The Main Language Learning Styles and How to Use them to Maximise Your Learning
So here’s the thing.
Everybody is different.
And that’s especially true when it comes to learning any skill. Languages included.
You may be aware of, or have seen information about different learning styles, and how tailoring your learning to suit your own particular style can make you a more efficient language learner.
The truth is that it is a lot more complicated than that.
Scientific study after scientific study has proven inconclusive. I.e. it’s not clear at all whether tailoring your language learning strategies (or any learning strategy) to your optimum learning style has a positive effect on your learning outcome.
To put it another way.
You can probably achieve just as good results by learning in a style that isn’t your preferred learning style than if you bother to figure out your preferred style and just use strategies that fit with your style.
So why all the fuss about language learning styles then? And why hasn’t this been completely refuted by scientific study?
Well here’s the rub.
Tailoring your learning to focus more on your preferred learning style keeps you motivated and enjoying the process.
It’s not about just doing exercises that fit with your learning style 100%. It’s about having a mix of learning strategies.
A lot of these will fit with your preferred learning style. Some of them won’t. The strategies that don’t fit so well will challenge you and, to be honest, you won’t enjoy so much.
But you’ll still get exactly the same benefit.
We had a learner, a university student called Phil, who was studying on one of our Spanish lessons in Cambridge in the UK, was a very visual learner (more on that later).
His level of Spanish was around B2 (Upper-intermediate), so a very decent level.
His teacher correctly recommended watching as much in Spanish as possible outside of lessons.
He was into video games and loved watching ‘let’s play’ videos.
Basically, a Youtuber plays video games and his audience watch them play. The Youtuber commentates during the game on how things are going and what’s happening.
Who knew this was even a thing?!
There are these kind of videos in Spanish on Youtube. So Phil set aside 30 minutes each day to just watch a chapter of his favourite let’s play.
“It doesn’t even feel like learning” – was what he said.
And this really is the heart and soul of language learning styles.
If Phil had done something else for 30 mins a day, without his teacher’s advice, and knowledge of his preferred learning style. The chances are he would have started all bright-eyed and bushy tailed with a tonne of energy.
- By day 3 he’d be struggling.
- By the end of the week he might have skipped a session.
- By the end of week 2 other ‘important’ things in his life would have taken over, and he’d be making no further progress with his Spanish at all.
It’s like keeping fit or losing weight.
Lots of people suggest going to the gym to keep fit.
Thing is, some people don’t like the gym (myself included!)
If you don’t like going to the gym, don’t go!
There are more ways to lose weight than going to the gym.
For example, you’ll find me rollerblading around town to keep fit most days.
Again, if you don’t like going to the gym but still go you will probably still get results.
But it will be excruciatingly difficult to keep going over the time period required to maintain consistent results.
And the same is true of language learning.
The key here is maintaining motivation over a long, possibly very long, seemingly endless period of time.
The challenge is to find out what works for you.
If you place a heavy bias on learning that fits with your learning style, you can essentially trick yourself in to learning, without that horrendous day by day slog that it can sometimes feel like.
And this is how you can use knowledge of language learning styles of boost your language skills.
You’ve learned that tailoring a large amount (not 100%) of your learning towards your preferred learning style will help keep you motivated.
Let’s dive into the main learning styles now.
This is such a complex topic that it is almost impossible to tie down every possible style but these are the most common.
There are environmental factors that affect learning as well. E.g. time of day, amount of light and heat in learning zone, eating and drinking during learning, listening to music vs silence etc.
We won’t go into those here for the sake of keeping things as practical and simple as possible. But remember that this can also significantly affect how much you enjoy your learning.
It might be worth running along now and taking a short 5 minute language learning style quiz to find your own personal mix of learning styles.
Take the quiz here then meet me back here once you’re finished.
Ok, so you should now be aware of your dominant learning style or styles.
Our student Phil took the quiz. He came up as around 40% visual, 35% kinesthetic and 25% auditory.
Hence Youtube videos being a fantastic resource for him to learn Spanish in his spare time.
The Main Language Learning Styles
While you’re reading through these, take some time and think about which of these apply to you.
Cognitive learning styles
This is related to how you think. There are 2 types of cognitive learning styles
- Field dependent (global) learner vs Field independent (analytic) learner
- Reflective learner vs impulsive learner
Field dependent learner
Field dependent or global learners look at the big picture, details and analysis come later. This type of learner may completely miss finer details.
The right hemisphere of the brain is usually associated with this type of learner.
Emotions rather than logic are dominant with you if you are this kind of learner.
They can often very quickly get a holistic picture of the language and are usually fine with the strange ambiguities and rules that exist in all languages.
Field independent learner
Field independent or analytic learners are well, analytic!
The left hemisphere of the brain is dominant here.
Cold, calculated analysis of facts and information is associated with this type of learner. Sometimes missing the big picture but excellent with the finer details.
How much do you resonate with each of these? Remember nobody is 100% one way or the other. Think of it as a sliding scale.
