Modalities

 Photo from Creative Commons user: Sarah Ross.

Photo from Creative Commons user: Sarah Ross.

This is part of a series of short posts framing adult English language learning experiences for volunteers at a local English class in my city. 

As bilingual people we do not use all of our languages equally across speaking, writing, listening and reading. These four different ways of using language are sometimes referred to as ‘modalities’. If we learn a language in a formal classroom context we are much more likely to practice it through the modalities of writing and reading, and possibly listening, and less likely to practice speaking the language. On the other hand, if we speak a language only at home, we get a lot of practice with speaking and listening, but less practice with writing and reading the language. When we have to switch from a modality in which we are comfortable, to one with which we are less comfortable we sometimes make a lot of mistakes. These mistakes are not really reflective of how much we know, though. Think about if you learned Spanish in high school, but never had to use it to speak conversationally – the first time you try to speak Spanish in a conversation you probably made a lot of mistakes, even though you knew the correct grammatical rules and information – you just weren’t familiar with how to apply these rules in the modality of speech. The solution is to get more practice across reading, listening, writing and speaking. The way we have the interaction set up in our classes now is designed to have students write, read, speak and listen – giving them practice in all four modalities!