The 4 Disciplines of Language Learning

We all want to learn new languages, but what does ‘learning‘ a language actually mean?

In order to successfully learn a new language it is important to understand that your overall language skills can be divided into four disciplines.

Language ability is often measured two parts – active and passive, and within those parts we can classify two other categories – written language and oral (spoken) language.

These categories give us the four disciplines of most languages – listening, reading, speaking and writing. 



Though this is how most languages work, not every language is the same.

Some languages only exist in one or two disciplines. For example, many dead languages such as Latin only exist in writing, while certain Native American or African languages might only exist as a spoken language.


Passive vs. Active

All four disciplines are interconnected, so when you are learning a new language it is important to strive for a balance between them. When you have reached a certain fluency when speaking a language your brain will automatically translate your linguistic knowledge to a different discipline.

Your passive abilities tend to come more easily than your active abilities. This is because (as the name probably gives away)  it simply takes less effort. Your brain is better at

However when you hear a word you know being used in a sentence together with the context your brain is much quicker in actually remembering the meaning of the word.

Even when you have never heard a word before the context can give away the meaning of the word.

People who speak languages that are related to each other (Spanish/Portuguese or Swedish/Norwegian) are often able to understand the other language passively, but might make more mistakes actively as they can easily confuse two similar sounding things.


Passive -> Active

Improving your passive skills will eventually lead to better active skills. To improve your active skills trying to learn grammatical rules is necessary, however if you spend enough time improving your passive skills you will end up getting a better feeling for the language.

Instead of having to think about which verb tense to use your passive skills might gift you with the abilities most native speakers of any language have – doing things right without knowing why. 


Active -> Passive

Passive language skills come in handy, but because your active abilities are often the most difficult to improve it is never a bad idea to focus on these. Reading a lot might help you in your writing but it won’t do the work for you.

In the end there is nothing that beats practise, so don’t be afraid to get out there and spend a little more time trying to improve your speaking and writing abilities.


How does this help you?

This information might not be new to you, but when learning a new language it is important to keep in mind which disciplines you are focussing on.

Knowing the four basic disciplines can help you make your language learning more efficient.

For example, watching movies and series in your target language is a well-known tool to improve your listening skills, but by also turning on subtitles in the language in question will not only support you in your listening abilities, but will also help you improve your reading skills.

Training both your listening and reading at the same time will make it easier for your brain to store this new information as it comes from not one but two sources.


Adapt to your goals

When learning a new language try and ask yourself what your goals are, and try to figure out what your weak points are.

If you want to learn a new language for the purpose of understanding what is being said around you, don’t focus all your efforts on trying to write.

Though in the end all disciplines are connected making sure your efforts are put into the right place.

How to improve

Here are some quick tools you can use to improve in each of the four disciplines.


  • Audiobooks
  • Movies spoken in target language
  • Listening to music


  • Books
  • Movies with subtitles
  • Reading newspapers


  • Chatting with native speakers
  • Finding pen pals


  • Speaking with native speakers
  • Reading out loud


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