April 2, 2024

Adult Language Learning

by Mateusz Wiącek

When adults learn languages, it can happen in different ways: either they organize it themselves, which doesn’t happen often enough, or they do it within structured settings like schools or workplaces. Adult language learning aims to either fill in the gaps between what was learned in school and what’s needed in the real world, or to help adults gain new language skills for challenges they face in their personal or professional lives. With a growing number of older learners, we’re seeing a new phase of language learning, driven not only by changes in demographics but also by the unique learning situations of this group.

While we’ll explore questions like who learns languages as adults, who teaches them, where it happens, and what’s taught, it’s important to remember that adult language learning shouldn’t be isolated from how young people or seniors learn languages. The goal is to contribute to lifelong learning.

Adult language learning is becoming increasingly important globally. For example, in Australia, there are literacy programs for immigrants, while in Canada, it’s crucial for social integration in a bilingual country. In the USA, many immigrants need to learn English for citizenship, and similar situations exist in places like Estonia, where Russians need to learn Estonian for integration into society. In Germany, language courses are offered to migrants to aid in their integration.

Characteristics of Adult Language Learning

Understanding how adults learn languages isn’t straightforward. It’s more practical to accept some uncertainty, as different factors overlap:

  • Age isn’t the only factor defining adult learners. Other factors like work schedules, personal traits, responsibilities, economic circumstances, and past experiences all play a role.
  • Adults often have specific reasons for learning a language, such as for work, travel, or cultural interest.
  • Learning methods need to adapt to these specific needs and circumstances. Adults may need more flexibility and personalized approaches compared to traditional school settings.

The internet offers new opportunities for self-directed language learning, from managing information to social networking to creating online content.

Language Courses for Adults

Institutions offer language courses for adults in various ways, such as evening schools, community centers, or online platforms. However, these courses must be adaptable to different learners’ needs and situations.

The Science of Adult Language Learning

While there’s a lot of research and development in language learning for adults, it hasn’t formed a distinct academic discipline yet. Efforts are being made to standardize teaching methods, certify language proficiency, and promote autonomous learning, but there’s still work to be done in professionalizing teacher training and integrating language learning into adult education more effectively.


Quality assurance and management are vital in adult language learning to ensure effective teaching and learning experiences. This requires clear goals, transparent course descriptions, and continuous improvement based on feedback and evolving societal needs. Ultimately, adult language learning plays a crucial role in addressing the challenges and opportunities presented by globalization and international cooperation.

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