Learning a second language – style matters

Rules or risks? Learning a foreign language is just one form of learning in general; therefore, each individual will employ the approach that he or she usually applies to other learning situations.

When it comes to foreign languages, one kind of learner prefers a highly structured approach, with plenty of explanations in the mother tongue, graded exercises, constant correction, and careful, airtight rules of formulation. This type of learner is generally very analytical, reflective, and reluctant to say anything in the foreign language that is not grammatically perfect. This person is a rule learner.

A second type of learner relies more on intuition, the gathering of examples, and imitation. He or she is willing to take risks, and is not afraid to make errors in the target language, in the hope that they will be corrected at some point down the line. Such people have become known to me as language disciples – following the language and learning as they go instead of ingesting it in bite-size chunks.

There is no evidence that one type of learner is more successful than the other. What is more important is that the learner’s style is appropriate to the particular task. If the task is to communicate orally in a real-life situation, then risk-taking would be the more efficient path to your goal. If the task is to say or write something correctly, then the rules should be consulted.

It is helpful for each learner’s preferences to be accommodated in the classroom. You may thus wish to examine your own preferences and communicate them to your teacher. For instance, if you feel that you need rules and regulation, you may be a little uncomfortable in a classroom dedicated to imitation and repetition of dialogue, and you might want to ask the teacher for further explanation. If, on the other hand, you feel that you learn more from being exposed to the language and from making your own inferences, you may feel ill at ease in a classroom where the teacher takes time painstakingly explaining the new grammar in your native language, and you would do well to ask the teacher for more practice in speaking.

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