When it comes to learning, one size does not fit all!
Everyone’s different, and that’s okay.
If you were one of those people who struggled through school, you may have felt like you weren’t smart enough and that you’d never be able to catch up to your fellow classmates.
Sadly, it happens all too frequently with students right through high school, college and beyond.
However, if you’ve ever felt this way, then it’s very possible that you weren’t being taught according to your learning style.
Luckily, you can totally avoid this problem with independent language learning. As an independent language learner, you can tailor your instruction in a way that best suits you.
This is where learning styles come in.
What’s the Big Deal with Learning Styles?
There are four main learning styles: visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile. If you want to know which category you fall into, you can take the test here.
You’ll find that each category has its own set of traits to help you better identify exactly where you fit in. Knowing your particular style is great, because it can help you maximize your potential and efficiency. Let’s face it, learning a new language is time consuming and we’d like to get through as quickly and easily as our brains will allow us.
Having a particular learning style doesn’t mean that you can’t learn using other learning styles. In fact, it’s necessary to use all of our humanly resources to take in information, especially when learning a new language. Seeing, hearing and experiencing it are all equally important. These styles are only meant to give you your best chance at truly internalizing the new information.
For the sake of thoroughness, there are experts who claim that there’s really no such thing as learning styles. You can what one of them has to say here. It’s an interesting take on the topic!
Otherwise, if you want to understand more about your particular learning style and how you can use it to help you along in the language learning process, keep scrolling.
Have It Your Way: Language Learning That Suits Your Style
So, now that you know a little bit more about learning styles—and hopefully you’ve already identified which style or styles will suit you best!—it’s time to run through the approaches we’ve designed with each major learning style in mind.
For the Visual Learner…
If you’re the type of person who googles lyrics to memorize a song, or the type of person who’s both amazed and confused by people who listen to audiobooks instead of just reading actual books, then you’re probably a visual learner.
And guess what—you’re in good company. Sixty-five percent of the population are visual learners. People with this learning style tend to learn best by using images, pictures, colors, maps and other kinds of visual media. Not only are external images helpful for them, but they’re also able to visualize things in their mind.
So next time your mind starts to wander during a speech or lecture, just know that there’s nothing wrong with you. Your brain would just prefer to have an image to process. For the visual learner, visualization is everything. Therefore, when learning a new language make sure you approach it with an image-heavy learning format.
The Vocabulary Approach
This method focuses on vocabulary first, grammar second.
Learning lots of vocabulary is an ideal method to kick-start the language learning process. Students learn by repetition and association. A word is presented with a corresponding image, then students must make the appropriate association either by naming the image or matching the word to the image.
There are several online language labs that are ideal for the vocabulary-based approach. Programs like Memrise are great examples as they rely heavily on words and images to teach beginners a new language. Not to mention creating your own flashcards, either manually or with an app, is always a great way to teach yourself as you’re the one creating the associations, therefore making the associations personal to you.
FluentU takes this one step further, and creates interactive flashcards using the vocabulary you’ve been exposed to in fun videos—that is, the fun videos that you’ve chosen to watch based on your skill level and interests.
This is only possible because FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. The flashcards are as personal as they get, teaching you tons of colorful vocabulary in context, and they even use snippets of videos to keep your memory jogging!
The great thing about this vocabulary-based method is that you’ll soon know a ton of words and become extra flexible with your language usage. One of the best feelings for a language learner is being able to look at an image or object and identify it in their target language as easily as they can in their native language. The more that you’re able to do that, the more confident you become.
However, this approach does have its drawbacks. As mentioned above, many programs that focus on vocabulary don’t focus on grammar, writing or speaking. You’ll know a lot of words, but you may not know how to use them, so it’s important to be mindful and find ways to incorporate grammar into your learning here and there.
You can do this the old-fashioned way by cracking open a grammar book and learning the basics. At the same time, you can use programs like FluentU or Duolingo to familiarize yourself with these rules in a more practical manner. The key is just to focus on vocabulary first, and to focus on it more strongly than any other area for a while.
The Grammar Approach
This is a more traditional method of learning a language. This is the textbook method. You might be familiar with it from high school Spanish or French class.
It focuses heavily on grammar and a more rote method of learning vocabulary. Instead of using images, vocabulary terms are typically listed at the beginning of a textbook chapter and followed by a grammar lesson. Then at the end of the chapter, the grammar and vocabulary dovetail so that students can make practical use of each.
Although this method lacks the memorable images that are typically used in the Vocabulary Approach, this is still good for the visual learner.
As mentioned above, really all the visual learner needs is images—and letters count as images on some level. While photographs are great, so is text.
