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Successful Language Learning by Adults Thesis


The process of language skills acquisition occurs naturally in children yet becomes quite complicated for adults due to a range of impediments that adult learners have to face, including both external and internal ones.

Therefore, the process of learning a second language requires consistent enhancement and encouragement for most adults.

Despite the fact that adult learners are affected greatly by the factors such as age, aptitude, etc., active learning and engagement in the process can be promoted among adult learners with the help of the self-directed learning approach and encouragement of independence among learners.

Key Factors

When it comes to defining the key factors that contribute to the acquisition of the L2 skills by learners, motivation is often mentioned as the most significant one.

The specified standpoint on the process of L2 learners has solid reasons to exist; specifically, the fact that motivation is linked directly to the learners’ recognition of their self (Dornyei & Ushioda, 2009) deserves to be mentioned.

Indeed, according to Dornyei and Ushioda (2009), motivation plays an essential role in defining the identity of the learner, as it links the process of language skills acquisition and the “self” of the learner (Dornyei & Ushioda, 2009).

In other words, it enables adult L2 learners to locate their identity as the carriers of a specific culture. Moreover, the redefinition of the learners’ selves will allow for drawing a very thick line between the ideal and the actual self.

As the authors explain, “Language learning is a sustained and often tedious process, and I felt that that the secret of successful learners was their possession of a superordinate vision that kept them on their track” (Dornyei & Ushioda, 2009, p. 25).

To be more exact, it helps learners view the culture and specifics of the target language through the goggles of their own culture, understand the premises for the target language and culture to exist, and accept the language and the culture, thus, labelling the latter two as interesting and, therefore, worth learning.

In fact, two types of motivation, i.e., the integrative and the instrumental ones, are traditionally identified (Gass & Salinker, 2001, pp. 454–455).

While the latter is usually denoted as the “motivation that comes from the rewards gained from knowing another language” (Gass & Salinker, 2001, p. 454), the former is identified as the one that “comes from the desire to acculturate and become a part of a target language community” (Gass & Salinker, 2001, p. 455).

In adult language learning, it is essential to focus on both and pay special attention to the latter, as adults are prone to viewing the process of language learning from a practical perspective and envision it as a tool for carrying out communication with the community members successfully (Gass & Salinker, 2001, p. 332).

Thus, a learner tries to avoid being socially and psychologically distanced from the rest of the community members (Gass & Salinker, 2001).

Another factor that is worth taking into account when addressing the needs of adult learners, age deserves to be mentioned.

It should be noted, though, that the significance of the specified factor should be taken with a grain of salt, as the biological age and the activity rates of an individual may not be quite compatible in certain cases; for instance, a young learner may display complete lack of enthusiasm, whereas a mature learner may view language learning as an essential step in their further progress, and vice versa.

As Jarvis explains, “Even though it is possible to agree with Wilshire that adulthood also implies maturity and experience, it is harder to accept that these are absolute or discrete, or that they occur at a specific biological age” (Jarvis, 1995, p. 21).

The specified observation can be considered true except for the time slot that is defined as the critical period and signifies the age, at which learners acquire information about their native language; once the specified stage is omitted in the course of language skills acquisition, the learner will never be capable of mastering any language fully (Sanz, 2005, p. 107).

Unlike age, which can be viewed as a factor of a rather inconsistent effect, the learning styles, which the adult learners are accustomed to, need to be considered very carefully when designing the approach that will allow for an efficient and expeditious L2 skills acquisition.

Among the learning styles that adult L2 students traditionally assume, two dimensions (deductive (top-down) and inductive (bottom-up)) are traditionally identified (Saville-Troike, 2012).

Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the learner could choose between the knowledge acquisition by identification or specific rules and the recognition of a specific pattern correspondingly (Saville-Troike, 2012).

Putting a stronger emphasis on the logical (conscious) perception of the second language, the specified taxonomy can be opposed to the sensory preference which a range of people also display in the course of language learning: “Another dimension sometimes considered as a matter of cognitive style is sensory preference for processing input: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic (movement-oriented), or tactile (touch-oriented)” (Saville-Troike, 2012, p. 94).

Learning styles may also be classified according to the preferences of the learner (e.g., the emphasis on grammar vs. the emphasis on speaking). According to Ellis (1997), though, the learner’s ability to choose the information required for further skills acquisition and successful learning can be flawed.

Particularly, caution is required when addressing the needs of the adult L2 students tend to be not as careful as they need when choosing their learning styles, seeing that successful adult learning requires an individual approach (Ellis, 1999).

Therefore, preference for communication, while being clearly a positive tendency among learners, should be balanced with the corresponding amount of exercises for developing the learners’ grammatical literacy. In addition, the style that Illeris (2007) defines as cognitive deserves to be mentioned first.

According to Illeris, the process of information acquisition in adults occurs on a cognitive level, in other words, adult learners need to acquire the necessary skills consciously for a successful learning process to commence.

