The similarities and differences in the language learning styles and strategies between English-majored students and non-English majored students of Van Lang University

DINH LY VAN KHANH, MA. (Language Institute, Van Lang University)


This study investigates the similarities and differences in the language learning styles and strategies between English-majored students and non-English majored students of Van Lang University. Senior students from two different majors were selected randomly to conduct this study. The data was collected via questionnaires and semi-structured interviews. The study’s findings indicate that the teachers' factors have impacts on the students' learning styles. The results also highlight the significant differences in the English learning strategies preference of the students.

Keywords: English language learning styles and strategies, English-majored student, a non-English majored student, Van Lang University.

 1. Introduction

1.1. Statement of aims

          According to Oxford (2003), among the factors that affect language learning, learning styles and strategies are the two valuable keys that help teachers and educators determine how and how well students acquire a second or foreign language. Different learners have many different strategies to help them learn a new language. And the choice of strategies depends mainly on the learners' different learning styles (Ehrman & Oxford, 1990). As a result, these two factors have a close relationship and directly influence students' learning ability and success in language learning.

          In recent years, a handful of research has been conducted generally on the preferences of language learning styles and strategies of Asian students. However, there are still very few studies done on Vietnamese students. Therefore, this paper aims to take a closer look at this area and hopes to make a small contribution to the improvement in the awareness of teachers and educators in the country about the critical role of learning styles and strategies in language teaching. Besides, the researcher specifically would like to explore this exciting subject to help her students develop effective language learning strategies and contribute to bettering the quality of English teaching and learning at her workplace, Van Lang University.

1.2. Research question

          The focuses of this pilot study are on the general topic of styles and strategies to learn a foreign language. Specifically, this study aims to survey the similarities and differences in employing the strategies of learning English of two typical types of Vietnamese students; namely English majored students and non-English majored students, in Van Lang University. Therefore, the research question is addressed as follows: To what extent do an English majored student and a non-English majored student in Van Lang University use different or similar strategies in learning English?

2. Literature Review

2.1. Learning styles and learning strategies

          The term "styles" is defined by Brown (2000, p. 113) as "general characteristics of intellectual functioning (and personality type, as well) that pertain to you as an individual, and that differentiate you from someone else." In general speaking, "styles" are the general approaches or patterns that an individual uses in their learning a new language or subject. "Strategies," on the other hand, are known as "the specific behaviors or thoughts learners use to enhance their language learning." (Oxford, 2003).

          The term "learning styles" is broadly described as "characteristic, cognitive, affective, and psychological behaviors that serve as relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with and respond to the learning environment" (Keefe, 1979, as cited in Muthyala, 2014). Similarly, as stated by Peacock (2001), learning styles refer to "student's natural and preferred ways" of absorbing and processing a second language." In studying learning styles, it is essential to understand that no particular style can be said to be the best since it may be suitable for this person but inappropriate for others, and vice versa (Ellis, 1994).

          Learning strategies is defined by Scarcella and Oxford (1992, p. 63) as "specific actions, behaviors, steps, or techniques - such as seeking out conversation partners, or giving oneself encouragement to tackle a difficult language task – used by students to enhance their own learning." In other words, these strategies are the "moment-by-moment techniques" (Brown, 2000, p. 122) that an individual can choose from to solve problems occurring in his or her study. Once that person can pick up the practical strategies that fit his or her learning styles, these things will become very useful in helping to improve his or her memorization, acquisition, and knowledge application in learning new languages.

