Adult Language Learners

Adult Language Learners: An Overview

In A. F. V. Smith and G. Strong. (Eds). (2009). Adult Learners: Context and Innovation. Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages: Alexandria, Virginia, pp.1-6, 2009

By Ann Smith and Gregory Strong

Today, World English and English as an International Language (EIL) are of increasing importance in international communication, business, the media, and pop culture. They have also gained importance in such fields as civil aviation and research journals. Broad estimates of the number of people studying English are extremely large and this number is growing, particularly among young adults. Graddol (2006) suggests that current trends may result in a spike of some 2 billion English language learners in the next 10 to 15 years and he envisions a time when English language ability may well become a baseline skill in countries where English is taught as a foreign language today.

Accordingly, English language education has assumed greater importance in adult education. In this book, we focus on adult language learners in the hope of providing inspiration and ideas to EFL and ESL teachers, teachers in training, and volunteers. We use the term of “adult language learner” to distinguish these learners from adult learners in general and from younger language learners enrolled in elementary and high school education, who possess very different characteristics.

Adult language learners are goal-oriented and direct their learning to fulfil particular needs or demands: to advance their studies, to progress on the career ladder, to follow business opportunities, to pass a driving test, to assist their children with homework or simply to be a successful user of English. They usually require immediate value and relevance from their studies and they often learn best when they are engaged in developing their own learning objectives.

These attributes, distinct from those of younger language learners, led to the creation of the term “Androgogy,” a term popularized in the 1980s to distinguish the field of adult learning from that of pedagogy. Adults are mature, competent, experienced, multi-talented individuals, who live complex lives and fulfil a variety of different life roles. They can draw upon this wealth of previous life and educational experience for their learning, but they may learn in very different ways. Some prefer a more process-oriented approach with active experimental problem-solving tasks over memorization while others may prefer learning styles developed during their school years (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 1998). This early view of adult language learners as unique, complex individuals coincides with constructivist theory (Williams & Burden, 1996).

As language learners, adults have multifaceted identities in their dynamic and changing lives. They can usually communicate confidently and effectively in their own mother tongue and may “code switch” between several other languages. They can be immigrants or international students, professionals, workers or refugees and they may have their own interpretation of their culture and belief systems and as well as the ability to reflect and build upon their cross-cultural experiences. They may be highly literate in their own language or they may be illiterate; others may struggle, as many of us do, to move from beginners to capable L2 users. Most also want to develop their own identities as users of English and realize that it is unrealistic to measure their progress against a native speaker model. Cook (2002) recognizes language learners as having multiple competencies as their languages create different interconnections in their minds compared to monolinguals. He suggests that “Learning an L2 is not just the adding of rooms to your house by building an extension at the back: it is the rebuilding of all the internal walls” (2001, p. 5).

Research has also shown adult learners have greater cognitive and linguistic capabilities and conceptual complexity than younger learners (Robinson, 2005). These capabilities, including attention span, information processing of the rich and complex range of input, and memory storage capacity may vary from learner to learner. In addition, adults are able to discuss their learning styles and strategies in ways that children are unable to do (Cohen, 1998). So in recent years, there has been a more positive view of the adult language learner, despite intense debate and sometimes conflicting research into the central claim of the critical period hypothesis that adult learners cannot gain full mastery of L2, especially native-like pronunciation (Griffiths, 2008).

The Humanist approaches from the 1970s have also offered insights. Considering the whole person as an entity, with sensitivity to feelings and emotions, fits well the concept of the adult language learner in the literature. The importance of developing confidence and self esteem is paramount (Williams & Burden, 1996) and a relaxed learning environment reduces anxiety which in turn improves motivation and confidence.

Research into the importance of learner identities, learner competencies in second language acquisition, and their relationship with learner autonomy has recently been revisited. Autonomous adult language learners show many of the characteristics previously noted in studies of good language learners and life long adult learners. Terms such as “actively involved,” “self determining,” “motivated,” “self confident,” “critically reflective,” “able to manage,” “control,” or “be responsible for learning” are frequently found. Benson (2006) indicates that “language learners are more capable of autonomous action…than teachers typically suppose” (p. 24) and can determine both content and learning strategies. However, learners develop various ways to achieve their different degrees of autonomy and some may need to embark on a scaffolded process to gradually develop greater autonomy.

