Language Learning in Adulthood: a journey to self-discovery

Through our project, Attending Diversity in Adult Language learning, we have tried, on the one hand, identify the key factors that influence language learning in adulthood and, on the other hand, design tools that can help the teaching community and provide students with effective learning strategies.

"Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things", Flora Lewis.


It is said that we all carry within us the little boy or girl we once were, and there is nothing that proves this better than going back to school as an adult.  No matter how old you are, it's just sitting at a desk and going back to the past.

The adult student always brings to the classroom a previous learning experience (which we will call luggage), which has a huge influence on the way in which they approach the acquisition of a new language and, consequently, on the various difficulties that the teacher may encounter in the classroom; difficulties that the student may or may not be aware of, but which, as teachers, we must try to solve by making them active agents of their own change.

In an effort to find out about these difficulties and their possible causes, the KA2 project Attending Diversity in Adult Language Learning (ADALL) has tried to find out what our students have in their luggage, which can often be quite heavy, and find ways to unpack or organize the content and make it lighter to carry.

Thus, we can say that when opening the suitcase of a lifetime we find three fundamental aspects that condition the success or failure in learning:

A.  The level of students’ beliefs and affectivity.

B.  Different styles, preferences and ways of learning.

C.  The level of learning strategies.

Before starting a journey, we need to make sure that we carry everything we need and that our luggage is adequate.  In the same way, the teacher, guide of this trip, needs to know what luggage their group brings, i.e., how the three mentioned aspects are presented. To get to know our students, we will begin the journey from C to A.


C.  The level of learning strategies 

In order to unpack the luggage of past learning experiences and habits, teachers should focus on the systematic presentation and formation of strategies, i.e. helping them to become aware of how to learn a language by having students reflect on their own learning process.  This includes various classroom activities, for example:

- Explain to them that they are responsible for what they learn and how they learn, that success depends on the learning strategies and habits we use. It is crucial to promote self-reflection on how they have learned, to what extent it has served them and how they plan to change and improve.  In this sense, it is important that they learn to keep a record of their learning, such as a class diary in which they can assess their own strategies and work both at the beginning of the course and during the course:

- What is my goal? Why do I need to learn...?

- How am I going to organize my time to spend the hours I need?

- What skills do I need to improve and how can I do it?

- Conduct a self-assessment test (how do I learn?) and discuss results to point out that different attitudes may require different strategies.

- Encourage them to share their previous experiences, e.g. how did they learn a language in the past? what worked for them and what didn't? what did they like and what didn't? which skill was given better? how did they work it?

However, we also found people who have never before faced the study of a language or even without previous formal education. For them, as for the rest, this beginning is a good breeding ground for the presentation of some general strategies on how to learn and improve the communicative skills of a language (oral and written comprehension and oral and written expression).


B.  Different styles, preferences and ways of learning

     The above activities are essential not only to raise awareness of students’ responsibility, but also because they are the starting point of the journey to self-discovery.  How I learn is closely related to the V-A-K model of learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic).  Finding out how I learn (through, for example, a questionnaire) and identifying what may work best in each particular case can give guidance both to teachers for the planning of classroom activities and to students for personalised study.  

From here, once students learn to get to know themselves a little better and to take responsibility for their own learning process, it is time to strengthen their self-esteem and confidence in their own abilities.


A.  The level of students’ beliefs and affectivity

“Success depends less on materials, techniques, and linguistic analysis, and more on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom,” Earl Stevick 

Many people have been badly affected by years of negative feedback, often at a semiconscious level, which affects the attitude they adopt.  Many of the limiting beliefs or learning blocks have not been drawn from reality, but from the opinions of others (parents, teachers, etc.). The structure of beliefs or "self-fulfilled prophecies" is as follows:


Teacher beliefs> Teacher expectations> Teacher behaviour > Verbal/non-verbal > Student beliefs.


That's why it's so important to know our groups, who they are and where they come from, to understand what's going on and what can be done. However, regardless of our past experiences, positive or negative,  it is in our adult age, when we are fully concious, that  we can decide to start a new journey.  When you learn a new language, you have to create a new you in some way. This means that the "I" you already know in your native language will not be the same as your new "I" in the language you are learning.  

It is very important that adult learners, who already have a clear sense of themselves, realize that their new self needs to start from the beginning, just as young children do.  This can be very liberating in some ways and is key to building the patience and confidence necessary to deal with the feelings of insecurity and frustration that always arise, mainly for reasons such as the following:

- Not being able to understand and express themselves as they want in the new language.

- Unrealistic and/or rushed expectations.

Feeling of getting lost and not having the total control they feel they have in their own language.

Thus, going back to the quote from Flora Lewis, which expresses what it really means to learn a new language, one has to be born again and adopt a different personality and attitude: a foreign language is not only about learning new words, but is embedded in a specific culture and idiosyncrasy to be learned.

The question our students are asked at this point is: "You start over, who do you want to be?”. They are asked to choose at least three positive personal qualities that the new "I" will have, those that can help them learn and improve, and to write them on the first page of their class notebook to mark the beginning of a new journey.


More information about who we are and our project on:

The teaching material resulting from our collaboration will be available on our website from September 1st.



  • Arnold, Jane.Affect in Language Learning, C.U.P 1999
  • Dudley, Edmund & Osváth, Erika. Mixed-Ability Teaching, O.U.P 2015
  • Ellis, Gail & Sinclair, Barbara. Learning to Learn English, C.U.P. 1989
  • Halfield, Jill. Classroom Dynamics, O.U.P. 1992
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