anyone who’s ever learned a new language is right there with you. But believe it or not, you only need four main skills to achieve fluency.
That’s good news, right?
Here’s some even better news: You probably already know what they are. In order to become fluent in a language, you need to master these four basic skills:
When you’re reading and listening to a language, you’re using a passive skill. You’re consuming the language.
Speaking and writing, on the other hand, are active skills. You’re producing the language, which requires a different mental muscle.
How Much Should You Focus On Each Language Skill?
How much you should focus on each language skill depends entirely on your situation, however, here are a couple of steps you can take to assess which skills you need to give extra attention to.
Understand your strengths and weaknesses
You’ll often hear people who learn another language mention that they’re weakest in listening or speaking. This makes sense. While one is a passive skill and one an active skill, both speaking and listening are skills that fall somewhat out of your control, and so are likely to need more work. For instance, you can’t control how fast or slow someone else will speak, and when you’re still learning, the faster someone speaks the harder they are to understand.
With speaking, the amount of control you have depends on the situation. If you’re outside of a teaching/learning setting you don’t (or you feel you don’t) really have time to think for too long or look up words as you need them. Pressure sets in, then panic sets in, and then your confidence evaporates like a drop of water on a hot pan. We tend to want the words to come out quickly and clearly, but most of the time they don’t, because we haven’t developed that speaking muscle just yet.
Reading and writing, on the other hand, you can control. Generally, they’re both solitary activities. With both, you can go as fast or slow as you’d like. You can stop and do a search for translations. People tend to pick up on these two skills much quicker than speaking and listening, because they can take their time developing the skills. Ironically, though, speaking and listening, the skills that we tend to covet the most, are also the skills that we try to rush, even though they often take longer to master.
The scenarios mentioned above are common, but they may not apply to everyone. So think about it. What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Keep building up your strengths, but don’t push the weaknesses off to the side. Set goals to get them stronger. With enough consistent practice, you’ll see improvement.
Determine your needs
Depending on what your needs are, you’ll need to master at least three skills if you want to be fluent (you might be able to get by without writing depending on what your situation is).
Mastering all four, however, is time consuming. Before you jump into a long-term study plan, first determine what your needs are.
Why are you learning? Is it for fun? Work? Family? Only you know how you’ll be using the language, so you should tailor your learning in a way that will be both efficient and effective. You don’t want to waste time building up skills that you’ll never use. If you have the time, great, go for it. If not, focus more of your energy on the skills that you need the most.
The Magical Mixture: How to Master All Four Language Skills
This is arguably the second-toughest skill to master, but mastering it is just a matter of daily exposure. Here are some fun and easy ways to get listening in—ways that you can control—so that you’ll have more confidence in real-world situations.
Try Duolingo Stories.
Duolingo has a great relatively new feature called Duolingo Stories. It’s currently available for German, Spanish, Portuguese and French, and it allows users to read along with short audio stories. You can toggle over words or phrases that you don’t understand, and also play back sentences that you didn’t fully grasp.
Stories will also do periodic checks to see if you’re comprehending the words that you hear. It’s a great way to slowly develop your listening skills, because while the speakers here speak a little more colloquially than what you might be used to when you’re working through the regular Duolingo lessons, they still speak clearly and at a moderate pace so that you don’t get lost.
In order to build your listening skills, go for at least one story a day. You’re going to encounter a lot of new vocabulary and phrases. Take the time to make sure you understand everything you’ve heard, and then when you’re ready, move on to the next story.
Also, a bonus for Spanish learners: Once you exhaust Duolingo Stories, you can head over to the Duolingo Spanish podcast to keep building.
Listen to songs in your target language on repeat.
Music is such a great way to build listening skills as a language learner. Unlike movies and television, music is something we memorize. We learn the words and we sing along. With access to countless volumes of music through YouTube and streaming services, you can spend an entire day discovering new music in your target language and strengthen your listening skills.
If it’s your first time hearing a song, look up the lyrics online and sing along. Play the song over and over again until you’re sick of it. By that time, you won’t need the lyrics anymore, because you’ll know every word.
Another great thing about learning through music is the repetition. There are millions of songs, by millions of artists, but they seem to all pick from the same pot when they write. You couldn’t begin to count the number of songs that use words such as heart, dance, love, baby, night, dream, life, time and the list goes on.
When you start exploring the work of musicians in your target language, you’ll come to a point where you won’t need to check the lyrics as often, because you’ve heard the words before. You understand. From there, you’ll be able to pick up those words in conversation.
Make sure to squeeze in music wherever you can. During your morning routine, your commute. If you have a desk job, even better. You’ll be impressed with how quickly your audio comprehension improves.
A good way to find songs is to search Google for popular artists in your target language, if you don’t already know any, and then search for the artist on YouTube or your favorite streaming service.
