Not too Old to Learn English? – Reasons and Motivation of Learning English as an Adult – by Michelle Findlay


English is around us all the time as it has become a lingua franca and is especially important in the workplace. This study aims to understand the reasons and motivation of adults learning English.  The participants (5 in total, two female and three male) wanting to learn English are between the ages of 30 to 59. They work in sectors such as banks, health care and pharmaceutical companies. Although most of the participants marked their companies as global where one would expect good English skills, just one of them speaks fluent English. The other participants placed themselves in the category A under the guidelines of the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages).[1] This in turn means that most of the participants of the study can communicate on an elementary level.

Encountering English in the Workplace

One appearance of the English language connection to the workplace is related to E-mails since every participant received emails in English. English in the workplace also often appears in official reports and documents. Occasionally English can also be found on business trips and further education. All participants encounter English at least once a week if not more. Answers differ when it comes to the problems or chances the English language provides at the workplace. Whilst one participant states that all their colleagues speak English as a lingua franca, another participant states that they don’t speak English at all. Understanding English seems to be a smaller issue compared to active communication with others as some stated that they become hesitant to speak because of insecurities or do not want to cause a misunderstanding. One participant mentioned the importance of vocabulary as they claim a bigger vocabulary leads to new or better chances within their company.

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Reasons to learn English

The reasons why they decided to learn English are often in correlation to seek new opportunities in the workplace and to broaden their horizon. Another motivational point is to improve the communication with other colleagues that do not speak German, and sometimes not even English as their L1 but use English as a Lingua Franca at work. Not only is learning English benefiting in the workplace but also in the personal life. All participants remarked that English will become more important in the future. One person opted for the additional option but did not specify why the other options where not suitable in their opinion, which makes it hard to understand whether they do not completely agree with the statement “Finden Sie, dass in der Zukunft Englisch wichtiger wird?” which could be found in the questionnaire. The answers of what they expect occupationally by learning English are often in correlation to receive better job opportunities as well as to improve the interaction and communication with English speaking colleagues in the workplace.

As already mentioned, most of the participants are currently learning English and are on an A1 or A2 level which, according to the CERF is understood as beginners and elementary. Four out of the five participants are in a language course together and have mastered the first step of learning English from an A1.1 to an A1.2 or even A2. They state that so far, their improved language skills have helped them with interaction with clients. The importance of vocabulary is stressed again since «Mein Wortschatz wird von Monat zu Monat ein bisschen besser, ich verstehe die Zusammenhänge in den Mail’s [sic] schon besser» (Participant 2). However, another participant has specified that nothing has changed so far for them.

At the end, the participants were able to comment on issues or could leave their opinion. One of the participants said that English is the business language now, thinks that Chinese will be the future. Another participant affirms that learning English is their chance to evolve and develop into a better version of themselves by improving the workplace life as well as their private life. This is understandable since learning a new language is very hard to achieve and if one does not encounter the learning language in general, it is harder to learn.

I hereby want to thank the participants for diligently filling out the questionnaire, which gave insight the mind of an adult over 30 on why they are learning English in relation to the workplace. Their insight account that English is indeed constantly around us and is frequently used. The skill is often required to achieve a promotion and helps the working environment by improving the communication of the co-workers using BELF. English is omnipresent in the workplace as well as benefiting the social interactions with English speakers in general. It is never too late to learn a new language, especially considering that English is often labelled as “easy to learn”. Unfortunately, this comes down to subjective experience and the language(s) one is familiar with.

By Michelle Findlay