The Four Skills
In this section we’ll be looking at how to improve your acquisition of the four skills.
The four skills are best learned through practice followed by exercises that focus on the skills separately. I recommend you focus on the skills most closely related to your goal. For example, if you want to have conversations, you need to focus on listening and speaking.
Orthography is the way the letters correspond to the sounds of your language. Languages exist on a continuum, from those with a very high correspondence of letters to sound to those whose pronunciation can be difficult to guess based on spelling. Orthography should be covered by your beginner course. I advise you pay attention to it.
Learning a new script
Those learning a language with a different writing system should start learning it early on. A good language course will start by teaching you the new system. It is best to prioritise this. Learning a new writing system is not as hard as it seems. At first the new symbols or characters can be confusing, but with practice they will gradually become easier until it’s just like reading your native language’s script.
The best way to learn a new script is by using it. Start trying to understand the basics and move quickly into applying your knowledge by reading simple sentences and words.
For those learning a language with characters such as Chinese hanzi or Japanese kanji, learning to read and write can be a long, slow process. It is generally recommended to start early. The best way to learn them is already well-covered elsewhere. I recommend you search online to find a good guide.
Listening well is mostly comprised of the ability to hear sounds and distinguish and understand words quickly.
It is helpful to practise listening throughout your learning using beginner podcasts or other audio resources. This aspect is often underemphasised in beginner courses. Here are some ways you can improve your listening:
Listen to resources that have a written transcription; read and listen first, then try to listen without the transcript
Find listening resources that are deliberately slowed down
Use listening resources that are easier than something you would typically read; this allows you to focus solely on listening without being distracted by unknown words or grammar
Spend time learning how letters correspond to sounds (orthography)
Speaking well is a combination of accurate pronunciation and good knowledge of words and forms. To become good at speaking it helps to develop good listening as well, since it is difficult to produce sounds you cannot distinguish.
Unless you are learning a tonal language, learning good pronunciation is not absolutely essential, especially for a beginner; however, good pronunciation can ease communication a lot, while poor pronunciation learned during the early stages can become ingrained and hard to fix.
Good pronunciation typically does not come naturally to adult learners, so it can be important to pay focused attention. If you want a good accent, I recommend you learn as you start speaking, aiming to get the sounds mostly correct every time you speak.
What follows is a quick guide to get you most of the way. The full guide to learning pronunciation is in Appendix A.
I recommend you use Google or search a community to find a pronunciation guide for your target language. The best guides will explain each sound using diagrams, explanations, or special symbols (called the IPA) in addition to audio to show you how they sound.1
Spend focused effort improving those aspects of your language you find difficult. Use a dictionary such as Forvo or Wiktionary or any audio input to get a good example to try mimic. It is helpful to practise throughout your study by trying to read texts, flashcards, or anything you encounter aloud.
Remembering words and forms
When first speaking, many learners find themselves struggling to remember the words they need.
There is a difference between your ability to understand words and using them yourself in speech; however, this barrier can be overcome. These two types of knowledge (understanding and producing) link to the same concept; they are different, but not fundamentally so. The simple fact is that producing requires finding the word in your memory without an easy reference, making it harder to do.
The most natural way this gap is bridged is by gradually building greater familiarity with the word over time. Often, learners are only superficially familiar with a word, making it hard to remember. However, with exposure and experience, words eventually gain a certain salience that lets them come to mind when needed. Often, the best course of action is to simply be patient and practise.
If a word is particularly important, it can help to practise that word productively. You can do this by practising speaking aloud, writing sentences, or by simply using your flashcards productively.
Summary of the advice for beginners
Focus on using comprehensible input to acquire your language. Start by reading and listening as much as you can, then consider speaking and writing later on.
All your grammar and vocabulary will be acquired through a combination of discover, practice, and drill. Your beginner course will do a lot of the work to introduce you to a lot; however, you will generally need to do a lot of flashcard study and reading and listening to build your knowledge.
Start by learning the 1,000 most common words as quickly as you can. Don’t over-focus on grammar, but don’t ignore it either.
Focus on learning your language’s script if it is different and focus on pronunciation if you want a good accent. For both of these, early effort will pay off in the long-term.
A common method of many courses, guides, and dictionaries is to give an English approximation for each sound. This is OK to start but is insufficient to achieve accurate pronunciation. ↩