- Various Articles - Teaching Adults/Advanced
- Teaching Adults a Foreign Language: A Rewarding or a Helpless Task?
Teaching Adults a Foreign Language: A Rewarding or a Helpless Task?
Juan Luis Hernández is a teacher at the Language Center in the University of Matanzas in Cuba. He is interested in developing communicative skills in his students by using some of the experience he has achieved and the uses of technology. He enjoys working with teenagers and adult students. He has some articles in progress and a published monograph about a famous educational institution from his city. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
As a teacher of English, I spent 23 years of my professional life teaching adult people a foreign language in a language school in Matanzas, Cuba. Generally, working with teenagers and young people was easier for the teachers there, since most of the students we registered every semester were over 18 and they were either Senior High school students or college freshmen, but in the case of older adults, a 35% of them had reached their 40´s or 50´s or they were even older.
Nowadays several research programmes have proven that in spite of all the advantages young people might have when learning a language, life experiences and maturity in adults provide them with tools and techniques children do not possess. So learning a new language or subject when you are old is not as hard as people might usually believe.
Learning a new language is the perfect way to have fun and step out of your daily routine while putting into practice new skills, which will influence in our health most positively and even more for people over fifty.
Middle aged and older adults in Cuba are a very distinctive age bracket in an already aged society. They are mostly quite talkative, friendly, open, sociable, and outspoken. It is a new generation of adults, which is highly educated and independent, aware of their needs and goals. (Ramos Monteagudo & Juliana, 2018)
Yet being an “oldie”, in a group full of young people could be a disadvantage sometimes and at first, most of them will feel out of place, or that they do not fit in. However many of the most rewarding experiences I got the chance to undergone as a teacher came from these “educational misfits”, students that showed me that dedication, motivation and a strong will could definitely change things. I would like to share some of the stories I experienced, and some of the solutions I came up with over the years.
Findings and observations
Since the 1960´s, Cuba started the creation of Language Academies and Language schools in order to increase people´s education in different languages. The growing relationships with other countries made our population well aware of this pressing need, so hundreds began registering in these schools. In 1976, a new experimental syllabus came into effect in order to increase the foreign languages learning process, which would allow the students to be engaged in a more active oral practice through the uses of visual means (meaning pictures and magnetic tape recordings).
The 1980´s witnessed an outburst in the learning process of languages (mainly English and Russian) due to our trading relations with the former Soviet Union and an expanding tourist industry, which would require trained personnel and competent workers who could master at least a foreign language. Later on, English language would take its rightful place in every high school in our country displacing Russian out the Cuban syllabuses.
However, since the early 1990´s, there was a slightly higher tendency to study English in our country. We were undergoing the fiercest economic crisis of all times but despite that, people would attend language schools. Russian was no longer an important or useful tool for Cubans. It became clear for us that English should be our first priority and hence a mandatory subject in schools.
In 1993, I began teaching English in the language school of Matanzas, a freshman graduate from a Teachers Training school and a newcomer to the Adult Education system, unaware of the intricate process of teaching adult students.
We had large groups of students (forty-five or more) in rather small classrooms and sometimes seats were not available or enough for every one of them, therefor some of our students had to be standing at the back throughout the whole lesson. According to García (2010) as the teacher being a promoter of motivation or anxiety in the class, he should focus on creating an adequate pedagogical environment, by minimizing stress related factors and thus promoting a communicative teaching environment. However, this task might be quite difficult for many teachers under a lot of stress for dealing with large and wide cross section of students with different language levels.
The complete lack of teaching materials, authentic recordings, books and equipment at the time made the teaching-learning process a terrible ordeal for all of us and over those turbulent years we had to come up with some new and original ideas on how to cope with educating and instructing adult students.
Most of our students came from different sectors of the working society (Healthcare, Education, Tourism, the Army, etc.) and a few percent of them were students. Among the main motivational interests of 45 to 60 year old people, who were studying a new language, were to travel to English speaking countries, gain access to written information in that language but mainly to improve their quality of life. They consider the language as an important tool to achieve an improvement on their working profile and therefor their incomes.
Moreover, all of our students were eager to learn a new language that could literally change their lives, opening a wide range of job opportunities and a much better salary. Working in a tourist resort was the perfect and most suitable choice for many of them, but in order to do that, they needed a foreign language.
Teaching so many different people was an education in itself but mostly when it came to dealing with adults who were 45 and over. You needed to be more patient and condescending to them. Young students and teenagers were frequently fast learners and unbelievably easier to guide towards our learning goals, but middle-aged adults were usually not.
Although according to David Singleton (quoted in Roca y Manchón, 2006), beginning to learn a new language at an early age is not a necessary condition to success, since there is not a point in a person´s life in which acquiring vocabulary in their native tongue stops. It has been established that the acquisition of grammatical structures is at its peak in puberty, but it is possible to deal with it at any given age and recent scientific research have discovered that there is not a direct relation between age and the ability to learn. The difference between young learners and adults is in their attitude.
