Which skill is more important for language learning?
By Antonio Graceffo
Someone who read my language acquisition articles recently wrote in to ask me if I believed reading was more important than speaking, and if I believed you could learn pronunciation from reading.
I don’t think I ever said that reading was more important than listening. And obviously, you could never learn pronunciation or sound recognition from reading. I work with ALG which is an exclusively listening based approach to language learning. I did a huge number of videos on ALG with different languages on youtube so you can check them out.
ALG and natural language acquisition, as well as Dr. Stephen Krashen,all agree that learning comes from input, not output. so, by far, I believe that listening and reading are the most important skills to practice.
I learned German through reading books and watching TV. This is called core novel method, which I have also published a great deal about. When I was learning European languages I put more importance on reading than listening. But with Asian languages you often can’t read, so you wind up with listening being the only method you can use.
I don’t believe that reading is more important than listening, for beginners. you must listen to get the sounds of the language. In fact, now that I am learning Vietnamese, which uses a modified version of the Latin alphabet, I am hesitant to do ANY reading until after I have had sufficient listening practice because I don’t want my internal monologue to wrong.
People ask if I believe that reading out loud is a good exercise. Reading out-loud could be a useful exercise, BUT it shouldn’t be done until after you have proper pronunciation. The whole concept behind ALG is that if you practice wrong, you get good at doing it wrong. This is why ALG doesn’t want you to speak till after you have had substantial listening. The same would be true of reading aloud. For European languages, the listening would be between 200 and 300 hours. For Asian languages (and category 3 languages) the listening requirement would be about 800 hours.
For asian langauges, the pronunciation is so different from englsih, you need nearly unlimited listeinnigg to pronounce the words coprrectly. Right now, I am learning Vietanemse. Not only is it tonal, like chiense, but it has a large number of sounds which englsih doesnt. My colleagues are amazed at my dedciation in taking one and a half hours of proivate instruction six days per week. But what they dont understand is that at that rate, I won’t be able to pronounce Vietnamese correctly for
about 85 weeks. And with Vietnamese, if your pronunciation is not dead on, no one will understand you. There are too many words which sound similar to our ears but are worlds apart in meaning and in the ears and mouths of a native speaker.
Pronunciation can only be learned from listening. It definitely can’t be learned from reading. Many people believe that by speaking they will soemhow acquire good pronunciation. “Well, I can practice talking to my vietnamese friends.” They are practicing worng./ this will never, ever on an unlimmited timeline result in good pronunciation.
Where my personal language learning theories and strategies diverge from strict ALG is what happens once you have had sufficient listening to achieve native like pronunciation. I believe that once you are able to pronounce the words correctly, and once you are able to function and have normal conversations, the only thing that will take you to the next level is reading.
You learned your massive English vocabulary through years of school and reading. As a result, you are able to use words and talk about concepts which don’t come up in every day conversation. For example, if your doctor starts explaining to you what is wrong with you heart, he will use vocabulary which, although technical in nature, has been dumbed down to the level of a normal person. We would expect a person person of normal education and intelligence to know that cardio is heart, and we would expect that same person to know the terms blood pressure, stroke, paralysis, cholesterol, angina, cardiac arrest…
If you had a daily transcript of your conversations with friends and family, you would probably find that these words wouldn’t come up frequently enough for someone to learn them from hearing, of maybe if they did, it would take years and years. Most of this type of specialized or elevated vocabulary was probably learned from reading.
The problem with category three and Asian languages is that very few westerners, particularly English native speakers, every get far enough into the study to need this level of communication. So, they formulate self-defeating language learning theories based on attaining a very superficial command of the language.
Can you get up and give a one hour presentation about your job, handle client meetings and questions, attend conferences and give constructive and meaningful input to business meetings in the language you are studying? If not, then you haven’t finished learning.
Remember, if you say “Me want cookie” people will understand you, but it’s wrong.
Antonio Graceffo is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn” and the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey.” see his website www.speakingadventure.com
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