Language Acquisition in Adult Learners

Language Acquisition in Adult Learners
How do adults acquire a second language, and what can we learn from this as ESL teachers?

In our previous article entitled Language Acquisition vs. Language Learning we mentioned an important distinction in the way in which children acquire their mother tongue naturally, by means of meaningful interactions with their parents in which the focus of every single exchange is communicative in nature.

Adults, in contrast, when trying to learn a second language, are usually presented with a myriad of grammar rules and patterns to master from the very first class.

It is said by advocates of these procedures, that their cognitive development cannot be equalled to that of a child and that statement is very true indeed. However, the fact that there are important cognitive and developmental differences between children and adults does not by any means imply that language should be presented devoid of any meaning as a rigid set of rules and patterns which are essential to master. Advocates of this school have the perception that every single piece of the puzzle they teach (i.e. a certain pattern, rule, tense, etc) is going to be inserted into the big picture one day and the puzzle will be perfectly complete for the student to see and use. In reality, students simply receive piece after piece after piece of a big something that they are never able to tell what it is or when they will be able to see it, if ever.

Have you ever tried to make a really big puzzle without an overall picture of what it would look like when finished? If you have, you will have noticed that it may be a very frustrating and draining activity, with no clear goals and objectives. Every effort you make seems to be meaningless and you usually feel like drifting around aimlessly and purposelessly. Isn’t it part and parcel of the Second language teaching profession to find thousands of adult learners who could recite a grammar book by heart but nevertheless are unable to communicate basic ideas naturally and fluently if it is that they can communicate them at all?

This, of course, does not have any resemblance to the way in which a first language is acquired. Nor does it mean that children and adults acquire a first and a second language in precisely the same way. There are obvious differences among children and adults learning a second language.

What was highlighted in our previous article is the need for language to be meaningful at all times, and this is common ground for both children and adults alike. Language without meaningful communication is as useless as Valentine’s Day without lovers or Children’s day without any kids (I apologize for using the same analogy as in my previous article).

However, a quick look at present-day language courses clearly shows that this is not the case at all. You will see from the very first lesson, that the students have laundry lists of words to master and memorize, grammar, vocabulary, grammar and more vocabulary to make them feel they can even “touch” the language, those pretty “tangible” patterns they learn lesson after lesson that make them feel so secure and confident. The truth is, in the vast majority of cases, that whenever presented with a REAL situation in which they have to use the language, more often than not they dry up and are unable to utter two coherent phrases altogether. Are they to blame for their “failure?” Of course not. If what you are trained to do exclusively is grammar, repetitions and drills, you cannot be expected to produce something different, something communicative. The magic “click” that is supposed to take place in the students’ brains after constant hammering and repetition apparently never takes place or if it does, in the best of cases, it is in less than 2 per cent of the learners.

What does this show? Clearly it is an indicator that must make us reflect on the importance of our teaching practices. Just because we as teachers learned things in a certain way does NOT mean that it is THE way. Pragmatic results clearly show that a grammar based approach to teaching a language is highly ineffective since language per definition entails communication. Until we come to understand this simple fact, we will keep seeing students dropping out of their language studies because “they are too hard for them, they are not cut out to learn a second language” and statements like these. And they may be true… They do NOT need to learn a second language. Then need to acquire it in all the senses of the word.

Julio Foppoli
Julio Foppoli, Teacher of English as a Second Language, Teacher of Spanish as a Second Language, Creator and owner of, an online educational website with a technological edge, specialized in the teaching of Spanish as second language via audio-conference to native speakers of English from all over the world. The website offers free listening comprehension activities with Spanish from all of the Spanish speaking world.

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  1. I think it is an excellent article and I can certainly relate to it. I believe teachers should firstly find out what the students’ interests are and then plan lessons around them. With my own adult students, I’ve found going to the cinema, art gallery, coffee shops or the theatre has been a meaningful experience for them. It is certainly more fertile than a sterile classroom and I think this is, in my opinion, a very good way of making good progress in ‘Second Language Acquisition in Adult Learners’. It builds up their confidence in their ability to use the second language, and they are storing up memories of various places and how they expressed themselves in that situation.

  2. I concur with many of the points raised in this article. However, not only am I of the opinion that there is far too great a reliance on pure academic, and rote textbook teaching and learning, but I also discovered, because of seeing what they are doing as a profession and not looking outside the textbook, there is a severe lack of English in real life situations.

    While teaching in Japan, my students and friends told me that the outdated, reused in class, scripted lessons are very boring. However, by taking the students outside the class and letting them touch English, to experience, ask questions, they will improve at a faster rate.

    Far more importantly, if the teacher talks to, instead of at the student, and listens to what they want instead of overpowering them, the students will be willing to respect you, instead of reluctantly following your instructions. They will want to come to class or take your lessons instead of it being an obligation, appreciate English more, and not be intimidated to speak to an English speaker when they are spoken to in English.

    My very close dear friend and her 7 year old daughter are excellent examples of how, even in Japan, you can learn just as well as spending time and money traveling to Vancouver. That is if you remember the prime directive, which is that the teacher is the provider and the student is the buyer. Believe me for all those teachers who buy the idea that the school or materials used really are the key to learning, the truth is that 75% is due to the student’s purpose, tenacity and above all creating an atmosphere which is conducive not only to learning but also to experiencing English.

    As for teaching English to children, spending the day in the park or beach and doing and explaining actions is the best way to learn together with their mother or both parents.

    I welcome any and all contrasting points of view to what I wrote.

  3. I could not agree more. I have been teaching English for more than 30 years to adults in non-English speaking countries, and have used the aforementioned approach. The problem that I have faced is that the university trained English teachers from the country I live in, teach grammar and conversation as separate entities, and do not teach English the way they learned their mother tongue.


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