How to develop the four key skills in any language (Listening, speaking, reading & writing)

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If you’re learning a language as an adult, you can do whatever you want. There’s no curriculum or rules you have to follow.

That means when you’re looking at the four basic language skills — listening, speaking, reading, and writing — you can choose what to learn based on your goals and available time.

If you only want to be able to converse, you could decide never to learn to read or write— particularly for a language like Japanese. After all, think of all the Japanese 6-year-olds who don’t know much Kanji but can speak fluently. Or consider the children of immigrants, who might learn the spoken language at home but learn to write in another language at school.

The point is— what you learn and when you learn it is your choice, and you should make that choice based on how you plan to use the language.

Below, I share my take, plus how you can practice each of these skills.

What order should you learn these skills in?

As a beginner, I recommend making listening comprehension your first focus.

In my experience, an early focus on listening does a few important things:

  • Exposes you to new vocabulary and sounds
  • Helps you build a natural feel for the syntax and grammar
  • Gives you a foundation for accurate, natural pronunciation

Of course, you can’t expect to watch Lupin on repeat and learn French by osmosis.

But if you spend a lot of time actively listening to things just at or above your level, you will absorb new parts of speech — just like kids do by listening to conversations around them.

 

Second, I recommend focusing on reading.

Caveat: this applies to languages with the Latin alphabet, or others (like Cyrillic or Korean) that are relatively easy to learn. But if your goal is conversational fluency in a language with a complex writing system like Chinese or Japanese, pursuing literacy might not be the best use of your time at first.

The research is clear on the benefits of reading for second language acquisition. Besides being a powerful learning tool, reading is fun and low-pressure.

Reading, similar to listening, has a few notable benefits:

  • It exposes you to new vocabulary in context (helping you learn how the word is used, not just a word-for-word translation)
  • It exposes you to grammar and syntax in context (helping you learn grammar without trying)
  • It gets you absorbed in a story, which helps build memories and an emotional connection with the language

 

Third, I recommend focusing on speaking.

Speaking is usually the most intimidating part of language learning. It’s the part where fear of sounding stupid gets in the way.

In France, I asked a group of people lined up if they were waiting “in the ass” (“vous faites la cul?” instead of “vous faites la queue?“). 

During a recent German tutoring session, I repeatedly referred to my mother-in-law as my “difficult mother” (schwierigmutter – not a real word) instead of the correct Schwiegermutter.

As adults, sounding stupid is a tough psychological hurdle. We’ve spent a long time learning how to not sound stupid in our own language.

Unfortunately, there’s no way around it. You’ll have to cobble together broken sentences for a long time before you can tell a funny story or explain True Detective.

The good news is, no one will give you a hard time. When’s the last time you laughed in the face of a non-native English speaker? The fear is all in our heads.

The sooner you can laugh at yourself, the easier it gets.

A few benefits you can expect from speaking:

  • Build a stronger emotional connection with the language by building relationships and with people (even a tutor— if it’s someone you connect with, it brings the language to life)
  • You can see your progress over time by recording the audio of your lessons
  • Successfully having a 30 minute conversation with a native speaker is a huge confidence builder

Some people recommend speaking from day one. I feel stressed when trying to speak too early.

In my experience, speaking comes more easily once you have a foundation in the language. Listening and reading provide a pressure-free way to build that foundation.

How long until you feel ready to speak is a personal question. Some people may need a month, others may need 3 or 6. Whatever you do, don’t put off speaking indefinitely.

 

Fourth, consider incorporating some writing.

I don’t believe writing is necessary for conversational fluency (again, just ask any 6-year-old). But it does help.

Like with speaking, writing forces you to produce the language. You’re synthesizing what you know and creating connections in your brain between different parts of speech.

Three benefits of writing in a foreign language:

  • It highlights gaps in your knowledge and lets you fill in those gaps in context
  • You can use it to get feedback from native speakers. You’ll see grammar in action, from the words you’ve written. This helps clarify the way the language works.
  • It’s easy to do on your own. A simple journaling habit in your target language is valuable practice and doesn’t require anyone else.

To summarize, I recommend working on the four basic language skills in this order: listening, reading, speaking, then writing.

Below, you’ll find ways you can develop each of these skills.

The four core language skills

I. Listening

What you choose to listen to depends on your level. As you progress, you’ll go from audio meant for learners to audio meant for native speakers.

Personally, I like to get into audio meant for native speakers as quickly as possible. But careful— don’t choose a podcast on the French economy when you’re just out of the beginner stage.

Find native content on simpler, everyday topics. The Easy Languages series on YouTube is fantastic for this.

  • Listen actively
    • Minute-for-minute, you’ll get more for your money when you sit in a quiet place, put your headphones on, and give the audio 100% of your focus.

      Particularly at first, it takes a lot of mental effort to turn a native speaker’s verbal soup into something intelligible for your brain.

  • Listen a lot in the background
    • Podcasts, the radio, TV shows, and music in the language are your friend. As a beginner, you won’t learn a lot of new vocabulary or even understand much. But it helps you immerse yourself and get a feel for the sounds of the language.

      At an intermediate+ level, time spent listening while cooking, cleaning, driving, or exercising can go a long way.
  • Transcribe
    • To really test your comprehension, transcribe what you hear. Pick a short piece of audio, because you’ll be pausing after every sentence. A Google Doc will detect the language you’re writing in and suggest spelling corrections.

      Then copy+paste the whole thing into Google Translate. Read over the unfamiliar words, then read the transcription once through. Then, listen to the audio a final time.

  • Listen to the same thing more than once
    • We need to see and hear new vocabulary several times before being able to remember or use it. Some claim it takes 17 exposures, although I can’t find the research they’re citing for this claim.

