by Dorothy Kalloch


Heading toward the Mission field are a group of eager retirees who want to use their gifts as God directs. Perhaps many of them are wondering, "At my age can I really learn a new language?"

A study called, "Language Learning in Midlife" starts out by saying, "Language acquisition for this group is an issue which should be explored as agencies rethink policies for recruitment, personnel placement, and member care. Recent research indicates that an older adult can successfully learn another language despite the conventional wisdom that after some ill-defined point in early adulthood it is 'too late' to learn a language. That is not to say that the task is an easy one, and there are significant differences in the older learner to be addressed."(Language Learning in Midlife" by Colleen S. Hale. Wheaton College Graduate School)

How old is "older" Hmm. "'Midlife' is defined as adults between the ages of 40 and 65." "Sixty-five is the usual retirement age, at least in the U.S., so what about people who come after that, wanting to gain some fluency in a new language? The situation for them is certainly not hopeless, since God is sovereignly directing, so let's continue as if no such limit had been set, perhaps with a little more emphasis on the need for evaluation of any individual physical and/or mental decline. "Most researchers agree that "nearly every mental operation requires more time with increased age" (Ibid. p. 11)

When some second-career missionaries were asked about their language-learning experience, the conclusion was that most of them "wish their mission board had recognized the depth of their commitment and potential longevity in service by designing a modified course of dedicated language study for them before they arrived on the field." Lonna Dickerson gives this as one of the ways we can best help the older learner. Wycliffe Bible Translators have courses specifically designed to aid the missionary language learner. Even without this, like any other new missionary, a "second-career" one should be given the chance to spend some weeks or months just concentrating on language study.

An article on "The Older Language Learner" says that older learners actually have advantages over younger ones! If this is not too optimistic an evaluation, we can ignore stereotypes and see that "older learners have more highly developed cognitive systems, are able to make higher order associations and generalizations, and can integrate new language input with their already substantial learning experience. Older adults have already developed learning strategies that have served them well in other contexts."(Eric Digest: "The Older Language Learner" by Mary Scleppegrell, Sept. 1987)

Lonna Dickerson says, "50 is not 'old' when it comes to language learning. "It has been said that "A 50-year-old can be as successful as an 18-year-old if other factors are equal."

"If all other factors are equal"! There is the catch. What other factors are not equal for an older learner. People may have said, "At your age! Do you think you can learn a whole new language?" Or the missionary may have thought, "my head is already crammed with so much information:language(s), memories, ideas, information gleaned from hundreds of sources; where is the space to put new words and phrases into?

Some variables related to age are: physical factors, memory, motivation and self-efficacy.-"self-efficacy" meaning perhaps something like "self-reliance" or "self-realization",ie. fulfillment of one's potential capacities. " People high in this last quality are more confident and work harder to accomplish tasks than those with low self-efficacy." (Language Learning in Midlife" by Colleen S. Hale. Wheaton Graduate School, pp. 15,16)

Motivation is very important. Older adults tend to be "self-directing". They will tell you how they learn best, and with what motives. Some are "instrumentally motivated"*, that is they have to learn in order to get along in the culture of the country they have chosen. Others are "motivated by integrative reasons"*, that is they want to fit into their new culture and develop relationships with its people. Is motivation a cause of success or a consequence of success Probably both. A person who makes use of what has been learned to converse with nationals in different situations and has a good time with this, will be further motivated to keep learning, and will make more contacts. (Ibid p. 17)

"Research shows that older adults are capable of much greater success than may have initially been assumed, especially when programs are tailored to meet their needs." Successful older language-learners have gotten past the stereotypes which can be a hindrance. "The younger the better", it has been said, and this is not necessarily true. It has been said that "the stereotype of the older adult as a poor language-learner can be traced to two roots: a theory of the brain and how it matures, and classroom practices that discriminate against the older learner." (Eric Digest; "The Older Language Learner" by Mary Schleppegrell, Sept. 1987)

