Learning a new language is an enriching and rewarding activity. However, for adults, and particularly for older adults, it can sometimes become a daunting task. English is one language that is characterized by its unique complexities and is relatively hard to master. In this article, we will explore the challenges that adult learners often face and provide some valuable strategies that can be used to overcome them.
Unique challenges faced by adults learning English
Limited exposure to the language
One of the challenges adults face is their relatively limited exposure to varied environments compared to younger individuals. Children are typically immersed in a dynamic and multifaceted language context, particularly when residing in English-speaking countries. Not only do these children attend schools where lessons are taught in English, but they also engage in extracurricular activities, sports teams, and cultivate friendships in the same language. Furthermore, children are often more skilled at using social media and other digital tools that connect them to other English speakers worldwide.
On the other hand, adults mainly rely on language classes and some supplementary text-based materials for exposure to the language. Even those who work in English-speaking environments may not experience the language beyond their professional duties. Adults who cannot attend regular language classes or have limited interaction with colleagues often find themselves devoid of English conversations. This experience results in a learning process that lacks the immersive nature of organic language acquisition, thereby slowing down the overall pace of language assimilation.
Adults frequently juggle multiple responsibilities, such as their job, familial obligations, and household chores. These responsibilities often leave limited time for learning English. When they are short on time, studying English often becomes the least prioritized task on their list.
Anxiety and self-consciousness
Adults often struggle with feelings of anxiety and self-consciousness. Much of this anxiety stems from the fear of making errors and the possible judgment that might follow. As adults, we tend to feel a sense of embarrassment when we make mistakes. We might even fear being judged by others when our speech contains mistakes. This anxiety can result in avoidance of practicing conversation with others. Such avoidance can prevent us from achieving fluency in English.
We should not overlook the challenge of cognitive decline that comes with aging. While young learners can absorb and recollect new information with relative ease, adults sometimes struggle with remembering new vocabulary or grammar rules. This is especially prevalent among older adults over the age of 50. As mental sharpness and the ability to retain information diminish, language learning might become more difficult for certain individuals.
Different learning mechanism from children
Children possess a remarkable capacity for absorbing new information. They appear to naturally acquire the English language simply through talking with their playmates. This ability comes from their instinctive method of learning a new language – through trial and error. They deduce the meaning of a word or a phrase based on context and incorporate them into their conversations again when interacting with friends. Over time, they become fluent speakers, often without even knowing the grammar rules.
Adults, on the other hand, use their knowledge and analytical abilities to learn the language. They try to understand the rules, grammar, and structure of the language before putting them into practice during conversations. Also, adults tend to translate English into their native language when listening and convert their native language into English when speaking. Such analytical approaches work well for writing tasks but don’t work well for speaking tasks that require speed and fluency.
Adults have to cope with pronunciation difficulty and accents
Children are typically more adept at imitating new sounds and adopting accurate pronunciations. They have a higher likelihood of achieving near-native fluency and accent. Anyone who has a young child in an English-speaking country can attest to this.
For adults, pronunciation is more challenging due to the residual influence of their native languages. Based on my own experience, individuals who started learning English later in their life (typically after the age of 12 or 13) – may struggle to get rid of their accents. Most of them would never get rid of their accent in their lifetime. This is due to the diminished neuroplasticity among teenagers and adults, referring to the brain’s potential to learn and adapt to new information. By the onset of adolescence, the pronunciation patterns of their native language would have been deeply entrenched in their brain, making it harder for them to speak English without accent.
How can older adults learn English efficiently?
Having identified these challenges, let’s formulate a strategic plan to counteract these effectively.
Increase exposure to English
Try to increase your exposure to the English language beyond the confines of your regular classes. This could involve consuming English-related content such as podcasts, online videos, novels, or movies. Additionally, adults could join a hobby class or a language exchange group to have more opportunities to speak the language with others.
Granted, many adults find it challenging to speak English with other people due to self-consciousness about their proficiency levels in the language. However, it’s still beneficial to step out of your comfort zone and make new friends who can have a conversation in English with you. To ease potential anxiety, seek out a relaxed setting where you can engage in one-on-one or small group conversations.
Dedicate some time daily or weekly to learning English
Even with busy schedules, carving out dedicated time for language study is crucial. It doesn’t have to be a significant amount of time each day – consistent practice, no matter how short, is more effective than cramming an extensive study session all at once only to abandon it later. Construct a fixed timetable to learn English that suits you and feels manageable.
For instance, some individuals attend weekly language exchange groups to hone their English-speaking abilities, while others participate in online conversation groups twice weekly for practice. If you prefer solitary practice, you could allot around 30 minutes daily or every other day to watch your favorite English TV show with subtitles, jotting down new words and new phrases that you find important.
By establishing a routine, learning English begins to feel like an integral part of your daily life instead of an extra chore.
Learn at your own pace
For many older adults, mastering a new language such as English may require more time compared to younger individuals. It is important to establish personal goals that feel achievable and learn the language at your own pace.
One strategy older adults could use is leveraging the power of technology. For instance, ALULA is an educational app that helps you learn grammar and vocabulary by talking to an AI-powered tutor. As you will be communicating with an AI, instead of a live person, it can alleviate feelings of being overwhelmed or self-conscious. By working through English courses at a comfortable pace, you can gradually build confidence in listening and speaking skills.
Embrace a positive mindset and make learning fun
Approach your learning process with a positive attitude. Instead of fearing mistakes, view each one as a stepping stone towards mastering English. If you’re going to learn English, you might as well enjoy the process. Remember, no one ever learned to ride a bicycle without taking a few falls.
Incorporate enjoyable activities into your English learning routine. If you’re a fan of board games, consider playing them in English. You could join a language exchange group that allows you to play board games with native English speakers, instead of only playing with friends in your native language. If, like me, you’re a fan of movies from the 80s and 90s, watch them in their original English audio with subtitles, rather than the ones dubbed in your native language. Making learning fun can help you maintain long-term motivation to master the language.
Learning English as an adult can indeed be challenging, but armed with determination and the right strategies, it can be a fulfilling and enjoyable journey. Being able to connect with people from different parts of the world, expand your horizons, and open doors to myriad opportunities makes all these challenges worthwhile.
Richard Zhang, M.Ed., is an educator and a software developer with a Masters degree in education from University of Toronto and an immense passion for education and learning. Until the pandemic, Richard owned an award-winning learning centre in Toronto. For 15 years, he has taught and mentored hundreds of elementary, middle school, and high school students succeed in academics. He is also an app developer specializing in web and mobile application in educational and business sectors.