Sunday, May 16, 2010

When starting a language, strike a balance between reading/listening and speaking/writing

When learning a foreign language, what you can write and speak is a subset of what you can understand when reading and listening; you simply can't write or speak something that you haven't already put in your head through reading or listening.

If you emphasize reading and listening, then what you can understand when reading and listening will increase more quickly than what you can write and speak. On the other hand, if you emphasize writing and speaking, then what you can write and speak will increase more quickly than what you can understand when reading and listening. This can be summed up in the following chart:

Emphasis on reading and listening. Emphasis on writing and speaking. Read/Listen. Write/Speak.

Looking at this chart, it's easy to see how you can only expand your writing and speaking as far as your ability to understand when reading and listening. As your writing and speaking approaches the limits of what you can understand when reading and listening, you need to expand what you understand when reading and listening. Otherwise, your writing and speaking will stagnate.

This, however, hardly means that you should focus on reading and listening while pushing off writing and speaking to some amorphous point in the future.

That is pretty close to Steve Kaufmann's approach. At the outset, he focuses almost solely on reading and listening, causing the outer circle to expand quickly, while basically ignoring the inner circle. That doesn't mean the inner circle will be stagnant; indeed, by coming to understand more when reading and listening, the inner circle will expand—but slowly. Steve is patient enough to wait for that circle to expand enough until he feels "ready" to speak.

This contrasts to an approach, which I believe is shared by Benny the Irish Polyglot, Randy of Fluent Every Year, and myself (correct me if I'm wrong, guys), in which writing and speaking get attention early and often; there's no waiting until you're "ready" (i.e., waiting until that inner circle gets big enough while you slowly convert language you understand passively to language you can use actively). We all push that inner circle to grow from early in our language learning.

Language learners will need to constantly make a choice between whether to allocate time to readling/listening and writing/speaking. In the early stages of a language, Steve is at one extreme, focusing almost solely on reading/listening. Unsurprisingly, this will cause the development of reading/listening skills while writing/speaking skills lag (the outer circle grows quickly, the inner grows slowly). If you go to the other extreme and focus on writing/speaking, the inner circle will quickly catch up to the outer circle and you'll be stuck with no where to progress in your writing and speaking.

So the trick here is striking a balance in the middle ground so that both circles expand together. I would still say that the majority of your time at the outset is going to be spent on reading/listening, but a healthy chunk of your time should also be geared towards writing/speaking. In my experience, this way has always led to me being able to quickly communicate with people, without needing to wait for some "ready" moment somewhere down the line.


  1. "Balance" isn't a static thing. Just like riding a bicycle, you need to constantly adjust your balance to keep moving forward.

    For language learning, I prefer to focus on reading/listening first, and then (when I'm ready) add in writing/speaking.

    Yes, this means my writing/speaking lags behind more than people who put more focus on it. But there's 1 key component that I think is more important and isn't mentioned here at all:

    I enjoy it more.

    It's that simple. My motivation to improve the language is simply that I want to enjoy the language. If I'm not enjoying it, it's pointless to learn it. And if I could be enjoying it more, I'm going wrong.

    I trade speed for stamina, and I'm happy to do so.

  2. To some degree, there is truth in the fact that you can't say or write what you don't know, and to that extent, (but only to that extent) I agree with Mr Kaufmann, and disagree with the statement you made here about writing ability expanding faster than reading ability.

    Other than that one detail, I think you're spot on. For me speaking and writing is important enough (or else I'm just antisocial enough!) that I spend a lot of time just talking to myself when studying a language. It's important for me to reason out how I can say something, express an opinion, or whatever, even if I have no one to say it to. Of course thanks to the internet, it's not too hard to find people to say it to.

  3. It depends, too, on how much or how little correspondence there is between the spoken and written forms of the language, and between the phonetics and the written form (for example, character-based languages like Chinese that carry little useful phonetic information for the beginning reader). In cases where the writing system is "more difficult", it is probably better to place more emphasis on listening at the early stages, to get more language into the brain to support reading strategies like guessing unknown words and to lessen the processing load by making recognition of the meaning of structures and words more automatic. That way, the brain has a little more processing power left over to deal with the plain recognition of the symbols.

  4. @William: I agree completely that the balance you need to strike changes depending on where you are in the language, which is why I specifically focused this post on what you do at the outset. If you lag in your reading/listening and your writing/speaking circle begins to nearly fill your reading/listening circle, then you need to rebalance with a heavier focus on reading listening.

    I didn't specify above where that balance falls intentionally because I think people should adjust it for their own situation. I definitely wouldn't recommend not focusing on writing/speaking at all at the outset, but should you spend 10% on writing/speaking and 90% on reading/listening, or should it be 40:60? That will partially depend on what you can do (i.e., if you're in the language zone it'll be much easier to hit 40:60 than it would outside of it) and what you want to do.

    But I still can't recommend waiting for that "ready" moment. I've seen time and time again people who were waiting for that moment then get forced into a situation where they needed to write/speak and, in retrospect, saying how glad they were because they had no idea when they would have started doing so otherwise.

    Nevertheless, anything that kills your motivation needs to be killed, because above all you need to continue learning the language in order to learn a language. So if writing/speaking early on would kill your motivation, then I think a conscious trade-off of speed for stamina is perfectly acceptable.

    @Randy: I'm not sure I'm clear on your point of disagreement. If you know 500 words, and you totally stop learning new words through any means, but practice writing with and speaking those words until you've mastered them, up to that point your writing/speaking ability was clearly expanding faster than your reading/listening ability. That of course is limited to the extent of those 500 words, at which point writing/speaking growth will grind to a halt, but it still shows how writing ability can expand faster than reading ability.

    I can put forward a practical example of this from the end of my high-school exchange year in Japan. Although I was speaking a lot (pretty much that's all I was doing all day), the number of words I was learning became limited because I wasn't doing much besides speaking and the situations in which I was speaking were often pretty repetitive (I was pretty much just hanging out with my girlfriend for the last few weeks I was here and talking to her). While my reading/listening ability was expanding at a crawl, my ability to use the words I already knew was growing at a faster pace as I constantly needed to use them while talking with her.

  5. @Terry: I agree that how the written word corresponds to the spoken word will be a big factor in how you set this balance, although I simplified the post above by clumping reading and listening together.

    While I don't see any issue with a greater focus on listening in languages like Chinese and Japanese, can't the problem you describe also be resolved by simply including ruby text while still necessary at the outset? There are tools to get this automatically added to web pages (in both Chinese and Japanese), so it can be easily had for potentially any content.

    The issue I'd be worried about with ruby characters is that they become a crutch and prevent learning of the full form of the language, so getting rid of them over time would be key.