Yo! After a 1.5+ year long nerve injury and the general life changes of graduating from college, I'm done with Powlyglot. If I find myself sharing my language experience in another format later on, I'll probably link to it here, on my personal site, or on Twitter at @mpvboehme. Thanks for reading.
6 Essential Skills for Language Learning

6 Essential Skills for Language Learning

Over the last few years, I’ve found there to be six major skill sets involved in learning a language – six distinct skill sets that you need to develop in order to best achieve fluency.

Why six?

Well, the first four are probably obvious to you, even if you don’t usually separate your language abilities into different parts – speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

The last two are pronunciation and memorization. These serve as a sort of backbone for everything else.

A problem that many people face is that they only work on a few of these, and then lose confidence when they fail at something they’ve never practiced. They’ve spent all of their time reading and writing (as is often the case in schools) and feel like they don’t know anything when they can’t hold a simple conversation. This can be devastating to your confidence, which is probably the single most important thing you need to learn a language.

They don’t realize that these are completely different skill sets. They need to be worked on specifically (but not necessarily separately) or you can’t possibly expect yourself to be good at them!

So, without further ado, here are my full explanations for each of the six, along with some tips to help you practice each.

Speaking

Speaking is easily the skill you should be practicing the most, considering when you do it vocally, it works on both your ability to speak and to pronounce. Speaking is the mental aspect of putting forth thought into speech, while pronunciation is the physical aspect.

There is a single thing you can do that will definitely help you master speaking quicker: stop translating in your head.

You should be training yourself to think in your target language, not to translate it as quickly as possible from English thoughts. If you can keep that habit from forming or get rid of it if it’s already there, you will have a tremendous advantage over those that fumble through vocabulary in their heads.

Smart ways to practice speaking in your everyday life:

  • Talk to yourself out loud (it’s okay to look crazy, guys – it really helps)
  • Get a friend who speaks your target language
  • If you can’t find someone locally, use Skype to talk to a far-away friend

Listening

As I’m sure you already know, listening is the opposite of speaking.

Like speaking, you’ll need to stop translating things in your head if you want to succeed. No-one wants to stand there waiting for five minutes while you figure out each word in your sentence one at a time!

To listen well, you also need to be so familiar with a language that you can hear where one word ends and another begins – instead of a long slur of foreign gibberish.

He's probably listening to one of these.

He’s probably listening to some French political protest rap.

Smart ways to help you listen in your everyday life:

  • Watch a movie in your target language with subtitles on in that language
  • Listen to an audio book while following along in the actual book
  • Spotify + TuneWiki

Reading

While reading is less nerve-racking for those that are afraid of making a mistake (and let me stress that you will make mistakes), it is something I consider to be much more challenging. When reading, you’re far more likely to come across unfamiliar vocabulary than you would be during a regular conversation.

Luckily, there is something there to help you through it, and that something is context! Understanding something like half of the words in a paragraph is enough to help you figure out the general meaning, and can help you guess some of those new words’ meanings in the process.

When you’re reading something, you should make sure to write down any words you don’t know for sure – but don’t look them up unless you absolutely need them to understand something. The point is to make you learn through context – when you’ve finished reading a segment/chapter/page/whatever, you can look up all the words and see how close you were to guessing what they meant.

With enough practice, you’ll get really good at guessing meanings, which is just how you read through words you don’t know in your native language.

Smart ways to practice reading in your everyday life:

  • Read a book, obviously. Maybe start out with translations of books you’ve read in English, so you already have a level of context to work with.
  • Set all of your electronics to display in your target language: phones, computers, video games, anything.
  • Change the display language on Facebook! You probably use this often enough for it to help. I honestly think Facebook looks weird in English now.

Writing

Writing doesn’t require the speed that speaking does, but it does require that you have a firm grasp on both the spelling and manuscript of the language.

If both your native and target languages use Roman characters for the most part, you’re in luck. You’ll probably only have to learn a few variations of the letters you already know.

For other languages you may need to learn an entirely new set of characters – but it’s not nearly as scary as it sounds if you stay on top of things.

If you do need to learn a new writing system, it is incredibly important that you practice it regularly, until it becomes second nature.

