What is the Skill-Building Hypothesis

The Skill-Building Hypothesis VS Comprehensible Input

The rival to the comprehensible input hypothesis for language learning (the one that I follow) is the skill-building hypothesis. The skill-building hypothesis of language acquisition theorizes that learners acquire language by learning grammar rules and memorizing vocabulary. Next, they combine their knowledge of grammar and vocabulary by speaking and writing. Learners refine their knowledge of the language be receiving feedback from a teacher or perhaps native speakers. Most Americans probably subscribe to some version of the skill building hypothesis. I do not think that this is because most people read the research on second language acquisition. Rather, I think it is just a default assumption.

What Happens in School

How do we learn most subjects in school? Teachers provide instruction in skills (multiplication, essay writing, volleyball) and then the students practice these skills. Most Americans learn a world language in school, so it is not unreasonable to assume that language learning happens the same way.

There are supporters of the skill-building hypothesis in academia. The research, however, time and time again shows that students learn better through receiving lots of comprehensible input (through listening and reading language that they can understand). A longer response to the skill building hypothesis is here.

Typical Language Classes

Most Americans should be skeptical of the skill-building hypothesis, even though the content to most language classes seems to be aligned to this hypothesis. Why? Because most Americans can barely string a sentence together in the language that they learned in high school. Most language classes are still a combination of explicit grammar instruction, memorizing vocabulary, and then asking students to eek out a few sentences to make sure that they are “learning.”

This dismal state of language fluency that students have after 4 years of high school Spanish should be enough to convince most people that there should be another way. It is likely, however, that most people don’t put that much thought into how language learning works. So when it comes time to learn another language, they just assume that there will be a textbook with grammar rules and lists of vocabulary.

How Are Lotus Chinese Learning Classes Different?

Classes at Lotus Chinese Learning are designed based on the idea that language is too complex to learn by learning grammar rules and memorizing words. There are plenty of books (like the ones mentioned here, here and here), but no textbooks. I also use the grammar that I need to use to express my meaning. I “shelter” words (that is, provide their meaning through pictures or English translations). In contrast, I do not shelter grammar. Think of how absurd it would be to only speak in the present tense to a young child! No parent would instinctually do that, and yet many teachers try to only speak to students in “simple” grammar. It is hard for the teacher to do, and frustrating for the students.

Unfortunately, I think that the skill-building hypothesis has its supporters by default. Learners think that language classes should be like other subjects in school. So they do not question it when teachers start lecturing about grammar and hand out a text book. Students, however, do learn better by getting lots of input in the target language, no textbook or grammar lesson required.

Interested in learning more about Mandarin Chinese classes at Lotus Chinese Learning? Use the contact page to get in touch.

Are There Four Skills in Language Learning?

What are the Four Skills?

When people talk about language classes, they often reference building up four skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. In the early days of Lotus Chinese Learning I used to talk about the language skills that my students would learn. I did this because I thought that was what people expected. While we often put our languages in the skills section of a resume or CV, language is not a skill. Language is a complex and abstract system. It is not a skill that you learn like knitting.

But wait! Many students say, language is a skill that you can learn. It is exactly like knitting. You learn the rules, then fill in sentences with the vocabulary words. Rules are great for textbook publishers, but they don’t adequately describe language. I promise you that you know more about English than what you could put in a textbook about English grammar.

picture of speech bubbles
Do we learn speaking as a skill in isolation from reading, writing and listening? I don’t think so.

Language is a Complex and Abstract System

Say that you want to paint your house. You paint it and decide you hate the color. Can you repaint your house? Yes, of course! Then, you go inside and you decide you hate how your living room looks, can you redecorate it? Yes, of course! Then, if you go into the kitchen and bake a cake that doesn’t taste good, can you rebake the cake? Nope! Reading that last sentence, I’m sure your brain protested the use of the word. I’ll bet $5* that no one ever taught you that you can’t use the word “rebake.” But you knew this anyway. That is what we mean when we say that language is more complex and abstract than rules in a textbook.**

Can We Work on Skills in Isolation?

Furthermore, it is not really that useful to separate language into the four skills or speaking, listening, reading and writing. This implies that in a language class, we spend some time working on our speaking, some time working on listening, some time reading and some time writing. This is not how a good language class works. Teachers should know that it takes a long time before students are really ready to speak the target language beyond a few words or phrases. This does not mean that they won’t be communicating from day 1. Rather, they will start with a few yes/no type responses, nodding, etc., before they are ready to speak in full sentences. Especially at the beginning, students need to spend far more of their time listening than anything else.

Language is too complex and abstract to be described as a skill. Speaking, reading, listening and writing are also not really discrete skills that students can work on in isolation. We learn to write from reading and listening and we learn to speak from listening and reading. A language is not a pie that you can slice into four equal pieces called speaking, listening, reading and writing.

One more thing

World language classes often also focus much of their “speaking practice” on presentational speech. Presentational speech is basically when students stand up in front of the class to talk about something. Students can often do fairly well at this, even when they are beginner or intermediate students. They can memorize chunks of speech and just get through whatever they have to do. We already know that memorization is not really language learning. But there is a different reason to do less presentational speech in a language class. The reason is that we don’t just do that much presentational speech in our lives. Teacher do lots of presentational speech… but everyone else, not so much.

photo of student at graduation
We just don’t make speeches like this one too often in our lives

*If you can honestly remember someone telling you that “rebake” is not a word, I will Paypal you $5. Email me.

** Hat tip to Bill VanPatten for inspiring this example