There is no doubt about the importance of having a sense of one’s own preferred language learning style when deciding how to learn a language. Whilst there is clearly some truth in the assertion that different people can have different learning styles and we have to pay attention to that in deciding what is the best way to learn ( or teach), there is a lot more to this issue than meets the eye and that is what I want to spend a bit of time looking at here. I have decided to do this as I have seen learning styles sometimes confused with learning strategies and this has created beliefs that are not helpful to improving one’s own learning.
Some learners can be heard to say that, “I prefer learning languages through translation or through reading and writing”. They may well prefer that way of learning, and you could argue that hence that is their preferred learning style. I would suggest though that these are learning strategies, not learning styles. They are strategies which people have become used to because that is how they were taught in school, for example. Do something often enough and it can become comfortable even though it might not be so effective or even a match for the learning style best suited to you. These habits then start to form the basis of our beliefs. The two, habits and beliefs, can become a powerful cocktail to keep us wedded to what we are used to doing, preventing us exploring other ways that may indeed be more effective.
Learning styles I would propose are an outcome of our personality type. There are various ways to look at this but here is one that looks at 3 different learning styles. There are the people who prefer to see things (visual types), then there are some people prefer to hear things (auditory types), and then there are some people who prefer to touch things (kinesthetic types). These preferences will affect how we learn best or are the most comfortable with but there is no reason why, if we are a visual type, we can’t also learn from hearing things! *
I know for example that I am a visual person and learn best when I see what I am learning. However I also know that to learn a language I have to work with my hearing, so I have worked hard to improve my auditory skills so they too will be a strength.
The habits of learning, where the learner, for example, feels that the only way they can learn a new word is to translate it or look it up in a dictionary, are strategies we have got used to. There are in fact many of these kinds of strategies of learning we have accumulated some of which I have looked at in these pages. Now, I would like to look at another one of them, one that many people these days feel strongly connected to and that is the need that to write or read what is being learned. There is of course no trouble with this medium being used and it is something that can support our learning. However at times, like anything that is taken to excess it can cause problems.
As a lot of language teaching has emphasised the role of reading and writing it is not surprising that many learners feel the need to write everything they are learning or trying to learn. What this strategy can do for people who take this to an excess is to separate them from the experience of the language. When this is done, the language, as it were, can get filtered and it can prevent the language being connected to who we really are and what we see, experience and feel. It becomes like an intellectual exercise like learning history or astronomy. Language is much more than that, and if we want to maximise our language learning powers we best reduce the time we spend processing the language we are learning through reading and writing and maximise the time we spend speaking and listening. I am of course not talking about writing letters, essays or reading newspapers or books, etc. I am talking about the process of learning languages that many people get involved in, more typically associated with class work or study.
There are of course the few people who can learn languages just be reading, but don’t by confused by that. The vast majority of people can’t. The few who can have just made some adjustments to how they learn that have enabled them to do it, but if others tried it, they would be most probably doomed to failure or a long hard road. This way of learning languages is clearly a preferred learning strategy, nothing to do with our innate learning styles. So be careful not to be distracted by the learning styles brigade. Instead, seek to find ways of learning that you enjoy AND produce results, even if they go a little against the grain!
* I have recently published a book, Language Learning Unlocked where I go into some depth about a schema that looks at 4 personality types, a schema that was first proposed by Hippocrates and elaborated time and time since then.