What Exactly Does it Take to Learn English? A Look at Learning Styles in an ESL Classroom

“How long will it take to learn English?” This is a question I hear quite a bit from my ESL students and I never really know how to answer, primarily because I can’t predict the future. Six months? A year? Everyone is different. Some people learn faster than others. Some people just have a natural gift for absorbing languages. Lucky them! But I do know that if you are aware of how you learn, that can make things a little easier and perhaps go a little faster.

Learning styles come in various forms and everyone has their own unique way of learning even if they do not realize it. There are four basic styles of learning and they are auditory, visual, kinesthetic and tactile. Learners however, are not limited to one single style of learning. Some learners use different combinations of all four styles. So what do these learning styles mean?

Auditory Learning. Plain and simple, these students learn better by listening when material is delivered to them in an oral format. They can better absorb information through lectures, listening exercises, and auditory media such as television, movies and radio. You know you are an auditory learner if you prefer the listening activities in your ESL book rather than the written work. I always tell my students to listen to songs and watch movies and TV in English without the subtitles as an exercise. I once had a young ESL student who learned to speak English solely through this method. She was practically fluent at sixteen years of age without ever having lived in an English speaking country nor having been exposed to any quality English classes in her country, and since American television programs as well as movies are shown in most parts of the world, she was constantly exposed to English. She was an auditory leaner in its purest form.

Visual Learning. But what if, aside from just enjoying hearing American music and watching American TV shows, you can’t seem to really learn that much from it? You might just be a visual learner. Visual learners retain better what they see than what they hear so they prefer reading exercises, flash cards, pictures and retaining what the teacher writes on the white board. I myself am a visual learner. I like to see the actual written word and then I refer back to the image of the word to remember it. Pictures of the words are also useful. That way the learner can associate the word with the picture. Those learners who are lucky enough to have even a little bit of a photographic memory are without a doubt visual learners.

Kinesthetic Learning. These learners learn by doing. They prefer to use their whole body to learn. For example, they might learn verbs and adjectives better by actually acting them out than hearing or seeing them. They also may absorb language skills better by doing role-play situations where they can use hand gestures and other physical movements or better yet, real life situations like going to a store and interacting with the employees and other shoppers. They can remember words from the store by associating what their body was doing at the time. For example, if they walk through the frozen food section and it feels cold, they can later associate words having to do with cold with what they physically felt while walking down the aisle.

Tactile learning. Tactile learners are similar to kinesthetic learners, the main difference being that they learn better by using their sense of touch. For example, if the learner is studying nouns that have to do with eating, they would better absorb the vocabulary by touching forks, spoons, plates, and other objects related to eating. They might also learn the verb “to eat” by holding a fork and physically pretend to be eating.

In conclusion, everyone has their own special way of learning English whether they realize it or not and figuring out which kind of learner you are can greatly help the pace at which you learn. But no matter what learning style you have, the only real way to learn how to speak English, or any language for that matter, is to speak it. Speak it as much as possible. Talk to your postman, to your bus driver, to your English-speaking friends. Don’t be shy or embarrassed. Everyone makes mistakes. That is the only way to improve. As much as I wish we could learn a foreign language through osmosis, by just holding the book against our heads and having the information magically transfer into our brains, that method is better left for a science fiction movie. Trust me, people will be impressed that you are even embarking on such a difficult task and learning English is difficult. So, figure out which learning method best serves you. You will improve but it does take patience and commitment. As in the simple yet poignant words of Jimmy Cliff, “You can get it if you really want but you must try, try and try, try and try…you’ll succeed at last!”