How Adult Language Learners Differ from Children: The Person

In the previous instalment to this post, we covered how adult brains differ from that of children’s, and how a declining brain plasticity can affect the learning experience adults have when trying to acquire a new language.

But brain connections aren’t the only thing separating adult learners from children.

And so, today, we’re taking a look at how more mature students approach the learning process. Here, too, there are certain factors that help and some that hinder. But, using correct strategies and keeping your motivation high, there’s no obstacle to keep you from learning a new language at any age.

A strong sense of self

Unlike children, who are just discovering their place in the world, adults have developed a strong sense of self.

This means a few things.

Adults don’t usually appreciate being lectured to. Instead, they like to take control of their learning process, acquiring and discarding info as they see fit. This self-directed learning is a valuable tool when learners are given free rein to explore and develop themselves based on their subjective interests. However, in situations where they feel forced to deny their agency and learn something for the sake of learning, adults tend to push back.

For teachers of adult students, that means focusing on fostering a cooperative relationship as opposed to a traditional student-master one.

Motivation is (usually) not an issue

From the previous point, it becomes clear that if and when an adult has decided that they want to acquire a new skill or knowledge, keeping them motivated is usually not an issue.

Unlike children, who are forced into learning more often than not, self-directed adults can take full responsibility for their learning process.

The job of the teacher in that scenario is to simply function as a guide, showing the learner the best way to reach their goals.

Competing priorities

Of course, that doesn’t sadly mean that adults can happily dedicate all of their time to learning.

Instead, there is constant prioritising that needs to happen between their day job, family life, and other hobbies. Even the most practically-minded and motivated adult learners might find it hard to focus on language lessons if they’re facing problems at home or the office.

Here, the teacher needs to show a high level of flexibility. Private language tutors are, of course, best for this, as they can provide the adult learner with plenty of opportunities to fit lessons into their schedule. Naturally, some learners might still prefer the socialisation and structure that group lessons provide.

Plenty of previous experience to build on

One of the best secret weapons adult learners have is to build their learning onto their previous experience.

Incorporating new information is a lot easier if you can tie it to existing thought patterns, so the more seasoned you are, the easier it will be to create associations.

However, this comes with a caveat.

Previous experience also works the other way around: if you find new info that doesn’t fit into your existing worldview, it becomes harder to incorporate. This effect can mean that learning things incompatible with the adult’s worldview is a much harder task. Add to that the self-directedness, and the adult is very likely to direct themselves out of a lesson they find unpleasant and/or unuseful.

Learning without acquiring

So, all of that can mean that for various reasons, the adult in your class shows up but might not want to actually acquire anything new.

This can happen if they’re feeling confident in their skills, have been mandated to show up for class by some higher power, or simply want to psychologically protect themselves from having to incorporate new information into their existing worldview.

Here, it’s important for the teacher to treat all of their students with respect and, again, see themselves more as a guide to help the adult reach their goals.


Unlike children, who are still being moulded by society at large, their parents, and teachers, adult learners have a very strongly developed sense of self. They can use this to direct their learning, meaning they’d probably more happily focus on practical skills they can put to use in their everyday lives or simply learning things they’re interested in. However, this same sense of self can make them somewhat reluctant to change, especially when addressing their core beliefs and values.

In every case, it’s important for the teacher of an adult student to treat them with respect and as an equally adept peer, who might simply need guiding down the right path to reach their goals.