Learning Styles and Language Learning

Learning Styles and Language Learning

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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Learning Styles and Language Learning…

Not long ago I was asked to write a post about language learning styles for Women Learning Thai. Having recently received my Master Degree and in the process of looking for a job, it seemed like the perfect time to engage with such a project. Even though I am not an expert in the neuropsychology involved in language learning, I figured I might reference my experience as a teacher and language learner to contribute something on the topic of how theories on learning styles can be applied by teachers and learners of Thai in the hope that it might stimulate the comments of other, more knowledgeable authors.

Learning is Variable…

As learners and/or teachers of foreign languages, we have tried different learning methods with varied degrees of success. Not only does what works for one person not always work for another, but the success of a single method may vary for the same person, possibly since no two learning situations are identical and the mind is ever changing.

By reading the stories of successful Thai learners on this site, thinking of how we learn ourselves, and observing the world around us, we can see how some learn by studying theory, some by listening, some by jumping in and doing, some by working by a computer, etc. Although no two situations are identical, it is commonly believed that there are different types of learners and that that a language student will pick materials up more efficiently if he/she is given the opportunity to use the learning style that fits him/her best. Today, this theory is a part of many, if not all, teacher educations.

The Proof is in the Pudding…

Though intuitively appealing, it has not been empirically shown that identifying a student’s learning style and teaching in order to accommodate that learning style will optimize learning outcomes. Not only has the efficacy of tailoring teaching to fit each individual student not been proven, but the categorization of different learning styles is anything but straightforward; suggested categories vary from model to model and take into account both internal and external factors related to leaning outcomes. Understandably, the possibilities for categorization are therefore quite a few.

That individual students learn differently is a theory that I personally do not doubt at all. The question for me is not which or how many learning styles there are, but rather how the realization that learning is quite complex and varied can be used to improve myself as a teacher and learner of languages.


How can theories on Learning Styles be applied?…

When it comes to understanding learning styles, I am primarily influenced by my own experiences of learning languages and by the training I went through to become a certified instructor of Songahm Taekwondo. The learning styles we studied during that training were Visual, Auditory/Aural, and Kinetic (VAK). In order to accommodate different types of learners, we were not taught to evaluate each individual student. Instead, we were taught to teach the same materials using multiple methods, thereby making the classes more varied and fun whilst giving students with different learning styles the opportunity to learn without dividing them into sub-groups based on learner type. Even today I believe that varying the method of instruction is the best way to incorporate knowledge of different learning styles into one’s classes.

When reading of different definitions of learning styles, it quickly becomes apparent that they differ depending on the source. Therefore, adopting a single definition as the ultimate truth is not advocable. However, even though the definitions may vary, they may all have merit and one can get ideas on how to vary the learning process by studying all the proposed definitions – the more the merrier – and trying to create learning situations based on them (individual vs. group exercises, written exercises vs. aural, translation vs. listening, etc.). All styles can appropriate, and the learning environment will be more stimulating with variation.

Identifying one’s learning style may help every language learner select the most useful types of input and exercises. I have even heard examples of people learning a language well by using a single method. However, I do not believe that one should limit oneself exclusively to one type of learning since other types of learning may provide new perspectives and increase retention, develop deeper understanding, prevent boredom and even work better in specific learning situations or as one’s mind develops.

Other Teaching Tips…

Other instruction skills I transferred from Taekwondo into the language classroom include setting direct goals, referring to the students by name, using positive yet realistic correction and reinforcement rather than criticism, building confidence, teaching the concept of personal victory, and having fun. As a very experienced instructor of PPCT Pressure Point Control Tactics) once told me, ‘breaking things down into easily mastered components and giving the students an early experience of success increases retention and motivation’. Having witnessed such an approach being successful on numerous occasions, I am a strong believer in breaking even complex topics down into smaller segments that are easier to master and then letting the students experience success with the component parts, building confidence and enthusiasm, before combining them again.