Since Skehan’s influential work (1989), adult language learner traits, learning styles, and strategies have been reconsidered alongside developments in cognitive and educational psychology, aptitude, motivation and SLA. Learning styles and learning strategies are problematic concepts as there are many different typologies which overlap with each other and with personality. Personality factors, such as introversion and extroversion, continue to influence learning as extroverts tend to be more fluent in complex verbal tasks. However, adult language learners can employ strategies to monitor and evaluate their own learning during a particular task. Cohen (1998) points out that learners apply strategies in different ways depending on their own individual preferences, their personalities, the task, and a number of other factors.

Language aptitude is now considered as a combination of several cognitive factors, including working memory, phonological coding/decoding, L1 learning and literacy skills. Motivation also focuses more on a multiple-faceted learner who is dedicated not only to today’s struggles but also to sustained effort over a period of time. Dornyei (2006) suggests learners goals include a concept of ‘ideal L2 self’ and a more extrinsic ‘ought to L2 self’ and the learners move “from the actual self and his/her ideal or ought to L2 selves” (p. 54).

Certainly, any discussion of adult language learners must mention the influence of the immediate learning situation and future context. Norton and Toohey (2001) suggest that the adult language learner has multiple identities, wide-ranging potential and a vision of future options including the possibility of belonging to and participating in an ‘imagined’ future community context. The dynamics of the learning context both inside and outside the classroom have significant influence. Learners who become involved in local social contexts gain opportunities to interact using language in real and relevant situations.

Both in the community and in the classroom, adult language learners need an accepting, secure and supportive environment which engages them. So, a willingness to cooperate and collaborate with other participants in class needs to be fostered by the teacher who can provide opportunities for the sharing of personal experience, perspectives, and alternatives. By listening actively, eliciting and questioning others and sharing opinions, students learn together and develop into a cohesive group. Although Vygotsky’s focus on social constructivism and the dynamic interaction between the learners, teacher, task and the learning context concentrated on young learners, its spotlight on the importance of a secure social context is also relevant for adult learners (Williams & Burden, 1996).

Therefore teachers should access or develop materials that meet the specific needs of their adult language learners in their particular contexts, whether EFL or ESL, workplace and academic. Developing these materials can involve the teacher and the learners in negotiating aspects of the syllabus and setting goals via self evaluation processes and individualized learning plans. In addition, Jenkins (2006) advises teachers to consider EIL and whether native-speaker like pronunciation is appropriate in their context. Instead, she suggests assisting learners to find out “about Englishes, their similarities and differences, issues involved in intelligibility, their strong links between language and identity and so on” (p. 173).

Learner-centeredness increased significantly with the advent of the communicative approach to language teaching, although many variations now exist. The focus of communicative language teaching (CLT) on using meaningful language in context involves being able to use language appropriately in situated transactional and interactional environments as well as knowing the rules. Hedge (2000) notes that CLT develops five interlinked competences: discourse, strategic and linguistic competence, fluency and the highly contextualized pragmatic competence. She suggests that most adult language learners can already utilize these skills in their mother tongues.

In recent years, the popularity of task-based instruction has led to the investigation of task construction and linguistic complexity. Real life tasks provide comprehensive input and frequently involve adult language learners interacting in group projects. Task types can be manipulated to develop fluency, complexity, appropriacy, accuracy and confidence. Integrating tasks with a “focus on form” means that grammatical competence, once a major focus of language instruction, has regained its value within linguistic competency (Ellis, 2005).

Increasingly, technology is also embedded into tasks. Adult language learners have opportunities to upgrade their skills via web quests or podcasts, and to create blogs or broadcasts in order to contribute to and feel part of the community around them. In addition, the spoken and written corpora increasingly provide opportunities for adults to expand their lexis through collocations, prefabricated lexical phrases, and fixed phrases rather than simply using bilingual word lists. In the adult classroom, innovative teaching can integrate stimulating and enjoyable tasks into a congenial classroom environment. This provides occasions for engagement, collaboration, investigation and critical analysis of content, context, culture and structures.

Using this Book
In learning environments as different as Brazil, China, Iran, Japan, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Vietnam, Adult Language Learners deals with three main areas of education. The first section of the book focuses on language teachers as adult learners themselves developing their teaching practice. The second strand focuses on different means of expanding learner autonomy, an important trait of the adult language learner. The third section deals with innovative classroom practices.

The chapters in the book have been selected so as to provide the reader with an overview of important aspects of the field with the emphasis on classroom practice rather than theory. Much of our work as the editors of this volume has been to strike that balance between theory and practice.

Teacher Education
In the first strand, Teacher Development, the opening chapter investigates English language teacher certification programs around the world. Drawing upon her research, Brandt describes how these programs often overlook the importance of local contexts and she suggests a number of ways to address this problem. Next, as all teachers need to keep up with developments in SLA that influence classroom practice, McCormack presents an overview as well as classroom tasks to aid the teaching of SLA to new teachers.