I've trained her well!

I’ve trained her well!

Smart ways to practice writing in your everyday life:

  • Keep a daily journal (or goal notebook) and write it in your target language – this means you’ll have to learn the words most important to own life.
  • Taking a boring/easy class? Take notes in another language to mix it up.
  • Get a magnetic marker board for your fridge. Every time you want to take something out of the fridge, you have to write something down.

Pronunciation

Like I mentioned earlier, pronunciation is a separate skill from speaking in that it is the physical aspect of speech, whereas speaking is the mental aspect.

The muscles in your mouth and throat actually need to be taught how to recreate the sounds of your target language in the same way you learned to make English sounds as a toddler.

In many cases, these will be sounds you’ve never been required to make before, so this will be a challenge – but you need to get comfortable with pronunciation as soon as possible. One of the biggest confidence boosters or destroyers is whether or not you feel good about how you’re saying things!

Again, you need to maintain confidence throughout the entire language learning process or it will be hard to keep going. Take the steps now to make sure you don’t lose heart halfway through!

Smart ways to practice pronunciation in your everyday life:

  • Find a sentence that uses several, if not all, of the sounds unique to your target language. Repeat this sentence often – practice makes perfect!
  • Sing along with music. If you’re feeling confident, try rap for hard mode.
  • Remember when I said talking to yourself helps with speaking? It definitely helps here, too.

Memorization

Vocabulary, verb conjugation, grammar – I’m sure you’re familiar with them. They’re almost definitely the least fun parts of language learning, but they are also the most necessary. Memorizing these things is an essential part of learning any new language.

Without them, how would you speak, listen, read, or write?

Other than simply practicing them, these concepts are pretty straightforward. Find out what helps you remember things best, and do it. A lot.

Once you get comfortable with the basics, you should put much more focus on the other skill sets – you’ll pick up a bigger vocabulary and better grammar in time.

With enough practice, you, too, could be this majestic.

With enough practice, you, too, could be this majestic.

Smart ways to help you get more memorized in everyday life:

  • Replace the use of simple words in your life with their counterparts in your target language – grocery lists, file names, labels, anything.
  • Mnemonic devices are your friend. Use whatever connections you can think of to help you remember things.
  • Use some form of flashcards or flashcard software like Anki to practice new vocabulary. I’ve been using Anki daily, and it’s doing wonders for my Japanese.

In short – practice every one of these skill sets, and you will improve with every one of these skill sets. If your goal is fluency, you’re going to need them.

photo source: columns, elephant
  • http://collegeinfogeek.com/ Thomas Frank

    This is a fantastic breakdown of the language skills you need to learn – and it definitely highlights the importance of using multiple resources when learning a language.

    I’m using at least 5 different resources for learning Japanese, and each emphasizes a different area, which is great. Speaking is a big one to figure out – I often feel silly talking to myself at the library, but it’s worth it.

    When it comes to writing, I agree with Koichi’s (TextFugu author) philosophy: don’t focus so much on writing at first. This might not apply to all languages, but it does to Japanese: hardly anyone in Japan actually writes by hand very much, so it’s a better use of your time to focus on the other five areas for the most part, and only dedicate a little time to writing (especially with kanji).

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  • Sean Iggy

    I agree with all of the points for language learning but for languages like Japanese or Mandarin it has helped me a ton to focus more on listenting and reading than speaking and writing. It weird how it works but its called input.. The more you input (listening and reading) the output (speaking and writing) comes naturally… and you don’t have to spend a lot of time studying grammar this way. You just pick it up as you read. But good post.

    • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

      I can definitely see that. Especially given that Japanese and Mandarin have less conjugation and such to worry about then a lot of other languages do. Handwriting the characters is particularly challenging for me without practice, but listening, speaking, and reading seem to come more naturally.

  • Corine Charrier

    Martin, I enjoyed reading your article about the 6 essential skills for language learning. Thank you! I will refer to it when talking to my high school students. Careful, please don’t catch pneumonia with your pneumonic devices, use “mnemonic” instead. Thanks again!

    • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! I hope your students find it useful. Also, you got me, ha. I’ll have to fix that. Thanks for pointing it out. :)