Daring to learn English when you are over fifty is not without its risks and obstacles. Cultural barriers and a sense of shame or disappointment usually show up when you begin, especially for those who studied the language three or four decades ago, when the teaching process was completely different and more focused on the grammar. We are currently aiming at a communicative approach rather than the grammatical one, so you need to start speaking the language from the very first lessons.
That is why adult students used to sit away from the front seats to avoid direct questions from the teacher and frequently remained silent throughout the lesson, taking down notes but with no straight interaction within the learning process, unmindful of the golden rule when studying any language: communication and practice.
Every organizational aspect involved in the teaching learning process of a language needs communication, both direct among students and with the teacher and indirect through the products of their labor like texts (Fernández González & authors, 2015) and practice becomes the material form of communication, when the process reveals itself as effective or not.
In order to deal with such behaviours we set a rule in class in which every student should change their seats every day when they arrive, trying always to redirect those older adults into the front seats of the row. Of course, we also tried to have a fast learner student sitting next to them so they could be pulled out of their comfort zone. Teaming a slow learner with a fast learner in the classroom proved to be a highly efficient technique for us.
This way they would be forced to play a more active role in class, which was our main goal. We also had fast learners sponsored them in every way they could, like preparing and organizing their dialogues together, checking on the different given exercises, explaining the different contents to them. It saved us a lot of time because as there were too many students in a single classroom we found ourselves most of the time unable to fulfill our duties with every one of them separately.
Years later, we put into practice some other techniques like sitting the students at tables arranged in an L shape and placing them according to an estimated score we diagnosed in the beginning of the course, a student who got five points would sit next to a student who got three points and a four next to a two. This way, fast learners (4-5 points) could interact with slow learners (2-3 points) more directly and help them try to achieve better scores through every lesson.
We definitely wanted to fight this kind of apathy towards English, so generally we tried to remind them about what their purpose at school was, so they could be truly honest with themselves about their interests and commitments, changing attitudes was an essential step toward improvement. They should start seeing the language as an opportunity and as a tool to achieve higher goals in life rather than an obligation or a mandatory regulation.
We had to deal everyday with the natural barrier created between the foreign language and the native language in our students but in these particular students, they also showed what we call “fossilized mistakes”, aspects in grammar and vocabulary from previous studies deep rooted in their brains, which definitely interfered with different skills we wanted to develop. We found a simple solution to work on this matter. We asked them to write their mistakes on the back on their notebooks with the proper correction beside it and to cross out the mistake. So every time they were about to commit the same error, the teacher would send them to those last pages on their notebooks as a constant reminder that they needed to cross out the mistake in their brains as well.
The fear of making mistakes when you talk is a quite common handicap anyone finds when learning a new subject. Most of our adult students were actually reluctant to speak in class or dramatize a dialogue in front of their classmates for the fear of being penalized for their mistakes. According to Galindo (2010), this process occurs when the pressure of making a mistake and facing the unfavorable reactions of both classmates and teachers brings about higher anxiety levels and it becomes stronger when it comes to oral productions. For most of the students studying languages, it is difficult to handle such situations, leading to desertion or simply giving up
MacIntyre and Gardner (1989) have held that if making common mistakes, like misspelling a word or writing it wrong, reaches a point in which a particular situation such as addressing an audience or establishing a conversation occurs it might trigger high levels of insecurity and anxiety in students. If it goes on happening, anxiety will be the detonator in every contact the students could have with a foreign language and in some cases blocking the whole process of learning in their minds because it is too stressful.
In real life situations, you can make mistakes regarding grammar and vocabulary and yet you communicate effectively. Again, they needed to make mistakes and not to be afraid of doing so because it is a natural step in the learning process. I discovered that students improve their effectiveness in a more relaxed environment, by using a proper motivation and even the uses of small jokes in class. They would find that studying a foreign language could also be fun and entertaining and making mistakes no longer was a cause of stress and anxiety
While children can talk freely, make mistakes or play in English, adults usually focus and rely on grammar books because they believe that learning a language is like making a test and for every mistake they make, they will be penalized until they failed completely.
Most of the techniques that could work on average students were useless when it came to our “oldies”. We decided to test some new ideas concerning this “stage or classroom fright” they felt.
We focused our attention first on socializing and increase partnership among them and with the teacher, which are important features within the learning process of a new language, hence developing new skills especially oral expression. We usually had tours around the city in order to get familiar with places and objects, guided visits to different historical or recreational spots in the city or we simply threw a small party in which English would be the center of attention. It was important for them to get to know each other out of the classroom environment, so fear and lack of confidence among themselves and with the teacher could be erased from their minds. Once they were comfortable with their classmates, it was easier to ask them to dramatize a dialogue in front of the class using real life situations.
We also tried assigning them small roles at first, so they could get a grasp of the dynamics of the class. Eventually they were given leading roles in every dialogue or situation, a role they performed most effectively because as it is known adults are more experienced in life than young people are and they can make vocabulary associations from the language they are learning by making a link with real life situations. They also possess a wider range of words and expressions and a better comprehension of concepts that allow them to make grammatical abstractions like for example verbal conjugations.
