Oral skills at the top of language knowledge. Yes or no? Debate report by Mariia Bilyk and Lucia Antonia Dino Guida

Nowadays multilingualism has grown extremely important and knowing a language other than your mother tongue can open up new horizons. Many people study foreign languages but what skills are the most important? We tried to answer this question in our class debate, which focused on whether oral skills can be considered as the most important component of language knowledge, a rather thorny issue for all those who are learning foreign languages or simply wish to.

In order to support their thesis, the group arguing in favour of oral skills as the most important component of language knowledge argued that these skills are the first skills developed by children, and writing comes second. By describing various teaching approaches  and theories this group made the point that the most productive way of learning a language and removing fears is through conversation. They referred to an example of learning Latin in this way. They also argued that oral abilities are the only part of the mental process using long-term memory. So going to live abroad and being in contact with foreign native speakers were presented as things that could improve language proficiency in a way grammar and reading can’t. All the speakers of this group provided evidence for what they were maintaining, making it even more interesting to see the reasoning they wanted to lead the audience towards.

The opposing team was no less combative. By presenting various theoretical aspects of language learning, they advocated that all language skills should be considered as equally important. They argued that reading and writing are based on grammar study and vocabulary which are the main starting points for learning a foreign language. They also mentioned the Cambridge English proficiency test and the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which are both based not only on oral components of language but also on reading and writing skills. This group believed that universities tend to privilege writing skills. As part of the audience, we found it very interesting how this group managed to offer evidence for each point they made.

During question time, the two teams had to fight tooth and nail in order to defend their own thesis. While the against group clarified its position, the for group had to answer a couple of tricky questions that challenged the likelihood of learning languages very far from our mother tongue, like Chinese or Arabic, just by surrounding yourself with native speakers. The for group argued that in such cases, listening to native speakers and trying to reproduce sounds and understand meaning are the most natural ways not only to acquire the ability to speak but also to truly know the language, even if being in a foreign context may scare you.

It was a hard decision to make but in the end the against group triumphed.

We personally think that all language skills deserve to be improved simultaneously. This is why learning a foreign language is tough and involves a lot of mental activity. As Abraham Lincoln said: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubts”.

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