      What I do know is that I’ve learned der Löffel in German at least 20 times but always forget it. In practice, this means it’s worth listening to things more than once.

      Listen to your audio a second or third time to help new vocabulary sink in. Just be careful not to overdo it and make it a chore. Boredom is your enemy when it comes to language learning.

  • Speak with others
    • I probably don’t need to say this, but anytime you speak with someone, you’re practicing listening too. Not all language study needs to feel like “study”. You can get a beer with a language partner, tutor, or friend and it counts as real practice.

II. Reading

As with listening, aim to read things that are just above your level. If you buy a book and there are 40 unfamiliar words on a given page, put it aside and find something easier.

  • Read things you enjoy
    • This is the cardinal rule. Don’t read things that bore you! If you’re learning a language as an adult, you’re in charge. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to read dull stories about François buying a baguette.

      That said, as a beginner, it can be tough to find interesting content. While building a foundation in your new language, you’ll have to power through some uninteresting dialogues. But as soon as you can move on.

  • Read bilingual texts
    • The natural step, once you’re ready for slightly more advanced content, is bilingual texts. They’re like training wheels. They get you going and engaged in the story without the frustration of constantly stopping to look things up.

  • Read books you’ve already read
    • When you’ve read something before or know the story already, you can read more advanced content.

      I’m listening to the first Game of Thrones audiobook in German, and even though it’s above my level I’m able to enjoy it because I’ve watched the show. Kindles are great for this because you can look up words with one click.

  • Read topics you know well
    • Wikipedia articles, blogs, news, opinion pieces, or anything else on a topic you’re familiar with — these are all good sources of content.

      And knowledge of the overall topic gives you context. This helps you read above your level, which often means it’s more interesting.

      Tip: download the free ImTranslator plugin for Chrome and automatically translate highlighted text without changing tabs.

  • Set social media to your target language
    • This is sort of tired advice, but it’s simple and gets you exposed to your target language without any conscious effort.

III. Speaking

Speaking your target language doesn’t have to be intimidating, but it will be tough at first. I recommend building up a base in the language, at least over a couple of months, before trying to speak with native speakers.

That said, you don’t need to speak with another person to practice speaking. Practicing on your own is an effective, pressure-free way to practice anytime.

Here are a few ways you can practice speaking

  • Read out loud
    • Focus on pronunciation more than on comprehension. Listen to a native speaker and repeat after them (this is called “shadowing”).

      If you don’t have audio for the text, you can put it into Google Translate. It’s not the most natural pronunciation, but it’s better than nothing.

  • Speak with yourself
    • Give yourself a topic and record yourself speaking for 5 minutes (increase difficulty based on level).

      The topic can be anything. You can summarize an episode of TV, list your plans for the day, talk about your favorite food, describe how you get to work, describe what you see around you, or anything else.

  • Internal dialogues
    • Most of the time we think in our native language, but with some conscious effort we can change that.

      Challenge yourself to think only in your target language for a certain amount of time. Maybe you’re cooking dinner— while cooking, commit to holding your internal dialogues in your target language.

  • Speak with others
    • Different people will be ready for this at different times. You’ll never feel 100% ready, so at some point, you have to jump in and accept the mistakes you make. Focus on appreciating the fact that you’re speaking (!!!) a language that a short time ago was totally foreign to you.


If you live or are visiting a country where it’s spoken, I don’t need to tell you how to find people to speak with. But if you’re learning in your home country, don’t wait until you arrive abroad to have your first conversation. I did that with French and struggled — I rehearsed my first sentence to a Real-Life French Person (an airport employee) at least 5 times before opening my mouth.

Instead of waiting, get practice at home. iTalki is the best place for this, in my opinion. You can find language exchanges for free, but it’s much less efficient.

Instead, find a friendly tutor in your budget and start by speaking once a week for half an hour with them. Book your sessions in advance so you can’t back out or procrastinate.

IV. Writing

Writing is the last skill I would prioritize for any learner who doesn’t need to learn for work or study.

That said, writing on your own is a great exercise. Anytime you produce the language yourself, it requires active effort and reveals your gaps.

It’s also lower pressure than speaking — you don’t face the perceived judgment of the person across from you (for the record, that judgment is almost never actually real).

Here are a few ways you can practice writing in a foreign language:

  • Create a language journal
    • Write only for yourself. This is the simplest way to get started. Do it in a Google Doc or a journal, whichever you prefer.

      Write about what you did the day before, the things you’re doing at work, your plans for the summer, your thoughts on quantitative easing, or whatever strikes your interest and is near your level.

  • Write an essay
    • Without the threat of an F from your teacher, this is a hard thing to convince yourself to do.

      But if you enjoy synthesizing your thoughts on a broad topic, and are up for a challenge, this is a great exercise.

  • Brain dump for 25 minutes
    • Set the timer and start writing, stream-of-consciousness. Whatever comes to mind. The only goal is to get in the zone and write in your target language while the timer is running.

Make it fun

However you choose to learn, have some fun. Learning a language requires discipline and motivation for a long time.

You won’t last long if you’re reading Beowolf every day but hate Beowolf. Watch trashy TV. Read tabloids. Click on clickbaity videos. Listen to embarrassing podcasts. If you have a guilty pleasure in your native language, find its complement in your target language. Nothing like genuine interest to keep you moving forward.

And at the end of the day, when you’re speaking fluent Portuguese, no one will care (or know) that you learned it by reading a dozen Fabio romance novels.

Every 10 days, get a brand–new piece of language-learning insight and inspiration. 
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Connor Kane

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