They needed to experience that, the communicative approach we used and still use in our classes, would allow them to improve their English, by practicing while simulating real life situations. The secret of learning a language is to be in touch with that language every day, finding opportunities to put it into practice in your day-by-day life, or even ask and answer yourself in English, if you have no one to practice with at work or at home.
Unfortunately (or not), we did not have android apps, digital dictionaries or mobiles at that time, which are very useful tools nowadays. We barely had a tape recorder, (with a very tight schedule for it to be used) and any authentic recordings or listening materials to work with. In order to enhance our student´s skills in listening for example we recorded our own voices performing the dialogues from the student´s book and reading articles we found in magazines or newspapers, creating a sort of recording server for our school. We used to record our student´s voices in class as well and afterwards we gave them the recordings, so they could listen to their mistakes at home. Of course, we could only distribute one or two tapes daily and we always gave it to those slow learners students who needed to improve their listening and pronunciation skills. It proved to be quite useful because they would record themselves again correcting their mistakes on tape and trying to achieve a better pronunciation and intonation. A technique that later on some of the interactive methods to learn a language on line would successfully put into practice.
Homework was another issue we found difficult to deal with in class regarding those students, (mostly adults) who allegedly did not have the time to make the exercises, or to hand in an assigned essay in time, because of all the housework they have to perform before coming to school. The main difficulty in adult learners according to (Beaman, 1998) for learning a new language is that they are frequently in charge of different responsibilities like relatives, their jobs, etc. which take up all of their time generating a lack of attention in class and a poor understanding of the contents given. That is why you need to realize adults have a greater degree of responsibility, which sometimes will prevent them for reaching higher levels of concentration in the acquisition of knowledge. However, they will experience certain needs, which will motivate their behavior and thus by satisfying their most elementary necessities, they make an effort to reach the next level and so on, until they can achieve a higher level of requirement
We tried to solve this by staying after classes with these students and help them understand the different exercises, so they would leave home with a clearer idea of the given task and a constant reminder that they would have to do their assignments by themselves next time. We frequently offer them the chance to come an hour before the class to feedback the previous lessons so they would feel more comfortable and enjoy a more favorable environment.
Besides feeling supported and worthy of attention by their teacher, they became committed towards the process and they learned to control it. Time spent in learning is an issue to be considered in the field of education for adults. Learning for them is a secondary activity in their lives, since they have to fulfill different roles that come first. If you think, they will be devoted to learning their whole time like a schoolchild you might have a wrong idea for there are some outer restrictions that will have a greater influence for them.
Nevertheless, you must take into account that within the learning process in adults, they have to take responsibilities for their own learning processes. There is a principle of autonomy described by Knowles (1980) who contemplates the development of what he called “self”, so adults can make a constant reflection on their role within the learning process through self-assessment.
Unforunately, spite all of the efforts we made over the years, some of them would leave school because it was “too hard for them” or simply that they were “too old to study”. Statistics showed that the higher percent of students quitting the language school were fifty or older and surveys revealed that the main causes stated were new responsibilities at work, -which make them impossible to attend a group, a job offer they could not refuse or simply health issues.
According to Terrón Amaya (2012) one of the many ways anxiety emerges, is when you find obstacles, which prevents you from achieving your own goals. Not having develop a high level of self-efficiency, that will allow you to recognize your own abilities will result in an absence of effort to overcome your weaknesses, as it happened with many of our students along the way.
Being an adult and having exceeding your golden days is not an excuse for not learning a second language or a third, but that is precisely one of the reasons most of the people allege for not achieving this goal. As Henry Ford founder of the Ford Automobile Company used to say, “Whether you think you´ll do fine or not, you are right” meaning you have to leave excuses aside, you are never too old to learn, you do not need special skills to do it and you can definitely make time to achieve it. The main tools you required for learning are up to you: to be interested in learning, to make time out of your busy life and to work on your learning process. You need to develop a passion for the language and its culture because learning a language is like opening a door to a different view of the world.
Since the early 1990´s, there was a slightly higher tendency to study English in our country and spite the lack of basic materials and products many students decided to attend language schools throughout the country. Many of them had reached their 40´s and 50´s and by studying a new language, they were looking for better job opportunities and a higher income. Working with adults might sometimes prove to be a challenge for most teachers and teaching large groups of people was an education in itself but mostly when it came to dealing with adults who were 45 and over. You needed to be more patient and condescending to them. They are usually burdened with many responsibilities outside the classroom environment, which prevent them from keeping up, their fear of making mistakes in front of their classmates and the teacher and the inability to achieve a higher interaction with the learning process in order to control it. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that their natural barriers and excuses tend to minimize their skills, when learning a language, it has been proven that they can achieve greater levels of self-assessment and improve their learning outcomes.
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Ramos-Monteagudo Ana María, & Yordi-García Mirtha Juliana. (Julio-agosto de 2018). Envejecimiento demográfico en Cuba y los desafíos que presenta para el Estado. Revista Medwave (4), 12.
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