Which language skill is hardest to learn?

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Which language skills are hardest to learn?

Reading
1
6%
Writing
2
13%
Listening
4
25%
Conversation
9
56%
Grammar
0
No votes
 
Total votes: 16

youandme
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Which language skill is hardest to learn?

Postby youandme » 2021-02-15, 14:17

Hi unilang community,

thanks so much to those who answered my first question (and if you haven't, you still can). So this time I'm wondering which language skills you find hardest to learn.

At the same time, I'm also wondering how you are learning the different language skills. For example, I noticed that recently a lot of tools have been published that could be very helpful learning some of the language skills. Are you using some of them? And do they really help to make it easier?

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Re: Which language skill is hardest to learn?

Postby vijayjohn » 2021-02-19, 8:28

I'm going to say reading. Even in your native language, getting yourself to read consistently is the hardest thing you can do, in my opinion. Listening comprehension is also difficult, but I think it's easier to train your ear to what people are saying than to get really good at reading novels (though this might depend on the specific situation - for example, reading may be easier than understanding a detailed discussion about philosophy). Writing also is difficult, but again, I think it's easier to learn to write than to read a lot (though probably with languages other than your first language, reading a lot may be a prerequisite to writing well). Conversation and grammar don't seem that hard to me by comparison.

I don't usually focus on different skills. I just use whatever I can find as thoroughly as I can, really.

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Re: Which language skill is hardest to learn?

Postby linguoboy » 2021-02-19, 14:59

vijayjohn wrote:I'm going to say reading. Even in your native language, getting yourself to read consistently is the hardest thing you can do, in my opinion. Listening comprehension is also difficult, but I think it's easier to train your ear to what people are saying than to get really good at reading novels

Interesting. This is pretty much the opposite of my experience (though that could partly be due to some undiagnosed audio processing difficulties and hearing loss). I've read entire novels in languages I struggle to understand when spoken. Flaubert is way easier for me to make sense of than a conversation between two Parisians. Like not even close.
"Richmond is a real scholar; Owen just learns languages because he can't bear not to know what other people are saying."--Margaret Lattimore on her two sons

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Re: Which language skill is hardest to learn?

Postby Rí.na.dTeangacha » 2021-02-19, 16:36

It might be a toss-up between "conversation" and "listening" for me. Fluently producing natural-sounding language is probably one of the hardest skills, but at least when you're speaking you're in control of the speed and the content. With listening, you can probably recognise a larger number of words than you can produce, but you also don't control the speed or content of the other person's speech, so it's probably a tie for most difficult. I do think though that in a conversation, it will become obvious to the other person/people involved what level of ability you have, and they are likely to adjust their speech accordingly, which makes it easier, whereas when listening to a podcast, radio or TV, the content is made for native speakers usually and you just have to keep up, which can make that more challenging.
For most languages, reading and writing are easier just because you don't actually need fluency, you can take all the time you need to work it out.
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Re: Which language skill is hardest to learn?

Postby Yasna » 2021-02-19, 19:07

I think listening is the hardest. There's no pause button, no time to parse what you heard or look up a word you didn't understand. Spoken language varies based on age, class, sex, region, etc. to a greater extent than written language. Like linguoboy I've read entire novels in languages where I struggle to understand full-speed colloquial speech.

My going theory is that speaking and writing actually aren't particularly difficult as long as you first acquire advanced listening and reading skills respectively. Most people just don't wait whether due to necessity or impatience. Of course it's another story if the goal is to speak like Christopher Hitchens or write like Virginia Woolf.
Ein Buch muß die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns. - Kafka

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Re: Which language skill is hardest to learn?

Postby Linguaphile » 2021-02-19, 21:03

Yasna wrote:Like linguoboy I've read entire novels in languages where I struggle to understand full-speed colloquial speech.

My experience has been that I can't easily understand full-speed colloquial speech in a foreign language until my reading skills have gotten good enough that I can read quickly. Basically, by reading a lot I'm training my brain to recognize the language (words and their forms and usage) faster and faster as my reading skills improve. In every language that I've studied to a high enough level, I've discovered a point at which my listening skills (which were previously not great) suddenly improved dramatically without even trying. And that point basically tends to coincide with my reading skills having reached a very fluent, fast pace. My theory is that my reading skills are high enough at that point that I can read at a speed that approximates speech. So basically it means I've trained my brain to recognize words at "spoken-language speed" through reading and once I've done that, listening skills come much more effortlessly.
I'm sure that this same thing could be accomplished by equally extensive listening practice instead of reading, particularly if the initial listening practice can be slowed down (by asking people to speak slowly, or by adjusting the playback speed on a recording). But in my case I've had a lot more exposure to written text than to material to listen to (even for languages which I can hear spoken in my community; it's just that I'm a very avid reader!).

