Two Types of Language Learners

Language learning. It’s the 500-pound gorilla that first term missionaries everywhere must learn to dance with. Though often, this experience feels less like a dance and more like our metaphorical gorilla is simply sitting on your head.

I had the advantage of growing up a bilingual TCK, which does help. The shift from two to three languages seems to be easier for the brain than the shift from one to two – something about the mind having already learned once to express reality in an alternative system of thought/speech forms makes it that much easier to do it again. A second or third language gives your brain additional categories, more hooks on which to hang the grammatical concepts or vocab of whatever language you’re learning next. For example, my high school Spanish got me familiar with verb conjugation based on person and number, a category that served me well when I started learning our local Central Asian tongue. But no matter how much experience you have with languages, it always takes a lot of time and hard work to master another one – and this often requires two to five years. Therefore, anything that makes it somewhat easier is extremely valuable.

I’m no trained linguist, but as a language-learning practitioner (and one who has worked closely with many others) I’ve observed two main kinds of language learners, two main patterns of wiring when it comes to learning an additional tongue. There may be technical terms for these language learning styles out there, but for the purposes of this post I’ll call them the Analytical and the Intuitive language learning styles. Essentially, every language-learner I’ve engaged with on this topic seems to fall into one of these two camps, creating something like a 50/50 divide.

These styles or preferences differ from one another in how they relate to the structure – the grammar – of the language. The mind of an Analytical learner craves and needs understanding of the language’s structure very early on, often proving unable to absorb vocab and dialogue without it. If required to learn and reproduce phrases without this structure, the mind of an Analytical learner protests and complains – “How am I supposed to learn this if I don’t understand what these parts of speeches’ roles are, what they are doing in the sentence, the rules that govern them, and how it all fits together?!” An Analytical learner needs a map of the language, a blueprint of sorts, and only when they have this can they begin to truly learn the individual parts. It’s as if the mind then relaxes and is free to learn because it now knows where to place the hitherto-disjointed pieces. These pieces are then no longer felt to be disembodied and random, but part of a logical system, part of a whole.

The mind of an Intuitive learner functions in the complete opposite way. An intuitive learner’s mind cannot take in or understand the language’s structure, its grammar, without a large foundation of listening, phrases, and dialogue. If presented with grammar lessons at the beginning of language learning, their mind will tend to reject the information, since it feels like it has nothing concrete on which to hang these abstract rules and systems. These learners crave jumping in headfirst and using the language, getting conversational with practical, everyday language. Only after a solid season of this will their brains start to desire and accept the Why behind the words and phrases they have been hearing and using. They need to feel out the rules first, and only directly study them later. Rather than needing a map, these learners need to go and explore the streets on foot as it were. After they have done this they will then be able to rightly orient themselves with the big picture.

All human beings learn their first language as Intuitive learners. Our brains naturally absorb the structure of our mother tongue by constant observation and trial and error. We absorb the rules naturally and indirectly. Then, once we are in school, we are directly and explicitly taught the structure of our language. We approach grammar study in school in an Analytical way. This means that for everyone who has studied grammar in school, we all have at least some experience learning our own language in both styles. But whether because of brain plasticity or something genetic, around half of us develop an Analytical learning preference, while the other half continues to prefer Intuitive learning.

How do we know which wiring fits us? Even without learning another language, there may be some clues that you already have. First, how did (and do) you feel about studying the grammar of your own language? Does this feel good to your mind, or more akin to the angst of getting a cavity filled – necessary, but definitely not enjoyable? Does “seeing” the invisible structure of your language bring you joy or make you want to go to sleep? If grammatical concepts make your mind tingle pleasantly, chances are you are an Analytical learner. If you’d really rather get back to what you feel is the real language, then you’re probably Intuitively-wired.

These categories tend to flow over into other areas of learning as well. A friend who works as a chef told me this week that he has always loved learning the why, the science, behind what is happening in cooking. Knowing this makes him feel more free and equipped to create and enjoy cooking food. This means there is a very good chance that my friend would be an Analytical language learner. Get that man some grammar early on, and he will feel so much more free and equipped to persevere in language learning. Paying attention to how you prefer learning in other areas is another clue to how God has wired your brain to learn language.

Why are these categories are so important to understand? Because enjoyment and perseverance in language learning are on the line here, and this because language learning programs tend to favor one style or another. Put a language learner in a program that favors the other kind of mind, and they will very quickly want to pull their hair out, and/or quit. Put a learner in a program that fits with their respective Intuitive or Analytical style, and greatly increase their chances of actually learning that language. Too often learners are handicapped by the wrong approach, and mistakenly come away thinking they are not really gifted to learn language at all.

Several dynamics mean that language learners continue to get placed in programs that lead to deep frustration. The first issue is simple ignorance of these learning preferences. The learner, teacher, or facilitator might not know that these variations exist, so how can they know which style the student best aligns with? Second, it is a lamentable human tendency to project our own wiring onto others. So, if we successfully learned a language in a certain way, we naturally feel that everyone else should be able to learn in this same way also. We might even go on to publish and distribute our favored method, making big claims about the universality of our approach. And this leads to the third issue, that of methodological rigidity. Just as missionaries might latch onto a silver-bullet church-planting strategy, so they tend to latch onto a language learning methodology as the way to do it, rather than a way. Here the same common sense logic applies to both church planting and language learning – it’s a very hard job and people are very diverse, so we should want to keep all of our healthy options on the table. Sadly, many new missionaries on the field are locked into a language learning approach that is given the weight of law, when it should really only be treated as a helpful option, one that very well may need to be tweaked or even discarded.

My wife and I are wired as Intuitive language learners. This meant that we wanted to jump in right away into collecting phrases and doing conversational practice. I remember having some grammar lessons in the US before going to Central Asia, but almost nothing from those lessons was retained by my brain. Instead, six months into an Intuitive learning approach (GPA), I suddenly found my mind unexpectedly hungry for some rules for things like the way that near/far and singular/plural demonstratives were acting in my new adopted language. A grammar summary from a teammate on the logic of how to say “these bananas, those bananas, this banana, etc.,” made all the difference here. And even though we found ourselves in a learning program that mostly fit our style, we were also crucially allowed a great degree of flexibility to pursue more Analytical lessons as needed. And we made generous use of this freedom, changing up our program significantly every few months. I believe that this flexibility is what allowed us to reach the advanced level of language in the time frame that we did. Because for us, flexibility to pivot when needed meant we were able to continue (mostly) enjoying the language learning process.

And yet many of our colleagues have found the same programs we used, the same lightly-structured approach favoring Intuitive learning, to be positively life-sucking. They dream of having an official language school, where an Analytical approach to the language could result, for them, in greater freedom and joy in language learning. And I wish the same for them, because God has apparently wired our minds differently. Why should they be compelled to learn in the same way that I did? No indeed, get those folks some grammar, and fast! But please don’t make me study it until I’m ready. In this way we may all learn to get that 500-pound gorilla off our heads, and perhaps even begin to dance with it.

Photo by Patrice Audet on Unsplash

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