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Final Thoughts (for now) on the Four Function Diagram


I don’t really like the term “final thoughts” as it sounds as if I am planning to stop thinking afterwards, or maybe stop existing altogether, which I am certainly not considering if I can help it, however I do need, as Victor Berrjod kindly reminds me, to round this off, hence the title.

Let me just get a coffee, this could be a longish article, maybe you would like one as well?

Right, let’s continue. The story so far is that we’ve divided the things or activities that you can do in a language, be it counting, swearing, praying, reading the paper, watching TV, learning the songs of the language or filling in a visa form or a job application into four basic types or functions, as shown in the above table:

1. Reading
2. Writing
3. Listening
4. Speaking

Just about anything you can do in a language bases on one or more of these four functions.

Take a moment if you like to see of you can think of any activity involving language that is an exception, and by all means tell me in the comments. Personally I could not think of any exceptions.

We’ve also considered that for one pair of these functions, listening and reading, the learner is on the receiving end of polished language and therefore is able to use his or her passive knowledge to engage in the function and its related activities. Listening is more challenging than reading because the user has less ability to control the speed, although there are instruments available based on developing listening skills where you can control the pace of listening. We talked about audio courses where you have your pause button, and another good one is Audible where you can buy audiobooks in other languages and set a slower narrator speed, or a higher one in order to develop ‘listening fluency’. However, in the main, for the passive pair as long as a word is known passively the learner will not be put off his or her stride by reading or hearing it as they will be able to recall its meaning when it is given in the language much easier than when he or she needs to generate the expression and knows it passively, but is not in an active state, and the mind goes blank.

Conversely, we’ve recognised that the other pair of functions, speaking and writing, are ones in which we the learner are called upon to generate the learned language and not just fluently recognise meaning and stay with the flow of the presented foreign language material. This represents an additional challenge but one essential to get to grips with sooner or later if you want to SPEAK the language. We are always hearing the term “what languages do you speak?” rather than which can you read, listen to with understanding or even write in. Now more than ever nobody seem to be all that impressed by the ability to write in a foreign language – unless they actually watch you forming calligraphic kanjis with your hand – because things like Google Translate are available. And even though in the main the Google Translate users do give themselves away pretty quickly, seeing that the quality of that service is not yet all one might be led to expect, nevertheless sometimes quite convincing written language comes at you over the internet from people who don’t really know the language in question at all. They are having fun, but it also serves to undermine the value placed by the online community on written foreign language skills and so now, more than ever, the gold standard is really what you can speak.

Despite this, in fact speaking is going to be a small minority of the activity you do in any language, foreign or native. You will listen to at least ten times what you say, just as you will read at least ten times more than you write, even if you are given to speaking and writing a good deal, as in my case.

This means that even though your actual need is to perfect the two functions at the top of the diagram, the passive functions of reading and listening, ten times more than the active functions in the lower row of the box, your perceived need will be to get to speaking as quickly as possible. This is like a baby coming out of the womb. Nobody says a word to this baby, in the old days there was a little smack from the doctor or midwife to get the lungs going, but smacking children is considered child abuse now, so they just get given an injection with mercury in it instead, which is much kinder, apparently, and they immediately start, unsurprisingly, to bawl and yell and scream. They cannot use any words of the language they will one day speak, because so far all they have heard of it has been muffled beyond recognition by the walls of their mother’s abdomen, but still they want to communicate orally their feelings of discontent at being brought from the comfort of the womb into an imperfect world, and I for one will not blame them.

So we understand intrinsically the drive to get on to the skill at the bottom right of the Four Function Diagram, but it is probably clear by now that we need to begin by focusing on the other parts and working towards the ultimate function of speaking.

Of course, we can if we choose start speaking at the first lesson, and if we go to language classes that is precisely what the teacher will encourage us to do, knowing full well that students are dying to get talking, and so they go around the class getting every one to say “Guten Tag” while everyone else waits, wasting their learning time until it is their turn to parrot the two words under advisement, but making a very comfortable few dollars for the teacher who is not doing the bulk of the work, and the promise of more to come as the teacher is playing to the unspoken demand of the student to be able to speak.

These teachers, of course, remind me of the doctors who prescribe anti-biotics for common viral diseases when people turn up in their surgeries expecting them. It is easier for them to pander to the expectation of the masses rather than educate them and stand firm. After all, you don’t get to be a medical doctor in most places without knowing that anti-biotics aren’t going to work on viral infections. Neither are most doctors, hopefully, ignorant of the fact that over-prescription of anti-biotics is accruing a serious biological threat to our whole species as we are basically turning many patients into walking laboratories for the production of what the gutter press call “super-bugs”, namely strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, which developed in someone who had already been taking all the usual available prescriptions just in a vain attempt to heal their colds and flu, and these bacilla have come to regard augmentin or doxycycline as Brer Rabbit regarded his bramble patch.

