What skills should we teach as language educators?
Traditionally, four macro skills form the backbone of any good language syllabus: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
However, a skill that claims to be the ‘fifth skill’ pops up every few years. The contenders I’ve seen are:
(If you’ve heard of any more, please let me know!)
Language macro and micro skills
Before we look at these, let’s agree that language learning and teaching are strange fields of study.
I say this because there's still no universally accepted 'best' way to learn or teach a foreign language (although plenty of strong opinions exist). As a language teacher, this is incredibly frustrating, so I'm always looking for anything to improve my craft.
And that's where breaking a language into its components (skills and knowledge) can help us be better teachers.
Linguistically, language breaks down into five components (phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics).
We traditionally get the four macro skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) and three areas of knowledge (vocabulary, grammar, and phonology). Contained within these are countless micro-skills, such as skimming and scanning for reading or shadowing for speaking.
But is this everything we need to learn a language? Imagine if you were learning a language and suddenly perfected all four macro skills overnight - would you be able to operate fluently in a foreign country with no issues?
That's where candidates for a fifth macro skill come in. Let's have a look at the candidates.
1. Culture as the fifth skill
Culture, or 'intercultural competence', is the idea that even high-level language speakers can miscommunicate if they don't understand cultural norms. I remember a Chinese friend telling me not to be so polite and to stop saying please and thank you - polite was something you were with strangers, not friends or family.
Knowing cultural norms allows students to be more successful at whatever they're trying to communicate. This is especially true for nuanced social situations where direct speech can be misunderstood. I've definitely noticed that students from low-context cultures need support to successfully navigate social situations with high-context cultures (and vice-versa).
I agree that teaching culture becomes more necessary the higher the students' level. Once students have a choice about how to say what they want, intercultural competence can help them choose the best way to say it.
2. Grammaring as the fifth skill
Dianne Larsen-Freeman defined ‘grammaring’ as the fifth skill in her book, 'Teaching Language from Grammar to Grammaring'. She described it as "the ability to use grammar structures accurately, meaningfully and appropriately" and as something that grows organically rather than as a fixed body of knowledge.
The idea of grammaring encourages us to look at grammar differently - to see it as a skill we use when we are using the target language. An example of this would be the choices we make when we choose which structure we want to use.
The issue I have with grammaring as the fifth skill is that it is more of a viewpoint than a set of practical techniques.
It is helpful to make learners aware of grammatical choices, but only once they've reached a reasonably high level. Even then, teaching it seems optional, as learners would absorb the intricacies of language choice from the enormous amount of language exposure they'd need to get to that level. I dare say that many of the differences are also cultural, so there would be a lot of overlap with ‘culture’.
3. Translation as the fifth skill
Translation (and interpretation) is the art of converting meaning and nuance from one language to another. It’s not easy. You must deeply understand the source and target languages (and often the cultural context) to convey meaning and tone accurately.
Unfortunately, the old-fashioned 'grammar-translation method’ gave translation in the classroom a lousy reputation. As a reaction, translation was ejected from most language classrooms in favour of more communicative methods. This is a shame, as a bit of translation can go a long way. It can deepen understanding of the target language and give an appreciation of cultural differences.
However, it doesn’t seem essential enough to be called a fifth skill. Again, students are likely to translate independently when needed, without explicit instruction.
4. Viewing as the fifth skill
‘Viewing’ means understanding and being able to analyse visual media, like videos, diagrams, photos, and so on.
Personally, I’m not convinced. It may be that I don’t have a deep enough understanding of viewing, but it seems to simply be using visual prompts to help understand language (spoken or written).
Don’t learners do this anyway?
When we watch a movie clip, we watch the body language of the people speaking or the background to give us context. It seems to me that it’s a skill that learners already have and can do in their L1, and there’s no reason why the transference to L2 wouldn’t be extremely high already.
If a student can read a graph in their L1, is there any need to teach them in their L2 after you’ve taught them the specific language they need to decode the axes?
As a language learner, it would feel like a waste of time if I learned this in class.
5. Mediation as the fifth skill
Mediation refers to the skill of adjusting the message for the listener.
Mediation involves not just language proficiency but also cultural sensitivity (so there’s an overlap with ‘culture’ above) and the ability to adapt to different communication styles. Being able to mediate between speakers of different languages is increasingly important in our globalized world.
The CEFR now includes mediation as the fourth area of skill:
“Mediation: adjusting the message for the recipient.”
Mediation affects language learning because it helps learners develop a deeper understanding of cultural and linguistic differences and the ability to bridge those differences. Mediation skills can be valuable in many areas of life, including business, diplomacy, and international relations.
Mediation skills are valuable not just for language learners, but for anyone who works in a cross-cultural or multilingual environment. I can see this skill working alongside intercultural competence to round off learners’ ability to communicate.
I ask myself a question - do I know anyone that's achieved fluency (let's say C2 on the CEFR) without being explicitly taught any of these 'fifth skills'? The answer is, of course, yes. I can't say the same for listening, speaking, reading or writing.
This may mean they've picked these skills up through exposure or acquired them as they learned the language. It does tell me that explicit teaching isn't essential.
But the question remains - are these skills useful? Would explicit teaching of one or all of these speed up language acquisition to the level of fluency? They seem to be good ‘finishing’ skills for learners already at a high level (say, C1 and above on the CEFR).
As always, my opinions are my own and likely to update with new information 😁.
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John McRae also uses the term fifth skill. He uses it in the context of teaching language through literature to refer to the process of, at varying times through his academic career, (critical) thinking in L2, reading between the lines, and processing language, text and cultural awareness.