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What is your approach to learning receptive skills?

Receptive skills are Reading and Listening, so the big question here is how you actually process information. From cognitive psychology we know about two types of processing: bottom-up and top-down .

Bottom-up processing relies on perception or data/ stimuli available around. In this case we start with small elements, put them together and eventually build a bigger picture. In language learning, that will be going from words to phrases to sentences to longer text (like in most language apps). In my experience, it’s common for people in technical professions and in finance.

Top-down processing is the opposite. We start from the context, our general knowledge and the bigger picture. We then use them to go down to detail. This approach involves a lot of thinking and guessing to get the smaller elements right. In language learning, that will be going from the context to the main idea of what you see/read to particular sentences and words. I’ve seen this in people with a background in humanities and good communicators (people people).

So, if you belong to the first group , you’ll want to translate every unknown word the moment you see/ hear it. Otherwise, you may feel uncomfortable or lost.

If you are in the second group , you don’t care much about new words unless they stop you from understanding the main idea.

Of course, these are two extremes and most people use both approaches. But it’s good to know your preferred one.

Why is it important for language learning?

If you think of how much language there is, thousands of words and hundreds of rules, not counting different varieties of English and a plethora of accents, you may see that using only or mostly the bottom-up approach puts you at a disadvantage.

It will take years and years until you learn enough to understand 100% of what you see/ hear. So it does make sense to learn to approach a new language top-down to use your knowledge of the world and your own language as well as to find the main idea first. Because then you may decide that you actually don’t need the details.

On the other hand, if you only use the top-down approach, there’s a risk that you will neglect important details and fail to learn nuances of meaning, or won’t master different registers. In other words, you may get stuck at the Intermediate plateau and never get to that near-native knowledge of English that many dream of. Because the devil is in the details. So being able to go bottom-up is also important.

My personal recipe is top-down first, bottom-up next if the material is worth it. In between I work out the structure of what I see/ hear to understand the logic and the main arguments. It’s with this in mind that I’m going to write my next posts about developing your reading and listening skills.

I found a good video talking about the approaches in more detail (if it’s too fast or too slow for you, don’t forget to change the speed), have a look:

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