Baby boomers with a foreign tongue

Image: Flickr/Stafford College

For many baby boomers, the thought of learning a new language is quite literally a foreign concept. But is it impossible? Laura Parr takes a look.


DOMINI STUART: [speaks an example of a question and answer in her French textbook and translates to English]

REPORTER: Learning a foreign language as a baby boomer is a little bit different to learning as a child. 60-year-old Domini Stuart knows this only too well.

But with plans to take her daughter to Paris next April, and a dream to live in Normandy for a few months, she’s determined she’ll learn the art of speaking French.

Domini originally wanted to learn German so she could quietly sing along at home to the songs of Franz Schubert. But this meant she wasn’t exactly learning conventional German phrases.

DOMINI STUART: I was in a position where I could say “please bury me beneath the green sward” in German, but I couldn’t say, “can I have a cup of coffee?”

REPORTER: She made the switch to French, learning through a private tutor once a week, as well as reading French newspaper Le Monde and children’s books loaned from the library.

DOMINI STUART: Even over 6 weeks it’s been quite extraordinary how at first I was literally having to translate every word, but now I can actually read quite well.

REPORTER: Associate Professor Hermine Scheeres is a researcher in language and change at the University of Technology Sydney. She says that aside from the primary advantage of having a brain that is still developing, children have numerous language learning advantages over adults.

HERMINE SCHEERES: What they’ve got going for them is that firstly they have lots of time, so they’re not encumbered by the sorts of things that adults are encumbered by in terms of making money, making the dinner, and getting on with their lives. They’ve got lots of time. And secondly, they’re not afraid to make mistakes – they don’t know they’re making mistakes most of the time – and they don’t care and the adults around them don’t care usually either.

REPORTER: But Dr Scheeres also says that it’s not just psychological barriers that face baby boomers particularly.

HERMINE SCHEERES: We’re all born with the same physical features of our mouths and noses, and so on, which means that we’re all able to make all the sounds of any language. All of the possibilities are there. However, once you’ve started on the language-learning road, you know, parts of your hard and soft palate, parts of your mouth – you know, you get used to forming particular kinds of sounds. And it gets increasingly difficult to actually articulate other sounds – difficult sounds – in other languages.

REPORTER:  But Polish teacher Agnieszka Zolek believes that the difficulties that adults face can be somewhat eased by the method that language schools embrace.


AGNIESZKA ZOLEK: It’s [a] quite old-fashioned teaching approach to teach grammar and vocabulary without any purpose. Some schools still do it, but at the Polish School of Sydney, we try to focus on the communicational aspect. We believe that it’s more important to say hello, and to say a couple of things about oneself rather than remember about grammar rules, and not being able to say anything.

REPORTER: She says that a large hurdle is that many people have unrealistic expectations about how quickly they’ll be able to pick up a new language.

AGNIESZKA ZOLEK: Many people, sadly have [a] quite unrealistic idea about studying a language. They think they come to class and study for two hours, and they’ll be able to speak the language after two hours. It takes a lot of work. And some of them are fantastic – they put a lot of effort, they look for more information on the Internet, they ask their partners or family for more information, but some people find it difficult, and like I said, they lose interest and motivation.

REPORTER: But for Domini Stuart, she plans to continue her weekly tutorials until she’s confident enough to join a community college speaking group. While it may be difficult, for her it’s a reminder that it’s never too late to learn something new, and even better, an opportunity to completely immerse herself in a foreign culture in the near future.

DOMINI STUART: For people who are just drifting into that idea that as you get older, you’ll start forgetting things and you can’t learn things, and you can’t do this… and I think that learning a language can really keep that in your mind that that’s not necessarily the case.

REPORTER: This is Laura Parr, reporting for Baby Zoomers.


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