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I love languages, and I generally have no trouble picking them up. At Grammar School I might have given up on Physics and the Sciences, but I sailed through all the language classes, eventually doing Russian, French and Latin A levels, and pulling in Spanish O level at the same time. When my younger brother came to the same school four years later, my language teachers were full of excitement at the prospect of having another ‘natural linguist’ in the school. It didn’t work – he was into science!

On leaving school, I studied Russian at University, with Serbo-Croat, and then worked briefly as a Russian linguist for the Government. Sometime later I studied Arabic for two years at evening class. I also learnt Shorthand, which to me is just like another language – you hear one thing and write down something different. On holiday I generally drive my partner mad as I insist on reading out place names or signs. I will always have a go at making myself understood. And I love nothing more than trying to work out the meaning of a word in one language based on what it might be in another! Since lockdown I’ve been brushing up my Spanish on a daily basis with Duolingo. More about that later.

Reasons for Learning a New Language

Probably the main motivation for wanting to learn a language is so that when you go on holiday you can at least manage some of the basics, or maybe more – the ability to chat to the locals for instance. It is sometimes easy to ask a question, particularly if you’ve had time to practice/think in advance about what you are going to say, but then be thrown when the answer comes back, usually very fast. Numbers, spoken very quickly, often represent the biggest challenge. How many of us have handed over big notes in a shop because we didn’t know how much something cost!

Some people I know have spent time learning languages just for the mental stimulation, regardless of whether or not they ever intend to visit the county where that language is spoken. It can be a sociable activity, meeting up with like-minded folk.

Grammar vs Conversation

Anyone of my age who learnt languages at school will probably have had lots of emphasis on getting the grammar perfect, and a lot less emphasis on actually speaking the language. Learning Latin reinforced the importance of grammar. As a result of that ingrained way of learning, I really don’t have to think about grammar when I’m speaking a language – it is pretty deep-rooted. But having the confidence to speak was always a very different challenge.

Just before I retired, because I was going to France quite a lot for work, I had a year of private lessons with a French lady. It was fantastic. She worked me quite hard but that was what I wanted. We never spoke a word of English. Even if I bumped into her in the supermarket or on the park, we only ever spoke French. It came to feel completely natural, and my confidence at my ability to speak French reasonably well grew and grew. Her husband, who was English, was fluent in French (they spoke it all the time at home) but his grammar was non-existent. Surprisingly I don’t think he had ever learnt French at school. We debated which was the most important – fluency and ability to hold a conversation vs hesitancy but impeccable grammar. She thought there was a happy medium and I think she was right.

One of the challenges of speaking a language is confidence. You really have to be prepared to make mistakes, and maybe that is something that we are better at as we get older. We tend to worry less about what others think.

You really need to think about your priorities. My Duolingo Spanish exercises will point out if I have written something without the correct accent. Since my aim is to improve my conversation, not my written Spanish, the odd incorrect accent doesn’t really bother me.

Teaching Opportunities

Many language teachers are keen to keep up their language(s) when they retire. There are lots of teaching opportunities, some of which might be paid and some might be voluntary. There may be adult classes or school/college students looking for extra tuition. If you have always been a school teacher, it may be very different teaching adults. They will be committed but may find learning more difficult for instance. Quite a lot of people will say that they find it harder to remember vocabulary as they get older.

Learning a Foreign Language at an Older Age

Well there are almost unlimited options. Do you want to join a class and interact with others, or do you want to learn on your own, using online resources or CDs etc? I sometimes listen to CDs in the car on a long drive. Do you want to pay or do you want a free option? If you are looking for a class, then your local U3A or WEA may be one possibility or colleges may offer day or evening classes, and generally classes will offer a range of levels, from Beginner, Intermediate to Advanced.

It can sometimes be difficult to work out what level class you are best suited to. No one wants to struggle. I did a French evening class at my local college many years ago now. I deliberately chose a level that was probably a bit easy for me. But I was doing it for fun, after a day at work, and wanted a class I could cope with comfortably while still learning something. It proved the right choice. I coped OK, and built up my confidence. The following year I moved up a level.

You do need to think about how much time you want to commit to this. If you are learning a new language from scratch, then it will take more time, than just maintaining conversation. Also some people find languages easier to absorb than others. And of course our memories might not be quite as good as we get older, so remembering that new vocabulary might be a bit more of a challenge.

I find myself trying to think in Spanish, but then lacking some vocabulary. Frustratingly, the word always pops into my mind in French! But mobile phones are so handy. I quickly check what the Spanish would be. That for me is quite a handy way of learning new words.