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Re: Which language skill is hardest to learn?

Postby linguoboy » 2021-02-19, 21:49

Linguaphile wrote:My experience has been that I can't easily understand full-speed colloquial speech in a foreign language until my reading skills have gotten good enough that I can read quickly. Basically, by reading a lot I'm training my brain to recognize the language (words and their forms and usage) faster and faster as my reading skills improve.

Yeah, I basically need to be able to see the words in my mind's eye before I can parse them in speech. I've definitely had those aha moments where a string of sound suddently decomposes into meaningful words because I managed to pick out a few key phrases.
"Richmond is a real scholar; Owen just learns languages because he can't bear not to know what other people are saying."--Margaret Lattimore on her two sons

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Re: Which language skill is hardest to learn?

Postby TheStrayCat » 2021-02-19, 22:17

I also voted for listening. I have never had particular issues with reading or writing (at least compared to my general competency level in the target language); as to speaking, once I am at B1 even if I don't know the exact word usually I can find some substitute word or phrase to make myself understood. With listening on the other hand, if I miss some part of a sentence my only options are to ask the person to repeat it again or to simply move on. (I'm still struggling with English-language movies despite having lived in the US for almost seven years). And the fact that everyone around is now wearing masks doesn't make it easier of course.

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Re: Which language skill is hardest to learn?

Postby Linguaphile » 2021-02-19, 23:07

linguoboy wrote:Yeah, I basically need to be able to see the words in my mind's eye before I can parse them in speech. I've definitely had those aha moments where a string of sound suddently decomposes into meaningful words because I managed to pick out a few key phrases.

Interesting! I don't think I need to "see" the words like that, for me it just has to do with the speed at which I can parse them, I think. Basically the "processing time". In early stages of language-learning it takes more time to match a word (seen or heard) with its meaning. In reading you can do it at your own pace but in spoken language the person you're listening to has already moved on before you can do that, if you can't retrieve the meanings quickly enough. So it's not until "my own pace" becomes quick enough, that listening comprehension becomes easier.

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Re: Which language skill is hardest to learn?

Postby linguoboy » 2021-02-20, 0:34

Linguaphile wrote:Interesting! I don't think I need to "see" the words like that, for me it just has to do with the speed at which I can parse them, I think.

I've always been extremely visual. I can't remember a name unless I know how to spell it. Even if it later turns out to have been wrong, I need to have some spelling in my head.

It's interesting what you say about reading influencing listening comprehension. I'm finding with Duolingo, though, that sometimes I can "know" the sentence written and still fail to parse it spoken. I get the beginning and the end and have a gap inbetween that I have to go back and listen to again to tease out.
"Richmond is a real scholar; Owen just learns languages because he can't bear not to know what other people are saying."--Margaret Lattimore on her two sons

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Re: Which language skill is hardest to learn?

Postby Linguaphile » 2021-02-20, 2:20

linguoboy wrote:It's interesting what you say about reading influencing listening comprehension. I'm finding with Duolingo, though, that sometimes I can "know" the sentence written and still fail to parse it spoken. I get the beginning and the end and have a gap inbetween that I have to go back and listen to again to tease out.

But you're probably at a pretty beginning level with that on Duolingo, right? To me that seems like an entirely different situation. What I described (for me) only applies at more advanced levels, after I can read random content pretty fluently. I think it's not so much about "recognizing a particular sentence in writing so later I can recognize it spoken" so much as it is about "being able to process random content in the language at a fast enough pace". Reading allows me to practice that because I am a pretty fast reader (once I reach a high enough level of reading fluency in a language).
At more beginning levels I've had the same experience as you with written versus spoken sentences.

