Hope for the mature learner

As an older guy trying to learn Chinese I thought this was interesting.

govtilr.org/PapersArchive/TE … ngFull.htm

Although I must admit this part was a little discouraging :wink:

[quote]Learning a language to the levels that the Foreign Service demands requires a very great deal of hard work. To get to the threshold level for most overseas jobs

I don’t like the part where it says, “a very great deal of hard work”.

I am not sure that I even agree entirely with the “hard work” part unless you are going for the sort of results mentioned in the link. I do, however, agree with the “great deal” part.

I am a “mature” learner myself and I consider anyone under thirty too young to learn so it was interesting to see something with that kind of focus. Thanks Vannyel.

I don’t like the part where they use the word “work”!

I think learning foreign languages (well) also requires a bit of natural talent as well. Some people are brilliant with languages and pick them up quickly, and others struggle for years and still can’t quite “get it”, no matter how hard they work.

Very interesting post Vannyel. I have spent years learning chinese primarily to understand the cultural perspective which is so different from the west. In the beginning years I worked many long hours trying to get the characters written correctly and in speaking it. Although on the charts, my learning curve is down, I do not succumb to limiting myself and my possibilities. My dedication gradually waned after a period of time mostly because I had to also make a living. I am probably not naturally talented in languages, thus the effort :laughing: but I am certainly able to get around in all aspects of daily life here.

After about the age of 12, I think everyone is on a level playing field as far as mental capacity to learn and even with regard to memorization. I know it’s common to think otherwise but I’ve seen too many instances where this has not proven to be the case. Take professors in a quickly changing field like biotech. They have to constantly update their learning and are often at the top in their field.

There might be other issues involved, though, when comparing a language learner in his/her twenties to someone else in his/her forties, for example. A twenty-something might be very active on the dating scene and have some great opportunities to learn the language! On the other hand, a mature learner might be more disciplined and endeavor to learn more than pick-up lines.

As someone struggling with the Chinese language, I take heart from the fact that some older people have mastered hard to learn languages. The radical journalist I.F. Stone, learned classical greek in his 70s so he could write a book about Socrates. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, General Joseph Stilwell, learned Chinese early on, but after leaving China, still studied every week. :rainbow:

As I am in the “mature adult” grouping, chronologically at the least, and having recently started night classes to learn Chinese I welcome this news.
I have used several systems to quickly become ‘conversational’ in quite a number of languages due to work needs. The best was s system of using 3x5 cards with most used words and phrases, around 300-500 or so of these . This was suitable for short assignment needs but because of the narrow focus was not appropriate for long term living needs.
To me personally, Chinese is completely alien even though I am conversant in several other Asian languages. It is a formidable obstacle. My classes are taught in Chinese, I speak and understand almost no Chinese.
My continued facial expression is akin to a ‘Deer in the headlights.’ Utter confusion.

Memorize a lot of useful words and expressions and use them as often as possible. Learn a bit of grammar, and get someone to correct your pronunciation. That’s about it. It isn’t all that complicated. But then you knew that already. Perhaps you are just burned out on language study. Don’t worry. It will pass.

I guess I am a mature student as well. I have been here for years and my Chinese is still crap. I actually know what my problem is but can’t seem to get motivated. My main problem is that I lack confidence and don’t use any of the Chinese that I do know. I’m trying to work on that but I’m also a bit lazy. I guess the other problem is that when I do try to speak Chinese, people stare at me with a confused look and have no idea what I’m trying to say. This happens even when my wife tells me that what I just said was fine and my pronounciation was good. These situations always kill the limited confidence I have in my Chinese ability. Oh well, I guess I just have to keep trying. Embarrassment is my main motivating factor now. I can’t believe I have been here for so long and my Chinese is still crappy.

I hate to rain on everyone’s parade, but not everything in that article is encouraging for the Chinese learner in Taiwan or mainland China. Keep in mind that in order to bring a foreign service officer up to a level straddling general professional proficiency and advanced professional proficiency in Chinese, it takes 88 weeks, or almost two years after you count holidays. For Chinese, that means 2200 hours of classroom instruction. That’s five hours a day in a classroom with no more than 2 or 3 other students. The first year is done in the US. The second year is done in China. Those five contact hours a day are delivered by the most highly trained CSL teachers in the world. There is no slack time in the syllabus. Every course, lesson and language task has a relevant aim. In addition to a student’s 5 hours a day of class time, they have to do homework and other stuff in a self access center. Although everything is extremely well planned, even the best language students get worn down after a year of nothing but hardcore language study. Some people who’s jobs don’t require professional proficiency leave the program after about a year when they reach about a 2 or 2.5 on the ILR scale, but the people who stay on to the end spend two years doing not much other than language study. I’ve met a few of the folks who’ve done the whole thing. I’ve met people who have reached similar proficiency levels through other means, but I can’t think of anybody I know who is clearly more proficient than the few people I’ve known who finished the FSI program. They’re hot shit. What else would they be after going through the most intense language program on earth?

