Does the Difference Between Eastern and Western Learning Styles Impact English Practices?

In 2012 National Public Radio's Alix Spiegel wrote an excellent article about how differently Western and East Asian cultures approach the learning process. Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern and Western Cultures Tackle Learning describes the experience of Asian students compared with their U.S. counterparts as observed by psychologists specialized in learning.

As a graduate student, psychologist Jim Stigler went to East Asia to research teaching methods and learn more about the differences between Eastern and Western learning styles. While observing a math class in Japan, he was struck by how struggling students were perceived as successful learners. This, in turn, had an impact on how students behaved. Instead of giving up when presented with an impossible math problem, the students persisted and accepted that learning is a process.

In the East, struggle is seen as part of the learning process. True success means not giving up and working hard.

In the West, it is a sign of weakness or lower ability. I remember when I was in school the teachers would put an emphasis on how you are either gifted or not. Struggling students were seen as failures.

What are other noticeable differences between Eastern and Western learning styles?

Aside from this story, researchers have also found stark differences between the Eastern and Western learning styles. Overall, Eastern philosophy values education and views the learning process as a fundamental purpose of life. Learning is perceived as a life-long process in the Eastern tradition, rather than something you are finished with at some point in your life.

The commitment to the learning process and diligence in seeking knowledge are two characteristics that separate Eastern and Western learning philosophies.

How do learning styles impact English lessons?

The key question for me as an English coach working with clients from all over the world is whether my students come from a culture where struggle is seen in a positive or negative light. Is it a sign of lower ability or an indication of a student’s determination? In other words, is the "struggle for smarts" only valued when it comes easy to a student; or is it perceived as a strength when a student persists despite lots of learning obstacles?

The answer to these questions is extremely important when it comes to how my clients experience language learning. Do they doubt themselves when they do not immediately remember a new expression or master a grammatical concept; or do they just go with the flow and embrace the process?

Learning English doesn’t happen overnight. It not only requires persistence but also the overcoming of emotional barriers that come with language learning.

Marike Korn