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Language skills

We have said that our choice of language may depend upon the channel of communication. If we examine this concept more fully we can identify certain language skills that native speakers and competent language users possess.

Literate people who use language have a number of different abilities. They will be able to speak on the telephone, write letters, listen to the radio or read books. In other words they possess the 4 basic language skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing.

Speaking and writing involve language production and are therefore often referred to as productive skills. Listening and reading, on the other hand, involve receiving messages and are therefore often referred to as receptive skills.

Very often, of course, language users employ a combination of skills at the same time. Speaking and listening usually happen simultaneously, and are referred to as (oral form of) speech. People may well read and write at the same time when they take notes or write something based on what they are reading. Therefore reading and writing are referred to as written word(written form of speech).

We can summarise the 4 major language skills in the following way:

RECEPTIVE Listening and understanding Reading and understanding
PRODUCTIVE Speaking Writing

Of course, this is a very general picture of language skills. We should also identify a number of categories, or genres. The skill of writing will provide a good example of this, since clearly there are many different kinds of writing. Writing an informal letter is very different from writing a scientific report. Writing a poem means using skills that are different from writing a (travel) brochure – which is again very different from taking notes. These various categories can be summarised in the following way:




scientific travel informal note-taking poems,

reports brochures letters etc.

Different language users will obviously have different skills. In the first place, a large number of people cannot read and write. Secondly, education, training and occupation often determine the set of (writing) genres that any one person can operate in. The type of speaking skill that dealers on a stock exchange need is completely different from that of a teacher since they are dealing in different speaking genres. But whatever kind of category of skill language users deal with, they still need to possess both the main skill and a number of sub-skills, which we will look at next.