Our student Phil told us that he feels around 75% global learner and 25% analytic learner.
What about you?
Reflective learners will generally think on or about information they’ve received before taking any action.
They are more theoretical and often enjoy the acquisition of information when related to language learning without having any real need to use it immediately.
They can often thrive in the safety of a traditional classroom setting where there is often more of a focus on theory than actually using the language in a real life situation.
Impulsive learners, on the other hand, are generally more interested in acting on the information, trying things out, testing and seeing how things work in the real world.
They aren’t often bothered about making mistakes, and are quite uninhibited when using their language in a real life situation. They can struggle though in traditional classroom settings, especially if the subject-matter being learned is too theoretical.
Again, Phil is an impulsive learner. He’s ok in the classroom if it’s not too theory-driven.
Where he gets a real buzz though, is from Speaking in Spanish with his teacher, even if he’s not ‘learning’ in the traditional sense.
He knows grammar and vocabulary are important, but relishes the chance to just speak as much as he can at any moment.
“I feel like as long as I’m speaking I’m learning”
This makes the job for his teacher very straightforward.
Keep him talking and he’ll love his lessons!
How about you?
Do you identify with Phil? Or are you more about absorbing and thinking about the theory and the rules of the language before using it?
Sensory learning styles
Most of what you will find on the internet focuses on these 3 sensory learning styles.
We will go through them here. While you’re reading, look at the results of the quiz you should have taken earlier.
Also, think for yourself.
Which one of these do you most identify with?
Finally we’ll come up with some potential activities that would really work for you depending on your learning style.
Remember it’s not all or nothing.
Mix things up.
Even doing activities from a weak or learning style you don’t identify with will get results.
Keeping things fresh and exciting and staying motivated is the key.
So let’s identify the 3 main sensory learning styles:
The Visual Learner
If you came up as a visual learner you’re in the majority. This makes up a significant amount of learners. Between 35% and 60% of learners depending on which blog post you read.
Visual learners are excellent at absorbing and processing information in a visual form e.g. diagrams, maps, slideshows, images etc.
Our student Phil is a visual learner. His teacher recommended watching Youtube videos of his favourite let’s plays which worked amazingly.
Here are some language learning ideas that work really well for visual learners:
- Videos / Films / TV series in target language (with subtitles)
- Games incl. video games (with subtitles)
- Gap fills online
- Facebook groups
- Note taking / flashcards /language learning journal
- Sticky notes around your house
The Auditory Learner
Not as common as the visual learner and not as able to make use of the abundant array of visual material available on the internet and in the traditional classroom, but with an amazing superpower.
Auditory learners can often take in and memorise information just by listening to it!
This makes them fantastic language learners. Especially if they have a lot of exposure to the spoken word in their target language.
They are generally off the charts in terms of pronunciation accuracy.
If you’re an auditory learner here are some activities that may float your boat:
- Videos / Films / TV series in target language (try without subtitles)
- Games incl. video games (without subtitles)
- Podcasts / Audiobooks / Music / Radio (just have it on in the background)
- Role play
- Apps (focus on the listening elements)
- Recording yourself and listening back
- Learning ‘on the street’
- 1:1 lessons, group lessons, conversation partners
- Discussions / debates
The Kinesthetic Learner
Also known as ‘the doer’. These learners learn by doing. These types of learners can often reach fluency in a language much quicker than the other learner types.
Not because they are any better but because they get out there and practice.
That’s how they learn.
Similar to the impulsive learners above, they are not afraid to make mistakes and will keep going even when difficultly strikes.
Learners who are skewed significantly toward kinesthetic learning can often struggle in a traditional learning setting with all the visual aids and listening exercises.
They often need that practical element to keep things interesting.
If you struggled at school it may just be that you prefer to learn by doing. Our student Phil is 35% kinesthetic.
He’s fine in his lessons, but that element requires him to actually practice his language in real life to keep his interest. 1:1 lessons, interacting with the teacher help him immensely with this.
As long as he’s the one doing the talking he’s happy!
Some activity ideas to keep your interest up if you a kinesthetic learner. Just make sure you’re actively involved not just passively learning to keep up your interest.
- Games incl. video games
- Role play
- Apps (depending on the app and activity)
- Recording yourself speaking target language
- Note taking / flashcards /language learning journal
- Travelling to / experiencing the destination
- Learning ‘on the street’
- 1:1 lessons
- Teaching someone lower level than yourself
If you’ve read as far as here you and taken the quiz you should be well aware of your unique language learning style mix.
You will also have a good idea of which activities are likely to keep your interest.
Remember, it’s not all or nothing and you can learn fine mixing elements from other learning styles. If you keep your unique style in mind when learning it will make things all that much easier.
Let’s face it. Language learning is an incredibly complex, time-consuming and difficult task. It’s hard. So you’re going to need every little hack and improvement you can get to succeed.
Hopefully this will equip you with at least a slight advantage as you go into your language learning battle.
Best of luck!
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Founder of the UK Language Project and avid language learner.
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Feb 12 2024
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