Language learning can be inspiring, lots of fun and one of the best things you’ve ever done. Recently, I heard a speech by someone who had researched brain activity, and evidently there’s new research that shows that our nerve connections continue to be renewed when confronted with new information (in the past, it was assumed that this stopped once we have reached adulthood). Learning languages was mentioned as the fountain of youth. So, there you go.
I have to make a confession: I used to teach languages myself in adult education in the late 80s / early 90s. This creates an enormous bias because you always judge other trainers on the basis of your own experience, which isn’t really fair. But I really want to talk about being an adult student of languages rather than a teacher. Yes, it can be fun, and it opens new possibilities like few other learning experiences. Something that sounds like gobbledegook suddenly makes sense, you start understanding a few words here and there, then expressions, and once you can actually talk to people, well, it’s fantastically exciting. And good teachers are your guide into this exciting new world.
Before we get too excited – here’s another experience: I have also dropped out of numerous language classes. Let me give you a couple of examples why: during an evening class for adults, one teacher asked one student after the other to get up, come to the front of the class, read three sentences and then ask a question. The other students would then have to put up their hands and answer the question. Then the next student comes to the front etc. etc. Another one let us fill in grammar exercises, and then everyone in class would have to read one sentence with the – hopefully – correct answer. And then the next etc. etc. Unfortunately, that took up most of the evening class. Once I arrive at class, I have already worked 8 hours, I’m fifty-something, tired and grumpy. Don’t treat me like a 6-year old. (Actually, don’t treat 6-year-olds like this, but this is another blog). I don’t mind a more traditional exercise in between, but please make me speak, think, read, interact with the other students, laugh and play games (in this case, do treat me like a 6-year old – I love playing language games!) I have to admit that I just dropped out of class rather than starting to scream or complain.
There are still too many traditional language teaching methodologies around, which teachers keep using. Many adult students accept this because this is how they learned languages in school. There are also lots of language teachers who got their teaching qualification from teaching children. As mentioned earlier, I don’t really want to go into the details of what’s appropriate for children, but adults need different approaches, especially in evening classes after a day of work.
We need more teachers that use more non-formal, fun methods, and they have to be supported by their providers. Teaching materials are another issue – there are still books around that are a snooze-fest more than anything else.
Now, I’m asking you: am I being unreasonable? What are your experiences as a language learner? And how do you keep your students interested at 8 pm in the evening? Do let us know!
In the meantime: Let’s have fun with language learning.
Gina Ebner is the Secretary-General of the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) and also EPALE's Thematic Coordinator for Learner Support.