Learning Foreign Languages A Question of Age?

Age is one of numerous variables that have a bearing on language learning ability.
Age is one of numerous variables that have a bearing on language learning ability. | © Claudia Paulussen/Shutterstock

Learning a foreign language is the best brain training there is. But how well are we able to learn a foreign language at the age of 20, 50 or 70? And what aspects should teachers take into account in their lessons?

Now that it has been discovered that learning a foreign language is the best brain training there is, and that it is perfectly possible to continue learning well into old age (Bischofberger/Schmidt-Hieber 2006), there is growing interest in learning foreign languages at an advanced age. But what exactly is an “older learner”? An active and multilingual 70-year-old who is used to learning can often learn a foreign language more successfully than a 20-year-old who is unused to and disinterested in learning. In other words, age is just one of many variables and less relevant than for example learning experience, language teaching experience and motivation. Nonetheless, there are a number of aspects that teachers should take into account in their lessons.

In principle, children are best able to learn how to pronounce a language authentically – which in many cases is erroneously equated with perfect “language acquisition”. Learners aged between 20 and 30 find that their own routines help them learn, i.e. they have developed many (language) learning strategies. 50-year-olds have a wealth of knowledge and experience upon which they can draw when learning a language. They tend to be fairly flexible and are also able to cope with contemporary communicative approaches to language teaching, though many learn on an increasingly cognitive level and therefore prefer systematic explanations – for instance in the area of grammar – over a “discovering” approach to learning.

70-year-olds likewise have considerable experience of the world, and normally have more time to devote to learning a language. By dint of hard work and conscientious preparation, they often find themselves outperforming younger students in intergenerational courses when it comes to grammar and the learning of vocabulary. On the other hand, they are frequently unfamiliar with communicative methods and need to be gradually introduced to them. In their experience, language learning is synonymous with grammar and translation.

Older learners and their learning biography

Generally speaking, everyone has their own preferred style of learning no matter what age they are (cf. Grein Neurodidaktik 2013: 27-32). In other words, some younger learners may focus more on grammar while their older counterparts may prefer a more playful approach. What most older learners do have in common is their learning biography, however (cf. Grein Lernbiografie 2013), which is shaped by their schooling. In the past, the focus was not on highlighting abilities (“I already know that!”) but on errors that needed to be avoided. The overriding priority in foreign language teaching was not to achieve communicative skills but to master the grammar.

Consequently, older learners often find it difficult – especially at the beginning of a course – to depart from their routines of translating word-for-word and focusing on grammar. A fear of making mistakes means that they frequently think very carefully before trying to express something. Many are unnerved by suggestions such as “You don’t have to understand every word, just work out the meaning from the context”.

Older learners and the learning process

Learning takes place when permanent connections are established between neurons (nerve cells), giving rise to neural networks. Each neuron has numerous nerve fibres at the end of which are located synapses which pass on “stimuli” (information) and neurotransmitters (e.g. dopamine and noradrenaline) to the next synapse and thus to the next neuron. As a person gets older, information (stimuli) is passed on less quickly. Although the learner can learn just as much, they can no longer process the information as swiftly. In other words, it takes them longer to “save” the information – making for a slower learning process.

In old age it becomes more difficult to produce and transmit dopamine, which is a “motivation” neurotransmitter. It thus requires more effort for feelings of happiness to be triggered in older people. This correlates with the increasing production of “stress hormones”, i.e. older learners often become nervous more quickly, especially when they are confronted with unfamiliar tasks.

Older learners and other biological changes

As we get older, it is above all our two main sensory functions – our ears and our eyes – that begin to deteriorate, meaning that it is important to ensure sufficient lighting conditions and to choose an appropriate text book layout. Textbooks and teaching materials must be in large enough print. Textbooks and teaching materials must be in large enough print. | © Blend Images/Shutterstock

As far as hearing is concerned, the teacher needs to accept that only very few older people are still able to clearly distinguish unfamiliar new phonemes (sounds and sound combinations). A person who is unable to hear something correctly will also not be able to pronounce it “correctly”. What is known as “selective” hearing becomes more difficult, so authentic listening comprehension texts featuring background noise often prove problematic. The background noises appear just as loud as the relevant spoken texts, which makes listening hard.

What should teachers take into account in their lessons?

As a general rule, teachers should slowly but consistently incorporate communicative and action-based approaches into their lessons, while at the same time respecting the fact that grammar and translation offer a sense of security. Entirely jettisoning any explanations of grammar and grammar exercises probably makes little sense. In certain cases it is also important to give in to the wish for translations of individual words so as to avoid frustration.

As with all learners, the speed at which the course progresses must be tailored to the target group. Frequent repetitive exercises that emphasize skills that have already been acquired (and are phrased to allow students to demonstrate what they do know rather than highlight what they do not) are particularly important.

The point and advantages of exercises of a playful nature must be explained, as there will also be students who are unable to see the sense of play-based learning even after considerable time.

Textbooks, teaching materials and writing on the board must be in large enough print and lighting conditions must be sufficient. Classrooms with good acoustics are important. Listening comprehensions should be free from background noise as far as possible and a transcript of the spoken text should also be available for reference if necessary during or after the listening exercise.

When it comes to pronunciation, it is important to accept that most students will no longer be able to hear unfamiliar sounds “properly” and will therefore be unable to articulate them easily. This does not mean that pronunciation exercises should be ignored altogether, but that greater tolerance needs to be shown.

Age is one of numerous variables that have a bearing on language learning ability. All students – older ones too – are individuals with their own language learning preferences.


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