Holistic learning part 4: How your biological makeup affects your language learning

Education survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten.”

– B.F. Skinner (1904-1990)

I can’t speak for other countries, but here in the UK, the education system does seem to be based on one size fits all. However, our biological makeup is different and what works for one person may not work for another!

Now it is our language learning styles and strategies are among the main factors that determine how well you will learn a foreign language. This post will explore our biological makeup and look at the different strategies you can apply to get the most out of your study sessions. This will help make you a more successful and productive language learner.

Learning Styles

Learning styles are the general approaches that you use when acquiring new skills such as learning a foreign language.

“Learning style is the biologically and developmentally imposed set of characteristics that make the same teaching method wonderful for some and terrible for others”

Dunn & Griggs (1988)

Two learning styles that are associated with language learning are the sensory preferences and biological factors. Learning styles are not set in black or white but are rather grey areas where traits of other learning styles can also co-exist.

Sensory Stimulus

Sensory stimulus refers to the physical perceptual learning preferences that you feel most comfortable with applying and these can be broken down into four main categories…

Visual Stimulus

Visual learners like to read and can obtain a great deal of visual stimulus. Lectures, conversations, and oral directions without any visual backup can be very confusing for visual learners, therefore, video tutorials with transcripts or powerpoint presentations can work very well. Visual learners will benefit from watching movies or reading books in their target language. If you prefer using this sense then this may also be reflected in the vocabulary you use. For example “I can see where you are coming from with this…” or “I can see what you mean

Recommended duration of study time: 40 – 45 minutes. If watching a movie break for 2-5 minutes every 45 minutes.

Auditory Stimulus

In contrast, auditory learners are comfortable without any visual input and therefore enjoy and profit from, conversations, and oral directions.  They sometimes, however, have difficulty with written work. The approach to start speaking from day one would be really beneficial to auditory learners. If you prefer using this sense then this may also be reflected in the vocabulary you use. For example “I hear what you are saying but…“.

Recommended duration of study time: 20-30 minutes followed by a 5-minute break then another 20-30 minutes.

Tactile and Kinesthetic Stimulus

Tactile and kinesthetic are very much hands-on learners. They benefit from actually doing and require lots of physical movement. These learners feel more comfortable with working with flashcards, tangible objects, and creative means such as creating sculptures, models or collages.  They are very much touch oriented. When learning languages they may the most, however having a little creativity in language learning will propel their understanding to new levels. If you prefer using these senses then this may also be reflected in the vocabulary you use. For example “I feel that I am just not understanding the concept...”

Recommended duration of study time: 20 minutes followed by a 5-minute break then another 20 minutes.

Biological Differences

The biological aspects of learning styles are not focused upon enough. Differences in language learning style can also be related to our biological factors, such as biorhythms,  exercise, location, and sustenance.

Body clock

Biorhythms reveal the times of day when we feel good and can perform at our best. Some learners are morning people, while others do not want to start learning until the afternoon, and still, there are some language learners, like myself that are night owls happily “pulling an all-nighter” of a study session if necessary.


Regular exercise releases the bodies feel-good chemicals and can actually energize the body. It can also help with the stimulation of new brain cells so all in all when learning something new it is also a good idea to increase activity levels too! It is recommended by doctors to do at least 2 30 minute aerobic sessions a week. This does include walking.


Location involves the nature of the learning environment for example; room temperature, lighting, distractions, sound, and even the level of comfort you feel. All of this will impact on your ability to learn new things. Some people thrive on having some background noise, whilst others need complete silence.


Sustenance refers to the need for food or drinks whilst learning. I personally prefer to have a coffee when I sit down for a study session, however, some learners feel distracted from their study by food and drink. Remember that if you are dehydrated or hungry you will not be as focused as you could be. So I also recommend always having a glass of water and ensuring you are not hungry before studying.

When language learners choose a good fit for their learning style the following strategies can become a very useful toolkit for a more focused and productive way of learning. Learning strategies can be classified into the following six groups…

Learning strategies can be classified into the following six groups…

1. Affective Education

Research by Dreyer and Oxford (1996) and Oxford and Ehrman (1995) into learning foreign languages has shown that affective strategies, such as identifying mood and anxiety levels, talking about feelings, challenging belief systems and using deep breathing or positive self-talk, can be significantly beneficial for language learners. If  you are stressed you are less likely to attain information, but by working on your personal wellbeing means reducing those stress levels, therefore, making you more focused.

Strategies: Focus on developing your self-esteem and compassion within language learning.

2. Cognitive

Cognitive strategies enable the learner to manipulate the language material in direct ways via reasoning, analysis, note-taking, summarizing, synthesizing, outlining, reorganizing information to develop knowledge structures, practicing in naturalistic settings, and practicing structures and sounds formal. All learning styles can benefit from these methods.

Strategies: In order to begin learning you must be paying attention. The average person can hold up to 3 small learning tasks at a time and 1 complex task at a time. Next, what we are paying attention to must be stored in our memory and there are 3 stages of memory process before something is learnt! Firstly is the sensory register (seconds), then it is passed into short-term memory  (20 seconds – 2minutes), then if the word is rehearsed it short end up in the long-term memory. To achieve this you need to encode the foreign words you are learning. If you are a visual learner you could do this via reading a language book or if you are audio via listening to the language. Tactile or kinesthetic you may find flash cards work best for you.

3. Compensatory Learning 

Compensatory strategies (e.g., guessing from the context in listening and reading; using synonyms and“talking around” the missing word to aid speaking and writing; and strictly for speaking, using gestures or pause words) help the learner make up for missing knowledge. When used in conjunction with memory-related strategies this can be pretty powerful language learning strategy.

Strategies: Watching body language to put foreign language into context.

4. Metacognitive Approach 

Metacognitive strategies focus on identifying on a more holistic approach taken individual needs into consideration.  Planning and goal setting for language learning tasks, information gathering, and organizing materials, arranging a study space and a schedule, monitoring mistakes, and evaluating task success.

Strategies: Metacognitive approach can complement affective learning strategies.

5. Memory-Related Strategies

This is the method used in schools and colleges. Memory-related strategies help learners link languages or concepts with another but do not necessarily involve deep understanding.

Strategies: The memory palace can be a pretty powerful tool here.

6. Social

Social strategies (e.g., asking questions to get verification, asking for clarification of a confusing point, asking for help in doing a language task, talking with a native-speaking conversation partner, and exploring cultural and social norms) help the learner work with others and understand the target culture as well as the language.

Strategies: One of the best ways to learn a new language is to ‘live it‘. Fully immerse yourself in the language and no matter you sensory preferences bombarded with visual, auditory, touch, and taste.

Pushing Boundaries

To be a successful language learner it is really important to push past the boundaries and get out of your comfort zone.  Although it is important to make the most out of learning styles don’t be afraid to extend beyond your style preferences.

The key is to try a variety of different activities within a more holistic learner orientated approach. Also, don’t forget about the biological structures that could be holding you back from achieving your goals. By applying these and also pushing boundaries you will become a much more efficient, focused and productive language learner.

Comment over on Facebook or our Twitter page on your preferred style of learning and the strategies you have applied.

If this article has helped you or you feel it may help another person please share…

Bialystok, E., (1990), Communication Strategies: A Psychological Analysis of Second-language
O’Malley, J.M. & Chamot, A.U., (1990), Learning Strategies in Second Language Acquisition.
Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Oxford R.L., et al. (2003), in Language Learning Styles and Strategies: An Overview


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