Abstract This paper investigates the self-esteem of adults learning English as a second language. Subjects indicated their abilities on a fifteen-statement index and teachers, using a similar index, indicated their perceptions of the students' abilities. These were compared to one another and to the TOEFL scores for the students. The results—that students and teachers do not view the students' language abilities similarly—are related to motivational and cultural factors. It is suggested that self-esteem, as indicated on the perception indices, may be a factor in motivating students. Further investigation using this type of measure could prove useful in assessing student needs.