Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Lifelong Learning

by AJ

"And if the neuroscientists are right, you can create new brain cells--by learning (and not being stuck in a dull cubicle)--at virtually any age. Think about it... if you're 30 today, if you take up the guitar tomorrow, you'll have been playing for TWENTY years by the time you're 50. You'll be kicking some serious guitar butt. And if you're 50 today, there's no reason you can't be kicking guitar butt at 70. What are you waiting for?"

--Kathy Sierra

Now thats an encouraging quote. One excuse I often used for giving up on Spanish was that it was "too late". Even though I dont believe in the "critical period hyphothesis"... I told myself it just wasnt worth it. After all, "it will take me 5-8 years to reach Spanish fluency.. Ill be in my 40s...so whats the point."

The point is, Ill still be fluent in Spanish. Do we give up on life once we hit 30? Our society seems to want us to. We are bombarded with subtle and not-so-subtle messages that say, in effect, "only young people can learn". But as Ms. Sierra notes, thats bullshit. This belief is really just a lazy excuse.

However old we are, we can learn just as effectively as children. In fact, as Krashen notes, adults actually learn languages FASTER than children. Their greater life experiences, plus knowledge of their native language, help them progress much more quickly. The problem with adults is not their capacity to learn.. but rather emotional/lifestyle factors that block access to this capacity. The child does not obsess about errors-- young language learners are famous for their fearlessness. Adults, though they have greater learning potential... are hampered by doubts, fears, impatience, and expectations.

We really must start talking about this issue. I read a fair number of language teaching blogs... and books. Yet few give even lip-service to the emotional hindrances of adult (this includes adolescent) learners. If they do mention these issues, they almost never offer serious solutions to the problem.

I cannot overstate this: When teaching students 13 and over... the biggest battle is an EMOTIONAL, not a linguistic, one. Teachers of adults should spend the bulk of their time addressing issues of confidence, risk taking, anxiety, expectations, social meaning, etc... not fretting about how to teach the present perfect.

You've got to address the emotional blocks that inhibit your adult students. Youve got to talk to them about them. Youve got to work tirelessly to promote a fun, safe, risk-taking environment. Youve got to destroy the fear of mistakes.

Youve got to obsess over these issues... constantly asking, "how can I get them to buy into my classroom", "how can I help them get that 'I kick ass' feeling?".

I dont care if you are the worlds foremost grammatical-linguistic genius... the second coming of Noam Chomsky... if you dont impact adult students on an emotional level.. you are DOOMED.

And so my best advice-- put away the English textbooks. Read obsessively in the areas of psychology, counselling, social work, leadership, group facilitating, and the like.

Your goal-- transform your students EMOTIONAL experience with English. Create passionate, risk-taking, enthusiastic students. Then, AND ONLY THEN, should you worry about "linguistic factors".

San Francisco, CA