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Who are the Learners?

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This post aims to raise your awareness of who the learners are in terms of their:

  • linguistic, cultural and educational backgrounds;
  • motivations, goals and needs;
  • challenges and proficiencies.

Your Experience

There are probably very few adults in the world that have never tried to learn a foreign (or additional) language. Many of these have successful experiences, although unsuccessful experiences may well outnumber these.

Think about a foreign language you tried to learn (it doesn’t matter whether you were successful or not).

Think about the following points. You might find it helpful to make some notes. When ready, read the commentary.

  1. What was the language?
  2. Why did you learn that language? Was it your choice?
  3. What goals did you have as a result of learning this language? (e.g. travel/passing an exam)
  4. How did you learn? Were you self-taught? Did you have a teacher? Did you go to group classes or one to one?
  5. If you attended classes, what did you expect to get from them? Did you get this?
  6. How did you stay motivated? If you didn’t, why not?
  7. How good did you want to be at the language? Did you get there?
  8. Was learning a positive experience? Is there anything you would change?
  1. English is the most studied language, but other major languages are taught around the world.
  2. Many people have languages forced upon them at school. They don’t always get a choice which. Unfortunately, in these cases motivation can be missing, leading to people believing they are poor at languages.
  3. At school, the goal is often passing an exam. Outside of this situation, you may have learnt for work, to travel, out of curiousity, because you liked the culture, or many more reasons.
  4. Some people are able to pick up a language, or learn just by themselves. Others hire a teacher or go to classes. These are all valid options, and may even be more or less helpful at different times.
  5. A common expectation is to make quick progress, and this isn’t always met. You may also have had expectations about how much English (or your language) the teacher would speak, and the type of activities you would do.
  6. Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. Motivation is very important. We may use different strategies like rewarding ourselves, or may just be motivated by the end goal.
  7. Most people want to at least achieve a reasonable degree of fluency such as Intermediate (B1 CEFR). Many people go a lot further than this of course.
  8. Many people have had negative learning experiences, particularly as we are often studying in a classroom in our most emotionally fragile (teenage) years. This can shape our future experiences of education.

Why do Students Learn English?

Students have a range of reasons for wanting to learn English. Unless we are teaching in a mainstream education setting, it is likely students will have very different goals.

Read about the following individuals. Think about the following questions, then read the commentary.

  1. Which students do these acronyms apply to?
    1. EFL = English as a Foreign Language
    2. ESL = English as a Second Language
    3. ELF = English as a Lingua Franca
    4. ESP = English for Specific Purposes
    5. EAP = English for Academic Purposes
  2. Which learners are bilingual or multilingual?
  3. Which learners will find English most difficult because of their first language? Which will find it easiest?
  4. Who gets the most exposure to English? Who gets the least?
  5. Which students are likely to be the most motivated?
  6. Which of these learners do you expect to teach?

Maria is a Russian speaker in Moscow studying a preparation course for IELTS (an examination to gain entry to British universities).

Matthaus is a German high school student. English is a compulsory subject in his school. He also attends lessons at a local language school.

Muna is an asylum seeker living in Australia. She speaks Punjabi and Arabic and is learning English with a view to settling permanently.

Olaf is a Finnish student who has learnt English since the age of 5. His university uses English as the language of instruction.

Garima is an Indian businesswoman who speaks Tamil. She is attending a business English class to help her in her business deals with middle-eastern clients.

Ana is a middle-aged housewife from Spain. She is studying an online course ahead of a planned trip to London with her family.

Wang is from China, so speaks Mandarin, but now lives in  the United States. He is learning English through his workmates and friends.

  1. Most of the students are learning English as a Foreign Language (i.e. they don’t live in a country where English is an official language). Muna and Wang are learning English as a Second Language since they live in English-speaking countries. Garima is learning English as a Lingua Franca (to speak to other non-native English speakers). Garima is also learning English for Specific Purposes (to conduct business). Maria and Olaf are both learning English for Academic Purposes. Although these are useful labels to know, they are somewhat problematic and blurred.
  2. All of the students are to some degree bilingual or even multilingual. This is in fact the norm around the world – monolingualism is rarer.
  3. Tamil, Arabic and Mandarin speakers will all find a lot of differences from their languages including their alphabets, grammar and pronunciation and so we might assume they will find English most difficult.
  4. Wang and Muna will get a high degree of exposure to English since they live in English speaking countries. Olaf will also, depending on the intensity of his course.
  5. It is difficult, if not impossible, to say who will be most motivated. However, some learners do have a clearer aim than others, and this can certainly contribute to a learners’ motivation. Just as important will be the learning experience that students receive.
  6. This will depend upon the setting in which you intend to work post-CELTA. However, it is not unusual for teachers to change contexts during their career, so it is important to be aware of how learners will also change.

Learner Goals

In addition to having different reasons for learning English, students also have different goals in terms of the level they wish to be, or the skills they need. Read the sentences and match them to four of the students above.

  1. I’m probably too old to become fluent, but I like learning new things. I just want to learn a few basic phrases for my holiday.
  2. I would like to stay here and build a new life for myself. I would like to learn enough that I can do most everyday things in English.
  3. I need very specialised English for my work. I do a lot of business by email, so writing is very important for me.
  4. I have always wanted to live in Britain. I am fascinated by the culture there, and I hope I can become like a native speaker.
  1. Ana
  2. Muna
  3. Garima
  4. Maria

Learners' Expectations of Learning

As well as having different motivations and goals, learners will also have different expectations. These will often be shaped by their different experiences of education.

Read the opinions of two of the students about their English lessons. Think about the following questions. After, read the commentary.

  1. What did Muna expect? Why did she have these expectations?
  2. Why is Matthaus happier with a similar approach in his lessons?
  3. Should the teacher change their approach for these students?

At first I was very surprised because all of the men and women sit together in a semi-circle and call the teacher his first name. I wasn't happy because we weren't using the course book much and we don't do much grammar. I don't like when we work in pairs because my partner can't correct my mistakes - this is why I wanted a teacher!


I like my evening classes because the group isn't as big as my school class and also the lessons are more fun. We play a lot of games and speak most of the time. At school we just study grammar and the teacher often speaks to us in German. I'm not sure she speaks English very well actually - I think some of us are better than she is!


  1. Muna expected either single-sex classes or for the men and women to separate once in the classroom. She also expected to call the teacher by a respectful title. She thought they would use the course book, study grammar rules and for the teacher to ask questions of individuals and then correct their answers. This is the way she was taught in her home country.
  2. Matthaus is happier because this approach seems more appropriate for learning the language.
  3. This is a difficult question. Generally the approach the two teachers are using is considered best practice. However, we do sometimes need to adjust our approach to meet the expectations of the students, especially where these may be deeply rooted in the students’ culture. In this case, we might try to introduce students to these ideas more gradually. We are unlikely to make a lot of progress in classes where students are resistant to the methodology.
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