As an example (or maybe just a related phenomenon to what you described), one thing I found really interesting when I did the Finnish Duolingo course last summer is that in the exercises where you listen to a sentence and have to write it, I consistently had trouble hearing some of the pronouns, particularly he, but sometimes others as well. (But again, for me that was a beginning level as my exposure to spoken Finnish is pretty low and I also haven't done much reading in Finnish.) As for "having trouble hearing the pronouns," it wasn't just that I'm used to languages that allow pronouns to be dropped; I literally tuned them out as if they weren't there. I kept going back to re-play the audio thinking they'd made a mistake and left out the pronoun, but nope, if I went back and listened with the express purpose of checking to see if the pronoun was said aloud, and listened carefully for it, yes it was there, right where it should be. Yet repeatedly when I heard a new sentence a short time later, often the same thing would happen again: I'd literally fail to register hearing some of the pronouns. I knew what the sentence meant and who they were talking about based on the conjugation, but I could have sworn I didn't hear the pronoun even though it was there.
I suspect that says something about how I was processing the sentences, but I'm not quite sure what. Maybe it's just the same as what you described (getting the beginning and end but missing some of the middle) or maybe it was because the pronouns are short words spoken quickly without special emphasis, but it seemed significant that it was only pronouns that it happened with, and that I really thought they were missing (i.e. I didn't mis-hear them as something else or think they were part of a the verb or hear them in the wrong position, for example).

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Re: Which language skill is hardest to learn?

Postby Antea » 2021-02-20, 21:24

I have voted writing, at a certain level, I mean.

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Re: Which language skill is hardest to learn?

Postby vijayjohn » 2021-02-23, 15:25

linguoboy wrote:
vijayjohn wrote:I'm going to say reading. Even in your native language, getting yourself to read consistently is the hardest thing you can do, in my opinion. Listening comprehension is also difficult, but I think it's easier to train your ear to what people are saying than to get really good at reading novels

Interesting. This is pretty much the opposite of my experience (though that could partly be due to some undiagnosed audio processing difficulties and hearing loss). I've read entire novels in languages I struggle to understand when spoken. Flaubert is way easier for me to make sense of than a conversation between two Parisians. Like not even close.

It might be worth pointing out that the languages I've been trying to read literature in lately include Malayalam and Chinese. Reading in either of these languages is or at least seems a lot harder than reading in a European language like French (but similar to a certain experience you've had reading Welsh). I think the reasons for this at least with Malayalam include huge cultural differences of a kind that don't really exist in Europe.

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Re: Which language skill is hardest to learn?

Postby linguoboy » 2021-02-23, 15:43

vijayjohn wrote:Reading in either of these languages is or at least seems a lot harder than reading in a European language like French (but similar to a certain experience you've had reading Welsh). I think the reasons for this at least with Malayalam include huge cultural differences of a kind that don't really exist in Europe.

Could you expand on this (either here or in one of the Literature threads)? I understand that genre expectations can have a huge effect on interpretation--all authors leave things unspoken and expect their readers to fill in the gaps. But I'm kind of curious how this plays out in a familiar genre, such as a personal narrative or a fable.

(Interesting that you bring up Chinese. Because I'm so visually-oriented, I had an easier time learning characters than many of my peers and I really struggle with the spoken language because it's so much harder to match it up to the written forms in my head.)
"Richmond is a real scholar; Owen just learns languages because he can't bear not to know what other people are saying."--Margaret Lattimore on her two sons

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Re: Which language skill is hardest to learn?

Postby vijayjohn » 2021-02-23, 20:24

So I've never actually managed to read a whole book in Chinese thus far, which means I can't really say from personal experience what it's like to be able to do that. However, I will say that the difficulty I'm talking about is not necessarily with the writing system per se but rather with actually reading entire books in the language, which to me is a completely different matter.

Most of my progress with reading in Malayalam is stuff I've actually documented here on UniLang, so I can say more about that. Typically, the cultural background of the characters is different enough from my family to throw me off and really bog me down. My family is traditionally Syrian Christian from southern Kerala, but most families in Malayalam literature seem to be from central or northern Kerala and typically Hindu (sometimes Muslim, though I haven't read full novels with Muslim characters yet).