Another essential style that an adult learner needs to incorporate in the process of knowledge acquisition, lifelong learning (Jarvis, 1998) deserves to be mentioned.

Prior experience is another crucial factor that defines not only the speed of the student’s progress, but also the needs that the learner may have.

Needless to say, the L2 learners, who have certain background information about the target language, tend to develop at a slightly faster pace than the rest of the class granted that the rest of the factors contributing the learning process affect all learners to an equally strong degree.

However, a closer look at the significance of the prior experience in a second language has, in fact, considerably less impressive effects on the learning process for the L2 learners than for the L3 ones (Sanz, 2005, p. 121).

However, the significance of prior experience in learning or speaking the target language should not be underestimated, either, as it creates the basis for the learners to build their new knowledge on their previous experience and locating the details that they can relate to in acquiring the corresponding L2 skills; in this case, learning becomes the “new interpretation of an experience” (Jarvis, 1995).

It should be noted, though, that each of the specified taxonomies of learners’ preferences need to be considered in order to facilitate the environment that will contribute to a faster process of the key information acquisition, as each of the classifications suggested addresses only one aspect of the learning process (i.e., the preferences of data acquisition, the specifics of information processing, etc.).

Illeris (2007), for instance, mentioned that learning skills needed “for communication with others at work and for applying the qualifications they have acquired” (Illeris, 2007, p. 225) can and should be trained by conversing with the members of a community on a regular basis.

In addition to the internal factors specified above, L2 learners are also prone to certain external factors, which mostly include communication with peers and native speakers of the target language.

Indeed, recent researches show that unceasing practice is crucial to the learning outcomes, as language skills require consistent practice and need to be updated regularly in accordance with the changes that the target language suffers.

Ortega, for example, mentions that L2 learners may acquire the language skills that will make them reach high levels of proficiency in second language; (Ortega, 2009); however, the specified level of mastering language skills can only be attained once engaging in communication with native speakers.

Interaction with others, especially with native speakers, is important for L2 learners; as soon as the latter find themselves in the environment that promotes the acquisition and training of second language skills, they are most likely to start practicing the latter and achieve substantial success in the process.


While the statements concerning the previous experience and the unique characteristics of the learner (apart from the age differences) are true for most learners despite their age, the process of adult learning still needs to be approached from the tenets of the corresponding adult learning theories.

Among the key theories that concern the process of adult learning, Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle deserves to be mentioned first.

Described by Jarvis (1995) as the theory of how people learn from their primary experience (Jarvis, 1995, p. 81), the specified approach presupposes that adult learners should relate to their previous experience as the key method of acquiring and processing the information retrieved in the course of learning (Jarvis, 1995).

On the one hand, the theory under analysis can be viewed as rather credible, as the learning process can be enhanced by relating to the previous experience of using the target language or even locating similarities between the learner’s native tongue and the target one (Jarvis, 1995).

However, as the evaluation of the key learning factors provided above has shown, the significance of previous experience even for adult learners is often overrated (Sanz, 2005).

Also known as experiential learning, the approach suggested by Kolb can be considered one of the most essential theories that describe and explain the learning process.

The theory of critical learning suggested by Brookfield (1996) has also affected the understanding of how the process of adult learning occurs. According to the author, it is essential for an adult learner to approach the information acquired in the process from a critical perspective.

Consequently, the theory in question presuppose that the use of “lateral, divergent thinking strategies and double loop learning methods” (Brookfield, 1996, p. 11) should be adopted in order to enhance the process of adult learning.

Mezirow, in his turn, offers the concept of Transformation Theory (Mezirow, 2000) as the way of improving information acquisition in adult learners.

The specified theory has paved the way to understanding the adult learning process through the dimensions of “contextual understanding, critical reflection on assumptions, and validating meaning by assessing reasons” (Mezirow, 2000, p. 3).

As a result, the theory in question provides a deeper insight on the culturally relevant practices, which an adult learner perceives as essential and, thus, promotes an emotional experience, which will help an adult learner relate to the target language closer.

Arguably, the theory in question, when applied to practice, may pose a certain threat to the overall emotional experience of the learner (Mezirow, 2000, p. 7); however, there is a positive side to the emotionally challenging experiences that the theory promotes, i.e., the fact that the theory links the process of adult learning and the culturally specific practices (Mezirow, 2000).

Thus, the theory promotes adopting an individual approach towards adult learners. At this point, the ideas voiced by Cross (1992) deserve to be mentioned, as she renders the concept of communication as an essential tool in enhancing the learning process among adult learners.

According to Cross, communication must occur on у regular basis between the learner and the participants concerned so that the process of information analysis should occur at the required pace.

Mitchell and Myles (2004), in their turn, offer a range of quite feasible theories concerning the process of L2 learning.

As the researchers explain, the process of theories development has been occurring since 1950s and is not over yet; as a result, while a number of theories have become obsolete due to the outdated approach that they suggest, the number of theoretical frameworks, which the learning process can be accessed from, is still quite ample.

