The FIVE Universal Language Skills Needed for all Communication!


Can it be as simple as 5 skills? And do they go across all languages?

I know we communicate in more than 5 ways and with different emotions. But I’m referring to functions or forms that cover all languages, with any emotion attached to them. These are the skills I would prioritize, how about you?

Do you agree, disagree or have another category to add? 

  1. Affirmative Statements
  2. Negative Statements
  3. Questions
  4. Answers
  5. Imperatives

I suspect that the first skill is the one most used in the ESL/EFL classroom and in most textbooks that abound with descriptions of people, places and things. After all when people speak and write they are mostly affirming things they know, or think they know, in order to share information with their family, friends or the world.  

Do you agree that the second skill listed above is also universally used? After all we can’t always agree with what people say or affirm. Our objections or contradictions fall into the ‘Negative Statement’ category. This category is seen in all walks of life where huge debates often take place on any and all subjects you can think of. Likes and dislikes are radically different even among close friends. 

Children of course are the masters of the third category because they are the most curious about the things around them and the things they are told. And most importantly they are not embarrassed to ask about what they don’t know. In fact, the younger they are, the more questions burst out of their mouths!

As adults we may be too polite to ask questions or contradict information we hear.

This may be because we are not experts on the information in front of us or we hesitate to challenge a person of authority. But internally we always wonder and have internal questions about the information around us. 

Logically when questions are asked, the fourth category becomes very important. Any question calls for an answer especially when the question is directed at us, and even more so when it happens in a classroom learning environment. 

Finally the last skill goes to giving orders. This skill is not so overt as we may avoid ordering people around. Giving orders however is an important language skill in the ESL/EFL classroom because the base structure or modus operandi for commands or imperatives is different from the other skills. Since we are acquiring a language it is important for our students to acquire all the universal skills. 

Universal is universal for a reason. That reason is because it is something used or needed in all languages. However structures may vary from language to language. In English it is important to practice the base structure under each one of the skills because each one has a word order to follow.

Review the skeletal structure and tips to be practiced for these base patterns: 

AFFIRMATIVE: (SVO) Susan pays bills.
1. Start with the subject-who or what are you talking about?
2. Follow with a verb or verb phrase-the action taken by the subject.
3. Follow with the object receiving the action or the object acted upon (if there is one).
4. If there is no object a completion may be added (how, when, where, what, why).

NEGATIVE 1: with BE verb (SVNC) Susan is NOT paying bills.
1. Start with the subject-who or what are you talking about?
2. Follow with a be form (am, is, are, was, were)
3. Follow with NOT
4. Follow the completion of the verb phrase
5 Additional compliments (optional)

NEGATIVE 2: with other verbs (S–Do form–NVC) Susan does NOT pay bills.
1. Start with the subject-who or what are you talking about?
2. Follow with a DO form (do, does, did)
3. Follow with NOT
4. Follow with base form of verb
5 Additional compliments (optional)

QUESTIONS 1: (Inversion, Inversion Inversion, with BE (VSVC) Is Susan paying bills?
1. Start with BE form (am, is, are, was were)
2. Follow with subject (or subject pronoun)
3. Follow completion of verb phrase
4. Additional compliments (optional)

QUESTIONS 2: with any other verb (Do/SVC) Does Susan pay bills?
1. Start with DO form of verb (do does did)
2. Follow with subject (or subject pronoun)
3. Follow with base verb
4. Additional compliments (optional)

Question words (how, when, where, what, why) use the same pattern with question word first. Where does Susan pay bills?

ANSWERS: (Yes/No questions) (Yes or No, SV) Is Susan paying bills? Yes, she is.
Answer with the same verb used in the question

ANSWERS: (With Question Words) (SVO/C) Where is Susan paying bills? She is paying bills at the bank.

1. Start with the verb in base form
2. Follow with completion (optional) Pay bills!

Think in terms of percentages of teaching skills in an ESL/EFL classroom, if your students are going with the flow and putting all their effort into making affirmations or listening and reading information in order to digest facts, then they may be out of balance with other language skills. 

All the language skills covered have a specific word order which needs be acquired with that specific order to avoid fossilization.

It is up to you to put matters into balance by practicing all the universal skills!  


  •  TEACHER: You’re good at explaining, describing and asserting your opinions.
  •  DEBATER: You take the opposite viewpoint (Devil’s advocate) and love to contradict others.
  •  DETECTIVE: You ask lots of questions to get the whole picture.
  •  TALK SHOW HOST: you are a precise question asker, and provide accurate answers.
  •  CEO: You prefer to sit back and tell everyone else what to do.

Offer the above options to students and ask them this question: “Which one are you?

I am the: ____________________________________

No matter what they answered, they need to practice all of these skills sooner or later, and for them sooner is better than later! In fact, they need to practice them until they can use them correctly upside-down and backwards in the dark!

Have your students create scripts where they keep in mind the skills needed to perform their role. 

4 thoughts on “The FIVE Universal Language Skills Needed for all Communication!

  1. This is great – it is practically a lesson plan in its own right!

    I have found that Chinese students often have trouble forming questions and sometimes negative statements. The sentence structure is completely different in English for them. To be honest, English is somewhat illogical in that regard.

    But this is very useful. Could be used in the classroom with ease.

    • Your comment about Chinese students is very interesting. Luckily, even though English is illogical it has very strict and dependable rules in forming negatives and even more so for questions. This makes initial acquisition so very important because once these ‘rules’ are acquired they work for all subsequent usage.

  2. Pc jatwal

    Hi your five universal skills are key skills to acquire command over English language speaking. Surely these skills make a good speaker of English.
    I have one more type of skill to speak a sentence that is exclamatory sentences.
    What a nice scene!
    How interesting this website is!
    I would like to know your opinions, can it be the sixth skill?

    • Hi Pc, Yes you are right about the exclamatory sentence! The reason I did not include it is because technically it is an affirmative or negative sentence with a strong emotion. As such, its basic word order does not change. The examples I gave all have their own unique word order and that word order is what we want our students to acquire for accuracy. An exclamatory sentence however does have a special condition that I call hybrid but that deserves another blog on its own.

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