Teaching a language, I’ve come across many types of students. While they all have their own motivations, most of them are united by an innate need to “acquire a new ability.” This “ability” is socially praised and respected, so it is only natural that people are interested in joining this elite club of bilingual folk. It is believed that people who speak multiple languages have less trouble finding a job, enjoy traveling more, and can better appreciate foreign movies and books by consuming them in the original.

But what is it, exactly, to learn a language? Is language a skill like basketball or is it a type of knowledge—something more akin to memorizing Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements?

​​I decided to ask my students about their views on the matter.

Most of my students are adults studying English for work purposes. They are all highly qualified professionals with one or more degrees who make a fair amount of money per month; enough to afford a private tutor, at least. Nearly all of them told me that foreign language is a skill. But, is it? What do you think?

Let's take a closer look.

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino / Unsplash

What is knowledge?

My dictionary defines knowledge as (roughly) a familiarity with facts or information about something. This definition in mind, many early learners think that learning language is a matter of acquiring knowledge: just memorizing a bunch of vocabulary words and grammar points.

Having said that, there are multiple levels of knowledge.

  • Recognition entails being able to understand information that we’re presented with (seeing Buenos Aires, Argentina and acknowledging that it seems to be correct)
  • Cued recall involves pulling information out of your brain after being given a hint (seeing Bei… when prompted to name the capital of China, then filling in the blanks to get Beijing)
  • Free recall involves the ability to summon information from your brain even without a cue (being asked for the capital of Portugal and just knowing that it’s Lisbon off the top of your head)
  • (there are multiple types of knowledge, too)

As you might imagine, it’s much easier to attain the level of knowledge that lets you recognize information than it is to attain the level that lets you recall it. As such, many learners find themselves faced with an unexpected issue: they know the word conocimiento when they see it (knowledge in Spanish), but they can’t remember it when they’re having a conversation and want to use it themselves.

There are also limits to knowledge.

Knowing how an idea is expressed in one language doesn’t mean you know how it would be expressed in another language. We say rain is heavy in English, for example, but in Mandarin they say that it’s big. Word-to-word translations often end up being unnatural. While it’s grammatically correct to say that rain is heavy in Mandarin, no native speaker would actually say that.

While you do need to learn many words, grammar points, and sentence structures, that isn’t enough in and of itself. You also need to spend time in your target language in order to discover how native speakers phrase certain thoughts and navigate certain social situations.  

What is a skill?

The closest synonym to the word skill is ability; something that requires prior training and/or learning in order to do. If repeated for a continuous amount of time, skills become akin to reflexes, capable of being utilized without conscious thought. Even if we forget a once-acquired skill, it’s usually sort of like riding a bike — impossible to really forget. Additionally, skills are often combinations of several other micro-skills.

Let's assume that language is one of these holistic skills. What does one have to be able to do in order to use a language? The list doesn’t seem that long at a glance: write, read, speak, listen, and think.

But we can actually break down those skills even further. To give a few examples:

  • Writing a formal essay requires a different tone/register than a text message, and an informational essay should be structured differently than a persuasive one
  • Reading a book for enjoyment is different than reading a book with the intention to thoroughly understand it – and that’s different still than simply skimming an article to get the key ideas quickly
  • There are many different types of speaking, too – delivering a time-limited speech requires precision and efficiency, whereas participating in group discussions is essentially an exercise in navigating chaos
  • Listening can be passive (having music on in the background) or active (if I hear someone say if, I expect to hear a then later on in the sentence)
  • Even thinking is multifaceted – do you just go with the flow or strategize? Do you let your mind wander at bedtime or intentionally try to keep it quiet?

Learning a language is difficult because we have to reverse engineer a large amount of skills, many of which we take for granted and might not be actively aware of.

»You are leaving the american sector«. Berlin sign at Checkpoint Charlie before the fall of the wall in 1989.
Photo by Etienne Girardet / Unsplash

Why don’t we all become polyglots?

It's simple — languages aren’t simply things that can be known. Communication skills – which are often confused with “knowing a language” – do not appear on their own. They are either developed or acquired naturally after one uses a language for a considerable amount of time.

Unfortunately, many learners spend a lot of time learning about their language – memorizing conjugations, for example – but don’t actually spend a lot of time using their language. This is important because “hacking” language-related information like vocabulary and grammar rules will only take you so far.

To take that a step further: I personally find that the A1-C2 CEFR system is good for determining one’s knowledge of a language, but doesn’t really show how well you can actually use that language in a real-life setting.

Never mind memorizing a table of German’s declensions, even being able to recite Goethe in the original doesn't give you what it takes to make an order at a Berlin coffee shop. To learn to navigate real life scenarios, at some point you must navigate real life scenarios. Many students find that their ability to understand the language is disproportionately better than their ability to speak it, and that makes sense to me. To learn to speak a language well, you must speak it.

(Note: Of course, a lot of this comes down to your personal goals. If the only thing you want out of German is to read novels, developing your ability to speak isn’t as big of a deal.)


Where skill and knowledge intersect

The question arises, then, what is language proficiency if those CEFR levels only have an indirect relation to a learner’s actual abilities?

To me, language proficiency is the ability to express the same thought in different ways, according to the situation at hand. The words "dog" and  “pooch" have quite similar meanings, but the emotion behind each word is totally different. For a thought experiment, imagine you have to ask somebody for a bit of money. How do you phrase that request if the person in question is your mother? Your best friend? A school teacher? Your boss? A colleague? A stranger on the street? While the basic information communicated is the same in each of these scenarios (I need money), the request itself looks very different.

As such, language is a skill, but it's 100% backed up by knowledge.

Here are a few examples of skills that are necessary to use a language properly, but also difficult to develop without having the proper knowledge beforehand:

  • Communication skills are directly related to your ability to process and deliver information, whether that’s in your native language or a foreign one. They can’t be developed (let alone mastered) without a certain level of language proficiency, so you obviously need some baseline knowledge of your foreign language. Having said that, communication isn’t only about knowledge. Think about your friends and family members for a moment: they’re all native speakers, but some are better communicators than others. In other words, communication requires more than knowledge. It’s a skill, and skills can be developed.
  • Compensatory skills, such as that of circumlocution, are particularly important for navigating the intermediate stage.  This ability lets you communicate about certain topics even if you lack some of the key words that would normally be necessary to do so. For example, it doesn’t really matter if you know the word helmet so long as you can say the thing soldiers wear on their heads. There are tons of terms related to specific areas of knowledge, like medicine or computer science, and it’s just not possible to quickly learn all the vocabulary you might possibly need for any given scenario. As such, it is necessary to learn to deliver the same thought with different words, even if they’re not as direct or efficient. As my former German teacher liked saying, poor speech is better than rich silence.
  • Comprehension itself is also a skill to be developed. Despite our efforts, it simply isn’t possible to remember all of the words and expressions that exist. That’s fine. Even native speakers only get 99.8% of non-professional conversations, with that missing 0.2% of words being misunderstood or simply missed (perhaps there was static on the radio or somebody sneezed.) You can see which number of vocabulary words correlates to which percentage of text coverage here, or you can see this sample text to get a feel for what 80%, 95%, and 98% comprehension feels like. Being able to guess what unfamiliar words might mean is a crucial skill to develop—in other words, it’s important to develop the ability to make educated guesses about what, exactly, we might not have understand.

To conclude

Answering the question asked in the title: is knowing a language a skill or some type of knowledge?

It’s a form of knowledge that must be mobilized; knowledge we need to learn to access properly and efficiently. In my opinion, then, it’s knowledge that is disguised as a skill.

Need to learn a language fast?

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