7 hypotheses that may account for some adult students’ perplexing lack of progress in their language learning. This post offers no solutions, of course. Only reflections and further questions.
Last week a Facebook friend (and former student!) posted a link to a magazine article comparing different nationalities in terms of English proficiency. Perhaps not surprisingly, Brazil was near the bottom of the ranking, which is worrying, especially with the 2014 World Cup upon us and millions and millions of adult students still at A1 level. But I digress. He then posed the following questions:
“We need to understand why this is happening. Is this our fault? Why is it so difficult for adult students to learn? Laziness? Old-fashioned methodology? What can we do to engage our adult students’ interest more and more? So many questions, so many answers. Which one is “right”?
The first question that springs to mind is how proficiency is being defined in this case. Are they talking about native-like mastery or a good operational command of the language? There’s a good body of evidence suggesting that adult students who begin their second language studies after what is generally referred to as the “critical period” tend to stop short of native competence. This means that different definitions of proficiency will skew the data in one way or another.
The second question is how the students’ “proficiency” was measured. Not having read the actual article, I can’t tell, of course, but if I know nothing about the test’s validity and reliability, then it’s hard to discuss whatever results it may have yielded.
If we assume, however, that proficiency is being defined as a good operational command of the language (i.e., B2+ / C1, rather than C2) and that it was measured in a valid and reliable way, then we can begin to look at the results in their own terms and wonder why it is so hard for adult students to master a foreign language.
1. It’s such a platitude to say that you learn better and faster when you happen to like what you’re learning that I’m almost embarrassed to write it here. But it is true. And what I’ve recently come to realize is that many of the adult students I’ve taught over the last 5-8 years just D O N ‘ T like the language (yes, adults, not teens) and, left to their own devices, would rather be anywhere than in an English class. They need English – badly, but seem to have little emotional connection with the language. You know, the kind of emotional tie that makes you want to learn the present perfect because you’d love to watch your favorite TV show in English, spend some time in Glasgow in the near future or read an interview with your favorite musician. Or just because you happen to find the present perfect intrinsically interesting and intellectually stimulating.
It took me a while to realize that in Brazil – at least in my teaching context – most A1, A2, B1 adult students see the language as a kind of passport to a better life. They need to learn English to take part in a conference call, entertain a foreign visitor, conduct a sales meeting or write an e-mail placing an order. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but perhaps we ought to re-adjust some of our expectations, parameters and teaching paradigms.
2. So, if English is mostly a passport to a better life, then surely these adult students are looking for courses that are as pragmatic and no-nonsense as realistically possible, right? Yes, but there lies a pitfall: how can the teacher make the course pragmatic and no-nonsense on the one hand and, at the same time, comprehensive, effective and minimally “organic”, respecting natural learning processes, on the other? This is – in the words of a friend – a herculean task and one that I grappled with from 2009 to 2011, when I was still working for a language institute, in charge of the adult students. Did I manage to strike the right sort of balance? Maybe, but I guess only time will tell.
3. Still on the lack of emotional ties with the language. Have you noticed, for example, how indifferent to music most adult students tend to be? Three years ago I designed a series of courses packed with dozens of short song snippets to help learners practice listening (emphasizing bottom-up decoding, sound recognition etc) and pronunciation. Students’ feedback on those activities was always lukewarm and, in class, I lost count of the times I saw them glancing at their watches, wondering when the “real thing” would begin. You know, a sort of “Can we get on with the real work, now?” kind of look. This is especially worrying, since songs can promote the kind of subconscious, intuitive, deeper-level learning that no amount of gap-filling or rule analysis can. Plus, they tend to contain lots of lexical chunks (Cher’s “No matter how hard I try” line comes to mind immediately!), which become even more memorable because of the melody, the rhyming sounds and, possibly, alliteration and assonance, which, research has shown, tend to ease the learning of lexical chunks.
4. This creates an interesting paradox: some of the most effective and “organic” learning tools teachers have at their disposal are things that many A1, A2, B1 adult students often dismiss as a waste of precious classroom time. What should we do, then? Keep trying to show our adult students the value of learning the chorus of a song by heart, of watching a movie scene over and over, of scouring the web for articles on their favorite hobbies, of taking part in discussion forums? Or should we try to mold our teaching (syllabus and processes) to their more grown up, analytical, left-hemisphere way of learning, which can increase motivation and, in the long run, perhaps help adult learners learn better and faster? I don’t know. Where does one draw the line?
5. Some adult students are lazy, of course, and just can’t be bothered. But most, in my experience, are genuinely overworked, overstressed and overwhelmed. When you have a boss breathing down your neck, overdue bills to pay, a wife or husband you hardly see anymore and not enough hours on the day to make up for the time you spent stuck traffic day in, day out, then how important can page 38 of the workbook be in the larger scheme of things? Now, the next logical question is: Does that matter? Probably, since it seems reasonable to assume that this sort of out of class exposure is important, especially in an input-impoverished EFL context.
6. Some adult students often fail to do homework not only because of time constraints, but because they just might not see the point of the activity. The 21st century adult learner seems to know exactly what he / she needs to learn and for what purposes. He / she won’t prioritize self-study activities that he / she regards as too far-removed from their real-life goals – whether or not their perception in fact holds true.
7. Old-fashioned methodology. This is a tricky one. I have argued elsewhere that ELT’s recent history can be divided into two phases: before the Headway series (released in 1987) and after it. Coursebooks for adult students haven’t changed all that much since the dawning of the age of Headway: exposure via texts, grammar-discovery questions, lots of gap-fill type practice, meaning-focused output tasks at the end of each lesson, functional language at the periphery of the syllabus. So, in that sense, I would argue that a lot of what most teachers have been doing in mainstream -and I say mainstream – adult EFL / ESL classrooms hasn’t changed substantially over the last 20 years, which means that attributing success rates with adult students to methodological differences is a tricky thing to do. And even if one decides to break the mold and either teach unplugged and build the syllabus reactively, based on emerging language, as the course unfolds or venture into the realms of lexical syllabuses and chunking-heavy teaching, the question remains: How can we prove that method A generated better results for adult students than method B? We simply can’t.
Anyway, thank you, Gustavo, for giving me a set of questions to think about out loud.
And thank YOU for reading.