Languages are generally taught and assessed in terms of the ‘four skills’: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Listening and reading are known as ‘receptive’ skills while speaking and writing are known as ‘productive’ skills. You’ll need to master these skills whether you’re learning English, French, Spanish or German in major cities like London, Paris, Madrid, or Berlin, or in other parts of the world.
All language learners will need to develop their skills in each of these areas, and your language classes should incorporate activities related to all these skills. Below are some practical steps you can take to develop these skills outside the classroom – remember you will also want to think about your current language level and priorities for learning in each area.
Listening and reading
Listening to and reading content in the language you are learning is a great way to develop your vocabulary and comprehension. It is important to make your listening and reading actively rather than passively absorbing the content. The following steps will help you get the most out of listening and reading:
Try to choose listening or reading material that interests you and will hold your attention. Whenever possible, listen to recorded content (on a CD or DVD) or through a streaming internet service that you can pause and rewind. This will allow you to listen multiple times, or go back to sections you did not understand. For independent reading practice, choose relatively short passages to focus on (e.g. a news article, a blog post, a section of a short story).
2. Prepare before listening or reading
Knowing a bit about what you are going to listen to or read will help you better understand the material. Before you start, try to find out a bit about the context or topic – you may wish to note down some topics or vocabulary you expect to hear or read. Think also about the format of the piece – is it a debate, a news story, a soap opera, part of a novel – as different formats will have different conventions and structures.
3. Have the first pass at a text
Listen to the segment or read the piece once without stopping – don’t worry if you don’t understand everything the first time!
4. Have another go
The next time you listen or read, note down or underline any unfamiliar vocabulary, and take notes on the content in your own words in the target language. You can then go back and listen or read again, to try to understand things you may have missed the first time.
5. Put away the dictionary
Even after you have listened to a segment or read a piece a number of times, you will probably not understand every word! Try to make an educated guess based on the context, and not use the dictionary too much. For independent practice, you should not necessarily aim to understand every word, but try to get a sense of the general topic and some key vocabulary.
Developing your speaking skills will involve gaining fluency in spoken interactions with others, as well as practicing your pronunciation. Use your new language skills as often as you can to speak to people – other students from your language class, native speakers you might meet around town or language partners in online exchanges. To practice pronunciation try reading aloud or repeating after a recorded text, trying to reproduce the pronunciation and intonation of the original. Make a recording of yourself and listen back to try to identify your own strengths and weaknesses as a speaker.
Writing in another language can seem a daunting task, but is a critical skill, especially if you plan to use it in the workplace. As in your first language, your writing will be improved by becoming a critical reader – try to think actively about how texts are structured and what kinds of phrases or vocabulary are used for different purposes (e.g. introducing a topic, describing, comparing and contrasting, writing conclusions).
When writing in a foreign language, always try to think and write directly in that language. Do not translate from a first draft. It is best not to use a dictionary too much in the early stages of writing. Using words in your first language is fine if it helps you get a draft written more quickly. You shouldn’t expect to write everything correctly the first time, but write and re-write as much as necessary. Finally, try to get constructive feedback from others (your teacher, fellow students, native speakers) on how you can improve.