How Can Language Education Be Adapted for Senior Language Learners?

We recently published Insights into Senior Foreign Language Education by Marek Derenowski. In this post the author explains the particularities of working with senior learners and how teachers might alter their approach accordingly.

World society is constantly aging and in the next three to four decades the number of people who are over 65 years of age is going to triple. Population aging should be considered as a story of success. However, we need to remember that the process of aging should be accompanied with security, dignity, respect, avoidance of negative stereotyping, and complete social inclusion. If these conditions are met, longer life creates a unique opportunity to pursue new activities such as further education (lifelong learning) or long neglected passions.

In some cases, seniors attend education in order to compensate for lost opportunities in their younger life, to avoid social exclusion (e.g. non-citizens, immigrants), overcome the feeling of loneliness, and prevent depression. Others see learning as a perfect way to ‘exercise’ their memory and strengthen their (cognitive) thinking abilities. Regardless of their individual motives, seniors are constantly increasing their educational activity. This in turn creates new challenges for educators who need to create sufficient learning conditions for their older learners.

Teachers who work with senior learners often find this experience exhilarating. Senior learners are wonderful partners in the educational process. They are equipped with a wealth of life experience and are willing to share it in the classroom. They come to the classroom full of positive energy. Furthermore, seniors present a mixture of increased motivation and anxiety. On the one hand, they are afraid to present their private opinions in public. On the other hand, they are extremely motivated to participate, never skip a class, or forget their homework.

Working with senior learners requires a different approach and often focuses on building their confidence and reducing potential stress. In order to do so, teachers may:

  • Create and promote a friendly and relaxed atmosphere
  • Provide senior learners with more time during activities
  • Avoid traditional testing and think of alternative forms of assessment
  • Find out more about their motivations and reasons for joining the course
  • Develop techniques based on positive psychology in order to create empathy
  • Focus on providing positive feedback
  • Cater for any problems they may have with active participation

The relationship created between teachers and learners is always unique, regardless of their age and teaching/learning experience. Senior learners appreciate teachers who are well prepared, provide their learners with clear guidelines, and use a variety of teaching techniques. Furthermore, senior learners appreciate approachable teachers who value their life experience and are sympathetic. It is important to notice that senior learners do not pay attention to the age of the teacher who is usually younger than their learners. As long as the educator pays attention to their needs, caters for their well-being in the classroom, and organizes interesting lessons, seniors are willing and ready to engage.

David Bowie once said: ‘Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you should have always been’.  We should not see the passing time as a reason to hurry up and try to make up for all the lost opportunities. We should look for new challenges, also educational, and enjoy every moment of our lives. In the words of 20th century American baseball player Satchel Paige: ‘How old would you be if you did not know how old you are?’

Marek Derenowski, Adam Mickiewicz University Poznań/State University Konin, Poland

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Third Age Learners of Foreign Languages edited by Danuta Gabryś-Barker.

Third Age Language Learners: Facing Challenges and Discovering New Worlds

This month we will be publishing Third Age Learners of Foreign Languages edited by Danuta Gabryś-Barker. In this post she discusses the main themes addressed in her book.

The initial inspiration for compiling a volume on third age learners of foreign languages as is often the case, is derived not only from professional interests and scholarly events devoted to a given issue, but also importantly from a strong personal attachment and enthusiasm for the subject matter.

Approaching a senior’s age and searching for (new) options in life, we all look (or will look) for new challenges and more fulfilment, perhaps in different areas, discovering new interests and pastimes, making more friendships and generally socialising beyond our families and long-standing professional relationships. This volume gathers researchers whose professional lives are in full swing and distant from the third age, but also those who, although still extremely active and successful professionally, are entering the later stages of their lives. For these latter people, being active mentally throughout life while looking at third age characteristics leads them into areas of research personally relevant for them.

Foreign language learning can undoubtedly be a chosen area of activity later in life. This form of learning is strongly determined not only by the need to keep one’s brain active (which is assumed to keep you healthier longer!), but also by present day globalisation processes, mass migrations, mixed-marriages and, perhaps not least, grandchildren who do not speak the language of their grandparents anymore and so grandparents must decide to make an effort to make intergenerational communication possible. I wish them the best of luck!

It is also important to remember that ageing populations need to be taken care of and the Third Age Universities, for which I have a lot admiration, do a great job in promoting the quality of life of seniors. One of the options offered by these institutions – and which is becoming more and more attractive to seniors – is foreign language instruction, which has been gaining popularity among this age group for the personal reasons given above.

However, there is a serious question we need to ask. As the promotion of FL instruction for seniors is gaining popularity, how well-informed are we, and how much do we know about the process of FL learning in the third age? How can we make this process effective and satisfactory to late learners? No effort should be spared to maximise potential here! Thus, this volume aims to comment on seniors’ characteristics and their (FL) learning processes, as well as to offer some guidelines on how to teach an FL to this age group. I hope reading about these different aspects of the issue, as presented in this volume, will not only be informative but also enjoyable and inspirational, as it was for me when working on this book together with all its contributors.

Danuta Gabryś-Barker, University of Silesia, Poland

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Language Teaching and the Older Adult by Danya Ramírez Gómez.

Positive Psychology and Second Language Acquisition – Conference in Poland

Ever since I first started working on our SLA list people have raved to me about the International Conference on Foreign and Second Language Acquisition (ICFLSLA) and recommended that I attend.  This year I finally found time in our busy conference schedule to go.  En route to the conference venue in Szczryk (the seemingly unpronounceable Polish village whose spelling I have to check every time I write it!) I wondered if the conference would live up to its reputation.

