Language learning styles

This page has information about the different ways that learners prefer to learn languages.

Introduction

If asked how they learn best, most people will express a preference for one style or another, as influenced by their cultural and educational background and by their personality.

Researchers have categorized the various learning styles or preferences in numerous ways. Some have identified different perceptual styles: visual, auditory, read/write and kinesthetic (commonly referred to by the acronym VARK). Other researchers have looked at cognitive styles and distinguished between field-independent and field-dependent learners. Still others have examined the personality styles such as reflectivity and impulsiveness.

Let's briefly examine each of these styles in respect to language learning.

Perceptual styles

  • Visual learners usually prefer to see the words that they are learning. They like to learn by looking at pictures and flashcards.
  • Auditory learners prefer to learn by listening. They enjoy conversations and the chance for interactions with others. They don't need to see words written down.
  • Read/write learners prefer to read about grammar rules, for example, and do written exercises to practise them.
  • Kinesthetic learners learn words, for example, by touching and manipulating the objects themselves. In general, they like movement and need frequent breaks in desk activities.

Cognitive styles

  • Field-independent learners (also called analytic learners) like to concentrate on the details of language, such as grammar rules, and enjoy taking apart words and sentences. They are sometimes unable to see the 'big picture' because of their attention to its parts.
  • Field-dependent learners (also known as global learners) focus on the whole picture and do not care so much about the details. For example, they are more interested in conveying an idea than worrying about whether it is grammatically correct.

Personality styles

  • Reflective learners like to think about language and how to convey their message accurately. They tend not to make so many mistakes because they take time in formulating what they want to say.
  • Impulsive learners take risks with the language. They are more concerned with speaking fluently than speaking accurately, and so make more mistakes.

Implication for learners 1

So what are the practical implications of this information for people learning a language? In general, it is not a problem to put yourself into one or more of the categories that have been identified above. And most people will probably not find it difficult to do so.

Being aware of your preferred learning style may help to explain why some aspects of language learning seem to come easier than others or are more enjoyable.

For example, if you are an analytic (field-independent) learner, you are unlikely to feel comfortable doing a language activity which involves a lot of unstructured, spontaneous speech without any concern for grammatical correctness.

However, it can become a problem if the learner is convinced that the only or best way to learn is via that the particular preferred learning style.

Implication for learners 2

The second implication follows from the first. Learners who are in a position to choose how they acquire a new language can ensure that their preferred style matches the teaching methodology of the particular language course they want to enrol in.

For example, reflective learners may not fare so well in purely conversational classes with lots of movement and role-playing. And auditory learners will probably want to avoid a course with a heavy reading requirement.

But again, language learning involves numerous and varied tasks. And it is inevitable that some of these tasks will be best accomplished in a way that doesn't fit the individual learning preference.

Implication for teachers

While many learners will express a particular learning preference or style, the latest research tells us that predominantly teaching to that style will have little to no effect effect on learning or learning speed.

In any case, good teachers know that the best learning approach depends on the specific learning task. And they teach students the necessary strategies to succeed in that task. For example, language teachers instruct students in how to improve their chances of understanding a difficult text or how to learn abstract vocabulary.

And in general, good teachers try to accommodate the various learning preferences by setting activities that will at least please all the students at some time during the course.

Summary

In summary, the current consensus is that it is simply not proven that learners learn better when consistently taught in their preferred learning style. There is more about this on the page Tackling the 'learning styles' myth.

References

This summary of language learning styles is based on research into second language acquisition (SLA). There has been a great deal of interest in the last 10 - 20 years on what makes a good language learner.

A good starting point for an investigation into learning styles can be found in:

^ 2 ^

A comparison of the learning styles of different nationalities is in:

^ 53 ^

A further useful summary can be found in:

^ 21 ^

Here is an article asking if teachers are misguided in attempting to teach to learning styles:

^ 62 ^

Finally, here is a Wikipedia article that includes a discussion of the learning styles discussed above, as well as other popular theories.