The four pillars of language study

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When we learn a language, any language, it is imperative that we consider the four anchoring pillars of language. The word “pillar” suggests that they are the most important and basic of a concept. Why four? That’s because they are inter-related, which means that they work together to achieve the goal of fluency.

They are reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Admittedly, these pillars are common knowledge, but we will unpack to an important concept that will help us master a language faster.

Receptive Language versus Productive Language

We can divide the four pillars into receptive language, which is the language that we read and listen to, and productive language, which is language that we write and speak.

This concept is important, because we need to first understand that receptive language and productive language often unbalanced in most people. This makes sense especially in the early phases of language learning when receptive vocabulary would be larger than that of productive language. We absorb so much more language than we make.

However, this does not mean that we focus working on productive language only. Receptive language helps improve productive languages. Children with better spoken parents have been found to be stronger in reading, and children stronger in reading have better written skills. This shows how closely knit the pillars are, and receptive and productive language are constantly giving each other feedback to grow a language.

Therefore, to improve a language, reading and writing only can only improve the language skills to a certain extent. Likewise, only speaking and listening would not allow for mastery beyond a certain level for many languages.

To truly improve, the four pillars have to be actively utilised to so that they feed into each other. For example, to improve in reading, practice is necessary for the brain to perceive and process the language faster.

Next, to make use of what has been read, spoken discussions would help the brain get used to to thinking in the language and also for the mouth to get used to the muscles required to speak the language. The latter is an aspect that is often neglected in language learners.

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Then, while having discussions, listening closely should help the language learner to listen for (often subtle) the sounds of the particular language and seek to replicate such sounds. In the case of English, this skill will prove to be helpful in the pronunciation of vowels without needing an understanding in phonics. Consuming media such as YouTube videos and TV shows are part of listening but are not the same as having active communication due to the difference between receptive and productive language.

Finally, writing comes into play in many possible forms, but the easiest way is to write a reflection journal to practice thinking and expressing in the language. This would be a good way to make use of more complex grammatical structures and vocabulary as it is more carefully produced language.

Based on the breakdown above, it is obvious that if any one of the four pillars are neglected, a person learning a new language would experience a language learning slump but if used actively in cycles, then a language learner should experience success in learning the language.

Published by Amanda Toh

I have been tutoring English for close to 5 years in Singapore ever since I'd graduated with a Linguistics degree. I love writing and reading to improve my mental fitness. Years of teaching both EFL and ESL gave birth to this brainchild.

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