2.2. Language learning styles and strategies of Asian students

          When talking about Asian students, there are some specific features that most researchers believe characterize their learning styles and strategies, including passivity, rote-learning, and obedience to authority. These concepts are supported by Biggs' research (1997), in which he studied the reports from many lecturers who had experiences in teaching for international Asian students. The summary is as follows:

          “They rote learn and lack critical thinking skills”

          “They are passive; they won't talk in class”

          “They appear to focus excessively on the method of assessment”

          “They don’t understand what plagiarism means”

          “They stick together … won’t mix with locals”

          “They do not easily adjust to local conditions”

           “They tend to look on lecturers as close to gods”

          As we can see, most of these above comments are pretty appropriate and can give us a good overview of the learning styles and strategies of Asian students. However, not everything is correct, and many other scholars still cast doubt on these opinions. For example, Chalmers & Volet (1997) disagreed with the idea that Asian students are "passive" because they keep silent most of the time in class. He argued that although students appear to be quiet, it does not mean that their minds are not working. In fact, they are even "actively" working. These students, for some reasons, are just waiting for the opportunities to talk and express themselves confidently. In addition, in his study, Littlewood (2000, p. 33) found that students in Asian nations do not prefer to sit still and receive "only-one-direction" knowledge from their teachers. He believed the passivity of Asian students "is more likely to be a consequence of the educational context that have been or are now provided for them, than of any inherent disposition of the students themselves." Moreover, Asian students are interested and eager to explore knowledge themselves and find the answers independently or through group work.

          Role-learning can be described as memorizing without understanding. Students from Asian students are usually observed to learn everything in their lessons by heart without understanding it. This circumstance might be because of the Asian assessment systems that force them to remember everything they have learned in class to use them again in their exams (Wang, 2004). However, lots of recent evidence has proved that Asian students not only try to remember everything like a "parrot" but also seek understanding from their memorization. As stated by Kember (1996, p. 347), "deep and surface approaches have their associated strategies of seeking comprehension and rote learning."

          Regarding obedience to authority, at first, we have to remember that many Asian countries have a very long tradition of unconditional obedience to authority, such as the Kings, fathers, and teachers. Therefore, it is easy to understand that the super hierarchy of the teachers has been embedded in those students' thinking. Students were taught to totally respect and listen to their teachers since they are their superiors in every aspect, especially knowledge. However, Asia has experienced enormous changes over the past few years, and that case is also true for the human perception in these nations. Therefore, Littlewood (2000, p. 33) has stated that Asian students nowadays do not see teachers as those who should not be questioned.

2.3 Language learning styles and strategies of Vietnamese students

It is evident that the learning styles and strategies of Vietnamese students to some extent will have some common characteristics as Asian students, such as passivity in class, rote learning, the use of memorization, and obedience to authority.

In his study, Nguyen (2011) explained that students are taught to respect and obey their teachers in Vietnam at very early ages. Each student in Vietnam knows by heart many proverbs mentioning the vital position of the teachers, such as "Không thầy đố mày làm nên." (You would do nothing without a teacher), and " Cha mẹ sinh con thầy cho cuộc sống." (My parents give me birth, but my teacher made a man of me). In their mind, a teacher is their superior in knowledge, is "Mr. Know All" who is always right. Therefore, they believe that they have to obey their teachers without questioning or arguing. Moreover, Vietnamese students tend to feel unconfident when communicating or interacting in class and rarely express their own opinions, especially in front of the teacher. These might be the reason why Vietnamese students are considered "passive" in their learning.

However, according to Howe from his teaching experience in Vietnam, the concept of "passive" or "active" in the language learning of Vietnamese learners depends more on teachers' expectations rather than culturally-based learning styles (as cited in  Lewis & McCook, 2002).

Regarding memorization strategies, Duong & Nguyen, in their Vietnam study (2006), found that this method was considered a necessary learning strategy by both teachers and students. Indeed, a large number of students used memorization as a strategy to learn vocabulary. Similarly, most of the teachers claimed that memorization did help students learn vocabulary and grammatical structures. As a result, memorization definitely cannot be eliminated from language learning, especially in Vietnam. According to the researchers, beside "good" memorization strategies which help a majority of Vietnamese students build up their vocabulary and be confident in communication, some "poor" strategies (e.g., rote-learning) still exist that need to be considered.