Special needs include: (1) physical assessment, especially to check for hearing or vision loss; (2) careful and thorough orientation to the culture (which is of course important for new workers of any age) and (3) adequate member care by mission leaders, "giving particular attention to culture stress and anxiety." (Lonna Dickerson, Ph.D. Director, Institute for Cross-Cultural Training, WheatonCollege). Short-term memory loss has to be taken into consideration also. "Adults, especially older adults, tend to rely on their long term memory system. But before new knowledge can be stored in the long term memory, it must first be processed in the short term memory which is known to decline somewhat in older adults." Some speak just in terms of "working memory", short-term memory which can provide means for storing in the long term memory. "Working memory is involved not only in input but also in the output of language.(Skehan, 1998, p. 45) In older adults this can become overloaded, which has experiments have shown, will cause some age-related decline in performance.

However, the hopeful note is added, saying these losses are gradual and not severe enough to rule out second language learning.(Dickerson)

In conclusion the writer of "Language Learning in Midlife" draws some implications from Malcolm Knowles' principles of andragogy, which say that "adults are self-directed in their learning, have reservoirs of experience that serve as resources as they learn, and want their learning to be immediately applicable to their lives." The implications are that these things should be considered when working out programs for older adults.

Based on what is being learned about specific needs of the older learner, many suggestions have been made, which a language teacher or coach should have in mind.Some of these are:

1) Whether or not they have had the advantage of a pre-field Second Language Acquisition program, make sure they have an on-field language and culture learning coach who can help to direct their own field learning experiences, be a sounding board, be an encourager. Among other things, an effective language coach:
a)"understands how to deal with special challenges (eg. older learners)
b)"tailors learning plan and procedures to individual abilities, needs and circumstances"
c)"helps learners to become increasingly self-directed"
d)"helps learners achieve a higher level of proficiency than they dreamed possible."
(Instructional Strategies for Adults with Learning Disabilities"; Clearing House on Adult Education and Literacy, Washington,D.C.)

2) Don't set the bar too high in terms of expectations/requirements, especially if they will not be preaching or teaching in the language but need it just for everyday communication in whatever ministry to which God has called them. "Make the goal reasonable and in keeping with the person's work/ministry assignment. Do all you can to show confidence that they really can learn the language to the extent needed," trusting God to give them the needed ability.

3)"If at all possible, arrange for the older learners to work one-on-one with a tutor" in preference to putting them in a class which would move too quickly and discourage them.*

4)In some ways, helping older adults to learn may be like helping people with learning disabilities, and the following suggestions may be pertinent: a) Present a variety of short assignments.
b) Capitalize on the student's strengths, following methods that they adapt to best.

5) Class activities that may inhibit an older learner's participation may include:* a) Large amounts of oral repetition and memorization
b) Extensive pronunciation correction, or expectation of error-free speech
c) Irrelevant content, eg. Stressing of grammar rules out of context.
d) Physically demanding or childish activities
e) Any fast-paced activity

6) "Frequent review is important to compensate for short term memory loss (Hedge). It is important to limit the amount of material learned in each lesson. "Learn a little, use it a lot" applies to any adult language learner, but is particularly crucial for older adults.

7) Limit background noise as possible, and make the learning environment comfortable and non-stressful.

"The Older Language Learner" article concludes: "Effective adult language training programs create a classroom atmosphere which supports the learner and builds confidence. It says (very optimistically ) that teaching older adults should be a pleasurable experience. Their self-directedness, life experiences, independence as learners, and motivation to learn provide them with advantages in language learning. A program that meets the needs of the adult learner will lead to language acquisition by this group."**

In any case, the one constant hopeful fact is that, young or old, we are here because of our understanding of God's will, and in all our struggles He is there for us!

*Language Learning in Midlife, by Colleen S. Hale, Wheaton Graduate School
**The Older Language Learner, Eric Digest, prepared by Mary Schleppegrell, 1987