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Any Age Is the Right Age to Learn a Second Language

By Kari Berit, M.S. | Published: July 11, 2017

Have you ever heard the statement, “You can’t teach adults a second language. They don’t absorb like children and they can’t learn correct pronunciation”?

Over the 30 years that I’ve been teaching and training in older adult education, I’ve witnessed adults frequently debunking the myth that older-age individuals can’t learn languages. I teach Norwegian language to adults for Concordia Language Villages. The folks who sign up for the Norwegian Language and Culture program want to learn Norwegian primarily for genealogy research and travel preparation. They have a purpose for learning the language. They are driven, and at the same time, totally unaware of just how much laughter and relaxation they need to meet their language learning goals.

The reality is that with a supportive and adult-centered approach to instruction, adults can most certainly learn a second language.

Three keys to ensuring a supportive adult learning environment:

1. Facilitators vs. teachers

Adult Norwegian learners laugh together at a comment from their instructor.
It's easy for me, as an instructor,
to be engaged with adult learners.

In every first class, I have participants introduce themselves and share their learning goals. Not only does this process focus the class, but it also informs me what each participant is bringing to the overall learning experience. This is where the teacher shifts from an instructor to a facilitator. When I interviewed older learners for my Master’s thesis, it was crystal clear that adults want to be a part of the instruction, not merely a recipient of it. Adult learners come to a learning environment with tips to share. Even if they have no experience in learning a second language, they have valuable pointers and life lessons that may help another participant grasp a new concept.

Facilitators include students in creating the classroom atmosphere, its structure and learning goals. I can’t count the times I’ve had a plan for the class and have shifted mid-way through to cater to the learner’s actual needs and desires. The best instructors of adults admit their mistakes and are flexible enough to change course when they sense frustration in the group.

2. Relaxed classroom

Three men, adult learners of Norwegian, laugh together in the sunshine.
Laughter is a key ingredient
to learning as an adult.

Adults enter into most learning situations carrying a lot of emotional baggage, whether it be past learning challenges, unstable life situations, or low confidence in language learning. My first goal is to have the participants “air” their concerns. With the issues out in the open, I remind them how important it is for the brain to learn in a stress-free environment.

When I see a wrinkled forehead, I know the negative feedback tape is playing and my adult learner is trying too hard. This is my clue to get up and dance, laugh, or sing. Immediately following the stress break, we dive back into the learning. Time and time again, I see the same result: lots of “a-ha” expressions and light-bulb moments. They understand the need to both take a break and relax in order to lean.

3. Confidence-building activities

Adult learners of Norwegian work to understand the recipe during a cooking activity.
Helping a learner work out the recipe
during a lesson on cooking,
while two others figure it out on their own.

Adults approach new learning relying on their “crystalized intelligence”— life-long learning and knowledge, accessing information from long-term memory. Studying a language, however, requires more “fluid intelligence”—analyzing new things independent of past information. When learning new vocabulary, for example, adults lean on translation and are less willing to learn a new word without relating that word back to their well-established first language.

One approach I use is to have the adults read a paragraph in Norwegian, put down the text and discuss the overall feeling of what they just read. The initial desire to directly translate doesn’t disappear with the first session, but it does lessen. They gain confidence in their ability to understand without referring back to English. They also learn valuable tools that enhance their confidence to learn outside the formal language sessions.

Ditch the myths

Adult learners learn differently than children. Their brains are at different developmental stages. Adults learn by applying their body of knowledge and life experience in an easy-flowing classroom. Understanding these basic elements has proven to be the recipe for successfully teaching adults Norwegian at Concordia Language Village’s Norwegian Adult Program


Headshot of Kari Berit.

Kari Berit, M.S. has run the Norwegian adult program for Concordia Language Villages since 1990. Her expertise is in adult education, with a focus on aging and family caregiving. She is an author, speaker, and tour guide. Kari makes her home in Norway, but frequently travels to the U.S. for presentations.

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