Adult Learning in the Language Classroom

Adult Learning in the Language Classroom

by Stacey Margarita Johnson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783094158
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Series: New Perspectives on Language and Education Series , #44
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Stacey Margarita Johnson is currently at Vanderbilt University as the Assistant Director for Educational Technology in the Center for Teaching and Senior Lecturer in Spanish. Previously, she was an Assistant Professor of Spanish at Hope College. She also serves as the Vice Chair of the Culture SIG for ACTFL (American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages). Her research includes L2 teaching methodology, adult learning, and technology in language education.

Read an Excerpt

Adult Learning in the Language Classroom

By Stacey Margarita Johnson

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2015 Stacey Margarita Johnson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78309-418-9



As a young adult, I discovered language study and was quickly hooked. The world opened up to me as I gained communicative proficiency and intercultural competence. My obsession with languages led to an undergraduate and graduate degree in language, followed by a career in language teaching at the post-secondary level. For me, learning Spanish as a foreign language was a truly transformative experience; it changed the trajectory of my life. Now, as a language instructor, I see many of my own students undergo the same profound learning that I did. I watch them discover differences, explore connections and take steps into a new culture.

However, unlike me, the college students who take my Elementary Spanish class as a required course in their degree program, or perhaps another professor's Beginning Arabic or German course, are unlikely to go on to become language majors. In fact, they will probably not pursue further language study of any kind after they leave our classes. They will pursue careers in medicine or engineering or education. They will travel to other countries on vacations and meet people from other cultures in their daily lives. But chances are they will not continue to study language in a classroom context. Some of my students admit to me that they do not understand why taking a foreign language class is important at all. They wonder what value it will add to their lives and future careers. I perceive the important learning taking place in my classroom, but many of my students want to know if that learning has any real-world value.

This conversation about the practical value of language study is a part of larger trend. Traditionally, studying foreign languages has been a cornerstone of a liberal arts education and the hallmark of international education. However, around the English-speaking world, there are discussions in the public sphere about the economic and political value of adults learning languages other than English. In a report on the state of language education and policy in Australia, Ingram (2000) wrote:

It is very significant that the policy seems to see the main justification for fostering language skills as their contribution to economic reform. Despite the value attached to multiculturalism and the maintenance and teaching of community languages as indicated in the goals, the policy places less emphasis than previously on community languages and most on the economic and international reasons for language teaching.

On a system-wide level, as well as for individual students, stakeholders want language study to produce practical benefits.

These discussions take place amid two conflicting forces: a general cultural push for more proficient speakers in business and government (for examples from news outlets, see Chau, 2014; Chauvot, 2013; Davidson, 2012; Zhou, 2013), and the cutting of programs and funds at all levels (see Lane, 2013; MLA, 2011; MLA, 2012). In the United Kingdom, for example, the importance of language study is widely promoted (The British Council, 2014), yet, in practice, few resources are available to adults who wish to pursue language study (The British Council, 2013). In the United States, many post-secondary students are required to study at least one semester of a foreign language as part of their general education degree requirements and such courses are more popular than ever (Associated Press, 2010), while entire language programs are threatened by widespread budget cuts (Foderaro, 2010; MLA, 2011). World language programs in compulsory schooling enjoy overwhelming public support (Rivers et al., 2013), while the public grants that support such programs are defunded (US Department of Education, 2012).

Is Fluency the Goal?

The common thread in many of these larger conversations about language study is a focus on linguistic competence, or fluency, as the ultimate goal of language study. It is assumed that in order for language study to be useful, learners must acquire an advanced conversational ability in the target language. Thus, there are many reports on the benefits of bilingualism (see Center for Applied Linguistics, 2010; Fortune, 2012), but fewer on the benefits of limited, short-term language study.

The idea of language as primarily a skill that must be mastered only captures a portion of what happens when adults begin to study a language and culture different from their own:

Divergent views concerning language and its many functions are reflected in differing approaches to the study of language. At one end, language is considered to be principally instrumental, a skill to use for communicating thought and information. At the opposite end, language is understood as an essential element of a human being's thought processes, perceptions, and self-expressions; and as such it is considered to be at the core of translingual and transcultural competence. (MLA, 2007)

In addition to the instrumental view of language as a tool for communication, there is also the view that we study language in order to better understand ourselves and others. Through language study, students acquire not only conversational ability, but also the ability to make sense of cultural differences and to understand social interactions across borders.

With the scarcity of resources available for adult foreign language study, our larger public debates about who should study languages other than English (LOTE), in what settings and for how long must be evaluated. Do business and governmental agencies require the skill of advanced fluency from their employees? Or would society's needs best be met if workers had a deeper transcultural competence that allowed positive, productive interactions across languages and cultures?

