Welcome to Fool for Language

Welcome to Fool for Language, the site for people who are crazy about learning languages - like me! If you are new to this blog, I recommend you read the articles in order. The information will make better sense.

This is my first blog and writing each essay has been much more enjoyable than I expected. I have spent most of my life teaching and, more importantly, learning languages. I have “survived” a wide range of teaching techniques, materials and teachers. The result is that I have a pretty clear idea of what has and has NOT worked for me. Yes, I am opinionated, but even if you don’t agree with me, I hope you will enjoy the stories and think about what gets you “wired” when you dive into the wonderful world of learning another language.

I want to thank some people who have helped me maintain momentum with this blog. To give you, the reader, a break, every 10th essay is written by a guest blogger, all close friends with their own special take on language learning. As for the uploading process, Kurt meticulously proofreads and makes insightful comments on each essay; while Yoh patiently provides technical support, including selection of the vibrant visuals. Thank you!


26. Improving With Age

There is one final teaching story in Canada that I almost forgot to mention, which is ironic given that it deals with memory and older learners. My volunteer work with immigrant women through Vancouver’s Immigrant Services Society (see blog entries 17 & 18) caught the attention of the University of British Columbia’s Language Institute and, in my final year at UBC, I was asked to participate in an experimental project to research long distance learning. Participants living in isolated communities were expected to watch a series of soap opera-style TV shows developed by the university, then take part in a 2-hour class on Saturday mornings using study materials based on what they had watched. Subjects were divided by age and/or ethnic community then assigned to a “para-instructor”.

When it came time to assign the classes I was taken to the coordinator’s office and informed that my students were a group of senior citizens living in a Mennonite colony about three hours drive from Vancouver. I was told not to get my hopes up and not to be disappointed if (when?) my students’ progress was minimal. Given their advanced years, the assumption was that, no matter how much effort I put in, the results would be negligible. What a dismal way to start a course.

My first Saturday, I got up early and began the 3-hour drive to the colony determined to be on time for the lesson. I had done my homework and was dressed in a somber black suit in an effort to be culturally sensitive. After what seemed like an eternity of driving through fields of vegetables and fruit groves, I finally found the community center where the classes were to be held near the small rural community of Clearbrook. I parked my car and nervously entered to discover a group of fifteen elderly men and women all dressed in brightly-hued shirts and dresses. I felt completely out of place! Later, when I got up the nerve to ask about their rainbow colors, one of the older members, Agathe, proudly replied, “We are a progressive colony.” They certainly were.

During class break I asked many questions. The colony was obviously self-sufficient and functioned almost entirely in Low German, or Plattdeutsch. I couldn’t understand why they had agreed to be part of the university’s experiment. Why did they feel the need to learn English?

As it turned out, the core reason was the same for each person. Many of their children had left the colony and were working in nearby towns or Vancouver. When they visited with their grandchildren the latter were using English to communicate. It was this desire to stay in touch with their grandchildren that fueled the group’s eagerness to tackle English in their senior years. The youngest students were in their mid-60’s while the eldest, Heinrich, proudly informed me the moment we met that he was 84 years old.

Every week when I arrived, the group would be seated at long tables waiting expectantly for the lesson to begin. Spirits were high and study sessions were filled with joking and a constant stream of questions. Each lesson was a social occasion with everyone having a great time, including me.

But there were some awkward moments, too. At the beginning of my third class several participants fingered Maria, one of the more jovial members, for not having watched the weekly TV show. The one television set on the colony was located in the community center where we held our lessons and, if someone missed a session, everyone knew about it. Maria’s absence was verified by fourteen heads nodding solemnly and, despite my assurance that it “wasn’t a big deal”, she apologized profusely – and never missed another communal TV viewing session.

The “Clearbrook gang”, as I had come to call them, taught me many things about learning a language. First, having a specific, PERSONAL goal in mind is crucial for motivation. Mindlessly memorizing unrelated word lists for an examination may work for some students who want good grades, but I suspect percentage points are not a true incentive for the average learner.

Second, group-based study can be much more productive, especially if the group gets along well together. Lessons become a social event, which was certainly the case in Clearbrook. When learners have fun studying together, they look forward to the next class.

Third, a little psychological pressure can go a long way, particularly if it is applied by peers rather than the teacher. Knowing that all eyes would be upon her, Maria never missed another TV show. And perhaps for the same reason, the Clearbrook gang had the best attendance record of all other groups that participated in the UBC study. The peer pressure may have seemed a little draconian, however, it worked to everyone’s advantage.

Which brings me to my final revelation. Despite the university coordinator’s limited expectations, the Clearbrook gang achieved the greatest level of improvement in the study. I was so proud! And I realized that, if the need is there and the learning environment supportive, age is irrelevant when it comes to language learning. Sure, younger people may have an edge in the memory department; however, the seniors of this Mennonite colony clearly demonstrated that the brain could still function effectively despite advanced age.

When I did my MA in Applied Linguistics in the UK years later, we were told that after puberty the brain goes through chemical changes and “hardens” making it impossible to really learn a language well as we grow older. I didn’t believe this to be true but the only evidence I had to refute my professors was the tale of older learners on a Mennonite colony outside Vancouver, which flew in the face of the accepted academic knowledge of the times.

A few years ago, I was delighted to stumble across more current research that refutes this “hardened brain” premise. The mesh surrounding the brain remains plastic throughout one’s life and neurons keep firing into our senior years. In other words, as long as your brain is healthy, you can learn a language at any age. Furthermore, in doing so, we reduce the chances of succumbing to cerebral diseases, such as Alzheimers. This is a story for another blog posting.

I made one final trip to Clearbrook in early summer to say good-bye before heading overseas for employment in Japan. The class held a “picnic” outdoors at a long table and everything we ate was homemade – the bread, the cheese, even the wine. Each person explained in English what they had brought to the table, as well as what they had gotten from our language classes. It was a wonderful send-off!

As for me, I told them that I had learned much more than they could ever imagine. The Clearbrook gang members were not an aberration – seniors can learn a language – and I only hope to have half of their intelligence and energy when I reached that age. I told them this when my turn came to talk. And I made my speech in white linen pants and a bright blue shirt. I had become more progressive, too.

(If you are really fool for languages, check out my language learning website, http://en.sulantra.com/, with courses from and to EnglishSpanishChineseJapaneseTurkishBulgarianThaiGerman , Korean and Italian!)

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