In-Company Language Training: How to Keep Learners Engaged Over the Long Term

Freedom is the key word. People flourish where there is freedom to shape one’s own destiny and learning, and language is no exception.

If there’s one thing that distinguishes company language training from other forms of training, it’s the progressive, long-term nature of it. Employees attend classes weekly or more frequently over the course of months and even years. With that in mind, trainees don’t get special days off to attend events or classes, but rather they have to squeeze the training into their lunch hour, or alternatively before or after a long work day. Depending on the company, language training might be offered based on both professional needs and requests, with the former usually taking precedence. It’s no surprise then that while trainee motivation often starts off high, class attendance gradually dwindles as time goes on, with drop-outs not uncommon. So how can those involved in company language training, including Training departments and trainers themselves, keep those trainees motivated, engaged, and empowered in their learning over the long term? Here are a few tips on how to do just that.

Go Beyond the VARK-Learner Myth 

Until recently, a popular theory in language teaching was that individuals could be grouped together based on differentiated learning styles. We can learn the same thing, but in a different way, the theory said, with some of us learning better visually, others using audio, reading, or kinesthetics (VARK). As the theory gets more battered and debunked, we’re realizing that learning is, in fact, much more individual, and personal motivators are much stronger than any learning-style preference. At the company level, in addition to our professional needs, languages help us fulfil wants and dreams that stretch far beyond our cubicles or boardrooms, but these can vary widely between individuals, and often depend on our personal stories and experiences to date. Depending on whether we have children studying a foreign language, where our partner is from, whether or not we like to travel, what our hobbies are, and what experiences we’ve had studying the language to date, learning and improving our language skills can mean very different things to individuals. Some trainees are intrinsically motivated, while others are motivated by extrinsic opportunities such as getting a promotion or raise, or even moving to a different company. So while trainees might be receiving the training to improve specific professional needs—such as boosting international sales, making better foreign-language presentations, or attending foreign conferences—we can tap into those individual sources of motivation to get more mileage and improve progress. So how can we ensure we are letting individual motivators shine through?

The answer is to personalize learning.

Limiting the use of standardized coursebooks is one way to reach these individual motivators. While they can be useful to add structure to courses, and Training departments love them as they can easily keep track of what is being learned, they also can be real motivation drainers. Having been designed for a general audience, they effectively ignore individual motivators in addition to instilling a top-down approach to learning, where we ignore our own needs and learn what and how others tell us to. Even to improve some narrow skill such as negotiating at a sales meeting, feeling empowered with some freedom to manage our own learning can push us faster and way beyond a narrow skill set or language-level criteria. 

The next step is to understand who your learners are and where they want to go. This may require a deeper needs analysis survey than what you are used to, but the point is, we need to know what it is about our trainees that will maintain their motivation levels beyond what the company says they will need to do in the future. In the case of groups of learners learning together, it may be that their interests or non-professional motivators coincide, or they may not. But over time, we can ensure that learners’ individual needs are being addressed in terms of the content we offer for language input, and also what we expect from our students in terms of output. In any case, progress in the language will come from being given repeated opportunities to learn and do things in the language that are relevant and motivating to the individual.

Freedom to Shape Learning

When we really know and respect who our learners are, we can start making better decisions about classroom input and output. Ideas to help individuals free up their own motivators include: 

  • Allowing learners to use their mobile phones or tablets in class to access Websites and apps online, maybe even allowing learners to source their own input materials on the Web (encouraging learner autonomy in the process)
  • Using materials that address individual hobbies and interests
  • Planning role-plays and simulations
  • Working on skill sets relevant to learners

According to Janice Burns, vice president of Global Practices at DDI, personalized training can be enhanced by offering a variety of learning stations that offer individuals different approaches or skills focus depending on their learning needs, allowing learners to work with others who have the same needs or have complementary skills. On the other hand, you also could have all learners working together while simultaneously catering to more personal choices. For example, you could have a problem-solving class where individual trainees take on different roles and make use of different skill sets depending on needs and motivators, some using technology, others writing, while still others doing more of the speaking. With formative and summative assessments, individual motivators can be taken into account, as well, ensuring that what is being tested includes what is important to, and motivating for, the learner. In the end, freedom is the key word. People flourish where there is freedom to shape one’s own destiny and learning, and language is no exception. 

Pierre Herman is a language-trainer with many years of experience in companies, universities, and language academies, and the founder of STELLAR Language in Barcelona. You can reach him at