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The four basic fundamental skills of language are reading, writing, speaking and listening. You can easily divide them up into two groups – passive language skills of listening and reading, and then the active language skills of speaking and writing. It is generally accepted that passive language skills are learnt first with active language skills developing later on. I seem to learn the skills in this order: reading -> listening -> speaking -> writing.

And today, my readers, I’m going to reveal exactly why I think it is holding me back in my language studies…


Just so you know, most people acquire the skills in this order: listening, reading, speaking then writing. In the absolute embryonic stages of language learning for me this order is true, too. But once I am familiar with it’s writing systems and able to read in a language then I’ve noticed I seem to do it a lot more than I listen.

Very quickly, it gets to a point where I feel I can read a language better than I can hear it. I’m often reminded of this quote:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
– Aristotle

There is a lot from this quote that can be applied within the context of general language learning. I have a problem with the word “excellence” in the above quote. It’s not really specific enough. It could be substituted for “A good command of the language” or possibly many a language learner’s holy grail, the often debated word “fluency”.

The reason why I’ve had to take a step back and have a pragmatic look at my general language learning method is because it’s not working. In my Danish studies, I’ve frustratingly discovered that I am able to read written Danish, but the moment I hear it being spoken it is mostly just noise to me.

I personally feel that the more you focus on a skill, the better you get at it. But essentially what I’m trying to is develop my listening skills by looking at words on a page.

In my defence, this clearly flawed general approach did actually work with the foreign language I’m most familiar with – Thai – because Thai has a writing system that is for the most part, extremely phonetic. When I was learning to read Thai, in my head it was like listening to a slowed down audio recording that magically went at my own pace of natural comprehension.

I’d conservatively estimate that I now know well over 1,000 commonly used words in Danish from using memrise and duolingo. Yet I still can’t understand spoken Danish! I’ve been trying to figure out what’s so different this time around from learning Danish compared to when I was learning Thai.

If you know a lot of vocab words in your target language but struggle to pick them out from native speech, you have a rhythm problem. – Idahosa Ness

I’m currently working through the free ‘flow theory 101’ course over at Idahosa’s mimic method site, and I’m changing from using a words approach to listening to using a syllable approach (including noticing gaps in the language). So far it is really working for me, and if you are having similar frustrations with listening to native speakers in your target language I would strongly recommend taking his free course. I feel like it is really helping me out a lot.

Another ‘ah ha!’ moment came from a short comment by Olly Richards on Chris Broholm’s Actual Fluency blog. Chris was explaining how he has been struggling with his Russian language mission. Olly asked about his ‘study time vs speaking time ratio’ and it really got me thinking about my Danish language frustrations.

My ‘study time vs speaking time ratio’ for my Danish is shockingly low. I’ve fallen into the trap of waiting until I am completely ready and comfortable before I start speaking. And right now the long term pain of struggling with Danish is more than the short term pain of sounding like an idiot in my attempt of speaking this language.

So over the next week, along with working through Idahosa’s flow theory 101 course, I’ll also be trying to fix my ‘study time vs speaking time ratio’.

I hope that this post has been useful for you. Is anyone else out there having frustrations with their target language? Leave a comment – maybe it will help out another language learner on their way, you never know!