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Professional Development

Originated by Birmingham MA TEFL/TESL students

May 25, 2009

Lifelong language learners: What keeps them going?

Roughly half of the students at my eikaiwa (English conversation school) are adults; most of them are women between the ages of 35 and 65. I wanted to know what kept these keen students interested in learning English all these years, aside from their devilishly handsome teacher.

I was lucky enough to coerce one of my students, Naomi, to sit down with me for a casual “interview” about her experiences learning English in Japan over the years. We covered many topics of interest to both English teachers and English learners:

Why was there a decade-long gap in her English language learning and why did she eventually return to English?

How does this lifelong learner maintain her motivation for learning English despite the limited opportunities to use it outside the classroom?

How do group dynamics and Japanese culture influence her attitudes and behavior in the eikaiwa classroom?

Aside from going to an eikaiwa, how has she studied English the last fifteen years, what are her current goals, and what advice does she have for other learners?

Play Interview Part 1 Play Interview Part 2
[Editor's note: Please accept my apologies for having to split the interview in what turned out to interrupt Naomi mid-sentence, "I quiet"]

To all teachers out there, it would be interesting to hear if your lifelong learners share similar points of view. The more we know about these unique learners, the better equipped we will be to guide them on their English language learning journey.

To all English learners reading this, please share your thoughts and opinions as well. In my experience, it’s best to get this kind of information straight from the horse’s mouth.

Chris Wharton

« Chris Wharton - Teacher, school owner and MASH presenter | Main | When language learning 'clicks': a JTE and lifelong learner »


Hey Chris,

I enjoyed your interview and found Naomi's comments on group dynamics quite interesting. I used to teach a middle-aged housewife who was very outspoken. She told me that she loved using English as it liberated her from the type of Japanese group dynamics that Naomi was describing. The language affected her behavior (A higher level of code-switching, perhaps social code-switching?). She really spoke her mind and truly seemed unaffected by the presence of men or older students. Certainly not your typical Japanese student. Have you come across this sort of attitude with any of your other students?

How lovely to hear from Naomi! ( I should report that I was Naomi's teacher about 11 years ago.) She is and has always been a very hard worker with her English. When I taught her she was an inspiration for the other students in her class and for me as a teacher.

At my school, the students who are in the same age group as Naomi tend to be private students, so class dynamics are not as germane.

I do think that the students who are working on another language tend to be the students who are interested in the world. The successful ones see that English is a process, a journey if you will and it won't be over quickly.

I'm interested in what other people will say about their classes, and how they keep their mature students interested and learning.

Hi Jason,
Thanks for the note. I've had many adult learners over the years who've indicated they relish the opportunity to speak their mind in eikaiwa classrooms. Not only do they get to discuss and argue with their peers, they also get experience with topics that are not entirely acceptable or familiar in Japan, like religion, abortion, politics, etc. Some learners have even admitted that what they enjoy most is complaining about their spouses in English!

Hi Chris,
I wonder if Naomi is aware of the positive influence her commitment to learning English has had on her peers and her teachers over the years. She is welcome to join my class anytime!

Hi Helen,
Thanks for posting your comments. I completely agree that the successful learners are those who recognize that learning English requires time, patience, and tenacity. I also believe that it is paramount to emphasize to students that learning should not end in the classroom. Some eikaiwa students are more than happy to come to class once a week for sixty minutes for their weekly dose of English. Others try to do a little homework through the course of the week. While others, like Naomi, take it upon themselves to start English newspaper reading circles, participate in volunteer interpreting associations, or even enroll in post-graduate English programs. The “journey” is what learners make of it.

Hi Matthew,
I'm not sure if she's fully aware of the positive influence she has in the classroom. However, I know that when she's not in class it's noticeable to both her teachers and classmates. I'm sure we all have students like that. I'll pass along your offer. Thanks.

Ha-ha! I can appreciate that. I have a class of 35-65 year old housewives, and last week's discussion about the discomfort caused by other people smoking quite quickly led to a bit of a spouse-bashing session!

But on a serious note, it is fascinating to hear the thoughts of your student. My own experience of this learner group suggests that there are a myriad of reasons why they continue to study. Students like Naomi are a dream to work with, but we also have to engage those who are perhaps not quite so committed to their studies. Having a vibrant class atmosphere, driven by the Naomi-types goes a long way towards this

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