What’s the definition of an ‘older person’? Different countries and different contexts afford different answers. According to the Euro-barometer survey (2011), in Slovakia a person is considered ‘old’ at the age of 57, whereas in the Netherlands ‘old’ applies only to people aged 70 and over. Meanwhile, if you’re trying to get a job, you’ll be considered ‘older’ (i.e. past it) by most employers once you’re 55. And in research, they’re even more cruel: Withnall (2010) suggests that “50 appears to have become the preferred age for the designation of ‘older adult’”.
I got this information while reading a dissertation that I marked recently, so I can’t acknowledge the author yet, but I will. The dissertation was about older adult foreign language learners, and in the literature review, the author mentioned that the perceived differences in learning processes between children and adults led in the 19th century to an alternative teaching approach for adults named “andragogy”. The term was takrn up again by Malcolm Knowles, who described andragogy as “the art and science of helping adults to learn” in contrast to pedagogy which is defined as “the art and science of teaching children” (Knowles, 1980:43). Essentially, andragogy adapts teaching to the considerations that adults are more goal-oriented, more self-directed, more heterogeneous in their learning aims, and more intrinsically motivated than children. Knowles (1980), and later Knowles et al (2005), make a number of practical suggestions about precisely how teachers should adapt (assume the role of facilitator more than knower, use problem-solving activities, etc.), but few teachers seem to have heard the message.
More interesting is Formosa’s (2002) article on ‘critical educational geragogy’, which develops the principles for critical educational gerontology [CEG] first established by Glendenning and Battersby in the 1980s. Referring to “the gritty realities which embed older persons in structured positions of social inequality”, and to the ageist and patronising attitude towards older learners which pervades education, at least in the West, Formosa insists that his approach is “an actual example of ‘transformative education’ rather than yet another euphemism for glorified occupation therapy”.
Most interesting of all is the work of Ramírez-Gómez (2016a, 2016b), who has proposed the extension of critical geragogy to foreign language learning by formulating ‘critical foreign language geragogy’ (CFLG). Ramírez-Gómez argues that current beliefs and prejudices about older learners must be overturned in order to “redefine expectations and goals and improve proficiency”. I haven’t been able to get hold of a copy of her book yet, but from what I’ve gathered so far, Ramírez-Gómez (2016b) describes a study on Japanese older learners of Spanish which focuses on the influence of learning experiences on vocabulary learning strategy use, often cited as the biggest problem of L2 learning for older people. She examines the influence of experience on the learning process, and common misconceptions about older learners that are imposed on learners and teachers, and proposes a set of practical recommendations for the development and adjustment of foreign language activities for older learners. CFLG puts special emphasis on drawing on the older learners’ experience, their high intrinsic motivation, and their capacity for autonomous development in L2 learning.
As far as I know, research on older L2 learners is very limited, there has been little discussion of the issues raised by Ramírez-Gómez, and hers is the first and the only evidence-based methodology specifically aimed at this growing age group. Given the demographics of so many parts of the world, particularly in Europe, maybe it’s time we paid attention. Prejudice and misconceptions affecting older learners abound, fueled by a general “loss-deficit” perspective which focuses on cognitive ‘decline’ and on what older people can’t do, rather than looking at the things they can actually do better, and the mechanisms they use to compensate for any deficit. I have a personal stake in all this of course, but well, none of us is getting any younger. Just to show that I’m still learning, I’ll put that cliché into the modern English vernacular: So, none of us are youngering, yeah?
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for The Archers.
Formosa, M. (2011) ‘Critical educational gerontology: A third statement of first principles.’ International Journal of Education and Ageing, 2(1), 317–332.
Knowles, M. (1980) The Modern Practice of Adult Education. From Pedagogy to Andragogy. New Jersey: Cambridge Adult Education.
Knowles, M., E.F. Holton and R.A. Swanson, (2005) The Adult Learner. 6th Edition. London: Elsevier.
Ramírez Gómez, D. (2014) ‘Older adult FL learning: Instructors’ Beliefs and Some Recommendations. In Sonda, N. and A. Krause (Eds.), JALT2013 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT.
Ramírez Gómez, D. (2016a) ‘Critical geragogy and foreign language learning: An exploratory application.’ Educational Gerontology, 42:2, 136-143.
Ramírez Gómez, D. (2016b) Language Teaching and the Older Adult: The Significance of Experience. Clavedon: Multilingual Matters. Kindle Edition
Withnall, A. (2010) Improving Learning in Later Life. London: Routledge.