Reflections Of A Visual-Spatial Language Learner


Donovan Nagel

Every language that you learn after your second language is easier than the one you learned before it.

You’ve probably heard other people say that before and if you’ve learned a few languages yourself then you’ll no doubt agree that as you become a more experienced language learner over time, the entire process of learning a new language gets a lot easier.

This is especially true for languages that are a part of the same family, e.g. going from Italian to Spanish to French.

If you’re a bit of an IT geek like me, going from Italian to Spanish is comparable to switching from C to C++. You’ve covered all the foundational stuff – it’s just a matter of learning a new syntax et voilà.

But even in a much more general way, once you’ve learned another language you start to become much more aware of what to look out for in another language, e.g. grammar and syntax differences, phonetics, certain high frequency vocabulary etc. I’m confident that if I wanted start learning Mongolian for example (a language that I haven’t got a clue about), I’d be able to jump straight in and know what to look for. It’d be easier for me to learn than for a monolingual person trying to learn their first foreign language.

After the second language the linguistic equivalent of culture shock is over and it all gets less daunting.


The main reason why your third and fourth languages are easier than your second

Simply put:

You start to learn more about yourself.

Languages like so many other pursuits reveal more about our own selves and this in turn helps us to grow and become more mature intellectually.

When I started out learning my first foreign language back in my teens I had no idea how to approach it or what to look for. I was a complete n00b (‘newbie’ in Old Geekish) and reliant on my teacher to guide and instruct me as so many adult learners of a second language are.

These days I’ve learned so much about my own personality, my learning style and what learner ‘type’ I am, and it’s all helped me to make adjustments in how I structure my studies and tackle new problems.


How being a visual-spatial learner affects language learning

One of the many things I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I’ve always been a visual-spatial learner which greatly disadvantaged me growing up.

I failed high school.

On my leaving certificate I had a fail mark on every single subject except music which I aced (I’m pretty good with music theory and I play a few instruments).

Because my school grades were so abysmal, no university would accept me so I had to start out at Diploma level and I failed the whole first year of my Diploma. Despite this I managed to barely convince the college to allow me into Bachelor level study (I was fortunate that intake was low at the time so they reluctantly let me try my luck).

I then failed nearly all of my subjects in the first year of my Bachelor.

You can probably imagine how discouraging all these bad grades were! Many times I nearly gave up study altogether to join a trade but a few supportive people convinced me to stick with it.

Long story short, years later I hit almost straight A’s in my Masters and became one of the top achievers in my university at the time (at this point I was so fed up with failure!).

The reason why I mention my failed grades like this is because like many other people I’m a visual-spatial learner and had to discover this through lots of trial and error and then work out how to use it to my advantage in learning.

Eventually I was able to structure my own self-learning in a way that was hugely advantageous to my studies.

Visual Spatial Brain


A visual-spatial learner struggles immensely with syllabi and structured courses.

The majority of people are not visual-spatial but rather sequential learners and actually prefer to sit down and follow a course book from the first chapter through to the final chapter with a teacher directing them. They also learn well with audio material. They generally take note of the minor details and work through problems in a proper sequence to arrive at an answer.

People like myself however either can’t, or find it very difficult to work like this. Although I have sat down and worked through books from start to finish in the past, I detest this way of learning and prefer to skip over the details for the whole answer immediately and then work it out my own way.

In school and then college I would often arrive at an understanding of a particular concept or the answer, but I’d work it out in a way that I couldn’t explain properly. This is one of the reasons why visual-spatial learners tend to be regarded as having a learning disorder.

I remember when I was working on a Hebrew exegetical project on Amos (Hebrew scriptures) with a friend in college (he was a sequential learner and thus we were very different learners). I quickly came up with a solution to a translation problem, but being a visual-spatial learner I couldn’t properly explain my reasoning. He worked out a much less innovative solution to the problem and received a high mark, whereas I got a low mark even though my answer was far better.

I just struggled like other visual-spatial learners to explain how I found my answer and this caused major problems for me in exams when trying to recall minor details and facts.

My mum’s always told me that as a young kid I used to destroy radios and anything electrical or mechanical because I wanted to know how they worked. She said I always wanted to see how the components fit together to work as a whole. I recently discovered that this is a fairly common trait with visual-spatial kids.

My approach to study even today is the same – I start with the conclusion or the complete concept and I break it down or disassemble it to piece it back together.


Languages actually turned me from an academic failure into a success story

You know it wasn’t until I took up Greek and Hebrew in college that things began to really change for me. I discovered that being a visual-spatial learner could actually be advantageous, especially in terms of memorization.