Finally, a piece of research conducted by Park (2000) looked at perceptual learning style preferences of Southeast Asian students. She found that Vietnamese students, in general, strongly prefer tactile learning styles and kinesthetic learning styles. They also seem to be visual learners with a significant percentage of preferences for visual learning styles only after Hmong's. Last but not least, Vietnamese students got the second highest percentage for group learning among the nations involved in Park's study. This evidence supports the opinion of Phan (2004), saying that "students and teachers tend to construct knowledge together or students work together as a class while the teacher is the mentor."

3. Methodology

3.1. The participants     

          Two Vietnamese students from two different faculties in Van Lang University were invited to participate in this research. The first student is Long, a senior in the Faculty of Foreign Languages. The second one is Binh, also a senior in the Faculty of Business Administration.

          When the research was conducted, Long had completed seven years of learning English at high school and continued his study in EFL for almost four years at the Faculty of Foreign Languages of Van Lang University. He is being professionally trained to become an English teacher at high schools or even at universities in the South of Vietnam. As a result, he can be said to have quite good English background. He also got the overall IELTS score of 6.5 in July last year. After graduation, he hopes to get a full scholarship to study abroad for an M.A. degree in TESOL.

          As for Binh, she had finished high school education with seven years of learning English, just like Long. However, since then, she has rarely had much opportunity to further her English study in the university because her major is business management, not English. Even though her university still offered a four-semester course in General English and another one-semester course in Business English, she did not find them helpful. Worse still, after all those school years, she still could not listen and communicate well in English. She also did not know any efficient ways of learning English and how to improve her language skills. Currently, she is participating in an online English class at BKE Language Center to improve her communicative skills in hopes of finding a potential job in a foreign company in the future. She has just got 550 in TOEIC this April.

          For students attending Van Lang University, it is strictly required that they participate in the one-week orientation program organized by their faculties at the beginning of each new school year. This program aims to provide students with general information on the curriculum, policies, extracurricular activities, and especially the study skills that could be useful for their learning process in the university. Therefore, it can be said that Long and Bình have been well equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills needed for their studies.   

          Both Long and Bình are said to be smart and studious students. They both have an interest in English and are eager to learn more about it. Long and Binh were informed carefully in advance about the purposes of the interview, and their identity will be treated as strictly confidential.

3.2. Methods of data collection

3.2.1. The questionnaire

          One English majored student and one non-English majored student from Van Lang University were randomly interviewed in their recess to conduct this research. Before the interview, a form of questionnaires that consists of 11 questions (See Appendix 1) was given to each participant to fill in. This questionnaire aimed to collect information on the participants' background and their English learning experiences. The data found from the questionnaire would allow the researcher to understand better the participants and their educational background, which would be very useful in the discussion later.

3.2.2. The interview

The interview was conducted in English with 17 questions (See Appendix 2). Most of the questions were open-ended, which allowed students to express themselves freely in this matter. They were mainly designed based on some common Vietnamese learning styles and strategies found in the literature review, i.e., passive learning style, rote-learning, obedience to authority, and group learning. Each interview lasted between 15 to 20 minutes. Thanks to the participants ' permission, the researcher was allowed to take notes and record the conversations during the interview. Then the recordings were transcribed for careful analysis.

4. Findings

4.1. Passivity

At first glance, both interviewees seem not to be passive learners. When asked about the importance of English, both Long and Bình said that they liked English and realized the importance of English in their future. They also confirmed that they had their own ways to study and improve their favorite English skills. For example, Long listed that "I often watch HBO, Star Movies … in order to improve my listening skill. Also, I go to some clubs and cafeterias to practice speaking with foreigners … And I read some U.S. magazines and newspapers online, such as OK! People, U.S. Weekly, and The New York Times." while Bình added that "I always come to the English club at my university every Saturday night to have some fun and practice my English as well."