There’s also a wonderful website called LyricsTraining where you can make a game out of learning lyrics by listening to songs and then filling in the gaps in the lyrics. They provide music in several different languages, at all levels of learning.
Watch 3-5 videos per day on YouTube.
YouTube videos are great for quick, controlled listening. You can find short and long video clips about pretty much anything that interests you. You can subscribe to several channels in your target language so that you learn the most current slang and colloquialisms while also staying up-to-date on culture.
If they’re available, you can also easily turn on subtitles in English or in your target language, which will make it easier to follow along.
If you subscribe to the channel Easy Languages—which there’s a good chance has videos in your target language—you can watch short videos of people discussing different topics with subtitles in both English and the language you’re learning.
There’s also a speed option on YouTube (under “Settings”), which you may or may not know about. For a language learner, it’s a gift. When you slow down the speed of the videos you’re able to pick up on more words and phrases, and when you’re ready, you can speed it back up again to see how much you’ve learned. You can also make the videos go faster than normal, just to challenge yourself, and then when you go back to normal speed the native speaker won’t sound so fast to you anymore.
Again, find moments to fit these in. Unlike with TV and movies, you don’t have to commit to a full hour or even a half hour. Just find five-to-ten-minute chunks of time to get your listening in, and you’ll be happy with the results once you notice how much progress you’ve made.
While reading might be the most passive skill, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy. Text that may be casual reading in your native language can take double or triple the time to fully comprehend in a new language. Here are some ways to build your reading skills.
Change language settings on everything.
Most people spend large chunks of their time engaged with an electronic device. Use that to your advantage. If you’re reading this post, then there’s a good chance that you’ve got access to at least one, if not all, of these devices: a television, a laptop, a computer, a tablet, a cellphone, a Fitbit… and the list goes on.
As a language learner, you’ll want to take every opportunity to expose yourself to your target language, especially if you live in an area where your target language isn’t widely spoken. So change your language settings to your target language on every device you can.
Even if reading isn’t part of your ultimate goal, this strategy is still very useful. You’ll be building vocabulary with the repetition of notifications and common features that you use on your device. After a very short while, these words will be embedded in your brain the way your native language is. And any words embedded in your brain are words that you can speak.
So in the end, this simple change will help a great deal.
Read one news article per day.
At minimum. If you’re a person who spends a lot of time on your cellphone or in front of a computer, then this should be easy to do. You just have to make the effort, which isn’t always so easy. And if you’ve ever read more than a paragraph of writing in another language you didn’t know very well, then you know how trying it can be.
Unlike language learning programs, where the reading material is purposefully written in easy-to-understand verbiage, online articles are written for native speakers.
If you’ve tried it, you know that in reading an article in a foreign language you’ll be hit with both words you’ve never seen before and words that you recognize but are arranged in such odd combinations that your mental translations are nothing short of gibberish. This is why you have to read. The only way to get used to a native flow is to expose yourself to native text.
Just take five minutes during your commute or your work break to pull up an article of interest in your target language and start reading. You don’t even have to finish it all in one shot. You can spend days on the same article if you have to. Just make sure you give yourself constant exposure, and you’ll see that over time the reading will become much easier.
The best way to go about finding articles is to do a Google search for something like best news sites for ___ learners. Here are some lists for common languages to start you off:
- 9 Great Resources to Learn Spanish Through the News
- 12 News Sites to Get Your Fill of the French Press
- 5 Friendly German News Sites That Are Just Right for Learners
- 8 Awesome Tips for Learning Japanese with the News
Another option is to do a search for “news” in your target language.
Read what the teens are reading.
Books for teens and young adults are another great resource for immersing yourself in a language. The text is going to be less mature and less jargony than a journalistic article, for example, and so you’ll find that you’ll have less of a headache getting through the text.
One great idea is to get a book that you’ve already read in your target language. For example, if you’re a fan of series such as “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games,” you’ve probably read the books more than once and know the stories inside out.
When reading these stories in your target language, you won’t struggle so hard to figure out what you’re reading, and will likely be able to easily translate words you’ve never seen before just because you already know the story.
What’s great about books in general is the repetition. Unlike an online article, books have a lot more real estate to cover, and so you’ll see the same words reappear several times throughout your reading. You probably won’t even be midway through before some words are embedded in your brain.
So if you’re not ready to jump into the (sometimes) more advanced-level reading of professional articles, then slowly work your way through a middle-grade to young adult book. It’s how we built our native language reading skills in the first place, so there’s no shame in it.
This is probably the skill you’ll use least as a language learner, unless your job requires it. It can be just as important as any of the other skills, though, so check out three ways to get more writing time in.
Make your to-do list a little more interesting.
