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I learned four foreign languages but all of them have one thing in common; reading is the best and writing follows it, and then after the huge gap come listening and speaking. My reading and speaking skills are approximately as follows:

  • English: C1/A2
  • Mandarin: C1/B1
  • French: B2/A2
  • Spanish: B1/A1

I learned all of these languages at school, though English and Spanish were taught in my country by mostly non-native teachers. It is very obvious however that the discrepancy of my reading and speaking skill is too high, and I find it very difficult to improve my oral competence.

I'm sure one of the primary reasons is that I'm simply bad at language. From elementary school to high school, I was a typical math-guy and also good at memorization but struggled with literature. While I was teen, my math and social studies were usually +2 SD off the norm whereas language (both native and English), music and arts were below average. I was much better at rules, logics and reasoning than sympathy and communication. For English, I was only good at grammar and vocabulary.

Another reason is that I didn't start from pronunciation. For all of these languages I started from learning grammar and vocabulary, as they are much easier to study and far more fun. I could feel my progress every day, by gradually transiting from the easiest sentence to more complex articles.

But for pronunciation, there is no chance to "try it" unless you know enough vocabulary and grammar to speak and find someone interesting enough to talk with. So it is very difficult to keep motivated until reaching the point where I feel the usefulness of pronunciation training.

While I was in language school abroad, my reading was usually better than other students but my speaking was always the worst in my class. Although the class consisted of students with similar competence and we were learning the same thing at the same space, I felt that the gap was getting wider as the course progresses (the gap between "the gap of my reading and their reading" and "the gap of their speaking and my speaking"; in other words, my reading was getting better at a faster space than fellow students, and my speaking wasn't progressing as fast as others', and thus the gap was getting wider as the time progresses). I was usually the student who spoke the most in class.

But I have not met such people, both online and IRL. If there are any, it is rather opposite. As to the skip of pronunciation training it should apply to other learners as well, but I have not met other learners who struggle in the same way...

So how can I avoid that huge gap and make my skills more uniformed?

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The gap can be reduced in two ways: Improving oral skills or worsening literary skills.

That is probably the wrong question

To me it seems like you are good at learning to read and write. This is a valuable skill. I do not think you should be bothered by being good at it.

I also think you should not be bothered about the gap - the skills do support each other, and are all useful in and of themselves.

Rather, you should consider how to improve your oral skills to a satisfactory level, if they are inadequate at the moment. But, depending on your situation, it might also be that reading and writing are simply more relevant skills for you. Maybe you have learned, say, Icelandic, are happy to read books and participate in online chats, but have little opportunity or motivation to go there or to meet tourists in your own country. If you are motivated to learn the oral skills, certainly do so, but maybe you are happy without.

Some language learning sources put a large emphasis on oral skills. Consider your own priorities - maybe they match, maybe they do not.

Answer to the question itself

The easiest way is to read and write less. The most useful way is to learn how to speak and listen, and to practice those more.

Maybe you could try to find video or audio material about subjects that are of interest to you and simply expose yourself more to the oral language. All of the languages you list are big ones, so material on anything and everything should exist.

An addendum: You are not alone

I am also reasonably good at mathematics. I felt that I was not very good at languages, but that was mostly a matter of not practicing enough and the other subjects at school being very easy. I learn to read and write quite fast, but learning oral skills takes a longer time. The school system in my country used to not be very good at teaching oral skills, and I suppose this is still true of the school systems in many countries.

Some people simply have a better ear for sounds and languages (by practice or talent). Learning decent oral skills is not impossible; it might take more effort for some than others.

I have gotten over my language learning anxiety by simply doing it, and not worrying that I fail and make mistakes. Learning oral skills just takes practice.

  • Thank for the answer. Well I believe if you have the large gap it in generally less efficient to improve the language. In other words in order to reach a certain level, it is faster to improve the skills evenly. It is true that I should need more practice, but I always feel that even in my class my progress is slower, even though we practice the same amount of time... that's why I feel something is wrong with me. – Blaszard Jun 9 at 15:43
  • @Blaszard It is more useful to think of people as different and with different strengths than to compare oneself to others. You do not know how much the others practice, or what kind of practice they have done in their youth, etc. I would recommend meditation, self-help books, philosophy, and so on, if you are continuously comparing yourself to others and finding yourself wanting. – Tommi Brander Jun 10 at 12:24

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