Knowing vs. Speaking a Language

Speaking is so much a part of daily life that we take it for granted. Unless somebody is unable to speak due to some medical conditions, an average person produces tens of thousands of words a day and some people produce more than that. So natural and integral is speaking that we forget how we struggled to achieve this skill, until we have to deal with it all over again in a foreign language.

Scott Thornbury in his book, How to Teach Speaking, suggests that it is generally accepted that knowing a language and being able to speak it are not synonymous. Therefore, the statement She knows French does not necessarily mean she can speak fluent French. Consequently, in many ways, the teaching of second or any other languages has raised questions as if knowing and speaking was the same thing. It might be tempting to say that speaking a language might involve learning the grammar, learning some vocabulary, making sentences and pronouncing them properly.

According to Scott Thornbury this is reflected in generations of books on oral English, which, according to him, are just books on how to vocalize grammar (Thornbury 2005:1-10).

From my personal view, I have met and teachers very often meet students who study a language, they accumulate a lot of ‘up-in-the-head’ knowledge (for instance they might know rules of grammar and vocabulary) but then find that they can’t actually use the language properly and accordingly. There seem to be some hurdles in moving language from “up-in-the-head” knowledge to actively usable language; their “passive” knowledge is much larger than their “active” language. Without trying to experience the language, learners may tend to be nervous about trying to say something. Some of the reasons for not being able to utter some coherent and fluent sentences might be the fear of seeming foolish in front of others and it might simply take too long to “put the pieces” of communication together, leading to long embarrassed pauses and embarrassed friends looking at him/her.

However, researchers suggest that there is much more to speaking than the ability to form grammatically correct utterances and then to pronounce them correctly.

Thus, speaking is interactive and requires the ability to cooperate in the management of speaking turns. If students want to be able to speak fluently in English, or any other language, they need to be able to pronounce “phonemes correctly, use appropriate stress and intonation patterns and speak in connected speech.” (Harmer 2007: 248-263).

Speaking is a skill, and as such needs to be developed and practised. Speakers of English, especially where it is a second language, will have to be able to speak in a variety of different genres and situations, and moreover, need to be able to use a range of conversational and conversational repair strategies; they will need to be able to survive in typical functional exchanges, too (Harmer 2007: 343).

The Four Skills

Language skills are usually described in terms of four skills reading, writing, speaking and listening. Moreover, they are often divided into two categories: receptive skills that include reading and listening, skills where meaning is extracted from the discourse, and productive skills that include speaking and writing, skills where students have to produce language themselves. It has been considered that receptive skills are somehow passive, whereas productive skills are in some way more active. Even though there has been a long debate about the passive or active skills, it is certain that whenever we speak or write we are producing language and, thus there is a lot of language activation, but, on the other hand listening and reading also requires considerable language activation on the part of the reader or listener.

Language teachers argue that it makes no sense to teach each skill in isolation, as when a person is engaged in conversation, he or she is likely to listen as well as speak, thus using productive and receptive skills simultaneously. Therefore, if skill is multi-layered in this way, it would make no sense to teach each skill in isolation.

Eli Hinkel suggests that ‘in meaningful communication, people employ incremental language skills not in isolation, but in tandem’ (Hinkel 2006:113).

The input and output are strongly connected in the classroom as well as skill and language feed off each other in numerous ways. In other words, receptive skills and productive skills are interconnected. Within a classroom what our students say or write is strongly influenced by what they hear and see. Thus, the more valuable and comprehensible input, the more precious output. The input within a classroom may take different forms such as teachers themselves providing massive input, audio activities, reading texts that students are exposed to, etc. However, the students are in the position to provide the input and the output, too.

According to Harmer ‘when a student produces a piece of language and sees how it turns out, that information is fed back into the acquisition process. Therefore, the output, the students’ responses to their own output, becomes input’ (Harmer 2007:266).This type of input may take different forms, such as giving feedback to our own work, receiving feedback from people we are communicating with, teachers acting as prompters or offering ongoing support.

Integrating skills within a learning language context may provide maximum learning opportunities for different students, thus it makes sense to integrate different skills. Moreover, skill integration is a major art of teachers who plan for a sequence of lessons. Skill integration may take the form of a group project work which involves researching (receptive skills, reading and listening), discussing the ideas (productive skills, mainly speaking) and handing in the project which involves writing it.


  • Harmer, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching. Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, United Kingdom, 2007.
  • Harmer, J. Essential Teacher Knowledge. Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, United Kingdom, 2012.
  • Harmer, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching 4th Edition. Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, United Kingdom, 2015.
  • Harmer, J. Teacher Development Interactive, Reading, Student Access Card, Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, United Kingdom, 2008.
  • Harmer, J.  How to Teach English. Pearson Longman, 2007.
  • Harmer, J. Just Right. Middle East Edition, Cengage Learning, 2008.
  • Hinkel, E. Culture in Second Language Teaching and Learning. Cambridge Applied Linguistics, United Kingdom, 2006.
  • Thornbury, S. How to Teach Speaking, Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, United Kingdom, 2005.
  • Thornbury, S. How to Teach Writing, Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, United Kingdom, 2018.
  • Thornbury, S. How to Teach Grammar, Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, United Kingdom, 1999


prof. Ana Scrob

Liceul Teoretic Creștin Pro Deo, Cluj-Napoca (Cluj) , România
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