Similar the teachers who teach language in an ineffective way through pandering to the expectation to speak precociously, they are not doing society any favours either. Maybe they won’t be morally accountable, unlike weak doctors, for the next world epidemic of bubonic plague, but they do create swathes of people who cannot ever pass a certain unsatisfying point in language acquisition and who invariably put their lack of success down to their own “lack of gift” and not on the inadequate method employed by the teacher.

And of course many language teachers are using these methods in good faith, not knowing that there are better ways. I seriously hope many of them are reading these articles. I aim to do good to them as much as to their pupils.

The method I am talking about is something however that teachers may well regard as disruptive technology, though as it means that teaching needs to become more method-coaching rather than the delivery of words and other linguistic chunks to the classmates as a mother bird feeds its nestlings with regurgitated worms and other nutritional chunks.  The “mother bird” language teacher gives the fledgling students ill-fated lessons in flying before they really have wings to flap, by making them flap their chins in a never-ending quest for activation of a body of passive knowledge that can never be more than what was covered in the last two weeks – because short-term memorisation was all they ever used in a classroom context.

Classroom learning can be a nice social activity, a motivator to work inbetween class and a place to ask questions arising from the work that the learner does for himself or herself away from the classroom, with the teacher as team coach and mentor, not mother bird.

If you are away from the classroom, on your own and reading and writing for yourself, reading a book or writing the goldlist, you can control how fast you want to do it, therefore you can be relaxed and therefore you can more easily get into a state where the subconscious, long-term memory is the default information pantry and not the conscious memory, which switches on in states of nerves or stress and which remembers in a short-term way, recycling its hastily constructed synaptic pathways after only two weeks.

The unconscious memory may only sample 20-30% of what you cover and place in the short-term memory if it is activated, but then it will keep it for decades whereas the short term memory loses pretty much everything after two weeks. 100% of 2 is much less of course than 20% of 1,000, so a preference to use the long-term memory methods and avoid the short term memory methods should be a no-brainer for all of us.

Should be.

The problem is of course that people want to be able to speak and listen, they want to be able to rely on their language knowledge in real life situations, and so people want to get to the point where they can speak at will. And language classes seem geared around the getting of students to speak phrases and be able to engage in conversations, as well as getting the students to repeat a lot and rote learn. All of these ways are short-term memory ways, they encourage the learner to feel as though he or she is making faster progress but it will prove to be an uphill struggle as the learner is always fighting against his two-week barrier, and later on blaming himself and not the teacher’s method for the fact that not much gets retained after class.

Those of you who are paying attention will have noted that the last few paragraphs were copied almost verbatim from the earlier part, but that is because this is so important and central that I wanted you to read it again, especially seeing more than two weeks have elapsed since I last wrote it.


Anyway, onwards and upwards.

Let’s now introduce the full version of the Diagram – if you’ve been following Huliganov.TV, you’ve seen this before. In a Brechtian manner I actually showed this before even starting the series of articles, so maybe you know what is coming. I know for a fact that some of you do.

Here we see two routes going from what we have established as the least stressful (and therefore most conducive to long-term memory) function of reading to the desired gold standard function of speaking.

Let me say immediately that these routes are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary you need both. You probably need – unless of course you are studying a language which is no longer spoken, such as New Testament Greek or Volapük (just to combine the sublime with its Napoleonic counterpart) – to be able to listen comfortably to the language and you probably need – unless you are someone who never writes in their own language either – to be able to write the language in addition to being able to speak it.

You probably noticed that there’s now a black diamond in the middle of the diagram. This means that we are not really considering routes that go directly from reading to speaking. There is of course one such activity and it is a mainstay of traditional education, even in our first languages, namely reading aloud. But in the way we’ve defined reading and speaking, namely that speaking is an active function requiring the learner to produce the language and under time constraint (namely set by the patience of the hearer) and that reading is a passive function without time constraint, all that reading aloud is, is in fact an elaborated version of reading. What you are doing in most cases when reading aloud is little more than when reading in your head except you will tire quicker and annoy people who are trying to watch television.

Does this mean that reading aloud is without value? No, I think that there are contexts when reading aloud can have value, namely the following scenarios:

So I hope nobody will misconstrue the diagram as saying there is no place for reading aloud. I just don’t think that it will be effective to spend a large swathe of the time needed to learn the language doing so, especially not at the earlier stages. It maybe a fun activity going forward, from intermediate to advanced. The other thing to note is that you can’t really give people in YouTube comments the kind of feedback which is going to really give them a convincing accent. That sort of thing is illusory. All it can do is point out the biggest areas to work on.