How to Make Sure Its Fun

I’ve always worked on the principle that at work you sometimes had to do stuff you really didn’t want to, and didn’t necessarily always enjoy. In my own time, whatever I do, I firmly believe that it should be fun.

So, how can we ensure that learning or brushing up a language is fun. I would say, take it out of the classroom setting. In my first job as a Russian linguist, several of us would meet up once a week in the evening to play bridge. I don’t think any of us ever really mastered bridge, but that didn’t matter. It was an evening when drink flowed and we only ever spoke in Russian. It certainly helped to improve our conversational use of the language.

I have two friends currently doing Italian in retirement. Their backgrounds are very different – one a lifelong linguist/ex language teacher, but who never goes to Italy; the other – a science background originally, but a lover of all things Italian and regularly holidays there. Here are their experiences.

Chris (ex language teacher) says: “I first started Italian at an evening class in 1984 but it closed because of falling numbers.  About 20 years ago I tried again but the same thing happened, though a few of us continued private lessons until the teacher went to work abroad. In all classes I was fine with grammar but did find learning more difficult than at school or university. Vocabulary was the biggest challenge, and Russian or German words would often pop up mid-conversation.

A few years into retirement I found a local class with a teacher who is married to an Italian. Lessons are in small groups in her home.  I joined a Beginners' class which was great for revision and consolidation. Classes continued on Zoom during lockdown. When proper classes resumed some students left the group, so now there are just 3 of us, an ideal number. The others don't have my linguistic background but are very keen, and have travelled to Italy a lot, so we are pretty much at the same level. The problem with many classes is that ability can vary or students don't have time for homework etc between lessons and it's hard to keep everyone happy and motivated. Our teacher has an excellent system. We start by describing our week's activities in Italian, noting new vocabulary and expressions. Then we work on the new topic with videos and listening, and act out dialogues.  Homework is exercises from the book. We check our answers at home from the back of the book, then ask her about anything we don't understand. Good use of class time and the pace suits us all. Nobody wants exams, just to get better understanding and fluency. Italians speak very fast! The others like Duolingo but I find it too repetitive. I enjoy TV dramas and can follow quite well, though I couldn't manage without the subtitles.”

Nicola has a slightly different experience. She started doing Italian with the adult education department of a local secondary school, and has continued now in a group of 10 with U3A. They have a volunteer teacher who is very good and willing and they pay him with a box of wine twice a year. But she says that one big bonus of the original school class is that four of the group also now meet once a week for coffee and croissants. They meet in each other’s homes, and mainly speak in Italian – so it’s a catch-up chat and an hour of their own Italian practice, using Duolingo and a lot of YouTube video lessons. They also have an Italian meal out every now and again – again chatting (mostly) in Italian. Like me, though, she finds that school French pops into her mind when she can’t pin down the right word in Italian. She puts in several hours a week and reckons she should be pretty fluent by now, but feels there is still more to be done!

My Duolingo Spanish Experience

February 2020, just before lockdown, we returned from a holiday to Colombia. Whenever we go to a Spanish speaking country I always try and brush up my basic Spanish a bit. It is a language I love. So when I came back I was determined to keep going with it somehow. I bought some CDs but struggled a bit with those. And then lockdown hit us all. I was determined to keep some sort of discipline in my life. And somehow I came across Duolingo. Every single night since lockdown started I log on to do a brief (about 5 minutes!) stint on Spanish. I haven’t missed a single day. I get a prompt every night. Its easy – I often do it on my tablet in bed. And it doesn’t take much time. I’m not exactly putting in a huge amount of time, but my vocabulary has definitely broadened, and I whizz through the exercises without too much trouble. When I’m next in Spain I will happily be able to tell people that my grandparents like going to concerts on a Saturday (I don’t actually have any grandparents), or that my boyfriend likes playing football in the park (I don’t have a boyfriend either), but I can also say that I like to go to the beach in summer, and that my dog likes playing in the water. So I have got some handy phrases out of it!

There seems to be no limit to the range of languages on offer with Duolingo. I noticed the other day that they even offer Navajo! And it is free of course, which is another advantage.

So, if you’ve been wondering about trying out a new language, or brushing up one that you might have learnt at school, just give it a go – there are plenty of options and, unlike school, no exams to worry about!


Author: Sue Ablett -Sue has had a varied career from Russian linguist for the Government, to University research (pulling in a PhD ‘for fun’), and for the last 20 years of her working life was Executive Director of a national children’s cancer charity. She is a keen traveller and has a big catalogue of travel talks. She is a very keen gardener and also a walker, usually accompanied by her adorable cocker spaniel, Patch. She even ran a dog training class many years ago. She also set up and continues to chair Evesham Festival of Words. And she is now a regular speaker and article contributor for Mirthy.

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