This month we are publishing Danya Ramírez Gómez’s new book Language Teaching and the Older Adult: The Significance of Experience. In this post, she introduces us to her own experiences with language teaching and the inspiration for the book.
The first time I taught a language to a group of adults over 60 was more than six years ago. And it was a disaster. I had previously taught adults of other ages, and I thought I knew what to expect. However, during the lesson I realized that the material, my approach, and my way of reaching these students were inadequate. They were different and I was unable to engage them as I had envisioned. I tried to understand why; I blamed myself, the material, the weather and, lastly, the students: “Well, they are older”– I told myself. Fortunately, I soon realized that if all my students have a poor learning experience, it can’t be them, it must be me.
I looked for information and materials that could help me teach these learners better and found virtually nothing. It was then that I considered researching this topic and so I asked colleagues who worked with older learners whether they thought this useful. I received all sorts of responses, but most can be summarized by a colleague’s piece of advice. He said: “Talk to them like they were children.” That was the last straw.
My book, Language Teaching and the Older Adult: The Significance of Experience, is exploratory and comprehensive. Exploratory, because the literature on the topic is scarce, and comprehensive, because it touches a myriad of pertinent fields and thus provides an informed context in which to start a discussion about older learners. Also, the claims made in this book are based on a multi-method analysis that should appeal to researchers in foreign language learning, and since teachers will probably desire something more practical, the book includes recommendations and checklists that I hope will make lesson planning more manageable.
The experiences described at the start of this post generated one of the most relevant aims of this work: to question our assumptions about language learning in old age. We all hold these assumptions; teachers, learners, researchers, administrators, the laymen. But how can we advance in foreign language geragogy – as I have taken the liberty to call this field – if we are constrained by our beliefs? Questioning our assumptions is the first step to understanding older adults as students of foreign languages and enhancing their learning process.
When they hear what I research, many people ask me whether I like older adults. Well, not particularly. I like them as much as I like anybody else. What drove the creation of this book was more a sense of responsibility to the students – to which many teachers can probably relate – and the dread of facing more lessons without a clear idea of the effects of my decisions as an instructor. Besides that, what motivated me to focus on this issue was the idea that when I am in my silver years, I want to be able to learn French, I want to be unencumbered by excuses, and I would certainly want to be seen by my instructors as the capable adult I hope to be.