A lot of us can’t get by without making a checklist of all the things we have to do in our day. We all have such busy schedules and it’s hard to keep track without a to-do list. Well, if you’re a language learner, language practice is probably on that list. So, why not get your practice in at the start of your day?
When making your list of things-to-do for the day, or for the week, however you organize your time, try writing all of your tasks in your target language. Not only is it a good way to practice, but it’s also a great way to wake up your brain (for more language learning later in the day *wink wink*).
Find an online pen pal.
It sounds old-fashioned, but having a pen pal in 2018 isn’t the same as having a pen pal in, let’s say, 1998. You won’t be writing letters and mailing them to some far-off country, at least, not unless you choose to. Today, you can find a pen pal online and have a dialogue from anywhere at anytime.
Depending on the relationship you have with your pen pal, you can go back and forth in emails, or maybe you’ll communicate through one of many websites or apps. A written exchange with a pen pal helps you actually see your mistakes.
Sometimes, it’s easier to correct yourself when you have a visual of where things went wrong. With speaking, even when we’re corrected, oftentimes it can go in one ear and out the other, because our minds are still trying to get through the rest of the sentence.
You can find pen pals online through websites such as Interpals and My Language Exchange. For more websites, click here.
Write short stories.
Don’t panic. No one is suggesting that you become the next Raymond Carver or Margaret Atwood. However, tapping into your creative side is a fun way to break up some of the monotony of typical language practice. You can literally write stories about anything.
They can be as long or as short as you want, and the most beautiful part of it all is that no one ever has to see them.
Writing stories will help you think about the language in a different way. You’ll get the chance to explore words and topics that you might not use, or think to use, in everyday conversations. You’ll be thinking in similes and metaphors, and playing with word combinations.
You might notice a huge boost in your confidence. Most people are afraid to write stories in their native language, so imagine the triumph you’ll feel after having done it in a foreign one.
Try starting this on a day off or when you’ve got at least two or three hours to spare. You’ll want to be able to take your time, so it doesn’t have to be completed in one day. Maybe set a goal to finish a story in a week, and do a small bit every day. As long as you’re putting pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—you’ll be progressing.
The holy grail for language learners, right? More than anything else, we learn new languages because we want to be able to speak them. If you’re not sure how you can get more speaking time in, the three suggestions below should set you on the right path.
Find a partner on iTalki.
The language exchange website iTalki has three different options for partnering up with a language buddy. You can either pair up with a member of the iTalki community, a tutor or a teacher. Pairing up with a member of the community is free, and if you’re on a tight budget, then this might be your best option.
The only downside to having a language exchange partner is that you have to split speaking time. The most typical arrangement is thirty minutes apiece for each language.
When you have tutor or a teacher, it’s all about you. While these options cost money—the tutor being the less-structured, but budget-friendlier option—you’ll have someone who’s one-hundred-percent invested in you. With a tutor or a teacher, you can set a regular schedule, so that every week you’re guaranteed to have at least one day where you get to practice for however long you’ve arranged it with your instructor.
Join a local language Meetup.
And make sure it’s active. You’ll want to join a group that has regular events, because that way you know you’re dealing with people who are serious about learning and practice. It’s great to be able to learn with a group of other learners. In Meetup groups, you can find people at all levels and engage in dialogue on any topic in a safe and non-judgmental environment.
A lot of times the Meetup groups gather in locations where there’s food or drink, and many times at venues with a cultural link to the language you’re learning for a more immersive experience. So if you want to break up some of the loneliness of learning solo and share your frustrations and triumphs with like-minded companions, log on to Meetup and find a group that fits your needs.
Go directly to the source.
If you like to read tips about the best way to go about learning a language, you’re almost always going to find immersion on the list. There’s a reason for that. It’s the most effective way to learn. Of course, it’s not the most practical, and so we offer workarounds.
So, to say it straight, if you have the time, money and opportunity to travel to a country where your target language is spoken, then go, stay at least three months and have the time of your life. When you come back home, you’ll be a lot more fluent than when you left.
If you can’t leave the country, then immerse yourself locally. If you live in a big city, or near a big city, you have access to so many different cultural communities. If your target language is Spanish, hang out in the Hispanic neighborhoods, go to the restaurants, read, listen, speak.
“But,” you may be thinking, “What if my foreign language is French, German, Urdu, etc.?” Some communities are going to be easier to access than others, depending where you live. However, that’s what the internet is for. Do a search and you can find what’s available within a comfortable distance from home.
If you still can’t find what you’re looking for nearby, that’s okay. You can use some of the suggestions above such as YouTube, FluentU, pen pals or language exchange to get an immersive experience.
It’s a challenge to learn a language, but what a great one!
Find ways to make it fun and interesting and it won’t feel like learning at all.
You can do this, so get out there and start strengthening those skills!