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Expanding Horizons: New Languages for the Elderly

Jeff Anderson
By Jeff AndersonMay 25, 2012
Japanese Language Guide

Learning a second-language opens up a whole new world: New ways of thinking, new cultures and new experiences all become possible for second-language learners. These awesome opportunities are especially accessible to retirees, who tend to have more time on their hands for such an undertaking. Retirees also have more opportunity for travel, which is one of the best ways to enjoy second-language skills, and also to improve them. According to a recent study described in the New York Times, bilingualism may also benefit seniors’ mental functioning.

Obstacles for Older Langauge Learners: Old Ideas and Stereotypes

Traditional ideas about how we learn language say that older adults are poor second-language learners. This misconception is based on long-standing theories about language acquisition, and also outdated stereotyping of seniors.

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The “critical period hypothesis” of language learning is based on the observation, obvious to any parent, that infants and toddlers acquire language without conscious effort. No “Baby Einstein” videos or language lessons are neccessary. This period, when languages are learned effortlessly, is called the “sensitive period” or “critical period.” Many advocates of the hypothesis further infer that language learning becomes much harder after the first few years of life, and that older adults are poor language learners. Certainly, children in the earliest years and adults learn languages differently. But in fact, elders have some advantages over children in the “critical period.”

In The Older Language Learner, Mary Schleppegrell, an English-as-a-second-language (ESL) expert and professor at the University of Michigan, effectively tackles counterproductive assumptions about the ability of older people to learn a new language:

“Most people assume that ‘the younger the better’ applies in language learning. However, many studies have shown that this is not true…Studies indicate that attaining a working ability to communicate in a new language may actually be easier and more rapid for the adult than for the child…Adults learn differently from children, but no age-related differences in learning ability have been demonstrated for adults of different ages.”

Cruder stereotypes of seniors may be a larger obstacle for elders who are learning a second-language. These widespread stereotypes about senior’s ability to learn are sometimes held by language instructors, as well as by seniors themselves, who internalize them to their own detriment.  While seniors do require adaptions for their poorer sight and hearing, their lesson plans need not be dumbed down.

Success for Senior Language Learners

Seniors throughout the world are proving stereotypes wrong. A recent article from the China Daily describes an increasing number of Chinese elders learning second-languages. The article notes that the trend towards purposeful language learning by seniors in China began before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Older residents of Beijing wanted to be able to be helpful to the influx of foreigners visiting the games. Now that the Beijing Olympics are but a memory, older Chinese continue to study foreign languages, but more-so out of a desire to travel and effectively communicate with locals.

And closer to home, another article from the New York Times outlines the trend of American seniors traveling abroad to engage in language immersion classes, which are based on the idea that the best ways to learn a new language is to surround yourself with people who speak that language. Traveling to a country where the target-language is spoken offers the best immersion learning possibilities. Seniors are visiting places like Italy and Costa Rica for weeks-long language classes and immersion opportunities. These visits involve a mix of class time, normal sight-seeing and hanging out with locals.  But travel isn’t necessary to get started learning a language; Low-cost language classes are available to older people at senior centers, colleges and community centers throughout the U.S.

If you have a success story involving an older language learner, we’d like to hear. Don’t hesitate to comment below.

Jeff Anderson
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Jeff Anderson

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