Remember when I talked about image association and attaching meaning to real, tangible things and experiences? When I was studying Greek I started visualizing everything that I learned – it was like I had a huge glass screen in front of me with words and pictures on it – it was a completely visual experience for me.

I struggle to recall stuff that I hear but if I actually see it or some representation, it sticks. I write it up on the imaginary glass wall in my mind and it helps me remember everything.

I aced Greek and Hebrew.

I then started to apply this to my other subjects and suddenly I started getting good grades. What also helped me was that most of my subjects were offered in either English, or Greek and Hebrew so I chose Greek and Hebrew which meant that I could continue to apply and use my languages for all my subjects.

When writing an essay I would write my conclusion out first and work backwards, disassembling the idea with lots of brain-mapping diagrams on paper and visual aids, and then piece it all back together coherently. I would arrive at a conclusion very early on (as visual-spatial learners tend to do), then I’d work in reverse (making changes to my conclusion along the way).

It’s not a very orthodox way to write and argue in academic papers but the good results and newly discovered passion for learning are all that matter at the end of the day!

These are some adjustments I’ve made to my language learning strategy as a visual-spatial learner:

  • I don’t bother with step-by-step coursework.
  • I ensure that all audio material I use is accompanied by something visual, e.g. transcripts or images.
  • I guide my language teachers to teach me the areas that I know I need. I don’t rely on them for structure.
  • I jump straight in to complex, natural language material even if I don’t understand anything and work backwards, breaking it down over time.
  • I completely avoid rote memorization which is useless to me
  • I use flashcards with whole sentences, phrases and pictures rather than single words

Are you a visual-spatial or sequential learner?

The majority of people reading this are probably sequential (normal) learners.

Generally speaking (and I know that many things exist on a spectrum so it’s not all black and white – apologies if I offend anyone), you will work best with structured material.

If you find that a language course book and an experienced teacher steering you in a set direction helps you then stick with it.

I’d love to hear your input on this topic in the comment section below. What are your experiences as either a sequential or visual-spatial learner?

I’m going to email out a quick survey soon with a few questions to help you work out what type of learner you are and how you can use that information to create an optimal language learning strategy. If you’re not on the mailing list, you can join it by entering your email in the ‘Join the Guild’ box at the top of this page.

If you found this post useful or interesting, please share it around. Thanks! :)


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Donovan Nagel
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. I have a huge passion for language learning (especially Arabic), raising awareness of endangered minority languages and simplifying language learning for millions of people around the world. Sign up and stay connected.

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  1. snake 46 says:

    Talent don't have any limit… From the whole -to the detail -to the whole is a main way to master of musical form… (Excuse for English).

  2. filiprojasart says:

    As you say there is a continuum of personality traits, but I definitely have a lot of visual-spacial in me.
    I love languages, but not as you might expect to speak them, even though I am fluent in three and able to communicate in at least two more.
    To learn the structure of Hebrew grammar I skimmed a couple of books and websites, and to learn the alefbet I made a parallel diagram of the Phoenician, the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin, and the Russian alphabets, learning them all at once along with IPA pronunciation notes.
    I remembering taking Latin in school, thinking everybody else was so slow in understanding the basic grammar. Sadly because of this we never made it to the advanced stuff.
    I basically see a word once and remember the spelling for ever (basically!).
     I can skim through a book at a speed of 5 sec per page and spot almost every spelling and punctuation error.
    As you do, I learn a language by getting an advanced sample text and then working it out, often writing my own grammar (in my head or on paper) as I go.
    I got immensely frustrated by university English grammar class when they didn't separate discourse/transcription( broad, narrow) /text/thematic roles/syntax/parts of speech in a way that was easily absorbed by the other students. They ended up confusing subject and agent, noun phrase and noun and so forth, for no good reason at all. I had a mental hierarchy in my head so for me it wasn't any problem.

    As for music, my ability to enjoy it is closely related to my ability to visualise it. I tend to experience a song as a music video that remains the same even a decade later.

    I find that people often don't understand what I'm talking about since I can be highly speculative and theoretic, requiring for my friends to swiftly imagine nebulous concepts and structures.

    I know some of my friends will drive the wrong way if not actively paying attention to every step of the road, loading info about where to turn  next as they go. Myself I have no problem visualizing a 200 mile trip in a matter of seconds.

    When I want to orient myself inside a large building I visualize the whole building as far as i know it with transparent walls and floors and zoom out until standing in the air outside the building seeing myself and the buildning in relation to the surrounding landscape.

    I never liked school, finding the learning process slow and syrupy. I preferred to go home and teach whatever it was to myself.

