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?

2 Answers 2


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, 2019 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
    Jun 10, 2019 at 12:24

I think that recognizing your weakness is the first step to make up for it. There are four major skills involved in foreign language learning: reading, writing, listening and speaking. In your case, your Achilles’ heel is the latter, and it is fine as lots of people struggle with this skill because it involves many aspects of the language, from grammar and vocabulary to pronunciation and word stress, and all of them must be processed in a short period of time by your brain so that you can speak.

As Tommi has already suggested, you should focus more on improving your oral skills and spend less time on reading and writing (at least, spend more time on practicing your speaking). Also, the fact that you are very good at reading and writing may have led you to be more enthusiastic about them and, as a result, you ended up focusing on them while you needed to focus more on your speaking skills instead. Therefore, now that you have reached a high level for what regards your reading and writing skills, I can understand that you can feel disheartened, especially if you compare yourself with other people whose language skills are more uniformed than yours.

That being said, try to find some ways to gain some motivation and try not to give up. Even if you need more practice than other people in order to improve your speaking skills, so what? You’re better than them for what concerns other areas. Just do things your way, give yourself all the time you need to make the progress you want to make and don’t be afraid to make mistakes!

As for some tips to practice and improve your speaking skills, I’d start with listening to native speakers, for example through movies and tv shows (if you can’t understand at all what is going on and if there is the option to turn on subtitles, do it! Especially if subs are in your target language), videos, vlogs, songs (you can try and search for the lyrics), podcasts and audiobooks (it is even better if you have the text near you, especially at the beginning). This way, you can focus on pronunciation, word stress, intonation, word usage, and your brain will start to get accustomed to the language(s) in question, so much so that after some time it will be more natural to think in that language and this will benefit your speaking too. In the end, it is all about practice and perseverance, and it’s fine if you need some more than others do, since you have other strengths and you’ll reach your goals in the end.

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