The beautiful setting for the conference
The beautiful setting for the conference

Within moments of arriving any fears I had had were allayed.  The organisers Danuta Gabryś-Barker, Adam Wojtaszek and Dagmara Gałajda were incredibly welcoming and ensured that everything related to our book exhibit went smoothly.  The conference hotel itself was nestled at the foot of some mountains which provided luscious green views, when not obscured by low cloud and heavy rainfall!  The mountain air certainly seemed to provide the delegates with plenty of breathing space and inspiration as the talks centring round this year’s theme of positive psychology were full of energy, ideas and optimism, so much so that we could easily forget the miserable weather outside!

As usual I had a table with a good array of our latest and related titles for the delegates to browse and buy.  The most popular title of the conference was Capitalizing on Language Learners’ Individuality by Tammy Gregersen and Peter D. MacIntyre which weds theoretical implications with practical application in affective teaching.  Other popular titles included Cook and Singleton’s textbook Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition and our latest collection edited by Zoltán Dörnyei, Peter D. MacIntyre and Alastair Henry, Motivational Dynamics in Language Learning.

Alison Phipps beginning her keynote
Alison Phipps beginning her keynote

Throughout the course of the conference I attended a range of sessions plus the keynotes given by Peter D. MacIntyre, Rebecca Oxford, David Singleton, Simone Pfenninger, Hanna Komorowska, Tammy Gregersen, Sarah Mercer and Alison Phipps.  The speakers all spoke passionately about their work, views and experiences and provided plenty of food for thought.  And as for real food, we delegates were truly spoilt with wonderful Polish cuisine throughout our stay.  So much so, that I felt obliged to find some time out during the conference to go for a run ahead of the Channel View team entering the Bristol 10k run this weekend.  The temptation of a stunning view from the top of the mountain lured me into trying to run up it, a very bad idea that I rapidly neglected!  If I return to another ICFSLA conference I will certainly take the chairlift up to see the full view that I missed out on seeing.


An Interview with Danuta Gabryś-Barker

The Affective Dimension in Second Language AcquisitionThis month we published Danuta Gabryś-Barker’s new book The Affective Dimension in Second Language Acquisition and she took a couple of minutes to answer a few questions about her research.

Well, I have to confess that a lot of the themes of my research derive from personal and intuitive feelings concerning my own experiences of foreign language acquisition and use. Looking back at my first language learning experiences, I can clearly recall feelings of frustration and negative perceptions of my own language ability, resulting in mental blocks and failures, as well as the moments of success in part ascribable to the words of praise given by my first language teacher. Also when in the 1990s I first started researching multilinguality by means of introspective methods – mostly simultaneous introspection – I did observe how much cognitive processing in language tasks as reported by the subjects was determined – either enhanced or impeded – by the affective states that they went through.

What makes your book different from others that have been published before?
First of all, I would like to say that although affectivity is the major factor in language learning (and not only in this context), not that much has been published on it in the domain of bi- and multilinguality. The book The Affective Dimension in Second Language Acquisition, edited together with Joanna Bielska, is an example of a monograph contributing to this field in that it gathers papers on various themes dealing with affectivity and not all of them just focusing on the usual and most often discussed topics of motivation and attitude. A whole variety of contexts and types of language learners are the focus of the empirical studies presented in the volume. Some of them look at the author’s own affectivity and teaching and learning experiences. Also the research methods used in the studies reported are helping to promote qualitative methods such as introspection and narrative inquiry, which in my view are more relevant in the context of studying affectivity or at least complement the quantitative data.

Danuta Gabryś-BarkerWhich researchers in your field do you particularly admire?
Ok, this is quite an easy question to answer. Although there are quite a few scholars who research issues connected with affectivity in language learning contexts, there are two names that I would like to mention: Aneta Pavlenko and Jean-Marc Dewaele. They are pre-eminent both in relation to their individual research and their joint projects on the emotions of multilinguals. I would also mention the researchers in Geneva Emotion Group and particularly Klaus Scherer, who inspired me to study appraisal systems in the context of  multilingual affectivity. I was very happy that Aneta Pavlenko kindly agreed to contribute to this volume.

What is next for you in terms of research projects?
Last year I published a book on teacher reflectivity, a substantial part of which deals with affectivity in the context of foreign language teacher training, which is very relevant to the other side of my professional interests (working with pre-service teachers of English).  At the moment I am exploring the possibilities narrative and autobiographical methods offer in researching multilinguality, in studying the languages of thought and of dreams of multilingual speakers.

The image on the cover of your book is very picturesque – can you tell us a bit more about where it was taken?
With pleasure, as it brings back a lot of happy memories from the places which I associate with sun, wine and holidays. It was taken in Lisbon on one of our romantic walks with Tony, my husband. And it seemed to me when I was looking through the photos I took last summer (and I can’t resist taking hundreds of them) to choose one for the cover of the book on affectivity, that the sight of an unknown young couple in the archway of one of Lisbon’s cosy side-streets would be most appropriate.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing/editing books?
Well, I have to say that I do enjoy my professional duties, which constitute a very important part of my life. I mean here, lecturing and teaching – especially my M.A. seminars on language teaching and learning. Although I have been teaching for almost thirty years now, I still feel pretty fresh and treat it as an adventure and something of a challenge with every new group of students. But enthusiasm has to go beyond one’s professional life, too. I have to admit to one weakness, which may sound a bit silly in the context of being an academic and researcher. I love branded and vintage handbags and not only collect them (you can’t imagine how big my collection is), but also study their history. My life is so busy at the moment that another passion of mine, painting (though I’m not very skilful at it), has had to be put aside for a while as it requires too much of my concentration and devotion. But I will return to it some day. Perhaps when I retire.

Morphosyntactic Issues in Second Language AcquisitionIf you liked this book you might also like Danuta’s other book Morphosyntactic Issues in Second Language Acquisition.