- Listening (passively watching TV or movies)
Language proficiency tests generally provide different grades for each of these four competencies. Each has different advantages and each presents different challenges. Although my personal focus is on reading, I still think it's important to be proficient in all four skills. I'll discuss each in turn briefly, summarizing the benefits, challenges, and available resources for each.
Reading opens up a whole world to you. You can read the literature that helps define a culture, you can read their newspapers and see how they view the world. You can read whenever you feel like it--no need to travel anywhere or get anyone else to cooperate. Reading doesn't require any sort of accuracy in pronunciation, and it tolerates a surprising amount of grammatical ignorance. (For example, a poor grasp of Spanish verb forms can be overcome simply by having a good idea of who is speaking and when the action is taking place.) A reader has all the time in the world to look up new words and can even search the web for more information, if need be.
Reading requires a huge vocabulary. Unlike writing, you don't get to pick the words. Unlike conversation, you don't get to ask questions. Reading novels may take three times the vocabulary of any of the other three skills.
The best resources for reading in a foreign language are the online newspapers like El País, Le Monde, and Corriere della Sera and (for books) Amazon.com, which sells countless cheap foreign-language books for the Kindle.
Writing really exercises your command of the language. Unlike conversation, you can take your time and get it right. It lets you practice areas of grammar where you're weak. If you are interested in a job overseas, writing ability is absolutely critical.
There is little real point in writing unless there is someone around to read what you write. People are much less tolerant of writing errors than they are of speaking errors.
The best site I've found for writing practice is Lang-8, where you can get native speakers to review your attempts to write in their languages. All you have to do in return is review their writings in English.
Like reading, listening opens up new cultures to you. Watching a movie or a TV show, you can take advantage of visual clues to figure out what's being said. You can sometimes understand a show without following more than half of what's actually said. You get exposed to a variety of different speaking styles, which will make conversation easier.
It can be very discouraging to listen to five or ten minutes of a show without understanding a single word. The people often talk very fast, in accents you're not familiar with, in dialects you're not familiar with, and there is no way to ask them to "explain that" (although replaying the same bit a few times can help). You cannot use the dictionary to look up words if you didn't understand what was said in the first place.
There are a number of good online resources to help foreigners get an ear for listening to TV. The important thing is to get access to video with transcripts in the target language. For French, I have found Apprendre la français avec TV5MONDE to be really outstanding. For Italian, In Italia is helpful. For Spanish, I haven't found anything better than Destinos, which is really meant to accompany a college textbook.
Being able to converse in a foreign language lets you awe all your friends and family who cannot. It can make a visit to a foreign country much more comfortable and fun. If you have coworkers from other countries, it can improve your ability to communicate with them. And it exercises all of your abilities at once.
On the other hand, it's almost useless if you don't ever go anywhere. Even if you do take a vacation abroad, you're unlikely to spend much of your time chatting with the natives--especially if you're travelling with friends and relatives who don't speak the language. Practicing with coworkers presents a different challenge: unless you're very careful, you'll insult them by leaving the implication that their English is inadequate. Even if you avoid that, you may irritate them if your speaking ability is too low. It's easy to be discouraged from even trying with someone whose English is very, very good.
There is no way to practice conversation without finding real people to talk to. I have had great success with Meetup, which lets people organize groups for all manner of activities. Here in Seattle, I have a choice of two different Spanish groups per week, a couple of French groups that alternate weeks, and a number of Italian groups that average four or five meetings per month. This lets me get anywhere from five to ten hours of conversation practice per language per month.
Time and Immersion
Most authorities feel that the strongest factor contributing to language-learning success is simply the number of hours you invest in it. You learn a useful amount with just 100 hours of effort. Fluency (depending on what one means by the term) takes more like 1,000 hours. That said, I think the way you spend those hours does make a big difference, especially at the higher levels. I'll discuss that in greater detail in future posts.
On a final note, I often meet people who confidently proclaim that the best way to learn a foreign language is to just immerse yourself in it and let nature take its course. If you are a child, this really will work. If you're a teenager 16 or under, it is likely to work, especially if you do a few things to help it along. (You at least have a chance.) But if you are an adult, naive immersion really won't work at all. You must have some organized program of study, and you must reach a certain level of proficiency before you attempt an immersion experience. A well-planed immersion, though, can make an enormous difference--even for an adult. A one-month immersion amounts to 500 hours of particularly intense study, after all.