The first novel I read in Malayalam, a few years before I joined UniLang, was actually a kid's story. I read it out loud to my dad (because me reading to him is something we both enjoy) every morning/early afternoon while eating at the kitchen table before going to the university. It was pretty simple stuff, just about the everyday life of a more or less ordinary Malayalee child when my parents were growing up, and it had lots of amusing passages. Even so, though, IIRC it took me almost a year to finish reading it. It was likely set in northern Kerala, so there were words that were thrown around a lot that I was completely unfamiliar with. For example, one word that occurred a lot was കൊണ്ടാട്ടം [kɔɳˈɖaːʈəm], which apparently can refer to various types of small, deep-fried, savory snacks but isn't a word we use in our community and thus isn't a term I'd ever heard otherwise. Sometimes, there were also cultural aspects that my dad had to explain to me; for example, another word that showed up was കുഞ്ഞിപ്പലക [kuˈɲipələga], literally something like 'baby plank', because a carpenter comes to the kid's house and he asks the carpenter for one. When I read out a passage that contained that word for the first time, my dad said something like "oh, I get what they mean by that." He explained to me that traditionally (in fact, until very recently), Malayalees didn't have tables, chairs, or dining rooms and instead ate on the floor of the front porch. Food was, of course, served on a banana leaf, but if you didn't want the leaf directly touching the floor, you could have a small plank of wood with legs so small they were barely off the floor (shorter than an ordinary stool) underneath the leaf. This kind of plank was easy to make with leftover wood.

After I joined UniLang and was ready to tackle my second novel, I started to try reading Chemmeen; I already knew the plot because it was made into perhaps the most famous movie in Malayalee history, which I'd already seen, plus the movie was faithful to the novel. However, soon after I started, my dad instead suggested I read another, much shorter novel called Yakshi, which I polished off in about a week. He had already sort of spoiled the plot for me years ago, and the plot is pretty simple yet still interesting; it's basically about a ladies' man whose face becomes horribly disfigured, so when a woman becomes his girlfriend, he becomes increasingly convinced that she's actually a demoness who he has to kill before she cannibalizes him.

Then I went back to Chemmeen. Although it's set in a fishing community very close to my parents' hometown, the dialogue is all in eye dialect, and the representation of the fishing community's dialect in the novel differs wildly from any other variety of Malayalam I have ever seen. Syllables that I would normally expect to be unstressed or at least short are represented in the dialogue with the symbols for long vowels, and sometimes, the ones I would normally expect to be stressed or long are represented with symbols for short vowels. For instance, I just opened it up to a random page and picked a quote I could find there, and the way I would pronounce it would be:

വല്ല അപകടവും പറ്റിയോ, മോളേ? [ˈʋəlla əˈbəgəɖəʋʊm pəttiˈjoː], [moːˈɭeː]? 'Daughter, did some kind of danger/accident happen?'

മോളേ [moːˈɭeː] 'daughter!' is short for (i.e. a contraction of) മകളേ [məgəˈɭeː], and അപകടവും [əˈbəgəɖəʋʊm] could easily be contracted to അപകടോം [əbəgəˈɖoːm]. However, in the novel, the quote is represented in eye dialect as follows:

വല്ല അപാകടോം പറ്റീയോ മൊകാളെ?

which would suggest the pronunciation "[ˈʋəlla əbgəˈɖoːm pəttˈjoː mɔˈgaːɭe]?"

The eye dialect in this novel threw me off so much I wearily asked my dad whether there were any novels we had that were set closer to home (to our own community). He pointed me to another novel called Malagal set in our community and written by a family friend. It's about a theme that appeals a lot to him, namely entrepreneurship (leading to urbanization) in the form of a rubber plantation and joint-stock company in the previously untapped hills to the east of where we live, but it was a lot more boring for me since it offered much less in terms of interesting cultural differences or cultural information. I read both of these in tandem (i.e. one chapter of Chemmeen, then one of Malagal), hoping that the flaws of each might balance each other out. Instead, it took me a year and a half to finish reading them.

The next novel I read (this time out loud to my dad) was Pithaamahan, which was long and had lots of big words but was also very lighthearted (one of the minor characters is actually none other than Richard Nixon, in the role of an ordinary local farmer post-Watergate) and constantly cracked my dad up. It didn't have any unfamiliar varieties of Malayalam, although it did have one (somewhat minor) character who spoke Tamil. I'm pretty sure I didn't read it all in one stretch, and I even started typing up my grandfather's war memoirs by hand somewhere in the middle, but I still managed to finish it in less than a month. Needless to say, typing, reorganizing, and translating the war memoirs took a few years, especially because I also started memorizing an epic poem (which I continue to struggle with to this day and never even got halfway through with).

The last one I read was Randidangazhi, which is by the same author as Chemmeen and again has lots of eye dialect (and I read this out loud to my dad as well), though at least this variety of Malayalam was of course less foreign to me than the one in Chemmeen. This time, I was just really slow (I think this is the shortest novel I've ever read in Malayalam) and took eight whole months to read it (I was also busy with the epic poem and my grandfather's memoirs).


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