Remember the anecdote about visual learners drifting off at lectures? A situation like that could be easily resolved if a lecture is accompanied by a PowerPoint or handouts, anything for the visual learner to read and follow along with. The point is that while it may seem like the visual learner requires a live-in graphic artist to be on hand at any given hour, many times it can all be boiled down to a few words on paper.
This approach may not be for everyone, but when used correctly it can be very effective. With this method, you’ll have a strong command of sentence structure right off the bat. Written communication and reading will come easily to students who have studied grammar intensely—and this works in a positive feedback loop because reading and writing are both great practice methods for the visual learner.
When speaking, you’ll find it far less frustrating to construct a sentence as opposed to someone who knows a ton of vocabulary but not very much grammar.
However, the drawback here is that this method does no favors for oral communication. Without listening to natives, or at least having brain full of vocabulary, oral communication will be an uphill battle.
The best bet is to do some combos. Get a headset and/or some flashcards, get your textbook of choice, and you’re good to go. This way, you can have the benefit of both grammar and vocabulary, and native sounds and will be on much more solid ground when you do start practicing oral communication.
For the Auditory Learner…
If you’re in this category you probably like lengthy dialogues and plays and prefer oral instruction to textbook instruction. You enjoy listening to audiobooks. You’re probably the type of person who remembers names but not faces, and you talk your way through the problem solving process.
Whereas the visual learner may doze off at a lecture, this is where the auditory learner thrives. The auditory learner learns by listening.
Just as the visual learner can read and memorize information, the auditory learner can, just as effectively, listen and memorize information. They retain information through sound better than most people.
Fortunately, being a good listener is an excellent trait to have while learning a new language. The ability to listen and comprehend a new language is a key competent to achieving fluency. Therefore, coming in as a ready-made listener makes for one less skill that you’ll need to work on.
The Audio Approach
Traditionally, the auditory method of language learning was called the “The Audiolingual Approach” which became popular after World War II. In traditional structured settings, students would hear dialogue, repeat it, memorize it and then adapt the dialogue to their interests and engage in more repetition.
Although this specific format is no longer popular, the takeaway is that listening provides a strong base for this approach to learning. For everyone, listening helps us adapt to new sounds and pronunciations. However, it just may come easier to you as the auditory learner. And even though learning a new language requires more than just listening, having this skill gets you off to a great start.
Audio programs for CDs, podcasts and the like are going to be your new best friends. You can take them with you everywhere and learn on the go.
And there’s no shortage of resources. Programs like Pimsleur or Michel Thomas are great vocabulary-based programs that will push you closer to meeting your language learning goals. FluentU is another wonderful option for the auditory learner as it’s a video-based program that allows you to hear real people speaking in your target language.
Just be careful not to only rely on audio. As with the Vocabulary Approach, many programs don’t emphasize grammar. While it’s important to have a full arsenal of vocabulary, grammar is equally as important for effective communication. Your speech will come off very much like a caveman’s if all you can do is point and say single words.
Many people who use this approach tend not to obtain full comprehension right away, and merely pick up the gist of conversations. Generally this is fine, but sometimes a small word might mean the difference between you having a meal at 10 p.m. or becoming a meal at 10 p.m.—though hopefully that doesn’t happen to you!
This is an extreme scenario, but you catch my drift. Even in English a misplaced word or comma can turn a very innocent sentence into something hilariously vile. So having a full grasp of your target language is the best way to go.
For the Kinesthetic and Tactile Learners…
These two styles are extremely close and often lumped together. The reason for this is that tactile and kinesthetic learners both require a more active approach to learning.
These learners both have a much more difficult time in the classroom because of the sitting, lecturing and reading. The kinesthetic and tactile learners are more hands-on. They learn by doing. For instance, they don’t want to sit in biology class and hear a lecture about how cells work. They want to be in the lab with a microscope observing, testing and being fully engaged in the learning process.
Although kinesthetic and tactile learners are two separate styles, the difference between the two is very slight. Namely, while the kinesthetic learner best retains information by being as active as possible—ideally with activities that involve whole body movements—the tactile learner can be okay in a classroom setting as long as they can at least keep their hands moving and touching things. The tactile learner is an incredible note-taker for this reason, putting pen to paper can make all the difference.
The Communicative Approach
This approach to learning a new language is wonderful for the kinesthetic and tactile learner alike—and the auditory learner may find that they’re in their comfort zone here as well.
Traditionally, it’s taught in classroom settings with small groups of students. Instructors teach the target language through interaction. They use role-play, drama and simulations to make students communicate in unrehearsed scenarios. This focuses on helping students to express what they mean, as opposed to focusing on grammatical perfection.
Body language and acting things out is highly encouraged in this process. Instructors also combine oral communication with reading and writing in order to help language learners advance more quickly through the process.
Just because this method is traditionally taught in the classroom doesn’t mean that independent language learners can’t improvise. If you want to find a language school that uses this method, great!
