In listening to an old NPR news story from 2013, I got a good reminder of the difficulties that language learning presents for older learners. It’s exciting sometimes working with children, noting sometimes quite fast progression and the steady building of language knowledge. I remember the moments in my classroom after teaching a new question form, “would you rather…” and the outpouring of silliness that came as my students tried to stump each other. They learned that question and how to use it so quickly. It’s easy to take for granted moments like that in the language classroom, when for many it is an uphill road.
“What It Takes (And Means) To Learn English As An Adult” briefly outlines some stories of adult learners who have been learning English for years and still struggle. For them, it isn’t just because it’s a new language, but also because of opportunity. The story talks about long waiting lists for students trying to get into free or affordable language lessons, and those who get in often make many sacrifices to be there: skipping sleep, working extra hours, you name it. This all on top of the great humility it takes to start from the bottom, to become a little child again linguistically.
The story makes a connection between learning English and the so-called “American Dream,” but the reasons given for these folk’s strong desire to keep learning despite difficulty seem to go much deeper than that; one student’s “dream is to learn enough English so she can go on a road trip by herself. One of her classmates says longingly she’d love to make American friends; another wants to help her child with homework.”
Independence. Friendship. Family Connection. These are basic needs, and needs that can often create frustration, bitterness, and tension when they are unmet. Unmet needs are recipes for conflict, so one great task of peacemakers is to look for unmet needs to address them.
How can we as language teachers help lay the groundwork for peace in our student’s lives by empowering them to meet these needs?