Am I Too Old to Learn a New Language?
If you're a native language speaker, you've likely heard the phrase, “You can't teach an old dog new tricks”. There has been little evidence found to support this claim, but the belief persists. Many adult learners believe that it is too late for them to learn a new language. If you are teaching English as a Foreign or Second Language you may find yourself teaching a class of adult learners. Adult learners differ in many ways from young learners, and one such issue you may encounter is a doubt from the learners that they are capable of picking up a new language now that they are no longer children. Though the style of learning and the issues encountered will inevitably differ from those of young learners, adults can learn English.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Trelawney E. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
First Language Experience
When a person learns their first, or native, language, they do it through absorption and assimilation (ITTT Unit 3, Page 1). They learn through context. They learn through experimenting with the language and listening to others. Parents will repeat words often and help children with pronunciation and correcting them as they play with sentence structure. They will point out objects or point at words in books while emphasizing the words (ITTT Unit 19, Page 5).
Second Language Experience
Although this cannot be perfectly recreated when learning a second language, certain aspects of this way of learning can be replicated in a classroom. Using visuals or props is a good way to help students of all ages learn vocabulary and miming can be used to help with the sentence and grammatical structure (ITTT Unit 3, Page 5). The pronunciation can be practiced through drilling (ITTT Unit 3, Page 16). Listening can be done by listening to the teacher to speak, or by listening to authentic or non-authentic materials such as videos or cassettes (ITTT Unit 11, Page 3).
Language Learning for Adults
One issue you will come across in this type of learning with adults is a desire to directly translate from their native language into English, or vice-versa (ITTT Unit 1, Page 6). This becomes particularly difficult in languages that have a completely different grammatical structure to English; some languages read right to left, others don't have spaces between words. It's very important to stress with adult learners that translation is not the goal. The goal is to understand the message within the words. It can also be helpful to let adult learners know that it's okay to not understand every single word when reading or listening, as long as they're starting to grasp the overall meaning (ITTT Unit 11, Page 3).
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Language Learning in Childhood
There are a few things that make being an adult learner of English more difficult than being a young learner. Adults come with previous learning experiences that may affect how they believe teaching should be done. They may have preconceived notions of a classroom and what is appropriate in a learning environment (ITTT Unit 1, Page 6). This may cause them to be resistant to new techniques or less conventional styles of teaching. Games or interactive activities may cause discomfort, especially if past learning experiences have had the adult learners expected to sit quietly for the majority of the time. This is a hurdle that can be overcome. Starting with warmer activities and building rapport with adult learners helps break the ice and set the tone and expectation for your classroom (ITTT Unit 20, Pages 1-2).
Adults vs. Children
Adult learners often hold more inhibitions than young learners. They tend to be self-conscious and hold more fear of making mistakes or looking foolish (ITTT Unit 1, Page 6). It can be difficult for some adult learners to speak aloud, so it is important to create an environment where students feel it is safe to make mistakes. This means it's important to correct errors only when necessary, and not in the Engage or Activates stages of a lesson unless it severely impacts the students' understanding. There should also be abundant praise of correct language use so that students have the desire and confidence to experiment with English (ITTT Unit 3, Page 19-21).
Though some things make being an adult language learner more difficult than being a young learner, there are also advantages that adult learners have over their younger counterparts. One such advantage is motivation. Often, young learners are in a language class either because their parents have enrolled them or because it's a part of their school curriculum. Adult learners, however, have sought out English lessons because they want to learn the language (ITTT Unit 1, Page 6). This could be for a variety of reasons, but they are motivated enough to have sought out the lessons, which tends to mean they will take their learning seriously. This also means that behavioral issues are less likely to arise, creating a less distracting learning environment which can be a benefit to learning (ITTT Unit 1, Page 6).
Adult learners in a multi-lingual class may be already learning in an English speaking country. They will have the advantage of being in an English speaking environment, which gives them more opportunities to practice the language. They also have the advantage of being forced to use English to communicate with their peers, as they may not have the same native language (ITTT Unit 19, Page 17).
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Though adult learners of English face unique hurdles that young learners may not, adult learners can acquire the English language. If the teacher makes sure to use a variety of techniques to help adult learners absorb English naturally and ensures they are not stuck in a translation mindset, encourages them to speak and helps them become confident and unafraid of making mistakes, and if the students are self-motivated and want to learn, then there is no reason they should be unable to learn English. You are never too old to learn. An old dog can be taught new tricks.
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