Adult Learner

Systems Change
Adult Learner > Factors > Primary Language

Primary Language

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Primary Language refers to the language(s) a person has been exposed to from birth. Immigrant-origin adults (28% of working-age adults in the U.S.) need English skills for employment and navigating public and social systems. Adult English learners may or may not have a strong foundation in their Primary Language and may need to develop oral English skills, written English skills, or both.

Main Ideas

Bilingual and multilingual learners can experience different language acquisition patterns; for adult English language learners we focus on Sequential Bilingualism/Multilingualism where a learner acquires their native language from birth but has meaningful exposure to additional language(s) after their first language has been established. Success at some aspects of language acquisition, such as producing a language's sounds, is greater when learning begins earlier in life, with ability to learn declining in late adolescence.

Adult learners may have varying levels of education and literacy in their first spoken or signed language which can impact their acquisition of English as a second language. Greater literacy skills in a first language can support English language learning. Reading in a second language may also be more complex due to interference from the first language when recognizing words and constructing meaning; these effects can differ based on the particular first language a learner knows.

Being actively bilingual or multilingual over the lifespan can have cognitive advantages and may have protective effects against developing symptoms of dementia. Additionally, students' Primary Language, and accompanying cultural knowledge, can be considered Background Knowledge that can support their academic learning..

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