Developing Oneself…

An additional resource or challenge is related to the concept of ‘learning how to learn’. Many students may not have been exposed to multiple methods of language learning; while an unfamiliar method may be difficult at first, they may become better at using it with added exposure and a person’s preferred learning style may evolve over time. The changeable and varied process of language learning supports my belief that using different methods is a useful strategy to develop language skills. Other advantages are that multiple learning methods will reduce the chance of boredom and stagnation and that varied input may improve overall brain function or prevent degeneration for those of us who are approaching old age.

Concluding Recommendations…

Taking the lack of evidence that teaching according to learning styles improves learning and that individual learning patterns are complex and varying into account, the advice I would give to those who wish to learn Thai is as follows:

  • Use a variety of approaches. Enter different environments, work alone, work in groups, use dictionaries, immerse yourself, etc. Sometimes, the penny may drop when you least expect it to. You will find the ways that work best for you and stimulate mental development by experimenting. It will also reduce the risk of boredom that so often interferes with continuous learning efforts.
  • Set limited goals so that you may experience success quickly and build confidence and enthusiasm by tracking specific improvements.
  • When finding suitable people to help you, use their ability to break language down into understandable and manageable components that don’t seem overwhelming so that you can focus on a few items at a time and build from a strong foundation.

Oh yes, most importantly… Don’t be afraid of mistakes and try to get feedback from people who aren’t afraid to point out things that you can improve, especially ones who can explain how and why. In Thailand, pointing out that someone is making mistakes is often considered rude, and people are generally very supportive. However, if your intent is to do better than simply getting a message across, you need to find out what and how to improve. People who do not want to point out that what you are saying sounds bad are doing you a disservice. If you get positive feedback even when making mistakes, habits will form which may prove hard to break later on, hindering your progress and possibly preventing you from reaching your full potential as a language learner.

I look forward to reading the comments to this article and deepening my own understanding of this topic.

Nils Bastedo
M.Sc. TESOL, Edinburgh University
Author of Tenses for Thais
Founder and Chief Instructor of Lunds Songahm Taekwondo Klubb

3 thoughts on “Learning Styles and Language Learning”

  1. Dear Shane

    Finding out what works best for someone and favouring the things that one knows work well is of course a good idea. Likewise, using many methods is not necessary to learn a language (I actually heard of an instance where someone picked a language up by listening to AM radio in that language – though this is a pretty extreme individual). However, I do believe that one can change and learn to learn in different ways over time, that the same person may learn differently in different situations, and that learning is more interesting when the methods are varied. When one tailors learning to suit a specific learning style, one might sell the learner short.

    As a language learner, if I find something that works for me, I am likely to favour it. Still, I will try to experiment with other methods as well. Sometimes, they might add a dimension to one’s understanding and sometimes they may even work better, changing one’s preferences.

    As a teacher, I love classes that target similar skills in a variety of ways. The students feel the classes are varied, people with differing styles all get some input which they may process more easily, and a very high percentage of student wind up improving.

    It is also interesting that the learning styles, besides possible overlap and incompleteness, may be dependent on the situation. Not only may what works for one student not work for another, but teachers using the ‘same style’ may have quite different degrees of success even with the same students. What works well for one teacher may not work well for another.

    I suppose in the end my experience is that teaching and learning is very complex and that an approach of openness and variation is advocable since it stimulates both students and teachers and gives many opportunities allows for personal growth through learning. There is so much more in heaven and earth than I claim to know that I feel an open mind, especially when addressing a complex issue such as this, is needed. Playing to your known strengths is great, but you may have strengths you don’t know about and you strengths may develop over time, especially if you try to vary your methods of training.

  2. I’ve long been interested in the different learning styles. After trial and error, I’ve discovered that I gravitate to a blend of visual and audio. But I absolutely agree with Nils’ suggestion to play around with a variety of learning styles. It makes sense. It’s especially important after the glow wears off and you start looking for new ways to keep study time enjoyable.

  3. It’s really a good idea to evaluate people unto what type of learner she/he is. In that way, the learning process will be much convenient on both parties.


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