    For the same reason I quit art school (yes even art school). They required us to repeat repeat repeat. I would think about the task until undertanding the idea behind the challenge (perspective or whatever) and then draw it a couple of times until satisfied. Voilà! No, I could not draw a perfect circle, who can? But I could understand the transformation of 3D to 2D and eye-to-hand coordination. Easy, but while the rest of the class were still very much struggling with elipses I would grow bored and leave, eventually dropping out to become a freelance illustrator.

    I very much enjoyed this article! Thank you for sharing. I hope I didn't write too long a comment. :)

    / Filip

    • Guest says:

      I am very much like you Filip, sounds have visual representations in my head. I can learn languages simultaneously (I prefer different language families when doing simultaneous study to avoid cognate exchange) because I experience them differently like eating a chunky salsa versus a soft cupcake. The internal rhythms of the language have acoustic patterns which translate to visual patterns in my head. I, at times, use mental imagery to secure words, but it is usually enough to simply hear the word because it adopts its own texture, shape, and mood. I definitely have a visual memory because i can see the spelling of words and even the spelling (regardless of phonetics) can tint the hue of a word…(so its more like recalling a moving painting than having to remember spelling). That being said, I feel that I might have some synesthetic (aural->visual) connections that enhance my ability with words. I understand where you are coming from Filip when you say, "I find that people often don't understand what I'm talking about since I can be highly speculative and theoretic, requiring for my friends to swiftly imagine nebulous concepts and structures." My rapturous discussion about the language cuisine available for tasting usually falls flat for them. They cannot see (imagine)how I got there or what I am experiencing.

      This comment is quickly turning into a beast (what can i say, i was inspired by the article and filip's comment), so I'll hastily wrap up. Ultimately, I'm thrilled to hear discussion about language as a visual process. It's quite refreshing to know that someone out there gets me! haha,

  3. ollelinge says:

    Great article! Everything would be so much better if people stopped using previous language learning failures in high school as a reference for "the real world". Schools cater to one or a few ways of learning, and, just as you point out, that doesn't necessarily suit all students. Method does matter.

    I also like how you worded this piece of advice: "I guide my language teachers to teach me the areas that I know I need. I don’t rely on them for structure."

    Almost no-one follows this advice, but everyone should. I've written about something similar here (taking responsibility yourself, even when enrolled in a language course).

    • mezzoguild says:

      Thanks Olle!

      Very true. It is a problem that schools only cater for specific types and this is a huge problem for visual-spatial kids because most teachers aren't trained to recognize these kinds of issues.

      Great post too :)

  4. Judy Utahq says:

    Just turned 64 and last year I found out I was a visual-spatial learner. It explained so much to me and made me understand why I had so much trouble learning things in the traditional ways but seemed to be brilliant in figuring things out in my own way. One very disturbing thing happened to me a few days ago…. I inadvertently arranged the items on my desktop and instantly all the files and pictures I had so carefully placed in certain areas of my desktop were now "scattered" in a uniform, symetrical way either by alpha sorting or date sorting. It took me oaver 1/2 hr. to find everything and put it back (physically) where it was before.

    I then remembered in childhood when my mother decided she was tired of waiting for me to clean my room and did it herself. I was furious and extremely disoriented and couldn't explain that feeling, so all she saw was "mad"!

    At this "late" age I'm a return college student and have some difficultly explaining to my instructors about my learning style. I just told my physical geology teacher that I'm a visual spatial learner and he said, "well, in my academia we look at that as kind of airy fairy…. so I really can't accommodate that." I hadn't expected him to, but I was trying to get through to him that I just cannot ram things by rote into my brain. He shows us, (and I google) samples of various igneous, metamorphic, and sedentary rocks….. but the rocks I find never look exactly like the pictures so I feel very lost and stupid.

    What kind of help can I hope to get and where should I seek such help so I can do well in classes that are very challenging, like this one? Would appreciated answers! thx, judy

  5. blacktortoise2x says:

    Hmmm that was an interesting read. Makes me wonder if I am somewhat Visual-Spatial. It might be that I just dislike structured A-B learning. I'd rather just pick whichever parts I feel like at the time and eventually I understand more.

  6. Triple says:

    Wow, it's neat that you wrote about this; and a coincidence that you mentioned Mongolian. I did learn Mongolian as a second language, and I struggled at first. I eventually figured out that if I saw the word written out, and how it is spelled, I could almost always remember it. Several of my friends could just pick up words from hearing them, but I never could, no matter how many times I heard it. I would always carry a piece of paper and a pen and ask someone to spell new words for me. When I started doing that, my vocabulary increased greatly. I'd write them all in my notebook later, and just a few times of looking at them would cement them in my head.

