Am I past it?

cursos para seniorsI had an uncle, Uncle Reid, whose hobby was learning languages. Even into advanced old age, he was forever dipping into books like Teach Yourself Urdu or Tagalog without Tears. I have no way of knowing, now, what his level of proficiency was like in these languages. I suspect that, at best, he had a passing familiarity with the rudiments of the grammar of each one, plus a basic vocabulary. Perhaps he could read simplified texts, but I doubt he could sustain a conversation over any length of time.

Nevertheless, the fact that his age was no deterrent should serve to encourage me, and allay my doubts that I might have left this present endeavor too late.  As motivated as I am, ‘at my back I always hear/Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near’.  Do I seriously believe I can reconfigure my Spanish, aged 63? Is there any evidence to suggest that I can?

Consult any book on SLA and you’ll find a lot of page space dedicated to the effects of age (or ‘maturational constraints’) on language acquisition. Questions discussed include: Is there an optimal age for learning a SL? What is the effect of different ‘ages of onset’? Are different learning processes implicated at different ages? Is native-like proficiency achievable after a certain age? And so on.

But look closely and you’ll find that all the research cited compares children with adolescents, or adolescents with young adults.  None of the research looks at mature learners, or attempts to address the question: Do maturational constraints increase with age? Or even, Is there an age of onset beyond which second language learning is not predicted?

Italian 50+On the other hand, if you google ‘am I too old to learn a language?’ you’ll find a host of happy-clappy blog posts, webzine articles etc, that – on the basis of only anecdotal evidence at best – are hugely encouraging about the ease of learning French in your retirement, or Spanish at 50. Language schools, too, offer ‘courses for mature students’, on the principle, presumably, that mature students prefer to study together, undistracted by frivolous teenagers, or – more worryingly – that mature students, due to their cognitive impairments, need special attention.

On the subject of older learners and second language acquisition, I managed to turn up only one serious study (Schulz and Elliot 2000). As the researchers point out, most studies of (old) age and SLA focus on language attrition, that is, language loss in multilingual subjects, but not on the acquisition of new languages by older learners. In their study, Schulz and Elliot report on how one of the pair (Renate Schulz, a 57-year-old professor of German) learnt Spanish during a five-month academic fellowship in Colombia.

Prefacing this account with a review of the literature on ‘cognitive aging’, they note that older adults ‘may not be able to retain information in short-term memory as well as they did before, or to process information as quickly…. They may have more difficulties in retrieving language-related information’ (2000: 109). This typically manifests itself as what is called the ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ (TOT) phenomenon, whereby a word is temporarily inaccessible. ‘When older learners have a TOT experience, they tend to have fewer persistent alternates, that is, they recall fewer alternate words that resemble, in some fashion, the word they wish to retrieve’ (ibid.).  This seems to be less due to a failure of memory than to a decrease in processing speed.  ‘In summary, the research to date has shown that an older adult requires more time for many cognitive tasks and experiences more word-finding difficulties’ (ibid.)

Schulz’s own diary entries during her spell in Colombia often report some of these difficulties, such as a frustration at her inability to recall verb endings, or the problems of decoding rapid speech.  For example (p. 112):

(May 30) I get the general gist of the message, and only later (sometimes after an interaction with someone is completed and I’m doing something else) I suddenly fully understand what has been said in the previous encounter.

Sometimes I perceive myself as if I comprehend and react in slow motion!

Nevertheless, she also experienced some breakthrough moments:

(April 5) Yesterday I addressed the entire department in Spanish for several minutes before I suffered a “linguistic breakdown” and had to revert to English. Later I participated in the discussions in Spanish as well. Amazing what adrenalin can do!

(June 6) I went to see a play with C. J. I was very pleased how much I understood. I had no problem following the general plot, but did not always get the humour that caused audience to laugh.

In fact, on various objective measures of her vocabulary and grammar, both before and after the experience, she demonstrated significant improvement over the five months, suggesting that, if there were any cognitive disadvantages associated with a being ‘a mature learner’, she was able to overcome them. This is good news for me!cursos senior

Finally, and with regard to the pedagogical implications of their study, the researchers suggest that older learners may be less tolerant of classroom activities that are perceived as frivolous or time-wasting. The following comment (p. 117) chimes precisely with my own classroom experience although I’m not sure that this is necessarily an age-related issue:

Interestingly, Schulz, who in her own teaching and teacher development efforts emphasises the tenets of communicative approaches to foreign language teaching, reacted in her diary occasionally with frustration to role-play and other simulation activities. Group activities which consist of “working on inconsequential, semi-defined tasks with people who are less competent than I am” (diary entry from mid-February) also raised her ire, and in several diary entries she expressed a desire for more challenging and engaging contents.

