Helpful Advice for Older Language Learners

When the older learner sees the 20-something language learner in the next classroom (or, worse still, in the same class) grasping all aspects of the language so quickly and seemingly so effortlessly, they can quickly become discouraged. Compared to other tasks, the effort expended doesn’t match the meagre returns, and progress is so slow.

Problems in learning Chinese are not only in the area of making the sounds and the tones (“Oh, if Chinese didn’t have those tones, it would be so much easier to learn!”), but also in speaking and hearing the language. The problem isn’t so much comprehending the grammar (“I understand most of the grammar explanations in the textbook quite easily”), but trying to get the sentence out in class or on the street fast enough before my listener’s patience runs out. And then, when they do reply, trying to understand what they’ve just said with my limited vocabulary (“Unless the conversation is fairly simple, they don’t seem to understand me, and I don’t seem to understand them.”)

But, before we give up completely, let’s look at the older learner’s strengths as well as their weaknesses:

Their Strengths

– ability to plan and strategize – learned through previous challenging tasks.

– ability to think logically and reason inductively – useful for learning grammar and understanding word usage.

– previous language learning experiences – so able to make intelligent assumptions about how to approach the task of learning Chinese.

– highly motivated to learn what is perceived as useful and practical – learning Chinese for daily living and bonding with Chinese people.

Their Weaknesses

  • Hearing loss

– pronunciation often inaccurate

– tones incorrect (because they can’t ‘hear’ the tones)

  • Memory

– decline in short-term ‘working’ memory: older learners can memorize words without too much problem, but can’t recall/retrieve previously learned material from long-term memory as easily as younger people.

– no links (or ‘hooks’) to English (e.g. table = zhuōzi), i.e. 2 bytes (spelling + tone) for every word and at least 3,000 words to master.

– decline in speed of processing the material, hence either moving through the textbooks too slowly and so not being able to say or hear much, or moving too quickly and feeling they haven’t absorbed it yet (“I’m already in Book 3, but I don’t seem to have yet mastered Book 1 – and here comes a new lesson with yet another 40 new words to try and memorize.”)

  • Self-esteem and Role-Deprivation

– doubt that they can master Chinese – either because of hearsay and/or they see other older learners struggling, resulting in a loss of self-confidence which is essential for learning Chinese; and when they do make mistakes, saying: “See, I told me so!” (= self-fulfilling prophecy), forgetting that all language learners make mistakes. Then, when they see their slow progress and that there is still so much more to learn, feeling overwhelmed and wanting to give up.

– needing to see themselves (and be acknowledged by others) as able and competent – resulting in avoidance of risk-taking (so necessary for effective learning) in order to maintain one’s self-respect.

– needing to be in control, because they have been used to managing their own lives, but now are simply a student who is expected to obey the teacher’s commands.

– needing to be ‘producing’ (“I could be doing something useful if it wasn’t for this impossible language.”)

Therefore, how can you compensate for your decline in hearing and memory, as well as the daily assaults on your self-esteem?

a) Find out more about yourself as a language learner: from your previous language learning experiences, discover your preferred learning style, language learning personality, aptitude, and learning strengths and weaknesses.

b) Try to individualize the learning program by hiring a personal tutor who suits your learning style and personality (and avoid large classes). Ensure that the content of the course is relevant and motivating because it is directly in line with your learning goals, taught at a pace you can handle (appropriate number of class hours per textbook lesson so you have sufficient time to absorb it), and a daily load which is not too overwhelming (appropriate number of class hours per day which leaves sufficient time for preparation and review).

c) The pronunciation and tones must be taught thoroughly, using diagrams and mirrors so as to be able to visualize the sounds. Focus on problem sounds one at a time, at the same time reminding yourself that most of the sounds you are already saying correctly. Record both your teacher followed by yourself, then play it back and compare the two of you. Use colored flashcards as a helpful aid to remembering the tones.

d) Learning Strategies: discover and use a wide variety of memory and practice strategies (see articles ‘Strategies 1&2’). Find out which ones suit you best and then make yourself use them. Create safe places for practicing the language by finding talkers who will come to your home, kindly househelp and friendly local shopkeepers. Right throughout the course, keep searching for strategies that will help you focus on your strengths, hence building up your self-confidence.

e) Memory improvement techniques: your memory can improve through:

– physical exercise, e.g. brisk walking, aerobics, etc. Aerobic exercise helps the heart pump more blood to the part of the brain that controls learning and memory. Regular exercise also improves our mood, decreases anxiety, improves sleep, and raises our self-esteem.

– right-brain activities, e.g. pictures of the vocabulary and colored cards (as an aid to remembering the tones) to complement left-brain activities.

– hands-on: handling the objects as well as getting out and doing the activity.

– integrating new material with what you already know.

– strategies which suit your learning style.

f) Visual + Auditory: involve as many of the senses as possible, especially visual and tactile, in order to compensate for your weak auditory ability.

g) A pace that is comfortable, not overwhelming or frustrating, so that the limited capacity of your working memory doesn’t become overloaded.

h) Manageable bytes – break down the content of each lesson into easily digestible chunks.

i) Topics: first cover those topics that you most frequently talk about: e.g. Introducing Yourself, Buying Things, Ordering a Meal, Giving & Asking Directions. These four topics cover approximately 80% of what you talk about in Chinese in a normal day. Rewrite the dialogues in your textbook on each of these four topics one at a time, get your teacher to correct and record them, then practice them in class for 10 mins. each lesson. When you are fluent in these four topics, gradually add more to your repertoire (e.g. learning Chinese, sports & leisure activities, traveling in China, time, days & dates, etc.). So, while slowing moving on to new lessons in the textbook, all the while keep practicing these four (and then gradually more) key topics.

j) Maintain a classroom atmosphere which is fun and friendly, your teacher patient and enthusiastic, and you, the student, experiencing regular successes. Avoid having a teacher whose teaching method raises your affective defenses (e.g. creating humiliation, fear and feelings of incompetence). Instead, you need a teacher who shows you where you have improved by, for instance, spending the first few minutes of each lesson revisiting previous lessons, hence providing you with opportunities to be successful, sense progress and therefore gain a greater degree of self-confidence. Above all, maintain a good attitude and strong determination.


Older learners are continually learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge. Older people successfully learn to use new gadgets. The key question is: Why? and How? – because they are interested, determined, and sense that these newly acquired skills are useful and immediately applicable – and they put them to immediate use on a regular basis.

Maybe you won’t reach a high level in Chinese, but you can acquire the Chinese for what you need to do in order to live, work and build close relationships with Chinese people.

[This article is based on a paper by Colleen Hale: Helping the Older Language Learner Succeed]

Advice for Older Language Learners:  pdf file

This article is in Chinese:  如何教导年长的语言学习者