Most language classes consist of exercising a variety of skills. These are often reduced to the labels “reading, writing, speaking and listening”. If you think about these four basic language processes, you will see that they all exercise different faculties and process language is different ways. Not only do we vary from each other in how competent we are at different skills but there is usually a big difference in the way we individually perform at each of these four tasks.
Reading, writing, speaking and listening can be divided up in two different ways. We can call speaking and writing “active” skills which require us to produce language, whereas “reading” and “listening” are “passive” skills which require us to interpret the language produced by others. The other division is in terms of spoken and written codes. Speaking and listening are skills applied to the language as sound, where as reading and writing are skills applied to the language as a physical code.
As language learners, and also in our own language, our level of competence varies according to which skill we are employing. Most people find that the easiest skill is reading. This is because we are more relaxed whilst we are reading as nothing is required of us in terms of language production. Also, we are able to read ahead and look back continuously to make sense of a text. Rather than just having one shot at understanding, we may have an unlimited number of opportunities to retrace the written word and puzzle out its meaning. In addition, when we see rather than hear a word, we can recognize aspects of it which we might not pick up if we were to hear the word in its spoken form.
Different people vary as to which skill they find most difficult, but I would say that for the majority it is the skill of “listening”. There are a variety of reasons for this. Firstly, we only get one chance to hear the language. It reaches our ears and then instantly disappears. There are often other factors occurring at the same time, such as environmental noise, feelings of insecurity or embarrassment or the fact that the speaker is not being helpful by speaking clearly, or perhaps they have an accent or use expressions we are not familiar with.
Often in a class when we are working on some written material a student will say: “I wouldn´t be able to say that myself” or “I wouldn´t understand that if I heard it and I couldn´t see it”. This is entirely normal and shouldn´t make us feel inadequate, but it does also mean that we should make the effort to abandon the security of the written word and attempt to improve our speaking and listening skills as well.