The authors suggest putting a much stronger emphasis on the grammatical principles that are common for all languages in general, thus, allowing learners to draw parallels between their native language and the target one.

The specified characteristics of the theory aligns with one of the primary needs of learners discussed above, which makes the theory essential for approaching L2 students.

Last, but definitely not least, the learning theories suggested by Jarvis (1998) deserve to be mentioned. The researcher lists a range of theoretical frameworks that have been designed to address the needs of adult learners.

Specifically, the researcher renders the tenets of the key cognitivist theories (Vygotsky and Mezirow), the theories of social learning, and experiential learning phenomena. Moreover, the study carried out by Jarvis embraces the principles of self-directed learning (Houl, Tough, Knowles, etc.) (Jarvis, 1998).

However, when it comes to locating the defining asset of Jarvis’s research, the fact that the author brings up the idea of problem-based learning (Jarvis, 1998) must be mentioned.

Unlike the rest of the theorists mentioned above, Jarvis spells out the key issues that an adult learner is most likely to face in the workplace setting; particularly, the issue of time is rendered several times: “In fact, as almost everyone knows, starting a new job calls for rapid learning” (Jarvis, 1998, p. 129).

Moreover, Jarvis makes it very obvious that adult learning often presupposes taking learners through a certain “crash course” (Jarvis, 1998, p. 130) and then leaving them on their own once the process is over.

In order to address the issue in question, Jarvis suggests the problem-based learning framework, which helps address the drastic lack of time.

Moreover, by making learners solve “problems in situations as near as possible to ‘real life’” (Jarvis, 1998, p. 135), the problem-based learning framework creates the environment, in which learners are capable of using their long-term memory for remembering the patterns that are required for carrying out the related tasks automatically (Gass & Salinker, 2001).

In order to acquire the corresponding skills efficiently, one will have to consider the visual strategies of adult learning suggested (Jarvis 1998). According to the author, it is imperative that visualization of the information learned in the process of studying should be provided.

Thus, adult learners will be able to process data faster and learn the required information in a more efficient manner. Additionally, the strategy of lifelong learning (Jarvis 1998) should also be viewed as an opportunity for adult learners.

The specified approach allows for not only learning new skills efficiently based on previous experience, but also develop a unique approach that will encourage one to excel in a different field.

Moreover, according to Jarvis (1998), repetition should also be used as one of the key strategies for adult learning. As the author explains, learning aims at understanding, and repetition may promote deep learning as opposed to surface learning due to the emphasis on the development of a corresponding technique (Jarvis, 1998).

More importantly, consistent repetition of the information acquired in the course of previous sessions will help learners ensure accurate recall of the necessary data.

The specified approach stands in a sharp contrast to the so-called rote learning, which Jarvis (1998) describes as mechanic one, which occurs without any conscious thought whatsoever.

Despite the fact that rote learning should not be disregarded as a learning strategy in specific cases, most adult learners are likely to prefer the repetition approach as their basic learning strategy.


Although the process of language skills acquisition occurs at a comparatively slow pace due to the factors such as age and aptitude, learning can be enhanced by increasing the rates of engagement among the learners.

Basing the practice, i.e., the training of language skills on the existing theories of adult learning, including the behaviourist ones, the cognitive ones and the constructive ones, a learner will be capable of increasing the language proficiency of the learners extensively.

Moreover, the adoption of the specified theories will allow for reducing and even mitigating the negative effects of the factors that restrict the number of opportunities for adult learners to only a few.

Reference List

Bourgeois, E. (2002).Constructivist approach to adult learning. In A. Bron & M. Schemmann (Eds.), Social science theories in adult education (130–153). Münster, DE: LIT Verlag Münster.

Brookfield, S. (1996). The power of critical theory for adult learning and teaching. In A. C. Tuijnman (Ed.), International encyclopedia of adult education and training (153–168). 2nd ed. Oxford, UK: Pergamon (Elsevier Science).

Cross, P. (1992). Adults as learners: Increasing participation and facilitating learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dornyei, Z. & Ushioda, E. (2009). Motivation, language identity and the L2 self. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Ellis, R. (1997). Second language acquisition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, R. (1999). Learning a second language through interaction (studies in bilingualism). Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamin’s Publishing Company.

Illeris, K. (2007). How we learn: Learning and non-learning in school and beyond. London, UK: Routledge.

Gass, S. M. & Salinker, L. (2001). Second language acquisition: An introductory course. Abingdon, UK: Taylor & Francis.

Jarvis, P. (1995). Adult and continuing education. London, UK: Routledge.

Jarvis, P. (1998).The theory and practice of learning. London, UK: Logan Page.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformation: critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mitchell, R. & Myles, F. (2004). Second language learning theories. London, UK: Routledge.

Ortega, L. (2009) Understanding second language acquisition. London, UK: Routledge.

Saville-Troike, M. (2012) Introducing second language acquisition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sanz, C. (2005). Mind and context in adult second language acquisition: Methods, theory, and practice. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

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