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Language learning styles

So far in this series of articles I have given information and advice on language learning that is of specific interest to parents of ESL children. The task of learning to function in a foreign language situation is not one restricted to ESL families, however. Everyone at Frankfurt International School - adults and children, teachers and parents - is confronted with the challenge of learning and using a foreign language, whether at school, at work or in their day-to-day life in the German community. Some fortunate people seem to master the difficulties of language learning with great success and little effort, while for others the task is neither an enjoyable nor a successful one. Why should this be the case? What is it that makes learning a new language so easy for some and so difficult for others? In the next few articles I would like to explore answers to these questions, starting this time with a discussion of language learning styles.

Each of us has our own preferred way of learning that is determined by our cultural and educational background and our personalities. Language researchers have categorized the various learning styles in numerous ways. Some researchers have identified different perceptual styles: the visual, the tactile and kinesthetic, and the auditory. Others have looked at cognitive styles and distinguished between field-independent and field-dependent learners. Still others have examined the personality styles of reflectivity and impulsiveness. Let’s briefly examine each of these styles:

So what are the practical implications of this information for people learning a new language? Firstly, it is useful to put yourself into one or more of the categories that have been identified above. Most people will not find it difficult to identify themselves as a particular kind of learner (although some may feel that their style varies according to the learning situation and the language task). Awareness 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. If you are an analytic 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. An ESL teaching colleague recently experienced the converse situation when doing a grammar activity with her class. The teacher had chosen some personalized examples to demonstrate a grammatical point - how to ask questions about the past. So, for example, in response to the sentences I was born in 1963 and I usually went to school by bicycle students had to say When were you born? and How did you get to school? One of her students, however, was a field-dependent learner whose sole focus was on the communicative meaning of the sentences, not on their value in practising grammar. His response to the statement I fell in love for the first time in grade 6 was not the expected How old were you when you fell in love ..? or What happened in grade 6 ..?”, but What was his name?

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 and auditory learners will probably want to avoid a course with a heavy reading requirement. Of course many learners have no such choice - language learners at FIS for instance! In general, however, language teachers are aware of the range of learning styles in their classrooms and try to find activities that will at least please all the students at some time during the course.

Despite the amount of research that has been done into learning styles over the last few years, there is no clear evidence that any one style is generally better than another. This is just as well, because we cannot do very much to alter how we prefer to learn. What is much more important in influencing the rate of progress in learning a language are the strategies that are employed in the particular learning situation. For example, how you can improve your chances of understanding a difficult text that you have to read. Language learning strategies will be the subject of the next article.

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 chapter 5 of Principles of Language Learning and Teaching by H. Brown (1994) New Jersey Prentice Hall. A comparison of the learning styles of different nationalities is in The learning style preferences of ESL students by J. Reid (1987) TESOL Quarterly 21. A further useful summary can be found in Theory and Research: Learning Styles, Motivation, and the CALL Classroom K. Soo (1999) in CALL Environments: Research, Practice and Critical Issues J.Egbert & E. Hanson-Smith (eds.) Virginia TESOL


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