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Eye-learning or Ear-learning?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

It has become popular to talk about two categories of "learning styles" as visual learning (through the eyes) and auditory (through the ears).  Some of the eye-ear thought applied to language learning has been misleading.

Part of the difficulty in the eye-ear question seems to be a confusion between issues of literacy (ability to read and write, then thinking of information in terms of writing, documentation, and written manipulation) and the visual learning aspect of language acquisition.

Because of our heavy literacy in the West, we tend to think of learning by auditory or visual means as relating to spoken or written information.  But in language acquisition, this is not the comparable distinction of visual or auditory learning styles.

In ordinary concepts, based on our remembered experiences of learning, mostly in a school setting, the learning styles visual or auditory usually refer to the acquisition of new information.  Language is not primarily the acquisition of new information, which is processed, drilled, learned and remembered, base upon documentation that can be "captured" in writing and referred to later to further strengthen knowledge and recall.

Language is a format for thought and organization of information.  Think of the English word dog.  You probably see a mental picture of the animal called dog.  How would you go about learning the equivalent Swahili item mbwa?

A visual style of learning the Swahili vocabulary item mbwa would be to see the dog or a picture of it, even if only crudely drawn on a chalkboard, while hearing the word, repeating it, hearing sentences or stories about dogs and producing same.

Event Imaging
What about verbs, representing events or relationships?  Events are more complex that nouns which represent visible objhects.  But you an use visual support for verbs also.

The visual support needed for learning verbs is not to have the word written down where you can look it up every time you need it (that is why they publish dictionaries), but to have an event image in your head associated with those sounds.

Thus strong strategies for learning event words and description words are drama, actions by helpers, or discussion of events in the natural world with a language helper.  This might be "vicarious" through films, photos, class dramas, etc.  But the picture of the event must be there, just as the picture for a noun must be there.  I call this Event Imaging.

Thus for "visual style" learners, the visual learning style is not writing it down, but seeing the event and talking about it while watching the event.  This puts the learning into the social context critical for the social function of language. It limits the amount of memory work for the learner.

(Learners often confuse remembering with memorizing.  I have a very good memory for things I learn through various strategies, but I am poor at memorizing, and find it takes much effort to memorize.)

Event Context
Learning in the context of the event makes it easier to recreate that event next time as the unique context for the phrase, word or topic.  It is based on the real world, but is drillable as any other segment of language is.

It can be analyzed phonetically, structurally, lexically, etc., but best of all it can be remembered more easily (by most learners) with less energy and effort later.  It accelerates the social involvement and relational skills needed by the learner to become an effective communicator (participator in the cultural social setting).

Becoming Literate
Becoming literate in the new language is a distinct and separate process, with its own considerations.  Previous literacy often helps a learner, and particularly provides parameters of expectation for proceeding to literate (educated) levels of communication within the target society.  But a person may be illiterate and quite fluent, or highly literate in the target language and socially incompetent.


First Published in the "Techniques" series in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, March 1997
A version of this article also published in the Geode Media Journal, Nicosia, Cyprus, May 2000
This version first posted 9 June 2001
Revised 5 June 2006
Last edited 1 October 2007

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1997, 2006
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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