Ask most language learners what they are hoping to achieve, and you will come across a recurring ambition: fluency. The word fluent comes from the Latin language and indicates a sense of flow, because that's what conversations often do: they flow. So what you're hoping to achieve is a point where using another language becomes so easy that you won't have to hesitate, you won't look for words all the time and won't feel stuck.
If you are an independent learner, have you ever found yourself off balance? For example, you find yourself becoming a real expert in understanding spoken language, but a wall comes up in your brain as soon as you try to say the simplest of things. Or sometimes you have picked up a lot of spoken language and you'd be ok at the shop, but you can't read a single label!
Four Core Skills
As a language tutor, I make my students aware that there are four core skills to language learning: Speaking, Reading, Listening and Writing. You have got to become good at all of them and keep your levels balanced to prepare for true fluency in a language.
One example: Audio-based systems, such as CDs or podcasts, will put a lot of emphasis on
speaking and listening. This is excellent for basic travelling or conversation. But it is enough if you
really want to find that elusive fluency in your new language? Personally, I don't think so. Neglecting two of the four skills can really affect your confidence!
Since these core skills are ever so important, why don't we get to know them a little better:
Writing doesn't just refer to how good you are at composing a letter, note or blog post. It also includes your sound recognition. For example, how good are you at making notes based on what you're hearing, spelling them correctly and writing something legible in your target language.
Speaking, now that sounds hard doesn't it? It's not all about producing free-hand sentences and word order. Speaking starts when you meet the sounds of your target language. Pronunciation and accent work breed confidence, and putting that speaking practice in right from the start is key to helping you feel like communication is possible.
Listening is the skill of piecing together all the foreign sounds, analysing them in your mind and making sense of them as words and phrases. Listening helps you get the idea of what's going on, but more importantly it teaches you important pronunciation skills. All language production depends on what you hear, so don't underestimate this one.
Reading looks like a simple task after all those others. In any target language, the essence of this skill is in training you to spot patterns. Reading a lot will bring you in tune with the way sentences are built in a different language, and exercises engaging with a text are among the most useful you can work on for becoming fluent.
On top of learning those, you should engage with the culture, civics and geography of your target language. It really is a tall order, but trust me, it's worth it. You'll finally get over those "errrrr" moments.
How to test yourself
Here is an exercise I work on together with a lot of my learners. It's perfect for exposing a training rut or giving you inspiration for a new challenge. Draw yourself a diagram of all the skills you're hoping to train. Think about them and rate yourself out of 10 in each one. Then consult someone like a teacher or language buddy - what do they think? The outside perspective of another learner or a native speaker adds real value to the assessment.
Write your numbers on the diagram - are they balanced? Do you have a particular weakness or strength? Then think about how you have learnt your language so far, and what kind of exercises you've done most, and perhaps what you've been missing. For more exercises getting you ready to target your core skills, please check out my forthcoming ebook.
Thanks for reading this article!