Likewise the route between listening and writing is blocked in the Diagram by the black diamond, but that doesn’t mean there is not a useful activity that goes exactly in that direction. There is. Namely dictation. This activity many of my older readers will remember the dictée from even intermediate level French and given the disparity between pronunciation and orthography in that language it is in fact a great teaching tool for the language, and useful for the classroom if done in a spirit of fun. Even Jonah Takalua became a fan of dictation in a spirit of fun in the classroom.

Similarly many other languages use the technique as part of their national education system. Chinese needs such an exercise for obvious reasons and the 听写 or tīngxiě is something that occupies an important place in their classroom time. Likewise the Polish dyktando, which in true Polish style becomes a national competition for schoolkids of that country like the American spelling bea. Polish of course has more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to a number of their sounds, and monstrosities like “mug zjeść japko” for “mógł zjeść jabłko” need to be hunted down and exterminated somehow, and the wiećmin for this cathartic process is primarily the dyktando.

If you think having a national dictation contest for kids is a fun idea, the Dutch have taken that one stage further – they have an annual “Grand Dictation of the Dutch Language” which is for adults, and televised. They really seem to be a factory of reality shows, that nation. One day some bright spark will come along and combine all the formats they made and we will all be able to watch people writing down what other people are singing while waiting for chairs to turn around in a remote house infested with hidden cameras recording 24/7.

Some languages like Russian or Italian need this activity less. At school I remember far fewer of the German “Diktat” than the bi-weekly dictées we had for French. Maybe the Germans have simply had their fill of dictators, I wouldn’t like to say, but more likely is that the process has a bit less to offer in the learning of this language. However, when I joined the language faculty of Cambridge University the first thing they did was to check our starting knowledge of the languages with an oral exam and a dictation test. And I remember the one they gave us in German to this day, thirty years on. That is, the one small phrase I remembered from it “meist reiht sie als Chronistin” (which had me and most of us flummoxed) was enough to find the whole on Gutenberg.  It was the first two paragraphs of Stefan Zweig’s “Sternstunden der Menscheit” which you can find here. Try it out on someone who knows German if you want to put them through their paces.

However, relying a lot on dictation even for the languages which are not phonetic is not going to be a core activity. You need a good speaker there, teacher or friend, to give you the dictation, although maybe the opening exists for dictation to be given automatically on the internet and I dare say that skilled users of Steve Kaufman’s LingQ can get it to work effectively as a dictation tool, since all the texts are read and the system even encourages you to listen first. Still it will be an occasional activity rather than a core activity, I suspect, and the other thing is that if you go in that direction you are strengthening both listening and writing, which is good, but not actually per se moving towards speaking. However as I will show in a minute anything which strengthens listening and writing will automatically work in favour of speaking.

But first I need another coffee. And so may well you also.


One of the routes from the easy language acquisition function of reading to the ultimate challenge of speaking goes via listening and the other via writing. For convenience’ sake, I will call these the Listening Route and the Writing Route respectively.

In the Listening route, we are still in passive reception of the language as we were in reading, but we are moving up to a natural speed in the language. We are starting to get comfortable with the fact that we cannot always control the speed of delivery as we could when reading. It is of course true that when reading a lot we will gradually get faster and faster, and maybe in the end faster than we could possibly speak clearly or even listen clearly, but this in itself won’t necessarily help us develop the natural delivery speed required for normal conversation.

Now as I said earlier, tools like the pause button on audio courses and the variable narrator speed in Audible all enable us to control the speed of delivery of the listenables but they should be regarded as bridging tools. You want to achieve the situation where you can listed to a news broadcast or documentary and have the same information transfer as the native speaker who listens to the broadcast. And this can indeed happen far faster than you will be able to generate your own spoken language in a manner indistinguishable from a native speaker (which actually may never happen given that accent may get in your way, but that actually doesn’t matter in the final analysis unless you are planning to be a spy or work in an extraordinarily intolerant environment) and is an important milestone on that journey, if such journey indeed be your quest.

As we discussed before, reading is wrapped up in listening anyway since even when reading not aloud, we get the voice of the reader or speaker mentally. Listening to more voices and more material enhances this in our reading, and so the two activities feed each other in a virtual circle.

However, listening remains a passive function and therefore doesn’t help us bring in the active side which is what we are going to need if we mean to move from the comfort of acquiring language by reading into a situation where we can also speak. This is where the Writing Route comes in.