I would consider myself as having a bit of aptitude for studying languages. I’ve spent the past 5 years studying Chinese. Some of that was full-time, but most of it was part-time and very diligent self study. The reason I quit full-time study is because the quality of teaching just didn’t make it worth it to continue that way. I don’t think it would have been much different if I had gone up to Beijing where things are better. After five years, I’ve tested at general professional proficiency, but you know what? Even though the test results said I reached a 3 on the ILR scale, I still KNOW that I’m not as good as the folks who’ve been through the FSI program. The test just isn’t designed well enough to distinguish me from them. I am proud that I’ve reached this level mostly on my own, but I still know that they are better. And they got paid to do it. :fume:

The FSI program is lightyears beyond the programs that are available to those of us shopping on the regular market. IUP at Qinghua or ILP at Taida are good when compared to a place like BLCU, just as BLCU is good when compared to the likes of TLI. However, I hope you’ll excuse my French when I say that all of these are shit when compared to the FSI. We’re damn lucky to do what an FSI student can do in 2 years in twice that time.

The encouraging thing about the article I think was that it at least pointed the “possibility” of achieving near native fluency as an adult (read 40 - 50ish) learner. My Chinese will probably never be anywhere near that level and I know it, but it has been encouraging the last year or so to realize that I have made real progress as a result of some fairly intense focus. It helps of course that I understand something about the process of learning a second language and can design a system that suits my learning style. Anyway what I got from the article is that if you work hard and are smart about it you can learn no matter what the age. Most of my students are my age too and the facts outlined in that article have been encouraging to them as well.

Agreed. The aptitude I have for studying languages is partially an acquired aptitude. I’m a trained ESL teacher. If I hadn’t had the theoretical training and the classroom practicum, I don’t think I would be where I am with Chinese today. I have never been content or satisfied with any teacher or program I have followed. I’ve seen some good materials coming out of mainland presses, but the vast majority of trained teachers there still don’t use them as they should be used. Even at the programs that are considered the best, their teaching methodology is still backward. Pretty much everybody else I know who has reached a high level of proficiency in Chinese has had a background in language teaching or linguistics, or they had had a lot of experience with learning other languages before getting into Chinese. At least one of the FSI graduates I met was monolingual before beginning to study Chinese (that is a rarity at the FSI). In fact, other than having pretty good Chinese skills, he seemed to be a bit of a dufuss about language study. Maybe the guy was as good as he was only because he had great teachers.

Wouldn’t it feel great if you didn’t always have to play the role of both student and guide in your Chinese studies? Wouldn’t it feel great to attend a five hour lesson in Chinese and then realize at the end that there was a rationale behind everything done in the lesson and that no time was wasted? I’ve had teachers that I liked more than others, but they weren’t really good. They just weren’t as bad as most. Even the best of them didn’t really know what they were doing. As a language student and teacher, I’d love to be able to study any language at the FSI just to have the experience.

By God I hear you there. I’ve had about twenty hours of instruction in Mandarin and that was from a teacher who saw Mandarin class as a chance to practice her “Flirting in English” skills. I’ve not a single linguistics credit and yet here I am at the age of forty six learning how to teach English grammar in Mandarin and developing a system of English learning using DVD. It has been uphill all the way believe me. If someone were to come along who knew what they were doing and was able to guide me in either of these endeavours from where I am now to where I want to go I would be in heaven.

[quote=“bob”]I’ve not a single linguistics credit and yet here I am at the age of forty six learning how to teach English grammar in Mandarin and developing a system of English learning using DVD. It has been uphill all the way believe me. If someone were to come along who knew what they were doing and was able to guide me in either of these endeavours from where I am now to where I want to go I would be in heaven.[/quote]This really belongs in the “Teaching English” forum.
Re. the teaching grammar; the vast majority can be done using English itself and indeed this has other great benefits beyond the explicit grammar knowledge itself. Krashen feels that the foreign-language grammar classes he attended were helpful not because the explicity-taught grammar was acquired, but because the explanations functioned as comprehensible input. Many people don’t completely agree with Krashen’s extreme non-interface position but you can see the potential benefits of grammar teaching in the target language.

If you are intent on English grammar teaching in Mandarin why not just get a copy of a grammar book and ask somebody to read the relevant sections to you? Make a note of the terms you need. Betty Azar’s grammar books are available in translated or bilingual editions, and there are plenty of other options.

As for the DVD thing what help do you need? As you know there is not a consensus in the academic community on teaching theory and methods. You have to read the literature yourself and use your critical judgement to arrive at your own best practice.