Perhaps this proves merely that teachers make demanding learners!

Reference:

Schulz, R.A., & Elliot, P. (2000) ‘Learning Spanish as an older adult,’ Hispania, 83/1, 107-119.

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About Scott Thornbury

I write books about ELT methodology and teach on the MA TESOL program at the New School in New York. I live in Barcelona. View all posts by Scott Thornbury

25 responses to “Am I past it?

  • Mark Makino

    I’m being completely serious, but I think asking yourself if you’re too old to learn is itself an age-related barrier to success. Of course once you ask it’s hard to put the cat back in the bag.

  • hanaticha

    Good morning, Scott. I believe in the law of conservation of energy; energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but can change form. I may sound a bit off topic but I’ll explain it. Even if one loses the ability to retain information in short-term memory as well as they did before, they will inevitably gain something else – life experience (or background knowledge). And experience can make up for the lost youth, even in relation to learning languages. So yes, I agree that ‘mature’ students need a different approach in the classroom. I’d say they desperately need to relate learning to their background knowledge. What springs to mind is more authentic learning, task-based learning, content-based learning, you name it. From my experience, most of them are willing to engage in meaningful game-based activities but, unlike young learners, they also need things to be explained; they need to see the rules and the logic behind the rules.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks for the comment – and the encouragement – Hana. I wonder, though, if anything can quite compensate for the need to integrate a group which seems to motivate older people less than younger ones?

      • hanaticha

        An interesting question. What makes you think that older learners are generally less motivated to work in groups? As I understand it, in her diary, Schulz only calls for more challenging and engaging contents. From my experience, older learners love group discussions on topics that appeal to their interests, and they usually have a lot to say, unlike, for example, teenagers or young learners. I’ll never forget a group of ‘mature’ beginners who were eager to talk about problems in Africa with their very limited vocabulary and grammar. So I believe that the problem is not the form of instruction but the content.

      • Scott Thornbury

        Hi Hana – actually I didn’t make myself very clear! I was referring to the social world outside the classroom, and the fact that older learners are more likely to have already established a social network (in their own language) and may be less disposed to form new networks outside of their ‘comfort zone’. Does that make sense?

  • dingtonia

    Having only been engaged in teaching adults – and by that I mean grown up people who have had some to a lifetime of life experience, this resonates profoundly with me: in particular the final quote from Schultz. I am utterly convinced that the teaching of – or rather learning of – another language in mature people requires a very different approach and that it is a seriously neglected area, given that more and more people with “maturational constraints” require another language, particularly English, for the pursuance of their careers. Off to buy Schultz and Elliot.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Yes, Candy, and with the numbers of older people with time on their hands increasing, there is a real need to address the question of an appropriate methodology for ‘late-onset’ language learning.

      Coincidentally, while I was in at the JALT conference in Japan this week, I attended an excellent session (in Spanish) on this very subject. Danya Ramirez Gomez reported on the classroom approaches that she and her colleagues are enacting in order to teach Japanese ‘seniors’ Spanish. Interestingly, one of Danya’s primary references was the Schulz and Elliott study that I cited.

  • thesecretdos

    One thing that neuroscience is discovering, much like Socrates, is that we actually know very little, despite all the articles about brains with infrared colouring. And there are a lot of myths around the brain and what it can and con’t do. I hope that you will find this article (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/education/edlife/03adult-t.html?_r=0) but interesting and reassuring. A potted version of it would say that you are more likely to keep your brain fresh and functioning if, as an older learner, you try to learn a language. You may never achieve the fluency of the fresh-faced fledglings, but you are less likely to descend into dementia and senility.

  • thesecretdos

    Hmmm…in my middle years and still incapable of proof-reading! Or is it just the weaknesses of a brain that is trying to write while listening to a running commentary (from three different people) on what is happening in Assassin’s Creed?

