Language learning is often seen in terms of four basic language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. There can, of course, be an overlap between skill areas – grammar and vocabulary are two extra areas which are frequently added to the four skills.
Another useful way of looking at language is in terms of function. This involves identifying the different purposes for which language is being used. For example, language items that reflect different functional areas such as apologising, introducing and greeting, or requesting can be usefully grouped together.
Finally, register can serve as a helpful way of looking at language. Register relates to the style of language found in a particular context. In many languages, this can vary according to situation (how formal/ informal it is) and the relationship between users. It is also important to ask yourself what you can learn about the society and culture of the country where the language is spoken.
Use satellite TV channels or audio (or video) recordings to practise and develop your listening strategies. Tune into digital radio and TV stations around the world using a virtual tuner (e.g. http://www.VTuner.com). Listen to a piece, not just once, but several times, varying the way you do it. For example, start by trying to understand general meaning or the main idea. In this stage it helps to listen out for key words and to stop the tape at frequent intervals and predict what is going to come next. Later, practise listening intensively for specific information or practise note-taking.
Develop your skill at predicting. What can you predict about text content from title, subheadings, first and last paragraphs, the first few lines, accompanying pictures? Practise skim reading the text for gist and then ask yourself what the article is about. Based on this, what specific information would you expect to find in it. Scan the text to see if that information is there. Try to speed up your reading so that you are not trying to understand every word but reading as fast as you can for gist or general meaning.
Say new words and phrases aloud both to help commit them to memory and to practice pronunciation. Group useful items of functional language together and try to learn useful situational expressions by heart. Then try to find opportunities to try to use them to reinforce your learning. Seek opportunities to practise speaking and develop your fluency as opposed to your accuracy. Record yourself on tape to develop your fluency (e.g. giving a spontaneous talk about yourself or what you have done this week) then replay it and critically analyse the recording. Note mistakes in pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and hesitations – afterwards find out how to say what you wanted to say better.
Try to think in the target language when you are writing. Try not to translate from your first language. Practise writing as much as you can. Even informal writing activities such as keeping a language learning diary in the target language or corresponding on email with a native speaker will help to improve your writing skills. You could find an email partner through the International Email Tandem Network available over the web at: http://www.slf.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/email/idxeng00.html
Key to good language learning: http://www.lang.soton.ac.uk/resources/key.html