The thing is Joe that I am teaching beginners in their forties and fifties and they just seem to really appreciate it that any discussion of grammar is done in Mandarin. The translated Betty Shrampfer texts provide a fantastic opportunity to learn for both my students and myself. Basically what I “try” to do is engage them in some sort of conversation related to their actual needs in English and when I identify a problem that is well illustrated in the Schrampfer series we refer to the text. It is a fairly random approach in the sense that I don’t know what is going to come up next but the older people also seem to like that too. Anyway the experiences that they have with English in the real world will be random and unpredictable so why shouldn’t there be a large element of that in the learning experience. The difference is that in class they have an opportunity to really focus on the aspects that confuse them. Naturally enough I suppose the quality of these classes varies from the disasterous to near mystical.

What help do I need with the DVD thing? Wow. Good question. Let me answer it by describing a girl I met today. I was at the swimming pool lazing about happily in the jacuzi when I happened to see her swim head first into the edge of the pool. “Hen tong o!” I said. That was enough to inspire her to haul her brilliantly busted (sorry had to mention that part) self out of the pool, over to the jacuzi and into conversation with me. It wasn’t long into the conversation that she asks “Do you like movies?” I responded with my usual “Love em Hate em. Make em.” From there we went into a long elaborate conversation about different filmakers and different attitudes that we had towards films that we had seen. And this from a girl who had not yet graduated high school and who had never been overseas. “So, do you learn much vocab from the movies you watch?” I asked. “Of course,” she said. “Do you use the repeat, pause and subtitle functions?” “Well duh!” “Do you write down the words and expressions you learned, check them in the dic if neccessary, and then ask someone about the stuff that still confuses you?” “Yup.”

So here’s the problem. I’ve got students who have been with me for over a year and will still never do half that stuff on their own. To be honest it frequently appears that they don’t actually want to learn the language. If you can help me with that I will forever be in your debt. :notworthy: in advance.

[quote=“bob”]What help do I need with the DVD thing? …“So, do you learn much vocab from the movies you watch?” I asked. “Of course,” she said. “Do you use the repeat, pause and subtitle functions?” “Well duh!” “Do you write down the words and expressions you learned, check them in the dic if neccessary, and then ask someone about the stuff that still confuses you?” “Yup.”

So here’s the problem. I’ve got students who have been with me for over a year and will still never do half that stuff on their own. To be honest it frequently appears that they don’t actually want to learn the language. If you can help me with that I will forever be in your debt. :notworthy: in advance.[/quote]If they don’t really want to learn the language then nothing you can do and good luck to you!

This may not be the answer you want to hear, but it has been said before that material such as DVDs will be most useful if it contains around 10% unknown language. The higher the percentage of unknown language the more laborsome, frustrating and unnatural the learning becomes. Of course you can use pause and replay etc. but at some point it will become more like vocabulary list memorisation than real, natural learning. That is why I learn very little from watching Mandarin TV news and films. There is just far too much unknown language. I learn much more from being among predominantly Mandarin-speaking friends, because the language has a clearer context and I can get clarification at any time.

It may be that the girl you mentioned gets so much from watching movies not only because she enjoys them, but also because she understands a fair bit of the language in the first place (which aids her enjoyment of the movies of course).

This thread has been very helpful to me. Thanks, everybody, especially Vannyel.

I agree with what you are saying but I think the thing that at least a few people are missing with regard to this discussion is the simple fact that for a lot of English students here the most interesting, convenient source of English in their lives is DVD. It is not the only source naturally but it is one that is incredibly rich in context and it provides things that are simply not available to a person in the real world: English/Chinese subtitles, repeat functions etc. I know that people can learn a lot from this because I have seen them do so. It is really different from what they are used to though and there is an extrordinary reluctance here to accept the value of simply listening to a lot of English only some of which you understand. When a lot of these people finally make it into a conversational situation they will be faced with the same problem of listening and then deciding quickly between what they do and do not understand. It seems to me that at least part of their time now should involve practicing the same skill. I’ve studied Mandarin movies in the same way and completed all the tasks I assign my students so I understand that this is certainly no easy thing that I am asking of them and that it is not really suitable to low level students (such as myself :blush: ).

I guess what my problem boils down to is this: Given all of the benefits to be derived from study with DVD how do I overcome the basic and very real problem of too much vocabulary? I have been instructing them to focus on the vocab that they think they have seen before but do not really understand, and the material that looks as though it might be useful in their own lives. This is clearly placing more responsibility on them than they are used to and in fact they frequently cannot seem to comprehend the idea that “anything” would actually be useful so they often bring me vocab lists that contain lots of rare (read pretty much useless to them) vocab. Over time their lists improve though and this is an indication to me that they are finally catching on to the idea that they need to focus on the most common vocabulary first.

I don’t want to come across as though this has all been a terrible frustration however. A lot of my students seem to regard this as quite a fantastic experience and something they can add to their English learning bag of tricks so to speak. It is the ones who never quite “get it” that drive me a bit batty. Perhaps I just need to accept that this learning style isn’t for everyone and leave it at that.