When we learn a new language, there are four basic skills that we consider – listening, speaking, reading and writing skills. Listening and reading are receptive skills. They are ways that we take in language or information from others. Speaking and writing, on the other hand are productive skills. They are ways that we share our own thoughts with others.
For effective two-way communication, we need both kinds of skills. To have a good conversation (oral communication) with someone, we need to be able not only to speak, but to be able to understand what we hear them say (listening skills). To exchange meaningful written messages with someone, we need to be able to both read and write.
Receptive skills are easier to master than productive skills. And in first language learning, they come before their productive counterpart. Children listen and understand words and basic commands before they begin to speak. And later, they begin to read words before they can write them.
Second language learning
As adults learning a second language we want to learn at a faster pace than small children. And so we can. If our second language has similarities to our first language (alphabet, sounds, grammar) then we already have a head start. In that case, some of what we mastered as children in our mother tongue can be used in our second language and we just need to fill in the gaps.
Are many of the sounds the same? Then we just need to learn to recognize and verbalize the new sounds that aren’t found in our mother tongue. Are some of the words similar sounding? Then they’ll be easy to recognize, and we can focus on learning those that aren’t similar.
Does it use the same, or very similar, writing system (alphabet) as our mother tongue? Then we can already recognize and write the letters, we just need to form them into new words. But we still need to learn the four basic language skills to become fluent. Listening (comprehension), speaking, reading and writing.
What happens when the new language we want to learn has very few similarities to our mother tongue? As native English speakers (and speakers of many other languages) who want to learn Chinese will discover, it means that you must start from the beginning! There is very little in our mother language to give us a head start, as so we become more like the young child learning language for the first time. We still need to learn the four basic language skills to become fluent. Listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing. It’s just that there is so much more to learn when we have to start almost from scratch. But take heart, it can be done!
Where to start?
People often think that being able to speak is the indicator of mastering a language. But the purpose of a language is to communicate and if all we can do is speak, then our communication is only one-way. Speaking and listening go hand in hand. Speaking is the productive skill and listening is the passive skill. Young children start with listening, and after a while begin speaking. Often we want to jump right into speaking, in order to feel like we are accomplishing something.
At TenWest, our teachers are trained in the GPA (Growing Participator Approach) method, which mimics the learning pattern of our mother language. For students who are just beginning to study Chinese, that means listening and beginning to recognize words and sounds before beginning to speak. After a few weeks of building listening skills, then the teacher will help the student begin to speak. Textbook learning begins after the student has mastered some basic listening and speaking skills.
And then what?
As important as your classroom time is, mastering Chinese takes more than just what you learn in the classroom or from a textbook. Your teacher will give you homework, but it takes more than just doing your homework or even passing a test, to develop your ability to communicate in Chinese. Just like learning a sport, or a musical instrument, learning a language requires practice, practice, practice.
Outside of the classroom, you need to find ways to practice not only speaking, but listening. And as you beginning to learn to read and then write, you need to find ways to practice those skills too. If learning Chinese is a full time pursuit for you, get creative! Don’t just spend all your time memorizing and studying textbooks.
Do you know your preferred learning style? Great! If you are taking personalized lessons, work with your teacher to make sure that his/her classroom lessons often use methods that support the way you learn best. Depending on your preferred learning style, you may find one or more of the four skills easier than the others, but you will need to find ways to develop each one of the skills.
Do you know what your learning objectives are? Great! Again, if you are taking personalized lessons, your teacher can help make sure that your classroom learning is working toward that goal. It will also help if you can set learning goals for each of the 4 skills. Not just the final target – where you want to be at the end of your studies – but what are some intermediate goals? What do you want to accomplish first? What are some specific things that you want to be able to do in Chinese? Negotiate prices at the market? Chat with your neighbours? Give a short speech? Understand a university lecture? Read a newspaper? Write a letter?
If you are able to list some specific things that want to be able to do, that will help as you look for creative ways outside of the classroom to develop your skills and work toward your goals.
In future posts, we’ll look at each of the four basic skills and suggest some ways that you can develop your skills outside of the classroom, to supplement and build on the foundation that is created during your classroom learning time.