Chapter 12: Adult Language Learning

12.2 Motivations for adult language learners

It wouldn’t make sense to think about the motivations of infant language learners: they can’t help learning whatever language they have access to. In contrast, adult language learners may have any number of different reasons to learn a language, and their motivations affect the ways they learn.

Migration, Employment, and Education

As we saw in Chapter 2, many employers in Canada expect their employees to be proficient in English. If you immigrate to Canada for work or for school, you have a pretty clear economic motivation to learn English. Unfortunately, the common approaches to teaching English to adult learners are often built on standard language ideologies with racist and colonialist assumptions. Such classes frame English as a fixed asset contained in textbooks. In their analysis of ESL classes, Swift argues, “the language that students saw and heard seemed to be designed to represent prescriptive norms (sometimes to the point of hyper-formality/correction) rather than believable examples of real-life practice.” (2022, p. 317). In these contexts, the teacher is the ultimate arbiter of correctness, and as Ramjattan (2019b) shows, white people are perceived as better teachers than people of colour.

Rosa & Flores (2021) point out that a prescriptivist approach to teaching ESL is usually intended benevolently. The underlying reasoning is that adult learners, often people of colour who have immigrated, need to learn standardized forms of English so they can have workplace success and be included in mainstream society. But this logic is flawed: we know from Chapter 2 that listeners’ perception of a “foreign” accent in English is influenced by the speaker’s appearance as much as by their speech (Babel & Russell, 2015) and Ramjattan (2019a) reminds us that employers disguise their racial discrimination by cloaking it in terms of accent. Rosa & Flores sum it up this way:

“even when marginalized people within these contexts engaged in linguistic practices that seemed to correspond to mainstream standards, they continued to be perceived as deficient and in need of remediation.” (Rosa & Flores, 2021, p. 1164)

In other words, even so-called “perfect” English – that is, English that matches the prestige standard – is often not enough to escape raciolinguistic stigma. A growing body of literature considers how ESL teachers might embrace variation in English and resist stigmatizing their students’ language practices. If you’re interested in language teaching, maybe you’ll be interested in working towards social justice in an ESL class!

Cultural Enrichment

Rather than employment, your primary motivation for learning a later language might be for intellectual or cultural enrichment. The idea is that your worldview can be expanded by learning about a culture other than your own. There might be the incentive of international travel, an exchange or a semester abroad. The languages taught and learned in this context used to be labelled as foreign languages, with the unspoken implication that anything not English is foreign. These days you more often see the terms international languages or world languages to refer to languages other than English.

Regardless of the label, curriculum and teaching materials for this kind of later language learning tend to assume that the learner is a white speaker of English. Anya (2021) showed that the curriculum for college Spanish in the USA systematically excluded Black learners in several ways: not only were African-American cultural occasions and news stories disregarded, but even the Spanish vocabulary for describing people’s appearance did not include appropriate terms for African descendants. Black students in these classes felt that learning Spanish was irrelevant to them.

You can see from the dates of the research I’ve mentioned here that the field of adult language learning is only recently beginning to grapple with the racist assumptions embedded in its practices. If you’re learning a later language, maybe you can challenge some of those assumptions in your own class. Or if you go on from studying linguistics to become a language teacher, maybe you can work to incorporate racial and social justice into world language learning!

Community Connection

The languages spoken by Indigenous peoples in North America don’t usually fall into the category of “world languages” because of their particular status. As we saw in Chapters 1 and 9, the colonial Canadian government engaged in systematic and often violent efforts to eradicate these languages and assimilate their speakers into the colonizers’ white English-speaking society. This is why learning the languages of their Nations is vitally important for many Indigenous adults who did not have the opportunity to learn their language as children. Learning it as an adult allows them a connection with their Elders’ stories and teachings. Many strive to gain enough proficiency so that their children can learn their language at home, in childhood: this is one of the best means of ensuring that the language continues to be used.

Ferguson and Weaselboy (2020) explain eloquently how many Nations’ traditional teachings about culture and about the Land are thoroughly embedded within each Nation’s language. They argue, “Land must be experienced through Indigenous language in order to fully appreciate those layers of meaning and appreciate the nuances of what sustainable relations are within that Indigenous culture.” (2020, p. 3) Jenny Davis discusses the ways that people working to reclaim Indigenous languages embed their work in “the robust geographic, linguistic, spiritual, and social dynamics of languages” (Davis, 2017, p. 49); she describes these strategies as a means of survivance, blending survival of the language with resistance to colonial oppression.

