08 July 2011

4 skills safe

It is common in language circles to talk about the "4 skills" of language learning: speaking, listening, reading and writing.  These skills can be categorised as receptive vs productive and spoken mode vs written mode, and you often get this represented in a neat little diagram like this:

This looks very tidy and regular, and there's nothing we like better in language than tidyness and regularity.  But yet language is never tidy, and language is very rarely truly regular, so we must suspect that there's something wrong with this diagram. 

Really, this analysis of language is superficial to the point of uselessness.  These 4 things are not skills at all, but the basic categories of language use, each category requiring multiple skills.  The actual skills of language are far more subtle and far more fundamental, and there is a massive amount of shared skill between these activities than is apparent when we elevate these mere "activities" to the status of "skill".

Where does this idea of "skills" come from?

It is obvious and undeniable that some students find it easier to speak, and others find it easier to write.  I think it's fair to say that the vast majority of students find reading easier than listening in a foreign language.

There is a great temptation therefore to say that what people find difficult is a "difficult skill" and leave it at that, but that is to shortchange the student, because these high level "skills" distract us from drilling down and finding the underlying core skills, and identifying which of them is the root of the problem.  What gets measured gets managed, to quote a business-speak proverb, and when we identify the problem as simply "listening", we really don't get much of a clue how to fix it.

Try to suggest a spoken-only class and most teachers will throw up their hands and declare that we simply must teach all 4 skills, or we are doing our students a disservice.  But are we?  What if focussing on these 4 skills independently is one of the reasons many people have difficulties with language?

What are the real skills of language?

I would suggest the broadest useful four skills we have are syntax, morphology, phonology and orthography.

Syntax: how we build sentences out of words.
Morphology: how we build words out of roots and affixes.
Phonology: the sound system of language.
Orthography: the form the language takes on paper.

Note that there is nothing in my four skills that makes a distinction between productive and receptive skills, and that two of the skills are common to both the spoken and the written mode.

In this article, I'm going to talk in general terms about the division of skills in the traditional model, and will use morphology to demonstrate why I think the traditional model is dangerously flawed.  I'll come back to phonology and orthography in a follow-up article.  But I haven't really got a lot to say about morphology, to be honest....

Commonality between spoken and written modes

With a few exceptions due to register and conservative schooling, the spoken and written modes of any language are based on the same syntax and morphology.  This is pretty obvious, and really goes without saying.  But if we carry this forward and ask ourselves why a student's accuracy in speaking is so often worse than in writing, we're in a hole.  How can someone know syntax to write, but not know it to speak?

It's a question that is actually pretty easy to answer.  The answer is that they don't know syntax.  It's that simple.

But wait, how can they produce grammatically correct target language if they don't know syntax?  Well, maybe it's not really "that simple".

At a superficial level, we have the difference between declarative and procedural knowledge.  Someone can consciously know the rules without having internalised them to the point where they become automatic.  On a simple level, reading and writing can be carried out using declarative knowledge, because time is not a factor.  Speaking and listening, on the other hand, rely on procedural knowledge, because time and speed are critical factors.  Modern language teaching philosophy disfavours declarative knowledge, and many teachers often claim to teach directly to procedural knowledge, and yet students still perform better in writing than in speaking (ignoring issues of pronunciation).

Productive vs receptive skills

As I said, my new four skills don't make a distinction between productive and receptive skills.  Why?  Because I believe that comprehension of language is a reflective act, that is to say that I understand language by imagining what would have made me say the same thing.

This is not as outlandish as it may sound.  One of the most important current theories in neuroscience is what is called mirror neuron theory (Wikipedia) which says that we understand a lot about each other through reconstructing their experiences.

Even stepping outside of that, there is still plenty of evidence for language as a reflective act:
  • People often finish each other's sentences.  To do so they must be actively constructing the utterance as they go.
  • People often mistakenly say that they've said something, when actually it was someone else who said it, and they only heard it.  So we identify very closely with sentences we hear (and agree with), suggesting a very close link between the mental process behind listening and that of speaking.
  • There exists a (fairly harmless) neurological disorder which causes someone's lip to tremble when they're being spoken to, and they often echo the last word of your sentences (often suffixed with "uh-huh" for assent).  For these people merely listening activates the physical speech organs. 
So as far as I'm concerned, attempting to produce an distinction between the two is asking for trouble.

Conclusion and consequences

Treating reading, writing, speaking and listening as 4 skills encourages people to develop strategies specific to these 4 areas, but students attempt to generalise these strategies across skills, and they don't transfer.

It is the teacher or course designer's job to make sure that the learner develops core strategies that are appropriate for and generalisable across all four areas.  What gets measured gets managed, and we can never objectively measure a student's comprehension of a piece of language.  Even in writing, the student's thought process is obscured by the relatively slow pace of production.

It is therefore only in speaking that we genuinely know that a student is following the correct process, and it is only through monitoring spoken output that we can diagnose and correct faults.  As a classroom teacher or even a self-teacher, this is the only way to monitor progress accurately and confidently.


Yousef said...

This is a great post.The way you deconstruct the assumptions that are spread as truism in the language learning community with logic and clarity gives me a lot to think about as a language learner and teacher. The idea of having many different sets of skills (morphology and syntax as teachable, core skills- never thought of that!) that can be applied throughout the so-called skills of speaking, reading, writing and listening is a very exciting idea and I look forward to seeing it developed!

Nìall Beag said...

I'm glad it made you stop and think - that's what I'm hoping for.

I hope the next couple of articles will be just as interesting. The one I posted yesterday is a bit off-the-wall, but I'll try to get back to more straightforward stuff on Friday....