If you can’t afford that, or simply just want the flexibility of making your own schedule and lessons, you can always form a group on your own. The best way to do this is through websites like Meetup, CitySocializer and even Facebook. This way you can round up people who are also interested in your target language to plan lessons and activities that fit your common interests.
That’s another great thing about the Communicative Approach. Lessons are tailored to the language learner’s personal experience. For example, if you’re a doctor, you may not find it as useful to learn a bunch of vocabulary and phrases that are related to computer programming. Or if you’re a vegan you won’t really be too interested in learning how to properly order a medium-rare filet mignon.
People will be much more engaged when they know that what they’re learning is something that they’ll actually be able to apply in real life. As a group, you can find ways to blend your interests to make the sessions beneficial for everyone.
Of course, there are always two sides. While learning with a supportive group of people is great, it may feel a bit like the blind leading the blind if there isn’t a fluent or native speaker among you. It may help to ask one to join you. Of course, unless this person is simply passionate about teaching their native language to strangers—or super friendly—that may be challenging as there’s no real benefit for the native speaker.
The next best thing may be to find someone who’s at a very advanced level to join the group. This way, the advanced learner will have the benefit of continued practice, and everyone else will have the benefit of a proper “instructor” who can help with new words, phrases and mistakes.
No matter what, the important thing is to get people together and start speaking. As kinesthetic and tactile learners, you’re bound to find ways to keep things productive and interesting.
The Immersion Approach
This is for those who like it straight, no chaser. Really, all that’s required for the Immersion Approach is, well, full-on immersion.
The best way to do that is by spending time in the country where your target language is spoken. There’s no replacement for being front and center, experiencing language, food and culture all at once. It’s probably the best teacher anyone could ask for.
But let’s get one thing clear. Immersion does not mean you’ll learn by osmosis. Even popular polyglot Benny Lewis tells of how he spent months in Spain and could barely speak a word of Spanish. People can live in a country for years, decades even, and still not have a strong command of the official language. You have to truly dedicate yourself and take advantage of the opportunity to practice speaking at every possible moment to get the most out of your experience.
Of course, picking up and moving to a new country isn’t feasible for everyone, even if just for a short time. Money, family, kids and career are just a few common things that can get in the way. Thankfully, the Internet offers several alternatives to relocation.
FluentU and LyricsTraining are great for kinesthetic and tactile learners, because they’re both immersive and very interactive. Also, the language exchange site italki is an excellent resource to immerse yourself into a language, because you get to have live conversations with native speakers who can support you through your language learning journey. You can also hire a professional, private language tutor online here to really improve and polish your skills.
With the Immersion Approach you get not a taste, but a full helping, of actual everyday speech. While structured programs are great, people don’t always speak “by the book.” With native speakers, you pick up the nuances and the colloquialisms of the language. You’ll understand those phrases that you can’t make an ounce of sense out of when you try to translate them according to the way you learned in your structured program.
For example, no me di cuenta may make little to no sense to a person learning Spanish through a structured course. Its literal translation is “I didn’t give myself account.” Errrr? But someone who has immersed themselves in Spanish culture knows that when a Spanish-speaking person says this they mean “I didn’t realize.” It’s the little things like this that will let the person taking the immersive approach soar into fluency faster than they can say “adelante.”
However, the Immersion Approach isn’t for the faint of heart. The truth is, you’ll struggle. You may struggle a lot. Don’t be surprised if you even shed a tear or two.
You’ll struggle to understand others and you’ll struggle to speak. If you go to a foreign country, here’s where you’ll have the hardest time. You won’t understand natives, and maybe they won’t understand you. If you use the Internet for your immersion, you’ll be somewhat less vulnerable. How long you struggle, however, depends on how deeply you immerse yourself. That being said, to dive deeper and deeper into immersion, you’ll need to embrace and even learn to love this struggle. You’ll need to laugh at it, laugh at yourself and enjoy the adventure.
To really make the most out of this approach, it’s best to supplement it with another language learning method. Take a course, use one of the many online platforms, buy a dictionary or consult a textbook. Give yourself a base for the language and you’ll find that you’ll have a much easier time picking it up.
Learning a language according to your language style will always be a huge benefit to you as a language learner. However, it’s important to keep this word in mind too: integration. For some people this will come easily, for others not so much. Either way, while it may be frustrating, it can’t hurt you. Actually, it will only help you.
Don’t let your preferred learning style limit you. Try your hand at several methods to help you reach your full potential. Use images. Listen to audio. Then muster up some courage and practice speaking on one of the several free language exchange websites.
Do what makes you comfortable—and then do what doesn’t. Again, learning a new language isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you’re here reading this then you’ve already got more resolve than you think.
Now off you go. It’s time to get to work!
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