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5 essential language skills

5 essential language skillsUniversity of Southampton modern languages student Elizabeth Grant introduces five key skills all language learners need for success. Read on to find out more. 

Inference and Deduction

These mean the ability to make an informed guess from the surrounding context. You may not understand every word in a sentence, but you can work out the meaning of a particular word by drawing on the surrounding words. Likewise you may not understand everything someone is saying in a foreign language, but you can probably work out what they are trying to communicate from their hand gestures, facial expression and tone. Inference and deduction also include the ability to recognise a word’s function if not its meaning. For instance, a word ending in ‘–ion’ is usually a noun. Many words with a Latin, Greek and even Germanic root are similar (e.g. Passion, Passion, Pasiòn, Passione, Paixão). Learners with these skills normally ask for the definition of a word as a last resort- they exhaust all their other options before asking someone what something means.

Critical and Creative Thinking

Language is an ever-changing, ever-evolving phenomenon, so you need to be able to think creatively and critically in order to understand and manipulate it. This means not just swallowing whatever you are told without questioning it. When you are presented with a new grammar rule, do you just note it down and move on to the next topic? Or do you think of how you could use it in a variety of contexts, how rules may change depending on the situation, where this construction would be appropriate, what paradigm it relates to in your mother tongue or any other languages you speak? It is just as important to understand the difference between what is taught as ‘correct’ and what is actually used by native speakers in authentic contexts, and can draw on these differences to enhance your use of the language.

Cultural Awareness

A language learner needs to appreciate that language represents the people who speak it. They need to have some knowledge of the current situation and history of other countries, in order to understand how language is used and how it has evolved. This makes your learning experience more complete, particularly because a lot of materials and classroom activities are based around current and historical events.

Build on previous knowledge

A good language learner should draw on any other languages they know to infer, deduce, construct and reproduce the target language. This can be for grammatical purposes (determining gender- what’s feminine in French is probably feminine in Spanish; selecting tenses- ‘estaba’ in Spanish and ‘estava’ in Portuguese are used in the same way) or for spelling, punctuation and word order. They must also build on previous things learned in the target language e.g. how are the simple past and the simple continuous used in conjunction with each other and other tenses.


As well as building on previous knowledge, language learners must also be able to treat each language as a separate entity. Each language has different constructions, structures, norms and etiquette, and represents different peoples and cultures. It is important to understand that what you can say in your mother tongue (e.g. ‘I think that…’) may work directly translated into some languages (e.g. ‘Je pense que…’) but not others (e.g. ‘Yo creo que… v.s Yo pienso que… Which sounds more natural?). This ability will move the learner away from relying on direct translation and allow them to begin to think and reason in the target language.  

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