  • Jessica Mackay

    As I was reading it occurred to me that the lovely Alison Mackey had done some work on precisely this topic. A quick google search brought up

    Mackey, A, Sachs, R. (2012) Older learners in SLA Research: A First Look at Working Memory, Feedback and L2 Development.
    Language Learning 62: 704-740

    I haven’t read it but I seem to remember her anecdote about mowing lawns and supermarket runs in order to ‘bribe’ her participants into staying in the study.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Jessica! This sounds like essential reading – I’ll attempt to track it down as soon as I am back. (Your ironic appellation was not lost on me, btw!).

      • Scott Thornbury

        Have found the article, Jessica. Will read and report! (If I don’t doze off in the process!)

      • Scott Thornbury

        OK, I’ve downloaded and read that article, and very relevant it is, too. The researchers take a smallish sample of Spanish-speaking ‘seniors’ (aged from 65 to 89) who are exposed to a form of indirect instruction in English question forms, and find that those who demonstrate relatively strong working memories (WMs) show more evidence of learning than those who do not. That is to say, as WM declines (which it seems to do with age) the ability to acquire complex skills (such as a second language) also declines. This has to be qualified by the fact that, in this study, the instruction was not explicit (the subjects engage with their ‘teachers’ in information gap type activities), and it is exclusively grammar-focused (as opposed to focusing on the acquisition of vocabulary or formulaic chunks). Nevertheless, the argument that there is a difference between younger and older learners, and that pedagogy needs to take this into account, is fairly convincingly made (if not already obvious). The point is also made that ‘chronological age does not map precisely to functional age’, i.e. you may be 90 but you might still be as mentally agile as someone half your age. And vice versa.

  • Jonny Ingham (@jonathaningham)

    An interesting post Scott. We are currently experimenting with a course for mature learners. We found that lots of the older students in our school couldn’t keep up with the pace of our regular courses and were failing to make the jump from elementary to pre intermediate. Rather than lose the students we decided to put something together for them.

    I’m teaching a pre-int group and reducing the focus of the lesson to go at their pace and allowing time for responding to emerging needs; we cover what we can and focus heavily on speaking and listening. They need a lot of revision and recycling of lexis. We’re not giving them formal assessment at the end of the course to avoid the extra pressure of a final test.

    I must say, it’s a really fun course. Lovely, highly motivated students, though at times they can be as difficult to control as a group of teenagers! There are definitely a lot of TOT moments!

    • Scott Thornbury

      Fascinating, Jonny. I’m glad to hear it’s fun. It raises the whole question as to what extent we should group learners, less according to their language level, and more according to their biological, social, gender, and cognitive types – inasmuch as these can be identified, and/or let the students themselves decide. It would be interesting to (be able to) run a school that advertised courses for – for example – older holistic learners, or gay teens, or visually-oriented Asians, etc. Or would it not be better to attempt to embrace diversity instead?

      • kate

        Hi Scott, I was learning Italian in London earlier this year with other students (different nationalities) who ranged in age from twenty to sixty. What I noticed was that the Spanish speaking students completed some tasks more quickly or understood the teacher more easily. However, some of the British students completed tasks equally quickly and their ability to communicate clearly improved. They practised a lot at home! And they were not the youngest in the group either. As discussed in this thread, the role of the teacher here in setting relevant tasks is very important and noticing what the learners are actually focusing on.
        I made progress but there was little assessment which I found unhelpful as it can encourage learners to study!
        Finally, I would not like to see learners grouped by age- by interest would be good.

  • Svetlana

    Dear Scott,

    Are you past what? Native-like proficiency in Spanish? Do you really need and want it? In fact who does? James Bond and other spies? Or is your aim just language improvement? From the point of view of a teacher you are an ideal student – you set up your own goals, develop your own strategy of meeting them, you are capable of using all kinds of self-study tools, dictionaries and reference resources. You are on your way to speak better Spanish, success is guaranteed, just wait. To tell the truth, you don’t need a teacher. At what age is a person capable of doing all those things that you do to improve your Spanish? Only at a mature age! And that is the greatest advantage over younger people who need much more guidance from other people. And classrooms are good for teachers because that’s a place where you can enjoy the luxury of being taught, once you are able to shift attention from their teaching to your own learning. What a joy, really!

