The Four Basic Language Abilities

Acquiring a foreign language is not just about learning new information. When properly acquired, it bestows upon you an important skill that you can use in real life to interact with people, listen to announcements, or read a sign. And like all skills, you’ll have to constantly apply it or risk getting rusty.

The four fundamental levels of language proficiency are reading, listening, writing, and speaking. Going from one level to the other isn’t exactly a smooth transition like in a video game; it’s more like a quantum leap of knowledge. These skills are a mark of your proficiency in a language, especially if you’re learning the language all by yourself, and not in the native environment.

Of the four abilities…

  • Reading is the easiest skill since there is no interaction required.
  • Listening is slightly harder as you have to process information faster in order to understand it.
  • Writing is more demanding in that not only do you have to recognize the words, you also have to put them together in a grammatically correct sentence.
  • Speaking demands fast information processing as well as quicker responses. It has the highest level of interactivity, and usually you will have limited or no references or texts to help you.

All these four skills go hand in hand. You’ve probably met people who have learned a foreign language in school and can effortlessly read a newspaper in the foreign language. However, ask them to converse in that language and they get all flustered. You might have even been in this situation yourself. This is the result of not devoting enough attention to all four skills.

Some of the fundamental points to note when developing these basic language skills are:

  • When reading, do bear in mind that you are more likely to remember only the general meanings of the sentences you read, rather than the exact words and grammar presented to you on paper..
  • Be aware of the fact that our mind tends to automatically ignore unknown words or words that do not inhibit understanding. When you later want to use these words you won’t be able to recall them.
  • Although reading and writing are easier than listening and speaking, this is no excuse for you to isolate them and focus on the easier tasks. If you do that you’ll become a deaf and dumb language learner. Instead, use reading and writing as an entry point after you have mastered the sound of the language, to go on to mastering listening and speaking. Use them as a solid basis (so you will be somewhat familiar to the language, vocabulary and grammar) to enter the world of real-time language interaction. You will suddenly feel that all the usually unintelligible sounds you hear are now familiar to you. You’ll be able to grasp the ideas and internalize the language at a much faster rate.

The following four abilities are the standard benchmarks that you can use to assess your language proficiency. Remember to develop all of them equally at a steady pace. This section will go into detail on how to equip yourself with these abilities.