Target Learners

LanguageBug targets specifically adult language learners.

This population has typically a complex profile when it comes to language learning. Here, adults learners are going to be characterized as self-motivated, but discouraged, distrustful, and maybe too serious.

Such negative framing is of course not what describes all adult language learners. Adults can also learn languages because of their prior success with language learning, or their great abilities in this field.

This section, therefore, serves to illustrate the target learners who would most struggle with language learning, due to their prior unsuccessful experiences, negative beliefs, or discouragement.


According to Gardner and Lambert (1959, 1972), there are two main classes of orientations that characterize a language learner’s motivation to learn another language (L2):

  • integrative orientation
  • instrumental orientation

Noels et al. (2000) explain these classes of orientations:

“First, the integrative orientation refers to a desire to learn the L2 in order to have contact with, and perhaps to identify with, members from the L2 community. This orientation can be contrasted with the instrumental orientation, which refers to a desire to learn the L2 to achieve some practical goal, such as job advancement or course credit.” (Noels et al, 2000, p. 59)


“The five assumptions underlying andragogy describe the adult learner as someone who: 1. has an independent self-concept and who can direct his or her own learning, 2. has accumulated a reservoir of life experiences that is a rich resource for learning, 3. has learning needs closely related to changing social roles. 4. is problem-centered and interested in immediate application of knowledge, and 5. is motivated to learn by internal rather than external factors.” (Merriam, 2001, p. 5)

Knowles himself has stated that andragogy is less a learning theory of adult learning and more of “a model of assumptions about learning or a conceptual framework that serves as a basis for an emergent theory” (1989, p. 112)” (p. 5)


Adult learners are most likely to be self-motivated, that is, to be sure of the reasons why they want to know a particular language. For example, an employee who has the chance to work in a different country will know why knowing that foreign language is needed.

In another example, someone looking for a job may look better qualified by knowing how to speak a foreign language. In cases like these, one understands the benefits and goals of learning a certain language, therefore, is willing to take action and invest time, energy, and even money into it.

But even those self-motivated learners sometimes do not succeed in learning foreign languages. It may happen for many different reasons, as lack of emotional support from peers and teachers, unrealistically high expectations, and inefficient language learning techniques, etc.


A person that has “failed” to learn a foreign language in the past feels discouraged and frustrated. This frustration may get even more harmful if this person believes that “language learning ability is dependent on some immutable, innate talent” (Mercer, 2012, p. 22), which is a typical scenario. Mercer & Ryan (2010) project that:

“It is possible that FLL [Foreign Language Learning] is a domain in which the fixed mindset may be particularly prevalent, given the widespread belief in the importance of natural talent or aptitude in successful language learning” (p. 444)

It might be the case that most people that have “failed” in language learning were actually making lots of progress, but were not able to notice that. Most language courses are too pragmatic to explain that language learning has many inherent challenges, and it is expected to be difficult to overcome some of these challenges. In other words, they lack metacognition and growth mindset.


Besides adult learners being most likely to suffer from frustration and discouragement from a prior, unsuccessful attempt to learn a foreign language, they have to deal with a general discredit for the simple fact that they are adults, therefore, less capable of learning languages than children.

The Critical Period Hypothesis, on which there is no consensus among linguists, is that “there is a time in human development when the brain is predisposed for success in language learning” (Lightbown; Spada 2006, p. 93). It is estimated that this critical period would usually end around puberty.

Believing in the Critical Period Hypothesis, or in any myth that adults are bad language learners, may impact the learner’s self-beliefs. In fact, “negative or unrealistic beliefs can lead to decreased motivation, frustration and anxiety” (Oh, 1996; Kern, 1995), which will likely affect the quality of learning experiences.

But while “the general consensus is that the younger learner has stronger powers of mimicry and retention, there is no evidence to suggest that adult learners are slower in terms of absorbing new information” (Johnson, 2015).

Too serious

Besides their self-beliefs and mindsets, it might be the case that shyness affects more adults than children when it comes to learning languages. Fear of feeling and looking silly, resistance to trying new approaches, and concerns with making mistakes can explain a harsher, stricter approach.

For example, when it comes to speaking skills, it is hard for most adult learners to experiment with produce sounds that go beyond their own phonetic repertoire. This makes it challenging for them to mimic the accents and the pronunciation in foreign languages.

Fortunately, one of the principles of Andragogy is that adult learners are guided by learning goals and tied to logical principles. By explaining to such adult learners the benefits from “loosen up”, it is expected that their capacity to playfully explore their language abilities will expand.