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How to Learn a Language According to Your Brain Type

With many different methods to learn a new language, the best method for you will depend on how your brain works.

Written by Alex Parsons on 2 June 2016

Have you ever thought, "Maybe learning a language just isn't for me"? Perhaps you struggled with foreign languages in school or tried to pick one up later as an adult using audio lessons?

There was probably a moment where you wondered if your brain just wasn't cut out for languages.

You could be right.

Except it wasn't the language itself you had a problem with, it was the way you were learning it.

What Sort of Brain Type Do You Have?

Everyone has different brains and different ways that they like to absorb new information. There are two widely accepted, and very broad, types of thinkers: The auditory-sequential and the visual-spacial.

"Spatial and sequential thinking are two different mental organisations that affect the way people view the world," writes Lesley Sword, The Director of Gifted & Creative Services Australia. These mental organisations also affect the way that we learn.

The traditional way of teaching children in schools is in a verbal manner, talking to them, often supplemented with images. New ideas are usually presented in a sequential manner, starting from the basics and working towards bigger concepts. For example, when we learn the English language as children it begins with the alphabet, then moves onto phonetics and more complex concepts. Sound like most of your education? The problem is that this teaching style hugely favours auditory-sequential learners and can disadvantage visual-spacial learners.

So when it comes to languages, perhaps it's not surprising that having a teacher talk at the front of the classroom and progress from beginner to advanced concepts doesn't work for everyone. However, you may have thrived in this environment. Whatever the case, finding out what sort of thinker you are means that you can tailor the way that you approach a new language and have the best chance of remembering it.

The Auditory-Sequential Thinker VS the Visual-Spacial Thinker

According to Thomas G West's book, In The Mind's Eye (1991) the sequential part of our brain loves analysis, organisation, linear reasoning and language. In contrast, the spatial thinking areas enjoy looking at things as a whole instead of the parts, imagination and thinking of lots of things at once, often out of order.

Dr Linda Silverman, a widely published psychologist and founder of the Gifted Development Center in Colorado, US, was the pioneer of the Visual Spatial Learner concept in the 80s and 90s. She outlined some of the common characteristic of the two main learning styles in her book Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner (1999). Take a look at a few of the traits (full list here) and see which you relate to more.

Common characteristics of auditory-sequential brains:

  • You think in words.
  • You're good at listening and remembering what you hear.
  • You're regularly on time.
  • You like to learn step-by-step.
  • You're analytical.
  • You're good at remembering the details.
  • You can follow oral directions.
  • You may have been better at algebra and chemistry.
  • To spell words, you sound them out.
  • You write quickly and neatly.

Common characteristics of visual-spacial learners:

  • You think in images.
  • You remember what you see.
  • You're good at spatial tasks e.g. driving, moving objects.
  • You like to see the whole concept before you start to learn it.
  • You're creative.
  • You're good at remembering the whole gist of something, but not the details.
  • You're probably good with a map.
  • You may have been better at geometry and physics.
  • To spell words, you visualise the word in your mind.
  • You may have messy handwriting and prefer typing.

Does one sound more like you than the other? If you think you have characteristics from both types, don't worry. Everyone is a mix and may enjoy a variety of learning styles too. It just may happen that you have a more dominant side.

What's the Best Way of Learning a Language for Me?

Auditory-sequential learning tips

If you tick a lot of the auditory-sequential learner boxes, you'll be glad to know that traditional teaching methods may suit you best. You're a great listener so hearing a teacher speak the new language and trying to copy it works well. Having foreign conversations with other students is another way to engage your auditory skills, and you'll also benefit from audio-tapes.

The sequential part of the auditory-sequential brain means that working with beginner concepts and progressing through to harder concepts in sequence is ideal. For example, learning phonetics and grammar is a good idea before whole words and sentences.

If you want to supplement your language education with some more creative ideas, try listening to foreign music. Watching foreign movies can also help - there's no reason auditory-sequential learners can't benefit from a mix of different learning styles!

Visual-spacial learning tips

Visual-spacial learners may not have done well in school language classes because of the dominance of auditory information. However, if you were lucky enough to have a teacher who employed the immersion method, you may have fared better. This means being in a classroom where the language you are trying to learn is used exclusively. No welcomes and introductions in English, just straight into the foreign language. It can be confusing to suddenly be surrounded by a new language, and uptake may be slow at first, but research suggests that students who learn from immersion have better results over time.

Tapping into the visual side of your brain can be as easy as watching movies exclusively in the foreign language you're trying to learn (subtitles help!). Books and courses that use lots of pictures and photos will be more useful than audio-tapes, and writing down words can help more than simply listening.

Visual-spacial learners typically struggle with rote learning sounds, words and sentences. Instead, it's best to use these language skills in context - talking to someone! It's often easy to find another willing student to practice with, and the added cues of body language and hand gestures can really help the visual-spacial learner out.

Of course full immersion by living or working in the country will do wonders for the visual-spacial learner! Time to book a flight?

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