  7. Paola says:

    Hello Donovan,

    I already heard before that I was a visual spatial learner, but I still need some help to learn new languages. I wouldn't know how to do it by steps. I realized that I learn more by watching TV in a particular language than actually following a book. I really want to learn German, but there are so many rules I have no clue how to make that into a visual learning.

    At least your post give me some hope I can make it someday

  8. says:

    Nice to read this article.
    I´ve been learning portuguese (spanish is my mother tongue) and I have been really frustrated with my latest teacher. He only uses the whiteboard when I specifically ask him.

    Even though spanish and portuguese are very similar, the pronunciation of some letters is totally different. Today is "hoy" in spanish, "hoje" in portuguese and it is pronunced like the italian "oggi". Words don´t stick until I see them. Then, I can "deduct" how they sound. No use in hearing them. When the teacher spells the word, it is a little more helpful.

    Last week the subject was how to transform "Discurso direto" to "Discurso indireto"
    I felt clueless. Not until I found myself a nice presentation in SlideShare, I began to understand how verbs should change tense in order to transform a dialog to indirect speech.

    Must talk to my teacher! 😀

  9. Nathan says:

    This was exactly me in my Greek class. I tried flash cards and rote learning, but once I tried matching the words up with images, I never looked back.

    I also love using the service which enables you to use imagery and post it notes and colour, online, to make a mural. Very useful in summarising information, and more visual than mind maps.

  10. Julie says:

    Thanks for sharing. I am also a Visual-Spatial learner. I understand completly about writting the conclusion and working backwards this has been the best way for me to get a paper done as long as I can remember. I remember first realizing this is what I did in about grade 9 when we were told we needed to hand in an outline for a paper the next week and then would have 3 weeks to write the paper. I really struggled to even start and then finally did what I normally did and wrote the paper and then made the outline at the end handed in the outline and 3 weeks later handed in the paper I had already completed. In college I would often research for a paper and then just sit there looking at my notes for a while then start circling things and drawing lines to match them up and then number them in the order they should go and just string them together into a paper because I already knew what the conclusion was I was just needing to get to it. . Another thing I find helpful esspecially when needing to study for a test is to go through my notes (and doodles) and make study notes and then colour coordinate them all with my set of highlighters. This is helpful when for example in the test we are needing the deffinition of a certain word as I visualize the page and know I am looking for the blue secions (I always use blue for deffinitions). Anyway it is helpful to me.

  11. Simone says:

    I just typed in visual learner good languages music into google and found your site.

    I am a VSL and so is my 10 year old daughter. Her best subjects at school are languages and music, which one would think are the only subjects that actually really require audio skills! Thank you so much for putting down your thoughts. I struggled through school and uni, knowing I was smart but always being average in tests. I am fine now, just like you I have learnt how to learn.

  12. garridon says:

    I'm a visual spatial learner, too. I routinely miss things in instructions, and then people get angry with my because they think I'm not paying attention or am sloppy or careless. I did poorly in school. Because of the way they teach how to pronounce and spell words, their are words to this day I cannot pronounce right or spell right. I learned them wrong, and they stayed wrong. I also had problems with an algebra class where I jumped to the answer, got it right, but never got any of the formulas right. It was very frustrating, because I was trying so hard, and I kept getting the impression everyone thought I was not trying at all.

    As an adult, I have a terrible time with anything list related. If I make a grocery list, I will miss getting at least one item on it and have to go back, and manage to miss another. Yet, I can walk into the story without a list, wander around, and not miss a single thing. Recipes were just as bad. I'd start making the recipe, and then suddenly realized I'd skipped an entire step — and it was always the most important step. I don't use recipes any more.

    My writing has been the real challenge. I write fiction, and for years, I had no idea I was leaving out all the details. Hardest has been getting setting and visual details in. I often end up feeling like I have to do a checklist to get the basic five senses in, and it always feels like I'm shoehorning it into the story. Yet, I do better if I think of the setting as a character, where if you removed it, the story would not happen.

    But at the moment, I'm frustrating a writing instructor because I can't get any details into the workshop exercises, and the more I try, the more it distorts other elements. Plus, I keep missing things in the instructions. I think the most frustrating thing about being visual spatial is missing the details. I read things over 4-5 times, trying to catch what I might be missing. But if I don't see it, I don't see it. Yet, when people see the things I miss, they berate me like I didn't bother to check my work. So it's like I'm at war with details and the way my brain works.

