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Learning a Language When You Are a Senior Student | Reasons, Benefits & Experiences

Many scientific studies indicate that language learning comes much easier to youngsters although this hasn’t been 100% proven. Learning is a continuous process, no matter how old you are. With that in mind, studying a language abroad has its own rewards, especially if you’re over age 50.

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Language Learning For Senior Students: It's Never Too Late To Learn A Language

Many believe that age is the ultimate success factor when it comes to language learning. Back in the 1950s neurolinguists introduced the critical period meaning that there is an optimal window of time when language acquisition is easiest. However, recently the ‘earlier is better’ rule has been questioned a lot and even though the critical period is here to stay, age is certainly not the most determining factor when it comes to language learning. Mainly because research that supports the age myth in language acquisition was focused on the proficiency of a target language. The research was based on the age of arrival to the new language community.

Why people age 50+ should learn a language abroad

Being exposed to a second language in its natural setting does provide certain advantages, although the ‘natural setting’ shouldn’t be generalized as formal learning only.

When it comes to formal learning i.e. intentional language acquisition, adults and older people have a big advantage simply because they are better at it - they are better learners. This means that their cognitive development in the first language is at a higher level than in younger students (they have richer vocabularies), they already have some effective study mechanisms and habits that make the entire study process easier and they can easily understand and generalize new language theory into their existing one.

Studies that have compared learners in natural settings after relatively short periods of time have found that older starters usually outperform younger starters. The older starters advance faster in the first stages of the process of L2 acquisition, which makes them more efficient learners in the short term, that is to say, they have a rate advantage (On how age affects foreign language learning; Carmen Muñoz; University of Barcelona).

There are many similarities and differences between adult and younger learners. Perhaps the greatest difference is that the former come to class with a long history of learning experience, the learning experiences of adults may be both full of glories and failures which possibly leads them to anticipate how teaching and learning should be carried out. It can be said that most adult learners have a definition of learning. In the early stages of acquisition, adult students are faster and more efficient learners, with the advantage of more advanced cognitive development in the first language. When adults learn a second language, they are the most advantaged learners of a second language. Adult learners who learn a second language already know how to converse, and they know how to classify, whereas young learners who acquire language have to learn what to talk about, the categories that words represent, to participate in conversational turns and how to use language to symbolize and change the world, therefore the starting point is not same. The adult learner can be said to be learning new forms of old conversational uses and ideas. Adult students are generally voluntary learners. They have certain expectations of achievement. The teacher of adults should fulfill their expectations and utilize their experiences because adults can respond better if encouraged to draw on their personal knowledge. (Ali Shamim; Adult Language Learning: Insights, Instructions And Implications)

Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, stated in an interview, “The evidence clearly demonstrates that there is no critical period for second-language learning, no biologically determined constraint on language-learning capacity that emerges at a particular age, nor any maturational process which requires that older language learners function differently than younger language learners.” In fact, Snow says, “Older learners have advantages. They already know one language (and sometimes more than one) quite well and have practised with the linguistic capacities that speed up language acquisition. They are typically better at intentional learning: They have study strategies, mnemonic devices, literacy skills, and other resources.”

There are many factors which influence the ability of an adult to learn a second language. Factors like aptitude, motivation, and native language interference can play a huge role in learning a second language, and in time, the adult student learns how to overcome these obstacles.

Learning a Language Abroad - Benefits

Studies on ageing have demonstrated that learning ability does not decline with age. But sometimes many chronic diseases can affect the ability of the elderly to learn therefore, health is an important factor in all learning. If adult remains healthy, their intellectual abilities and skills do not decline. The effect of age reduces over time as the learner becomes more proficient in the second language. (Ali Shamim; Adult Language Learning: Insights, Instructions And Implications)

Research indicates that cognitive development, problem-solving, memory and recall decline with age. This decline can be easily overcome by introducing memory exercises into their lessons, repeating cycles of grammar, vocabulary and expressions as well as allowing students more time to produce language without interruptions.

Some studies on brain development claim that the human brain loses some of its ‘plasticity’ after puberty, which makes second language acquisition more difficult for adults than for children. But unlike children, adults have superior language-learning capabilities, and since their centre for linguistic processes has developed over the years, they can better understand semantic relations and have a more precise sense of grammar sensibility.

With age, comes wisdom and this especially applies to senior students. They have a wealth of life experience and by sharing that experience, they improve and enrich the learning experience of the whole class through sharing memories, stories and opinions on a wide range of topics.

Unlike younger students, who usually choose to study a second language because they need a certificate or diploma, senior students study a second language simply because they want to. Their motivation is intrinsic. The reason for their study can vary. Maybe they want to spend some time with their peers, perhaps they want to learn French as a retirement goal or live an educational, immersive and cultural experience abroad rather than just take a holiday or perhaps simply because learning a second language was something they always wanted to do, but never had the time for it. It doesn’t come as a surprise that motivation is a far greater advantage and a success factor when it comes to language learning. Seniors display this motivation through regular attendance, being very active in class and having their homework ready.

Many older learners fear failure and are more anxious than younger learners, perhaps this is because they accept the stereotype of the older learner as a poor language learner or because of previous unsuccessful attempts to learn a foreign language. Older learners need to feel comfortable and trust the teacher and the other students before they participate fully in the language classroom. (Kieran Donaghy; UAB Idiomes, Barcelona)

This is why the language program needs to be constructed in such a way that it builds up the senior student’s confidence and reduces anxiety. This can be very easily achieved through discovering the student’s motivation and adjusting the teaching methods, building empathy with the students, focusing less on error corrections and creating a relaxed atmosphere.

Any difficulties which senior learners may experience in the language classroom can be overcome through adjustments to the learning environment and material, attention to physical, affective and cognitive factors, and the use of an effective teaching methodology which focuses on the learning process rather than academic achievement. (Kieran Donaghy; UAB Idiomes, Barcelona)

There is a big difference between studying a language, its theory and vocabulary from a textbook back home and studying a language abroad, spending every day surrounded by it. Both of these methods help gain valuable language skills, but learning a language abroad provides some unique benefits that can’t get in the comfort of your home.

When studying a language abroad you are totally immersed in it.

During language classes back home, students are actively studying only for the duration of their lessons and when they are studying at home. Abroad, students are constantly learning, even if they are not fully aware of it. They hear other people speak, listen to the radio or television and learn even through daily conversation with local, native speakers.

Learning a language abroad is an experience like no other. Students see great improvements in their confidence and independence, become fluent in the local culture and further develop their valuable life and language skills.

Constant practice is probably one of the best benefits of studying a language abroad. Most of the time it won’t even feel like practice because students are putting their language skills to use every single day, in various different situations. Asking for directions, watching a movie or shopping all counts as an effortless daily practice.

Textbooks and classes usually cover the basics of the language, spelling, pronunciation and vocabulary. On the other hand, students that learn a language abroad, also get a chance to get familiar with local phrases, proverbs and colloquialisms and become completely socially savvy in another language and confident in the everyday use of the language.

The full-immersion experience of a study abroad program greatly helps the students to learn a language and get familiar with it on such a level that regular classroom lessons can't provide. Continuous communication and practice is the best way of learning because the process never stops. There are opportunities to hear, read, speak and use the language, socialize, make new friends and learn more not just about the language but about the culture as well.

If you're a senior student and interested in learning a language abroad, let us help you plan your stay.

Damian breen
Damian Breen Managing Director

Damian spent some 22 years living and working in various different countries in Africa and the Middle East, for several different leading international airlines, in senior country and regional manager roles.