My intent in this section is not to dissuade anyone from pursuing fluency as a primary goal, but rather to explore why some adult learners feel that fluency is an objective beyond their grasp. While in many countries, foreign language instruction is being expanded at the elementary and secondary levels through traditional language classes and immersion schools (Asia Society, 2014), adult learners rarely have similar opportunities. Even at the college level where it stands to reason that adult students would have the most opportunity to pursue language, few continue on to advanced levels of study (Malone et al., 2005).

The United States government (National Virtual Translation Center, 2007) estimated that in order to attain only a general proficiency in a language linguistically and culturally similar to English, one needs about 600 hours of instruction. On a typical US college schedule of 45 classroom hours per three-credit, semester-long class, 600 hours equals more than 13 semesters of foreign language instruction. To put the numbers in context, 13 semesters is enough language study to qualify as a language major in most American Bachelor's degree programs. Advanced proficiency in a language requires even more classroom hours. In addition, if one studies a language with significant linguistic and cultural differences, such as Hindi or Russian, the number of required hours jumps to 1100, or more than 25 semesters of language instruction, nearly twice the amount of study required for a college degree. A general proficiency in Arabic, which English speakers find very difficult to learn, would require 2200 hours, or more than 50 semesters of instruction, which is more hours than required for an entire Bachelor's degree in the US. It is no wonder, given the challenge of time and effort that gaining proficiency entails, that most US college students, despite taking required language courses as part of their degree program, never become linguistically proficient. In particular, an adult learner taking classes with no intrinsic desire toward fluency would find that commitment especially unrealistic.

In this book, I seek to explore the effects of language study for adult students studying a new language for just one semester. If fluency is not a possible result of short-term language study, then what is its value? This question is of vital importance in recent times as funding for many language programs depends on their perceived value. So, what is the value of taking just one or two LOTE courses as an adult?

The Content of Language Study

Standards for language learning require a more comprehensive approach (COE, 2014; MLA, 2007; NSFLEP, 2015), one that is broader and more interdisciplinary. Memorizing vocabulary and grammar are not enough. Language instruction should help students 'develop insight into the nature of language and the concept of culture and realize that there are multiple ways of viewing the world' (ACTFL, n.d.: 3) and help 'in gaining understanding and in developing their abilities to think critically about how languages work' (p. 6). Students should learn 'critical language awareness, interpretation and translation, historical and political consciousness, social sensibility, and aesthetic perception' (MLA, 2007: 4).

While these are important goals, the question for many language teachers is how to promote this kind of learning within the confines of a classroom focused on communication. 'Language teachers tend to agree with the notion that what needs to be taught is critical language awareness, interpretive skills, and historical consciousness, but while they find the idea inspiring and exciting, they also find it difficult, if not impossible, to implement' (Byram & Kramsch, 2008: 20).

As a college-level language teacher myself, I can attest that I am inspired by the idea that my classroom can be a place where students discover the world, explore difference and develop their translingual and transcultural competence. Yet, I wonder, how exactly is that done? Are there teachers already doing a good job of developing adult students through language study? Have they left a trail for me to find as they blazed this path? How exactly does an instructor teach for critical consciousness? And finally, to what extent should I make room in my classroom for the development of these skills and attitudes?

Given that linguistic proficiency and other kinds of adult learning all require time to develop, the next issue is one of scarcity of classroom time. That is to say, in order to increase time focused on one kind of learning, must instructional time spent on the other be reduced? The issues for me as a language teacher become: (1) which learning outcomes to promote in my classroom and (2) which methods lead to those outcomes.

This Study

In this book, I argue that even one semester of language instruction can be invaluable to adult student learning and development. I will discuss the findings of case study research in a first-semester college language classroom. To put it simply, I spent a semester in a classroom paying close attention to what was being taught and how it was being taught. Then, I asked students in the class what they learned, and, while some did report learning language, most discussed learning other things. Students reported learning about themselves, about the act and process of learning and about race, culture and prejudice. They reported changing their perspectives on important issues and becoming more self-directed in their learning. Their stories exemplify the life-changing impact language learning can have on adult students.

The instructor who taught the class I studied for this book was acutely aware that she had no control over the majority of the content of the course because her institution set the curriculum and chose the text. So, she decided to present the required material in a way that spoke to her personally, that reflected her own approach to living and learning as a world citizen. She focused on how to teach instead of on what to teach. This approach is consistent with best practices in many disciplines. To quote my colleague Jonathan Hagood's revision of the medium is the message: 'The pedagogy is the content' (2013).

