Can English be learned simply through listening or reading?

Marian Herud


This myth is not so hard to dispel. It is quite understandable that’s when one wants to speak, one has to speak. If one only reads and listens, one will be very good at reading and listening. There is a lot of students that come to school complaining about the same thing “I understand everything, but I can’t say much.” The problem springs from the fact that people simply have nobody to talk to and they find it awkward to talk to themselves. However, interaction is one of the most important things in the process of learning language. Jacqueline Sachs and her colleagues (1981) studied the language development of a child they called Jim. He was a hearing child of deaf parents, and his only contact with oral language was through television, which he watched frequently. At the age of 4, he was below age level in all aspects of language producing unusual and ungrammatical expressions. After that he went to preschool and his abilities improved, and by the age of 6 all the language defects disappeared. The research suggests that impersonal sources of language such as television or radio alone are not sufficient. Even in children programs, where simpler language is used and topics are relevant to younger viewers, no immediate adjustment is made for the needs of an individual child. Once children have acquired some language, however, television can be a source of language and cultural information. (Lightbrown, Spada, 2009).

Back in the 80s Dr. Krashen claimed that one is learning only if he or she is given enough comprehensible input. And the input is subsequently followed by comprehensible output. But the catch is somewhere else. Speaking a language is to a large extent imitation. You imitate sounds, vocabulary and grammar. What needs to be realized is that speaking is a productive skill whereas listening and reading are the receptive ones. Logically, one has to receive to produce at least in language learning. So the thing is to find the sweet point when to start and “make” students speak, but they should only be made when they are ready.

What can teachers do?

Teachers should provide enough comprehensible input .

For any listening or reading activity there should be pre-listening and pre-reading task so students understand what they are doing and what the content of their exercises is. Students learn only if they understand. Not understanding stops students from learning.

Teachers should use effective interaction activities and get students talk about things they want to talk about.