The Powers of the Adult Language Learner

As a student of languages at school, sometimes it can feel like a completely disconnected experience. You drift from topic to topic, wondering if you’ll ever use them in the real world, jumping over the hurdles of class tests and end of year exams, and spending more time memorising grammar than speaking to anyone, ever, in your foreign language.

For some of us, it works. We like the security of knowing exactly what we need to study to get 10/10 in the Friday vocab test, and knowing that, as long as we put one example of every tense, a negative, a comparative, and an opinion into our written work, we’ll get the grade we expected.

But for some of us, it felt like a minefield. Because being at school meant that learning a language was all tied up in other people’s expectations of us: our teachers, our parents, our classmates. Self-expression in a new language was reduced to checklists. And if we didn’t feel safe and comfortable at school, speaking out loud was hideously embarrassing.

This is not the way it has to be any more.

Things are different now. You can do this whole thing your way.

You set your own goals.

As an adult, you probably have your own motives for learning a language. Is it for work? In what field? Is it for travel? Is it to be able to watch films without subtitles? Is it purely for pleasure?

Whatever your reason for learning your language, you have the freedom to set your goals to match. It means that you’ll never spend time thinking “but why do I need to know this?”. It doesn’t mean that topics are ever off-limits to you, because of course all language might be useful someday, but it does mean that you should always feel that the time you spend is getting you a step closer to where you want to be.

You choose your topics.

As a language learner, I still skim through the main “textbook topics” in my head, because to be honest, they’re just sensible. They provide an excellent framework to get started when you’re learning a language from scratch. Places in town? Great! School life? Wonderful! Pets? Brilliant!

But those aren’t the be all and end all of language learning.

Take some time to get creative and tailor your learning to the stuff that really interests you, that won’t appear in any textbooks.

Here are a few ideas:

Fantasy characters, magic and spells

Mindfulness and meditation

Motivational phrases that appeared on my feed this morning


Reality shows

In short, not all topics are equal in language learning. Work out which ones are going to get you to your goals the fastest and be sure to prioritise them. There is no use putting all your energy into memorising 60 jungle animals and plants to perfection when you’re actually trying to learn Business English and you could have skimmed through ten more useful topics in that time.

And then, prioritise all those topics that make your heart beat faster. The ones that you spend hours reading about and listening to in your own language.


You choose your methods.

Don’t want textbooks? Don’t buy them. Don’t use them. I haven’t. Love learning through songs? Want to sign up for courses? Do what makes your heart happy. By all means have a look from time to time to see if there are other things you want to try, but remember, your language learning, your rules.  

You choose your pace

You’re not under the pressure of exams any more. You can set your own deadlines and to-do lists if and only if they make you happy. You can take breaks if you need to. If you love a certain topic and want to study it for months, there’s nothing stopping you. If you decide that learning only the very basics of a topic is fine for now, that’s absolutely good enough. Do what you need to do and move on. (I’m looking at you, weather.) 

It’s only yourself you’re trying to impress

When I was at school, my biggest anxiety was making the same mistakes over and over again. Quite often, too, I knew I’d made a mistake as soon as it had come out of my mouth, especially with verb conjugations and tenses. I used to wonder if my teacher was thinking “how many times have I told her not to do that?” and the more I worried, the more I made mistakes. Once I was learning through language exchanges, it took the pressure off. It became the opportunity to grow, whilst helping someone grow with me. It didn’t matter if I made mistakes, because they made mistakes too, and it was fine. We could celebrate each other’s’ successes because we were both improving together.