The Value and Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language in Community Settings in the UK: older adults' perceptions of what this does and means for them
Date: 1 April 2011
University of Exeter
EdD in TESOL
This is a qualitative and context-specific study into the meaning and value attributed by older people to learning a foreign language in their own time and for reasons mainly unconnected to attainment and qualifications. There appear to be two common misconceptions of the British as language learners. The first is that they are ...
This is a qualitative and context-specific study into the meaning and value attributed by older people to learning a foreign language in their own time and for reasons mainly unconnected to attainment and qualifications. There appear to be two common misconceptions of the British as language learners. The first is that they are ‘language barbarians’ (Tomlinson, 2004), ever ready to rely on the global dominance of English as a lingua franca and unwilling to learn other languages. The second is that learning a language voluntarily and for leisure purposes (‘leisure language learning’) is regarded as essentially frivolous and of little value. Equally much scholarly research, especially concerning second language acquisition (SLA), implies that language learning is a relatively unsuccessful and difficult endeavour for adults. This study challenges these views. Far from being reluctant ‘language barbarians’, who find learning another language onerous and unrewarding, the findings suggest otherwise. The older (aged 45+) adult learners in this enquiry are not only resoundingly positive about ‘leisure language learning’ but they derive significant benefits in many areas of their lives from learning, of their own volition, and seemingly against the odds. These benefits include but extend beyond functional transactions, such as ordering food when abroad. Participants’ perceptions of the personal value of ‘leisure language learning’ include its role in providing and facilitating: mental stimulus and wellbeing; improved communication; fewer risks when travelling; a repositioning of the self; a purposeful pastime; cultural enrichment; awareness of the ‘other’, as well as the various benefits of social interaction. Wider advantages for society in general are also implied. Empirical data were collected by means of in-depth, conversational interviews, exploring participants’ personal histories of encounters with and learning foreign languages. A hermeneutic ‘fusion of horizons’ (Gadamer, 2001) has then allowed for a more comprehensive and multi-faceted interpretation and understanding of the experience of adult ‘leisure language learning’ in community settings. The resulting text describes the nature and essence of the phenomenon of ‘leisure language learning’ embracing its meaning for, and impact upon, older adults. This incorporates a way of thinking regarding language pedagogy which goes beyond the usual ‘commonplaces’ and ‘discourses of performance, competency and skills’ (Phipps, 2007:2), common to much SLA and linguistic research. At the same time a deeper appreciation of the adult language learning experience is more likely to engender a ‘tactful’ and ‘action-sensitive pedagogy’ (van Manen, 1997:168-169): responsive to learners’ expectations and motivation, and taking their backgrounds and routes to learning into account.
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