Regarding passivity in class, it is interesting that both Long and Binh were willing to ask questions and give opinions in class. However, they and their classmates rarely did that because of the following reasons. First, it is the way of conducting the lesson of their teachers that leads to their passivity.  In the interview, Binh described her Business English class as "very useless and boring." She added that "The class usually started with the presentations of the teacher, while students like us listened, took notes, and fell asleep most of the time!"

Second, it is about the negative attitude and behavior of their teacher. For instance, Binh admitted that "… I never said anything in class…" only because "I realized that my teacher was not willing to accept my opinion. She just tried to prove that she was right in a polite way". Similarly, Long confirmed that "… I'm not shy, but sometimes you won't ask a teacher who is not happy to answer your questions."

Another possible reason is that the interviewees do not want to bother their classmates and lose their faces. In her explanation, Binh said that "… I'm afraid of wasting others' time, and I don't want to be laughed at if I may have any "silly" questions." Therefore, she preferred to keep her questions until the end of the class to ask her teacher in person. Also, she believed that the teacher could give her more detailed answers if she met him/her outside. 

4.2. Obedience to authority

          At first glance, these students seem not to be obedient. They are very independent in their studies and always try to find out the answers to their problem. In the interview, Binh admitted that she usually met her teacher to ask questions about her lesson. Long also confirmed that "If the teacher is willing to help and is really nice, then I'll ask whatever I don't understand." This information proves that both Binh and Long are likely to share their ideas with their teachers. However, according to Long, there was sometimes he just wanted to sit still and said nothing in class. He confided that "there are a few teachers that I don't want to ask anything at all. Not because I have no questions (I always have a lot!), but because… their explanation often sounds confusing".

4.3. Rote-learning

            It is observed in the interviews that there was a difference between Bình and Long in the way they learn and revise their lessons, primarily when they deal with new vocabulary. While Binh chose to "…learn by heart new vocabulary" and tried to memorize lists of new English words with their Vietnamese translation, Long preferred not to memorize. Instead, he usually guessed their meaning by putting them in English contexts and examples. "I find this way very interesting and effective in my study," he said. As for Binh, she also admitted that this method does not always work because "sometimes I can't recall some of them because I had learned too many!".

          When revising the lesson, Long tried to use many meaningful ways, such as taking notes, highlighting important information, drawing mind maps, and making summaries and categories. In contrast, Binh said, "I usually go over the lessons several times…  just read through them to see if I can understand them or not."

4.4. Group learning

          There is much evidence in the interview supporting the use of this strategy from both Binh and Long's sides. According to Long, he said that he both liked learning alone and learning in groups. However, he also confirmed that "I prefer to study in groups, as I can chat with my friends as a way to practice my English." As for Binh, she also learned in groups "to understand and remember the lesson faster." However, she tended to stay alone whenever she wanted to prepare for her presentations or exams because she found that "working in groups sometimes can be very confusing and hard to concentrate."

5. Discussion

From the data analysis above, it can be generally assumed that students with high English proficiency use more strategy types in learning English than those with lower English proficiency. This phenomenon is partly because this student (Long) had already known about these practical methods during his courses at school, whereas the other (Binh) did not have a chance to learn much about it.

Concerning the passive learning styles, it can be concluded that both Long and Binh are not "passive learners" because their attitude towards their studies is very active. They do not get the knowledge only in the classroom. They themselves have tried to find ways to practice English and get more information outside to improve their study. However, their interest in learning may be discouraged due to the teachers' poor teaching methods and negative behaviors in Long's case, the lack of an exciting syllabus, and the fear of losing faces, which is a typical characteristic of Asian people in Binh's case.

Also, it is clear from the analysis that both Binh and Long are not obedient to the authority. Their action only depends on how friendly and cooperative the teachers are to them. This evidence supports the point made in the literature review, stating that "the concept of "passive" or "active" in the language learning of Vietnamese learners depending more on teachers' expectation than culturally-based learning styles" (Howe, as cited in Lewis & McCook, 2002).