One of  Wesley Leonard’s language reclamation activists expressed this idea of the rich connections between language and community by taking about morphology. In the myaamia language, the verb that means “to speak a language” is a bound morpheme. One myaamia speaker pointed out that the verb –aatawee– “can’t stand alone; we have to attach it to the people” (Leonard, 2017, p. 30)

Because Canadian universities are by and large founded on Euro-Western colonial ideals, a typical university course is not necessarily the most effective or appropriate venue for adult learners of Indigenous languages. Czaykowska-Higgins and her colleagues (2017) describe how the language programme at the University of Victoria strives to be “responsive to the needs and directions expressed by First Nations community partners, and by doing so, to support the empowerment and self-determination of those communities.” (2017, p. 142)

One way that adult learning of Indigenous languages might differ from other later language learning is the specific barriers that Indigenous learners may encounter. In Chapter 9, Mary Ann Corbiere and David Kanatawakhon Maracle both talk about the fact that there simply aren’t many opportunities for learners to practice their languages, because there are few speakers and few materials like books, reference grammars, and curriculum resources. And McIvor (2020) points out that Indigenous learners often carry multi-generational trauma specifically about their languages, because of their or their relatives’ experiences of violence in colonial schools.

On the other hand, some Indigenous language learners also report substantial benefits to their mental and physical health as they gain proficiency in their language. For example, Oster et al. (2014)’s quantitative analysis of 31 First Nations in Alberta showed that the Nations with higher language proficiency had lower rates of diabetes. Similarly, in an analysis of First Nations in British Columbia, Hallett et al. (2007) found that the communities with the highest numbers of speakers of the language had the lowest suicide rates among youth.

Of course, it would be too simple to interpret these results to mean that grammar leads to good health. Instead, these quantitative measurements align with what Indigenous Elders and experts say about the deep connections between their languages and the traditional cultures of their communities. One of the participants in Oster et al.’s interviews of members of the Piikani Blackfoot Nation and Ermineskin Cree Nation explains it this way:

“Elders always speak of the importance of our language. Who we are is determined through our language. We speak our language and that determines where you come from, what your culture is, and even how we used to go with the different seasons in terms of following those traditional paths. Regardless of where you go, if you have that language our culture is in there… So once you lose that, what do you have left? Because our beliefs come from that in terms of how we govern ourselves. It comes in terms of how we eat, and in terms of how we educate ourselves and conduct ourselves in that full circle.”
(quoted in Oster et al., 2014, pp. 3-4)

And Gisele Maria Martin, a Nuu-chah-nulth learner quoted by McIvor (2020), says it even more simply and eloquently. She says:

“I have found a part of my soul that was missing. I just feel so grateful. I feel like it’s one of the biggest, most meaningful things I’ve ever done in my life.” (quoted in McIvor, 2020, p. 89)

How’s that for motivation? Reclaiming your language might mean finding part of your soul.

Check your understanding


Anya, U. (2021). Critical Race Pedagogy for More Effective and Inclusive World Language Teaching. Applied Linguistics, 42(6), 1055–1069.

Babel, M., & Russell, J. (2015). Expectations and speech intelligibility. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 137(April), 2823–2833.

Czaykowska-Higgins, E., Burton, S., McIvor, O., & Marinakis, A. (2017). Supporting Indigenous language revitalisation through collaborative post-secondary proficiency-building curriculum. In W. Y. Leonard & H. De Korne (Eds.), Language Documentation and Description (Vol. 14, pp. 136–159). EL Publishing.

Davis, J. L. (2017). Resisting rhetorics of language endangerment: Reclamation through Indigenous language survivance. In W. Y. Leonard & H. De Korne (Eds.), Language Documentation and Description (Vol. 14, pp. 37–58). EL Publishing.

Ferguson, J., & Weaselboy, M. (2020). Indigenous sustainable relations: Considering land in language and language in land. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 43, 1–7.

Hallett, D., Chandler, M. J., & Lalonde, C. E. (2007). Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide. Cognitive Development, 22(3), 392–399.

Leonard, W. Y. (2017). Producing language reclamation by decolonising ‘language.’ In W. Y. Leonard & H. De Korne (Eds.), Language Documentation and Description (Vol. 14, pp. 15–36). EL Publishing.

Lukaniec, M., & Palakurthy, K. (2022). Additional Language Learning in the Context of Indigenous Language Reclamation. In K. Geeslin, The Routledge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition and Sociolinguistics (1st ed., pp. 341–355). Routledge.

McIvor, O. (2020). Indigenous Language Revitalization and Applied Linguistics: Parallel Histories, Shared Futures? Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 40, 78–96.

Oster, R. T., Grier, A., Lightning, R., Mayan, M. J., & Toth, E. L. (2014). Cultural continuity, traditional Indigenous language, and diabetes in Alberta First Nations: A mixed methods study. International Journal for Equity in Health, 13(1), 92.

Ramjattan, V. A. (2019a). Racializing the problem of and solution to foreign accent in business. Applied Linguistics Review.

Ramjattan, V. A. (2019b). The white native speaker and inequality regimes in the private English language school. Intercultural Education, 30(2), 126–140.

Rosa, J., & Flores, N. (2021). Decolonization, Language, and Race in Applied Linguistics and Social Justice. Applied Linguistics, 42(6), 1162–1167.

Swift, K. (2022). ‘The good English’: The ideological construction of the target language in adult ESOL. Language in Society, 51(2), 309–331.


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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition Copyright © 2022 by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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