One of the most frequently asked questions in the ESL community is, ‘What is the most important skill/ability that an ESL learner can gain when studying the english language that will help improve their fluency?’
For example, is it most important for an ESL learner to gain fluency in conversational abilities? Or perhaps reading? Maybe writing?
Practicing Conversational English
The answer, if there is one, would be to hone your conversational and communication abilities. While some may be tempted to say, ‘They’re all important!’ – this is hardly a sufficient answer and one that does not present any inherent benefit for the ESL learner.
There are several reasons why conversational communication skills are most important for an ESL learner to obtain beyond reading and writing.
The Building Blocks of English Fluency
However, before we delve into those reasons, we must iterate that reading and writing skills are extremely important as well. Without these skills, it is virtually impossible to maneuver in an English-speaking country in the same way that a native speaker can, restricting one to a very limited life. We must also underline the importance of an english learner speaking what has been read, understanding it properly, and beginning to communicate with others about what has been absorbed through reading.
In regards to reading english, this is a major building block to building fluency in english. Many students may have a grasp of reading and understanding the english language before they are able to comfortably articulate it to others, whether they be other ESL learners, their teachers, or just people in general.
The trick is for the ESL learner to begin communicating what they have read as soon as they are comfortable doing so, assuming they have read, for example, a simple story (if they are currently at a basic level of reading, that is). This does not simply mean speaking about the content of the reading material, but also we are talking about having the ESL learner try to convey their thoughts about the material, and even their own feelings about how they felt while reading said material.
Here are 5 reasons to focus on conversational communication skills above all else:
#1 – Communication helps to express difficulties with learning material.
One basic problem that occurs in an ESL classroom setting is that some students do not grasp the material the same way as the others. This occurs at the level of comprehension. If an ESL learner doesn’t grasp the material, they may not be able to express that difficulty due to their weak communication skills. This is logical, of course, because if their comprehension skills are under-developed, their conversation skills are likely to be the same, if not poorer.
In fact, if their communication skills are very poor, the teacher might just assume that everything is fine with that student on the level of comprehension, when in fact they are lost and can’t express how they feel. This can be additionally frustrating for ESL learners, because their lack of fluency and communication skills are compounded because they don’t know the language. In other words, not only are they having trouble understanding what’s going on with whatever the teacher is saying or in the book they are supposed to be reading, but they don’t have the words to express it, making it that much worse for them. Hence, their issues can easily go unchecked.
Now that we’ve identified the problem, it makes sense to say it again – a premium must be put on teaching each ESL learner how to communicate out loud, as best they can. Some will be resistant, but once they are comfortable “complaining” about their issues (or at least addressing them), they will have more of an incentive to do so. In other words, we want them to complain, speak up, or otherwise express their feelings in words. This is part of the process of gaining fluency in speaking (the most important skill), and it will help them to articulate issues they are having when it comes to things like reading and writing.
#2 – The shorthand of the internet is no substitute for actual fluent conversation in english.
The above statement simplifies the situation, but it is actually fairly complex and worth thinking about. While social media and the meteoric rise of the internet has made written communication king again (in theory), verbal fluency is something that cannot and will not ever be replaced in any society, ever. And the internet, in all its glory, promotes laziness in many ways – especially with regards to communication. Language is often replaced by emoticons and broken english.
Also, the real world does not go away because people are on Facebook. There are just too many situations in where direct, face-to-face fluent communication is a skill that is an absolute necessity in order to ensure that the interaction is a fruitful one. While reading and writing are definite important skills in the English language, time constraints make verbal communication king.
For example, as a teacher in an ESL classroom, you may find that your students are fairly comfortable on the internet, communicating in their own language to people who speak that language as well. You may also notice that they’ve developed some form of “pidgin” or boiler plate form of english in order to get their message across. It happens all the time. In fact, even people who DO speak english no longer bother to learn their own language, because they just don’t think they need to!
While it should be encouraged to use any form of english in order to communicate, we want to promote fluency, not have our students “get by” with broken english or adopt the lazy way of speaking that many native english speakers use. We do not want to promote “shorthand” english, as a rule.
#3 – Verbal communication leads to excellent reading and writing skills.
Just as comprehension of reading material on a basic level eventually leads up the ladder to proper fluency, being able to speak in english does make you a better reader and writer. Obviously, fluency is a cycle and one thing feeds into another.
This is why it is significantly easier for someone that is skilled in verbal communication to acquire reading and writing skills than an individual that lacks this ability or skill. This is because, in order to verbally communicate with others, one must already have some knowledge of the fundamental aspects of the language such as verb tenses, conjugations, vocabulary and other nuances.
All reading and writing is doing is teaching an individual to replicate those same skills on paper and interpret the same language when it is in its written form. And, when learning these skills, using the communication abilities that the individual already possesses in the language will help significantly.
#4 – You can survive in an english-speaking society with speaking alone (if you had to).
While we do not recommend by any means that any ESL learner attempt to neglect reading and writing for the sake of just being able to speak and communicate verbally in English, if such is the case, then that individual is not completely ‘out of luck’.
In fact, if the only skill that one possessed out of all of the ones present in the English language, is the ability to communicate verbally, they would be able to at least maneuver in society to a large extent. If one were only able to read the English language without being able to communicate verbally, they would be in huge trouble if they were ever out and about and needed any sort of immediate help.
The individual might be in slightly better position if they at least had a firm command of the written language. However, there is nothing that would quite supplement one’s day-to-day’s efforts in the same way as verbal communication. Thus, verbal communication reigns king in this instance.
#5 – Verbal communication is performed most often.
As mentioned, most of the communication that takes place in society today is verbal. This is even in spite of the prevalence of cellular devices, the internet, and social media. While individuals do spend a significant amount of time on these mediums and there is also a wealth of information and news that is passed through, verbal communication is still something that is performed the most often.
Think about it – when you wake up and speak with your family members or friends, you are verbally communicating. You simply going to a store and checking out your items usually requires some form of verbal communication. Any other establishment, diner, or service-based shop that one visits also mandates that these skills be sharp as well. In this way, it is easy to see how verbal communication reigns supreme over the other two skills in the English language.
To reiterate, the most important skill in the English language that one can learn is verbal communication. Without it, one is essentially handicapped in any predominantly English-speaking society. This is not to say that reading and writing are not extremely important. This article is just a hypothetical to explain which, of the three English-based skills that were mentioned, an ESL learner should emphasize the most heavily in their overall studies.