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Two Oldest Cognitive Types – And Why They Matter To Language Learners

If you want to make me really upset, you only need to use six words in a conversation: “I have no talent for languages.” These words are clearly and excuse, and a very bad one at that.

Today’s post is not about excuses (it’s a long and fascinating topic, though). I’m going to write about two cognitive types – two ways of thinking about reality and solving problems. By the end of this post, you will understand more about the way your brain works – and hopefully, this knowledge will help you approach your language study more effectively.

And if I’m lucky, it will allow you to never speak of the “talent for languages” again.

How To Pretend You Know German And Skip Three Levels (A Cautionary Tale)

It was my first German class, and I was given a placement test.

A very bad idea, in the end.

I walked in, knowing almost nothing about German, having taken no classes, and only relying on Rammstein for a few (mostly dirty) words and phrases. But halfway through the test, something strange happened.

I began to recognise grammar structures that looked similar to English. First the past tense ending “-te” for regular verbs, then the “habe” auxiliary verb for Perfect tenses. Random multiple choice questions suddenly stopped being random.

I played along and handed in the placement test to the receptionist. “Well done,” she said after a while. “The test tells us you’re intermediate level.” It took me five minutes – and an interview, which i diligently failed – to convince the school of my real level.

Let’s take a look at what happened here.

“Here and Now” vs. “Somewhere Before”: Field Dependence and Independence

Imagine you’re given a test like that: a multiple-choice language test.

There are two ways of going about it.

One: carefully study all elements of the task before you. Pay attention to all words, sentences, options. Then, rely on the given tasks, clues and context to figure out the correct answer. Stay focused on the task at hand, analysing and working out what it means. In the long run, look for answers around you: which answers do other people tend to choose? Maybe your teacher can help you with one or two of the questions?

Two: Disregard the test questions and suggested answers in the long run. Instead, think about your expertise and knowledge: where have you seen these words before? How are sentences like this one usually constructed? Rely on what you already know to arrive at an answer. Do the test yourself, without looking to other people for help.

The first type has been called “field dependence” – the second, “field-independence.” With most subjects, and according to some researchers, the field-indepentent learners have it much easier: they figure things out by themselves and are able to learn without external help.

It’s a different story with languages, though. Have a look.

Field in/depencence in Languages: Good News and…Good News

Field dependent learners


  • Learning is connected – when in class, you know you’re going to learn.
  • You benefit from structure and rules.
  • You rely on the world outside to provide information. And with language, this is what usually works.
  • You are capable of strong and effective relationship with your learning group.
  • You will not be afraid or ashamed to ask for help or explanation.
  • Social learning will be an obvious solution for your language study.

Field independent learners


  • You are capable of independent, creative thinking and learning.
  • You thrive on uncertainty and challenging, unstructured situations.
  • Rules are something you create for yourself – a working, authentic learning system.
  • You are able to rely on your external knowledge to enrich your language.
  • Complicated, tricky contexts will not lead to break-downs or withdrawal.
  • You adjust, eliminate and acquire information at your own pace – making it more likely to last and become useful.


Best Of Both: How To Combine Field Dependence and Independence

If you’re like me, you will find it difficult to choose just one of these as a good description of your thinking style. More likely, you would think that “OK, I do this, but I’m also like that when…” – implying that the two types above are theoretical extremes, rarely found in real life.

Which is good, because it means you (and I) can become like Sherlock Holmes.

Think about it: Sherlock walks into a room. He analyses what he sees and what people say and do (field-dependence). Then he relies on his knowledge and experience to connect the dots (field-independence). Voila: the best of both worlds, in one brilliant persona.

Which Am I, And What Do I Do About It?

These resources will help you find your cognitive style:

– A Wikipedia discussion is a good place to start.

This article could be written and researched more carefully – but it’s a good addition to the Wikipedia entry.

– Finally, take this simple test – if you find it easy, you’re more field-independent. If it’s hard, maybe you’re field-dependent!



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