Instilling Confidence in Older Language Learners

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Well, I’ve hit a rough patch in my efforts to teach my friend, Natasha. She needs an immediate injection of confidence and determination to continue her English studies.

One of my earlier strategies to help Natasha develop oral communication skills was to set up conversation practice with another non-native speaker, who is more advanced, doesn’t speak Russian, and understands the challenges of learning the language as an adult. The conversation partner I selected has set Natasha at ease, encouraged attempts to express ideas, and sympathized with the difficulties of balancing studies with family obligations. These conversation sessions have helped, but because they are limited (as are our lessons), progress remains steady but very slow. This is understandably frustrating for a person who must function within the target culture on a daily basis.

This week I’ve been able to schedule more lesson time than usual, so Natasha and I are reviewing and expanding. I believe that a well-planned review can serve several purposes. First, it helps me identify what has been learned well and what requires further study and practice. Second, it strengthens the existing knowledge and skills of the student. Third, it can demonstrate a level of proficiency which the student can take pride in. “I know how to say that in English” or “I can do that exercise” are thoughts that should please the learner because past efforts have indeed led to progress.

As I look to the coming weeks, I think about how to apply larger ideas on a smaller scale. We’ve seen, for example, the inspiring performances of the students at Kaplan Omotesando Center. Could I guide my beginner to deliver a performance of her own? Her first audience can be the ones she’s most comfortable with, her friends and family. Natasha is a creative mother, and I’ve seen her turn picture puzzle pieces into magnets and then make up funny tales with her children. I want to encourage her to make up a tale in English that she can tell her children. I will help her arrive at a final product and rehearse it. Then I will ask her to tell the tale to her children.

It is my hope that if Natasha becomes comfortable reading simple stories in English, it can become an ongoing practice that she can do in her home and possibly at her children’s schools. Preschools and kindergartens welcome parent readers, and with adequate preparation Natasha could manage this. I’ve already encouraged her to submit her application as a school volunteer, and I hope the coming school year will put her in new situations that will welcome her efforts to contribute in English. It’s one of my beliefs that helping others and giving pleasure to others through language increases a learner’s confidence. Let’s hope in Natasha’s case I prove to be right!

Do you have any thoughts on working with older learners? I’d like to hear about them.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. Bill Pelan says:

    Hi Jenny, all the actions you are doing with Natasha are on target. I have been involved with senior citizens learning English and a lot of them were from Russia and Eastern Europe. My suggestion is to have a group environment and instil fun and encourage their recollection of their national cultures and the good experiences they have had. Interests like food, music, family life, and any other activities they had should be encouraged for them to ‘talk about’.
    The group environment can engender a sense of fellowship and friendliness and perhaps a little ‘friendly competition’.
    Please convey to Natasha best wishes from New Zealand, Bill Pelan.

    1. Hi Bill,

      Thank you. While Natasha is still well over a decade away from being a senior citizen, she likely shares a similar language learning experience as your older learners. You are onto something, I think, with emphasis on the social setting. I have recommended topics for conversation practice between Natasha and her partner. They are both wives and mothers, but from different countries. It has been good for them to discuss things like family life. Being an expert on something, such as one’s children or national culture, can encourage more production when the listener is genuinely interested and patient enough to listen.

      Thank you for your support!

  2. Harvey says:

    It seems that many students feel defeated when learning a new language, especially when it comes to those of the older group who feel like they’re being left behind while their kids and the younger generation are interacting in the language at an exponential rate.

    In my experience, I’ve found that older language learners really benefit from basic survival skills that reinforce previously learned vocabulary items and grammatical constructions. Such items include interacting at the DMV, the restaurant, or, possibly in Natasha’s case, with her children’s teachers. As important as grammar constructions and explanations may be, practice that is rooted in the relevancy of everyday situations and interactions, such as those in Molinsky’s books, are especially empowering.

    Good luck and keep us updated!

    1. Hi Harvey,

      So true. Frustration and defeat are common feelings in students when the going gets tough, whether you’re learning to ice skate or speak another language. In the case of language learning, it’s hard not to compare oneself to others, and when those others are your own children the feelings of pride and envy can easily mix.

      In our video series, Natasha and I focus heavily on grammar through conversation. Off camera, there have been mini lessons on the language she needs to greet teachers, thank salespeople, and respond to neighbors’ initial chit-chat. The challenge is that in the real-life settings conversation quickly jumps to a level beyond her comprehension or production.

      Well, we will continue and in time, of course, Natasha’s frustration should decrease while her ability to function in English increases. You know the saying about Rome not being built in a day…

      Thank you for the support!

  3. Danny says:

    Hello Jennifer,

    I remember having taught an older learner in a basic stage and she really got frustrated with pronunciation. My feeling is that she was motivated while learning English because sometimes these are the guys who are more determined to learn, even more than younger generations are. But like I said, something I found that was kind of preventing this student to make progress was the pronunciation, and also the hard time she seemed to have regarding keeping things in her working memory, two things on which I couldn’t work too much, for it was a larger group and I had to keep a pace that matched the course plan and the rhythm of the majority of students.

    I usually find myself thinking that if this student had devoted a lot of time just paying attention, listening, copying, keeping things in the working memory, recalling, and while doing so practicing pronunciation face to face with a more confident and of course supportive speaker (one who would help rather than get bored, like what you are doing) , this student would have made progress and felt proud and gotten that sense of achievement, all of which are feelings a learner should have… because I really believe that learning alone is pleasurable, but many people don’t realize that (especially here in my country.)

    Best regards, Jennifer. I really love your work.


    Daniel Naveda

    1. Hello Daniel,

      Yes, I think it is key to find conversation practice with a sympathetic listener who is sensitive to the adult learner’s needs and who can provide feedback. Retaining information has been especially difficult in this particular language learning experience because our daytime lessons are often canceled due to family obligations (children getting sick, etc.) When practice is not frequent or regular, retention is certainly an issue, regardless of the learner’s age.

      Natasha has begun to consider evening lessons outside the home to avoid distractions or interruptions and to allow regular attendance. This might become a possibility (logistically) in the fall. Until then, I will continue to support her efforts as best I can. I enjoy working with someone who has genuine motivation, and I feel it is crucial we support adult learners by helping them maintain realistic goals and countering their frustration with our encouragement.

      Thank you for your warm support.

  4. Bill Pelan says:

    Hi Jennifer, regarding comments from Danny Boy (Daniel) about ‘conversation’ for older students and Session times, I encourage lots of conversation.
    At our SpeakEzy groups we have 2 Sessions, one at 10am-Noon and the other at 7pm-8.30pm, both for the convenience of students.
    Our simple format is:
    Introduction; Topic (including one of Jennifer’s excellent clips); Canteen (coffee break lasting about 20 minutes); This is also like a meet-and-greet time for general ‘talking’; Then we go into small groups of 3 or 4 students and a tutor to discuss the Topic or any relevant or interesting outcomes suggested.
    Finally, we conclude with a simple challenge or game.
    ‘Speak English with Confidence’ is our motto along with fellowship and encouragement.
    This voluntary Group is now in its 10th year here in Auckland, NZ and our international students benefit a lot from our tutors who also are international. They also benefit and enjoy meeting others.
    I hope this is helpful and encouraging.
    Regards, Bill.

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