  13. EMJ says:

    It is so so wonderful to read this. I have begun to suspect that my 9 year old is a visual spatial learner. When she was younger she really struggled with poor short term memory, learning to read was difficult and just remembering any kind of sequence was almost impossible for her – She is extremely unorganised and creates a crazy mess wherever she goes. She is amazingly creative and can make wonderful things from anything, she never follows instructions she can just see how things are meant to be. I have gone from worrying that she is maybe dyslexic to thinking she is just a visual spatial learner. She has been homeschooled/unschooled so has been able to learn in her own way at her own time so her learning style has never really hindered here but has now entered school in fact a French school which she does not speak yet, but is keen to learn. I have been worried about how she will do, so have been researching on ways I can help her and have been finding using picture associations has been helping greatly I am hoping the immersion will work for her, but we are also using linkword languages with her to help build her vocabulary up. It is wonderful to read of so many success stories with this style of learning that often is seen as a hindrance

  14. Very Proud VSL says:

    I am a proud VSL, And recently discovered that I am dyslexic and dyspraxia (just
    Ike Einstein and Steve Jobs were and RIchard BRanson is now). These are labelled as "disabilities" under many countries equality acts of law. They are a different way of processing information in the brain which brings extreme strengths and some weaknesses. However, due to the "standard" structure which society follows, this learning difference can cause the person to be substantially disadvantaged. This is why it is recognized as a disability and both educational institutions and employers are required by the law in most countries to make "reasonable adjustments". If you have a learning difference, stand up for your rights and make sure your teachers and employers comply with the law. Inspiring website and article. Thank you.

  15. Ali says:

    Hi Donovan,
    I have just discovered that I am a Visual learner, but also dyslexic.
    I am trying to learn Japanese and Chinese. I progressed rapidly for 2 years, but have been on a plateau for 10 years.
    I realise now that I can't get beyond the intermediate stage because I'm not very good at reading and writing English let alone another language.
    Everywhere I look online says reading is the only way to increase vocabulary. Listening does even less for me. But it does nothing for me. Is there any other way?
    Also. I have also started imagining pictures to help remember words. It works like magic!
    But the majority of words are not imaginable. How do you image abstract academic words.
    Thank you

    • Esra'a says:

      In order to imagine abstract concepts, I relate them to a bunch non-abstract concepts (or objects ). Everything is interconnected. Then, I may put these objects in a scene in my head and enter that scene whenever I encounter the abstract word. Hope that helps

  16. Pranaya says:

    Hi Donovan,

    I'm as audio-sequential as they come but my best friend is a VSL. She suffered throughout high school and was often branded a 'slow learner'. In India, music and foreign languages are not offered as part of the curriculum ( unless you are the uber-rich public school going type) so she grew up believing she was incapable of learning. And I always knew that nothing is further from the truth.

    I'm a research scholar now and I'm working to spread awareness about VSL in a country where language techniques introduced by the Brits during the colonial era are still practiced with religious zeal. Stumbling across this article has proven to be incredibly lucky and I thank you for being so candid about your experiences as a VSL.

    Definitely joining the guild :-) Thank you once again.


  17. luizlucena3 says:

    Hey Donovan!
    I do think I'm a visual learner. Would you please forward me the link for the survey you mentioned on the post?

  18. Red/ says:

    This point is interesting to me: most of the considerations about language learning regards "standard people". But that standard doesn't exist. We are all, in a way, at least slightly affected by some "deviation" from the supposed standard.
    So I think I have something to learn from all the person that can attest their own way they in which have faced life.

    Recently I learnt of this figure, a swedish sailor, Sven Yrvind, that is affected by dyslexia, but he managed -I don't know how- to learn a few foreign languages at a certain level (he claims to read very technical stuff).
    In this article
    he say: " I’ll have lots of mathematics books, also books in French and German: books that will take me longer to read. "
    in one of the threads of his blog, he says: " I read books in the following languages Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, English, French, German "
    I am amazed of how he could have managed to face similar challenges, due the fact that he is a dyslexic.

  19. Mandi says:

    I am a visual spatial learner and visual artist – not a surprise!
    I would really like to learn a Gaelic language – but am worried as I was fairly terrible at languages in high school and subsequent efforts. How did you begin? I am also not a big book learner and do better figuring things out

  20. Natalie says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed your article. My grade 6 kidlet who is a VSL with APD (Auditory Processing Difficulty) aced Mandarin and Music this semester. The Mandarin grade was a total surprise so off to google I go trying to get some insight (is it the teaching or talent or both…) and find a local lad sharing his story of both VS learning and learning languages. Thank You!

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