In the following chapter, Kim relates how future teachers can learn both content and new technology when it is embedded into their teacher education course. In this case, the teachers also collaborate in creating a permanent resource that they can share. Baker, Crawford, and Jones, also provide a creative approach to teacher education through the use of e-portfolios. Their chapter reminds us that teachers, as well as students, need to see themselves as lifelong learners. Ding’s chapter on teacher enthusiasm encourages us to actively engage our adult language learners and to solicit their help in assessing our teacher enthusiasm so that we can maintain and enhance it. In the final chapter of this part of the book, Duong describes why memorization is used so extensively in EFL teaching, sometimes inappropriately, but at the same time how there might be larger role for memorization in ESL contexts.

Extending Learner Autonomy
Part Two of Adult Language Learners shows how a variety of approaches to curriculum design can promote greater learner autonomy. In a key chapter, Murray conveys the quintessential features of a self-directed university language course for Japanese language learners. His approach can be employed by teachers interested in developing similar courses to enhance learner autonomy. Moving to an American community college ESL literacy course, Lamping’s chapter details how to use a participatory approach to create a mutually supportive group of learners. Then Alexander demonstrates how teamwork among adult learners working in a graduate research module, can be developed when teachers negotiate with their students and assist them in learning how to work together.

In the following chapter, Andrade transforms the familiar book report assignment into an interactive group activity. His structured process and question templates have the extra benefit of making plagiarism, now so common a problem (with book reports and summaries available on the Internet), much more difficult. Next, Dias shows how the expanding educational potential of the world-wide web can be harnessed to help students develop critical thinking skills. In this case, the class project is that of creating online presences for non-profit organizations empowers learners to act upon issues that concern them.

In the last chapter of this strand, Sue-san Ghahremani-Ghajar, Seyyed-Abdolha mid Mirhosseini, Hossein Fattahi, Shaheed Beheshti, Iranian teachers in the highly specialized field of medical English, describe a unique language discovery approach. It offers students a means of acquiring language through personal, community and web-based research into the medical conditions of family members and friends.

Innovations within a Course
The third and final strand of the book looks at innovations that can be incorporated into a given course. Strong’s chapter describes an ethnographic approach to learning about language and culture through fieldtrips in an EFL environment. In developing oral skills, Stillwell explains how role plays coupled with controversial topics can become an effective means of teaching discussion skills. Smith’s chapter also addresses discussion skills through a short case study based on a local yet globally relevant issue. This provides an effective means of teaching reading and discussion skills to adult language learners.

Through a radio drama project, Kubanyiova’s chapter demonstrates a highly motivating vehicle for adult language learners that can be done with the relatively simple means of tape recorders. Finally, Augusto-Navarro, de Abreu-e-Lima, and de Oliveira outline how course design, especially in an ESP setting, should incoporate ongoing needs analyses of the adult language learners, their expectations and context.

These chapters have been selected with classroom applications in mind. We hope that you will gain an overview of recent developments in adult language learning and of the ideas and techniques that can be easily adapted to your teaching context.


Benson, P. (2006). Autonomy in teaching and learning. Language Teaching, 40(1), 21-40.

Cohen, A.D. (1998). Strategies in learning and using a second language. London: Longman.

Cook, V. (2001). Using the first language in the classroom. Canadian Modern Language Review, 57(3), 402-423.

Cook, V. (2002). Portraits of the L2 user. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Dornyei, Z. (2006). Individual differences in second language acquisition. AILA Review, 19(1), 42-68.

Ellis, R. (2005). Principles of Instructed Language Learning. Asian EFL Journal, 7, (3), Retrieved 11 May 2008 from  

Graddol, D. (2006). English next: Why global English may mean the end of English as a foreign language. London: British Council.

Griffiths, C. (2008). Age and good language learners. In C. Griffiths (ed.) Lessons from good language learners, (35-48). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2006) Current perspectives on teaching world Englishes and English as a lingua franca. TESOL Quarterly 40(1), 157-181.

Knowles, M.S., Holton, E.F. & Swanson, R.A. (1998) The Adult Learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development.5th Edition. Houston: Gulf Professional Publishing.

Norton B. & Toohey, K. (2001). Changing perspectives on good language learners. TESOL Quarterly, 35(2), 307-322.

Robinson, P. (2005). Aptitude and second language acquisition. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 25, 46-73.

Skehan, P. (1989) Individual differences in second language learning. London: Arnold.

Williams, M. & Burden, B. (1996). Psychology for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

page top