What Are the Four Language Skills?

The four skills of language (also known as the four skills of language learning) are a set of four capabilities that allow an individual to comprehend and produce spoken language for proper and effective interpersonal communication.

These skills are Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing. In the context of first-language acquisition, the four skills are most often acquired in the order of listening first, then speaking, then possibly reading and writing. For this reason, these capabilities are often called LSRW skills.

What is Listening?

Listening is the first language skill we acquire in our native language. It is what is known as a receptive skill, or a passive skill, as it requires us to use our ears and our brains to comprehend language as it is being spoken to us. It is the first of two natural language skills, which are required by all natural spoken languages.

What is Speaking?

Speaking is the second language skill we acquire in our native language. It is what is known as a productive skill, or an active skill, as it requires us to use our vocal tract and our brains to correctly produce language through sound. It is the second of two natural language skills.

What is Reading?

Reading is the third language skill we may acquire in our native language. As with listening, it is a receptive, or passive skill, as it requires us to use our eyes and our brains to comprehend the written equivalent of spoken language. It is one of the two artificial language skills, as not all natural spoken languages have a writing system.

What is Writing?

Writing is the fourth language skill we may acquire in our native language. As with speaking, it is a productive, or active skill, as it requires us to use our hands and our brains to produce the written symbols that represent our spoken language. Along with reading, it is one of the two artificial language skills, as not all natural spoken languages have a writing system.

Do Language Learners Need All Four Skills?

Up to this point, we’ve referred to the four skills in the sequence they are acquired for first language learners. That is to say, if you’re an educated native speaker of a language that also has a writing system, then you already possess all of these skills, and likely developed them in the above order.

But what about foreign language learners?

If you want to learn a foreign language, do you need to master all four skills?

Well—yes and no.

When You Should Learn All Four Skills

You should learn all four skills if you want to have full access to the language as native speakers do.

  • Knowing how to listen will help you:
    • Comprehend natives when they speak
    • Watch and understand movies, television, and online video
    • Listen to the radio and podcasts
  • Knowing how to speak will help you:
    • Engage natives in conversation
    • Address audiences
  • Knowing how to read will help you:
    • Read newspapers, books, and magazines
    • Interpret in-country signs, alerts, and notices
  • Knowing how to write will help you:
    • Compose personal emails, letters, and text messages
    • Write articles, essays, books, or other long-form texts.

When You Should Not Learn All Four Skills

There are two scenarios in which you may not want to develop all four major language skills:

  • Your target language doesn’t allow for use of the four skills
  • Your goals do not require all four skills

Your Target Language Doesn’t Allow All Four Skills

Due to historical circumstances, certain languages are lacking the necessary conditions that allow learners to effectively develop all four major language skills:

If you are learning a language without a writing system, for example,  then you will be unable to learn to read or write that language. According to Ethnologue, out of 7,099 languages alive today, only 3,866 have an equivalent writing system.

If you are learning an extinct or dead language (like Latin or Ancient Greek), you cannot learn to truly speak or listen to them as they were originally spoken, as there are no native speakers alive today.

Your Goals Do Not Require All Four Skills

Depending on what you wish to accomplish with your target language, you may need to learn one or two of the skills, rather than all four.

For example:

  • Those who wish to listen and understand spoken language can learn through books, courses, and lots and lots of both intensive and extensive listening to native audio. This is common amongst conference interpreters.
  • Those who wish to speak languages with complex writing systems can sidestep the need to read and write by relying solely on romanization.
  • Those who wish to read literature of a specific language can practice solely through books and vocabulary lists, without ever needing to speak to a native.
  • Those who wish to write in a foreign language can just practice making and imitating the symbols. This is especially common amongst calligraphers.

If you want the full experience of learning a language, then we at LinguaCore recommend that you aim to develop all four major language skills. However, depending on your ultimate goals, any combination of the four will do.