I found that the students in this instructor's classroom experienced profound learning and were usually able to directly connect their learning experiences with her pedagogical choices. None of the students in her classroom intended to major in the language; they all had other academic and professional aspirations that took precedent. Yet, many of her students reported transformational learning experiences while in her classroom and expected to have many opportunities to apply what they had learned outside of the classroom. While I do not hold the instructor in this classroom up as a model teacher in every way (she was human after all), she did one thing very well: promoting adult development through language study. Even if readers disagree with aspects of her pedagogy, I believe we can all learn from her.

Adult learning theory, in any learning context or setting, explains the ways that adults grow, transform and develop over a lifetime through both formal and informal learning experiences. My analysis in this book seeks to find connections between the fields of foreign/second language teaching and adult learning theory. Taking this interdisciplinary approach serves as a framework in order to: (a) understand the teaching methods that promote the deeper, more critical sort of language learning advocated by scholars and professional organizations, (b) understand how adult students learn and transform through language study and (c) reinforce the immense value of beginning language courses.

Organization of the Book

This book details the results of a semester-long case study of one Elementary Spanish course (Spanish I) at the college level. In Chapters 2 and 3, I examine adult learning theory and its connections to foreign language education. Both of these fields are immense and active with relevant new scholarship popping up seemingly every day. While no book could give a thorough treatment of both fields, there are some key ways that adult learning connects to foreign language education that have practical implications for teaching and learning. Chapter 2 gives a brief overview of some of the major themes of adult learning including transformative learning, experiential learning and self-directed learning. The emphasis is on the processes involved in adult language learning. Chapter 3 contextualizes the foreign language education of adults within a broader framework of best practices, standards and approaches to teaching languages. Here I focus on current and historical trends in how language teachers present content.

In Chapter 4, the reader meets the class at the heart of this study. The classroom selected did not exist in a vacuum. The class was part of a community, a college and a department. The participants, both instructor and students, were unique individuals meeting in one place for a common purpose. I imagine that the class I studied is very much like other adult language classes all over the country. However, the goal of Chapter 4 is to discuss the characteristics unique to this case.

The actual instruction that took place, or rather, the methods used and how those methods were applied, is discussed in Chapter 5. By analyzing the classroom practices and student reactions to those practices, I demonstrate how best practices in adult language education play out in this particular setting.

Chapter 6 discusses the question of what students learn while studying language. What is taught is not always what is learned. Learning to communicate in the language is often only the beginning of learning for adult students. The learning reported by the participants in this study is profound, multidimensional and not at all limited to the actual language being studied. Chapter 7 continues the analysis of what students learned by exploring language learning as adult learning: transformational and leading to personal development.

Chapter 8 seeks to interpret the findings of this study in the light of current issues in higher education. I discuss ways instructors who teach required courses can implement the instructional practices outlined in the findings of this research. Even those teaching in difficult circumstances, without the power to implement large-scale changes, can apply adult learning theory to their teaching to promote deep learning. I draw conclusions about the value of the learning described by the participants.


In choosing a case for this research, the criteria for my selection were as follows. First, I wanted to study a section of first-semester Spanish at the community college level. I was interested in the community college level in particular because, at that level, language classes are taken as part of the general education core or because of student interest, but not as part of a major course of study. Second, it was important to me to find an instructor with whom I could have a positive, collaborative relationship. The type of research I wanted to do would require me to be visible in the classroom and communicating with the students and instructor frequently. A positive working relationship would be vital. In addition to these two criteria, there was one instructor, Ms Dina Salazar (pseudonym), whom I particularly wanted to observe in the classroom. I had good reason to believe that Ms Salazar was conducting her class in a way that improved outcomes for adult students. During the pilot study to this research (Johnson & Mullins Nelson, 2010), I sampled four sections of Elementary Spanish II to administer a survey and then conduct follow-up interviews. Two of the sections I surveyed were taught by Ms Salazar and two were taught by another instructor. However, all of the participants who exhibited signs of transformative learning came from Ms Salazar's classes. Based both on the high number of students from her classes that reported transformation and on student descriptions of her classroom environment, I came to suspect that Ms Salazar taught her classes in a way that encouraged important kinds of adult learning. Accordingly, I approached Ms Salazar about collaborating with me again.


Excerpted from Adult Learning in the Language Classroom by Stacey Margarita Johnson. Copyright © 2015 Stacey Margarita Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1: IntroductionChapter 2: Adult Learning Theory Chapter 3: Adult Language EducationChapter 4: This Class Chapter 5: How the Class was TaughtChapter 6: What Students Learned Chapter 7: Transformation and DevelopmentChapter 8: ApplicationsReferencesAppendix

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