The structure of any language is practically the same. It comprises two main sections:
- Theoretical skills
- Practical skills.
Pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary are part of the theoretical skills. These may differ in difficulty depending on the language. For example, Italian might be easier for an English speaker than Japanese.
Speaking, listening, reading, and writing belong to the practical skills. Listening and reading are input and speaking, and writing are output.
When learning a new language understanding is much easier than producing meaning.
In this article I will cover the practical skills. To learn about the theoretical skills click here.
Speaking in a foreign language is not at all easy because you must be able to understand what others are saying, If not, even though you know the answer, you will be unable to say it. Hence the importance of practising your listening comprehension skills.
The other hurdle is that you should be able to remember quickly the vocabulary you’ve learned. You need to voice out your opinion fast during a conversation with a native speaker. Quite often they forget your degree of proficiency as their concern is mainly centred in the ideas and concepts you are expressing. At times, finding the right word can be tricky because of the added stress.
A certain knowledge of grammar is necessary to participate in a conversation if you want to be understood by your interlocutor.
You must train your diaphragm and your facial muscles to make unfamiliar sounds as every language has their own sound patterns.
Most importantly, you must master the art of conversation which is something even difficult in your mother tongue.
You should not be discouraged by these remarks but remember that your speaking skills will develop slower than your reading and listening skills, your accent won’t match the native speakers’, but there are ways to minimise it so that people can understand when you speak.
Mistakes are inevitable. You should swallow your pride, learn from them, and carry on. If people correct you, don’t feel embarrassed, just take it as a learning opportunity and move on.
Having live conversations is the best way to practice speaking. You can always find somebody speaking the language you’re studying. As travelling is restricted nowadays, there are websites specialising in language exchange where you can work on your target language with native speakers interested in speaking your language. You can take turn practicing each way. One of these sites is Italki
If you’re working with a language partner, a tutor or a coach, you can use role play to speak the language. It’s a perfect way of mimicking real-life situations and this will force you to prepare.
Talking to yourself is another way to train. Tell yourself what your plans are, what you intend to do, where you’re going to, who you are meeting, or what you're buying.
Reading aloud is a good way to exercise your diaphragm and your mouth muscles as well as getting used to produce sentences in your target language. On the other hand, you are improving your reading skills at the same time. When you read aloud you improve your brain’s ability to connect the language’s sound to the language’s letters.
When you’re just starting, your aim should be to understand the general meaning of what you’re hearing.
To improve, you should get involved in active listening. This is to say you should take this activity as a language practice and pay attention to the material you are using.
Listen to part of it, pause, and write down what you just heard with your own words. Jot down the parts you don’ fully understand and go back to these and try to clarify your doubts.
At times you will require to slow down the audio to listen at your own pace, this is ok. Finding a transcription is also especially useful if it is available. Or if you’re brave enough, you can create your own transcript by writing down what you hear, just like with the dictations you used to do in primary school. Try to diversify the material and always choose topics that you enjoy.
These exercises will help you improve at understanding the spoken words of your new language and getting familiar with pronunciation and intonation.
Reading provides great benefits. It increases your vocabulary, and it helps improving your listening skills according to research.
In the early stages, you should mostly focus on becoming familiar with the new language– as much as when practising your speaking skills -, expanding your vocabulary pool and grasp the basic grammar rules.
At a more advanced stage, you should read frequently, the more the better.
Choose material that will challenge you for the focused reading activities. You should be able to still understand 80% of what is written and the remaining 20% should be the new learning material that will help you grow in the knowledge of the language.
For the relaxed reading, the chosen material should be at your level and on topics that interest you, the same ones you would read in your mother tongue, just for fun.
A good way to keep the reading bug going, is by creating a book club with likeminded fellow students at the same level. With the current restrictions, this can be done online via Zoom. Take turns reading aloud and the rest following. This creates a connection between how a word is written and how it sounds allowing for better memorisation ad recollection.
A book club facilitates discussions about the read passages, giving more opportunities for killing three birds at once: speaking, reading, and listening, thus improving them all.
Writing skills in your new language is also important, especially if you must sit for exams to prove your knowledge.
If you intend to use the language for work, you should reach an acceptable level of competency. Besides, you don’t want to be misunderstood, do you?
How can you improve your foreign language writing?
First, you should read and read a lot. If you do so, your writing skills will improve dramatically.
The second thing is to write as much as you can. Get someone to have a look at your writings and make you aware of your mistakes. A tutor can always make the corrections, but if you are an independent learner, you might look for help online. Lang-8 is a site where you can submit your writings and have them corrected.
Also, if you want your writing to improve, you must understand the grammar. Grammar mistakes – unlike with spoken sentences – are much more noticeable in writing. So, even at the beginner’s stage – mainly at the beginner’s stage – pay close attention to how the language is built. Practice writing simple sentences always making sure to apply all the rules correctly.
Write, write, and write.
Write about your routines, your like and dislikes, your family, your weekend, your plans for the holidays, keep a journal, write about everything you want but, always get expert eyes on your writings. It’s the only way to improve.
At an intermediate level, write about more substantial topics like what is happening in the news. Make sure to write sentences that hold together coherently and that they flow easily.
To practice your writing learn to summarise. Make a summary of a podcast you just heard, or a film you watched recently or a conversation you had with a friend. This will allow you to consolidate your knowledge of vocabulary and grammar.
As you can see, even though we deconstruct a language in parts maybe to make it easy to teach, all parts are intertwined and one influence the other. The constant practice of all the parts is what takes us to mastery.