Saturday 15 October 2011

Challenges of Adult Language Learning

My guest today is Marina Salsbury who planned on becoming a teacher since high school, but found her way instead into online writing after college. She writes around the Web about everything from education to exercise.

Marina's article focuses on the problems and challenges in language learning which college students and adults face if English is not their native language.

image by urbanphotographer on flickr
 The concept of a “critical period” for language learning has been of much debate historically. However, linguists' as well as language teachers' current thoughts reflect acceptance that college-age and adult learners can become quite fluent. Despite this possibility, adult language learners face unique challenges in college ESL classes online or on campus. Understanding these challenges and how to face them may help both teachers and learners attain greater success in learning English.

Some challenges adult English learners face are common among any adult language learners. Learning languages may be more difficult as one grows older, and adult learners may not be willing to speak and practice language because they feel silly or embarrassed. Learning may go quickly at first, when a lot of new vocabulary is introduced, and then may seem to slow to a crawl as grammar and other concepts become more complicated.

These problems with acquiring grammar and structure as an adult seem to be true regardless of the language being learned. Facing these challenges takes time and patience, but can be aided by being willing to use English frequently, even if it’s not perfect. Finding opportunities to use English and practice what's being learned in the classroom will help students begin to overcome the problems they face. By gaining more input and interaction, English learning will be better facilitated, and classroom lessons will become relevant and meaningful.

Learning English, though, presents some problems for beginning learners that adult learners of other languages don’t necessarily face. The major issue is simply accessibility. Most English language programs in the US teach their classes completely in English. Students with no previous knowledge of English may have a difficult time understanding and keeping up. Textbooks are written almost exclusively in English, making independent study quite difficult for students who don't already know how to read English. Even seeking individual help from instructors may be difficult because they may not be able to offer explanations in a language other than English. Students in these programs with no background in English may need to find additional tutors, lower-level courses, or online programs that can help with translation. Another option is to take a few English classes in their home countries so they have at least a basic knowledge of English and can access the information in subsequent classes.

Of course, for EFL learners who may not have ready access to English within their local communities, finding ways to practice English outside of the classroom can be challenging. One of the best ways to get more English input is through entertainment media. TV shows, movies, and music in English can provide interesting and accessible English to study or at least be exposed to. For more interactive practice, students should encourage themselves to only speak English with classmates. They can also find online conversation partners, or check out the expat community where native speakers may be willing to exchange conversation practice in the local language.

Adult learners who don’t begin their English study until college are likely to encounter difficulties, even if fluency is attainable. Not only are they faced with typical language learning challenges, but they may find English inaccessible, either through program design or location. By finding ways to make English accessible, these students will find a greater degree of success as they work toward becoming fluent speakers of English.


Ann said...

Thanks Baiba and Marina for this thoughtful post.

Have just posted a link to it on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you'd like to check there for comments.

Please feel free to post on the page whenever you have anything you'd like to share.



Prof. Juan Andrés Pereira de Souza said...

Hi! I found this very interesting as I've been working with adults for the past 3 years and feel really concerned about it. Being an EFL teacher, I completely agree with your comments about it being very difficult for adult learners to practise the language outside the classroom walls and I would add that it is also difficult for us teachers to keep them motivated and give them a reason to learn it. However, it's a very enjoyable experience and really worth the effort.