    One can learn another language at any age, there is no doubt about that, yet at certain ages we use different brain mechanisms for that. In the times of the grammar-translation the extreme was to rely on the methodology good only for mature adults, in the times of the dominance of the Natural approach the focus was on the methodology more suitable for young learners. So I would agree there is a need for courses targeted at mature adults over 50. An advertising slogan would be – learn another language to keep your mind young! And I don’t think that you need to explain to them that they have no chances of becoming Olympic champions at languages. They do know it.

    And I am all for more research in this area.

    Thank you very much for a great post!

  • P

    Hiyuh Scott…wasn’t clear exactly why YOU personally found role plays frustrating….because as a teacher I’ve hardly ever got the intended target language to come out in role plays. Usually something totally different comes out
    …am AMAZED about your age….I’d have sworn you were around 54…don’t you think learning new things and being around creative people keeps you young?

    • Scott Thornbury

      Hi P… thanks for the kind comment. It’s true that especially nowadays it’s hard to decide where to set the bar in terms of who is ‘an older learner’. Danya (in her talk I referred to above) set it at 60. But there is a big difference between a 60-year-old and an 80-year-old, say.

      Regarding role-plays – I have to say that my Spanish teachers didn’t in fact use these, and I was relieved, as there tends to be an expectation, often, that one has not only to act, but to be funny, in role plays, and I find it hard to do either in a second language, especially without sufficient preparation and rehearsal. But that is me – and maybe indicative of an excess of self-consciousness (outside the classroom as much as inside) that has dogged my attempts to achieve fluency in all this time. Not an age thing at all, in fact.

  • Cecilia

    Dear Scott,
    Thank you so much for your lecture, last Sunday in Sendai. I hope you enjoyed Sendai as much as we all enjoyed having you here. I felt nostalgia when you showed a page from one book by Alexander: I learned English with Alexander’s books and “The double life of Alfred Bloggs” was one of my favourite lessons!
    A few years ago, when I read A-Z to ELT, I thought: this is a book for discussion. I am so sorry I did not know about your previous blog.

    I have been reading your blog in different moments: between classes, and also during the classes. I read things like “Am I past it?”, “my Spanish never very good”, “do I seriously think I can reconfigure my Spanish …?” At a certain moment I could not associate those words with the inspiring educator we all know you are. But then I read: “towards dispelling the myth that language learning just stops”. Yes, that is you.
    You have several advantages: interests and purposes and you know the road towards them, and specifically, the road for learning a language. Besides, I listened to you speaking in Spanish and there’s nothing wrong with it. It is very good. You said your level is C1. If you kindly tell us which is your next goal in Spanish you will surely help me a lot with my Japanese (I have two goals which seem to be too far away). During your Spanish journey you will continue complaining about demonstratives, conjugation, plural, singular, etc. Let me tell you something: English prepositions made me cry more than once!

  • clairejaynes

    Hi Scott,

    I’m following your entries with much interest. I lived in Spain and Argentina (and had the pleasure in hearing one of your talks at IH…). At one time would have considered myself around C1 level but living now in Australia gives me fewer chances to practise (or am less motivated to seek opportunities 🙂

    We have lots of mature learners at our school and this is a topic which fascinates me. Anecdotal evidence suggests that they are great strengths which more mature learners bring into the classroom which help to counterbalance having a less agile memory, for example.

    In my recent research, I came across this study from the University of London Institute of Education – you might find it interesting: http://www.lill-online.net/online/documents/publications/anita_pincas_mature_learners.pdf.

    All the best

    • Scott Thornbury

      Hi Claire…thanks for the comment. Yes, the literature on aging does acknowledge the strengths that more mature learners have. In the Mackey and Sachs article referred to above, the writers comment: ‘The “good news” about ageing is that older adults have accumulated an extensive store of knowledge, experience, and wisdom upon which they can draw in making decisions and performing everyday tasks […] With advancing age can come increased tolerance for ambiguity, greater willingness to consider multiple perspectives, and stable crystallized intelligence’.

      Then they summarize the “bad news”: ‘At the same time, it is often pointed out that older learners shows systematic age-related declines in a variety of areas of cognitive functioning, many of which are related to memory, executive control, and/or processing speed’ (p.705).

      So – swings and roundabouts! I look forward to reading the Pincas article.

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