In addition, there is a considerable gap in the use of the memorization strategy between two students. While Long has applied various techniques in this method very well, Binh only depended on her memory and tried to learn everything by heart. This way of role-learning might be affected by the traditional learning way she had acquired from high school. Also, the lack of English study skills may have some contribution to this problem. Finally, the social strategy used by both students was also different, which means Long tended to learn in groups to exchange their information and practice English. At the same time, Binh preferred to stay alone in order to focus on her own study. This phenomenon may be due to the satisfaction with the results that their own learning styles bring, or only because of the difference in their characteristics.         

6. Pedagogical Implications

          The findings above have some implications for English teaching and learning in Vietnamese universities.

          Firstly, teachers need to be aware of how students learn and what students need. This work can be done very easily if the teachers pay attention to the students' actions in class. Besides, teachers can also ask their students informally some questions about their interests and need to create and maintain a comfortable atmosphere in class and find out which teaching methods they should use for those particular groups of students. Moreover, the teacher should first show students some practical and accessible strategies and ask them to apply these frequently in their learning in class. Then, after they realize the importance of using strategies in their studies, students will be eager and willing to learn more about them.

          Secondly, it is required that teachers always provide explicit and careful instruction so that the students will not be confused and feel discouraged in their learning. Memorization without understanding is very dangerous and can ruin students' learning; therefore, good memory strategies should be carefully taught in this case. It is also worth teaching learners how to find their appropriate learning strategies in reviewing and memorizing their lessons and test themselves on using those strategies. In this way, the students can observe their improvement themselves and know how to deal with their learning problems in the future.

          Finally, teachers should remember that not every student in Vietnam is confident and active when participating in-class activities. It might be because they are too shy or they are not used to that kind of activity. Therefore, a safe and comfortable environment is crucial to encourage students to express themselves in class. It is all for the benefit of the students; therefore, be friendly, enthusiastic, and caring.   

7. Conclusion and Recommendation

          To conclude, the importance of learning styles and strategies in the process of language learning is indisputable and must be taken into significant consideration by both Vietnamese teachers and students. Suppose teachers can understand that different students have different styles of learning. In that case, they might know how to appreciate their students' preferences and try to adjust their teaching methods to match the different learning styles of their students. Those realizations and improvements will benefit students in their current study and may lead to their success in acquiring the new language later in the future. In addition, the crucial role of teaching English study skills for Vietnamese students should not be overlooked, and this subject is highly recommended to be taught in every university in the future.

          It would be of great interest to conduct more studies to find more evidence of how Vietnamese students nowadays acquire English. In that way, researchers can have a better and clearer view of students' learning styles and strategies in Vietnam. Also, further research should consider how effectively learners of different English proficiency employ various learning strategies with influencing factors such as age, sex, and motivation.



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Viện Ngôn Ngữ, Trường Đại học Văn Lang


Bài nghiên cứu tập trung tìm hiểu sự giống nhau và khác nhau trong phong cách và chiến lược học ngôn ngữ của sinh viên chuyên ngành tiếng Anh và sinh viên không chuyên tại Trường Đại học Văn Lang. Sinh viên năm cuối từ 2 chuyên ngành khác nhau được lựa chọn ngẫu nhiên để thực hiện nghiên cứu. Dữ liệu được thu thập thông qua bảng câu hỏi và phỏng vấn bán cấu trúc. Các phát hiện chỉ ra các yếu tố từ phía giảng viên có ảnh hưởng đến phong cách học của sinh viên. Kết quả cũng nhấn mạnh sự khác nhau rõ rệt trong việc lựa chọn các chiến lược học tiếng Anh của sinh viên chuyên và không chuyên.

Từ khóa: phương pháp và chiến lược học tiếng Anh, sinh viên chuyên ngành tiếng Anh, sinh viên không thuộc chuyên ngành tiếng Anh, Đại học Văn Lang.

[Tạp chí Công Thương - Các kết quả nghiên cứu khoa học và ứng dụng công nghệ, 

Số 24, tháng 10 năm 2021]