Third-Age Students

Still Learning

The Spanish painter Francisco Goya lived to the legendary age of 82 – quite a feat in the early 19th century. Towards the end of his life, old, deaf, ailing, and relocated to France, he settled down to draw one last time. Using crayon on paper, he sketched an ancient, bearded patriarch propped up on two spindly sticks. In the top right corner Goya scrawled the message: Aún aprendo. I’m still learning.

I was reminded of the picture when I visited Madrid recently. There’s a subway stop named Goya, where you can see exquisite prints of his engravings from the Los Caprichos and Tauromaquia series on the platform walls as you wait for your train. The picture speaks to me, as an educator; it reminds me to keep learning.

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A Third-Age Student

One of my all-time favorite students was a Japanese man in his late seventies, who I’ll call Hiro (an appropriate name if you say it aloud). For half a century he’d dreamed of coming to the UK to study English, but life kept getting in the way. Military service, marriage, family, work. Now happily retired, he’d finally made it. And he was in better shape than Goya’s ancient learner.

Hiro joined me and a class of twenty-somethings. They treated him with reverence. He was a fount of wisdom. He’d seen things others had only read about. He remembered the moon landings. He knew where he’d been not only when John Lennon was shot, but also JFK and MLK. He’d experienced typewriters and video recorders and wars and the first stirrings of rock ‘n’ roll – everything, all the way to the internet age.

He was a gentle soul and an epic listener. And when he spoke, the room went silent. He was also brilliant at English, with a vocabulary earned by voracious reading and a remarkable memory.

Years Bring Wealth

One of the great myths of our profession is that it’s easier for younger people to learn foreign languages. Young children, of course, have an advantage when it comes to pronunciation; they still have the mental and physical plasticity to acquire a foreign language and speak it without an accent. But older learners have other advantages.

Firstly, they tend to be highly motivated. Why, if you are of retirement age, do you need to learn a foreign language? The chances are, you wouldn’t be there if you didn’t want to be.

Secondly, older students often have better learning strategies. Life experiences teach you how to be effective in various situations, for example problem-solving at work or learning on the job. Older students know themselves and how they learn best, and they are able to adapt their behavior accordingly.

Advice to Teachers of Third Age Classes

I spoke with Dr. Alexandra Neves, a professor of Bilingual Education, about teaching older students. Neves used to teach Third Age classes at UNISUL in Santa Catarina, Brazil.

“These were some of the most rewarding classes of my career. Older students appreciate the teacher’s time and patience. And they really want to be there – no one is forcing them to go to class. I remember the atmosphere was great – very cooperative.”

Would these students ever use their English?

“[The course] was part of a program for Third Age people. Some of them traveled; others were housewives who’d never had the chance to go to college, so it was an opportunity to experience college for the first time.”

What advice would she give to teachers of Third Age students?

“They take longer. Sometimes they forget what they learned. Sometimes they want to know exactly how to do things – an approximation isn’t enough; they need very direct instruction. You have to be patient, and speak a little louder. Also repeat a lot and make sure there’s plenty of recycling.”

Does the methodology need to change?

“Not really. They enjoyed group work, like every other class. They also liked to read out loud, just to show they could do it. Some felt frustrated because they found it difficult, and pronunciation was an issue, but I gave them lots of encouragement as I would to any student.”

The Old and the New

Goya was true to his word. He didn’t stop learning. Approaching eighty, and still exiled in Bordeaux, he learned the art of lithography and also made drawings straight from the hellhole of his subconscious: a massive lunatic in rags twisting like a Michelangelo slave, a penitent on his knees, a winged man-monster crashing like Icarus.

Most people head into Third Age somewhat more gently than Goya, but they’ll probably have interesting experiences to relate. If, like me, you are ever lucky enough to encounter a student like Hiro in your class, take full advantage. Get other students to interview him. Have him talk about how the world has changed. Provide opportunities for him to tell anecdotes.

In many cultures – particularly in Asia – the elderly are revered. Their wisdom is sacred. From what I’ve seen and heard, Third Age language learners have much to teach teachers … and everyone else.


2 Comments on “Third-Age Students”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this, JJ – for a number of reasons. 1. I am a huge fan of Goya, 2. I am fascinated with Japanese literature and would have loved to have had the opportunity to teach a man like Hiro … just to have been able to pester him with a million and one questions and 3. You’ve reminded me of my mother’s amazing achievement when she passed her Art A Level some years back at the grand age of 80. ‘Amazing’ because she left school at 14 to ‘go into service’ (be a maid) then she married at 18, becoming a miner’s wife and shortly after, a mother. She never worked outside the house again and education was something that other people did. Her A Level was so much more than a certificate. She had to learn how to write essays and how to put her thoughts and opinions into words. She wrote a wonderful dissertation on the American artist Mary Cassatt who I think she felt an affinity to. Sadly Mam has dementia now and can no longer paint but her brief stint in third age education was probably the highlight of her entire life. Anyone who takes on such endeavours at this stage in their lives do so because they really, really want to.

    • JJ Wilson says:

      Thank you so much for these comments, Katherine. Your mother sounds like an incredible woman. I always admire people who somehow manage to keep learning against the odds. And you’re right: Hiro was just great to have in class.


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