When engaging in producing your own written sentences in the language you generate linguistic material actively, but you still have the time to reflect, to recall without stress words you know passively, to look up the words you cannot recall and then encounter them for the first time or realise that you did know that word but couldn’t put your finger on it, strengthening the synapse there, and to put together these words with the grammar you learned and hopefully apply the rules correctly. This all takes time and when writing rather than speaking you have the time, and there is your attempt in black and white, or any other ink colour you may select. But select your ink colour with care, because the Writing Route works much much better when someone else will correct your attempt – hopefully someone who is literate in the language in question, which seems to be increasingly less common around the world, I have to warn you.

Here is of course where the teacher comes into his or her own, but as you can see that is not a technique that makes a great deal of sense too early on in the learning process. Unless one has at least 2000 words, one is condemned to writing really stilted and uninteresting things. Of course, up to that time you have practice questions, and for those in their first inflected languages they had proabably better do some of the practice sentences in their courses to make sure that they have really understood the grammar points being covered, and the most helpful of these example sentences should be Goldlisted in order to commit them and the grammar points they illustrate into the long-term memory.

But writing one’s own compositions is of greatest value once one has covered the grammar and has a vocabulary and has also got used to reading a lot, so as to be aware of the various styles and registers used in the language. Register issues will come out well on writing a composition for a native teacher to correct. Beginners often mix highly formal styles with low register, and it is considered a mistake unless they are actually aware of what they are doing, and even then it is of questionable taste. Whilst this is perfectly admissible in the hands of a native who is manipulating his own written language for an humorous effect to be attained to by the juxtaposition of contrasting styles, ones advice to the non-native learner is that you don’t wanna play dat way no way, no how, blood.

The obvious problem with the Writing route is that you do need a teacher of the right standard to get the best out of it. But teachers who are reading this and thinking that I really have it in for them may well be relieved to see I am recommending something they can usefully do. If availability or price of such tuition is a problem, then there are discussion groups all over the internet, some of which exist specifically (take Russian Chat or English Chat on Facebook as examples) as fora for learners to write something in the language they are learning and opt to have friendly natives or at least more advanced learners give corrections to their attempts.

And you do learn very well that way. It doesn’t seem to be something that triggers just a short-term memory effect. As long as you treat it as fun it will be a good way to move from reading to speaking.

Just writing for one’s own benefit is a good way to get used to the language, especially ones written in other alphabets or writing systems, but reading back a Russian diary I did (there were no Russians in England in those days so this was a good way to keep secrets, such as the things my first girlfriend and I had been getting up to) back at 16 years of age I can see that there are many mistakes in it which I would only come to understand in the passage of time unless someone read it (and I wasn’t about to show anyone that diary). Writing without a reader who gives feedback is not altogether without benefit, but gives far less benefit. The exception of course is the writing you are doing in the Goldlist, but at least at Headlist level this is merely the writing out of words and phrases supplied in the material you are learning, which is passive. Later on in distillations you can make combinations turning words into small sentences, and this is already a bit more active than passive.

It should be clear that if a person has used the techniques of listening to enhance reading and has got listening up to speed so that the bulk of things that can be read can also be listened to and understood at normal speed, and also a person has got used to emulating the reading done with original language of one’s own (I am not talking about becoming a Conrad or Nabokov here, creating belles lettres in a language one has acquired, which is really a higher school we cannot all aspire to, but at least understanding how to use different registers and becoming accurate in ones use of semantics and grammar) then one has now all the necessary ingredients to be able to fill in the bottom right part of the Diagram and be able to speak. So now it is a question of going ahead and doing it. Once again, in order to speak, you tend to need a second person or more than one other person involved in the process, and unlike with writing they may be more unwilling to correct you – either because they think it is rude or because it interrupts the flow of the content of what you are saying, which may well be important to the person you are talking to, and they prefer to hear what you have to say rather than interrupt it. Of course in the latter case it means you have pretty much made it anyway, you are just dotting verbal i’s and crossing verbal t’s.

Another issue with speaking is the fact that often natives are reluctant to let you even do it. The reasons for that and various things you can do about it are outlined in a recent video of mine. Enjoy.

And with that I think I just about exhausted the things I want to say for now about this Four Function Diagram. Hope you found that useful and please comment on your experiences, or ask questions if I didn’t cover something. As a final note don’t get too hung up about speaking – it is the function of the four which you actually need least. If you can do the other three you may get by with not doing the fourth at all and still know the language better than a native speaker. There are plenty of people who don’t speak any language because they have lost their vocal chords, but they can get by with writing and they have just as much right to be called a speaker as those who speak so much everyone simply wishes they would shut up.

And on that note, I’d really better finish!

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