Wearing the Other Hat

Reflections of One Older Language Learner Living in a Foreign Country.

By Nola Clark

Four years ago, my life changed dramatically when my partner was offered employment firstly, in Shanghai, China for three years and then in Paris, France.

For over thirty years, I had relished my job as a teacher; the last six years teaching English as a Second Language to adult, new arrivals in Australia.

I knew language learning was not easy, but I thought I would have an advantage, as I already knew what was needed to learn a language. I was soon to discover my new role, as a language learner was to provide many challenges, but also at times great exhilaration.

I had been lucky as a child; learning seemed to come easily, but this didn’t prepare me for the frustrations and the pressures I would soon impose on myself. My brain no longer seemed to do what it was told and retaining information proved challenging!

Finding a suitable school or teacher was the first task. This is often done using the Internet, by word of mouth or just potluck. In Shanghai, most of the classes, even at schools were done on a one to one basis, where as in France most of my formal language learning has been done in a group setting. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Individual classes provided the opportunity for the teaching to be geared specifically to my needs and my learning style and provided more opportunities to develop a great rapport with the teacher. I learned first hand the important role the teacher plays in helping you settle, understand and develop a routine in a new country. A smile and a warm greeting made such a difference when you were new and hadn’t yet established a support network. Although it was mentally far more intense than most of the group programs I attended, I found the atmosphere was more relaxed and I was less anxious.

As an older learner, I found it more difficult to find a group class that really met my needs. In both China and France, I wanted a class that provided most emphasis on speaking and listening skills, as this was going to help me most with everyday interactions. Initially in Paris I started at a very well known school in a beginners’ class, but was surprised to find that nearly all the students had done some French previously. The class comprised of eleven students from ten different countries and was very welcoming of an older student a few decades their senior. Many of these students were in Paris for a short time, just to learn French or to go on to university, so the pace of the class was fast and intense. Students used their mobiles to take photos of notes on the whiteboard, whereas for me, copying by hand helped with my learning. Although the teaching was very good, the class was geared towards students with very different needs to mine. My next group was a conversation class twice a week at the same venue. This I loved. I had a young, enthusiastic teacher who created a great ambiance in his classroom. Learning definitely becomes easier when you are relaxed. This was much more like the teaching I was used to in Australia; a communicative approach based on practical topics each week, with lots of pair work. Some grammar was taught, but as it arose, related to the conversations. Unfortunately, this course was of limited duration. Other schools followed.

As a student I have found the relevance of material presented to me extremely important. If I thought I would not use a particular word or phrase, no matter how hard I tried to learn it, it would not be retained. Later, however, if I found a need for this word or I heard it being used in the real world, remembering it became so much easier. This reinforced to me the time a teacher spends, changing material to make it more local and relevant, is time well spent. A lot of the material I saw in China came from Beijing, but one day I had some worksheets with Shanghai street names and locations I had visited. I could immediately relate to this, and the learning became not only easier, but also more enjoyable and informative.

In China, I spent the first sessions learning the all-important different tones and the pronunciation of combinations of letters. I had already made the decision that I would learn Mandarin using pinyin rather than characters. In France I also did some early work on pronunciation. I am certain time spent early on helps prevent bad habits from forming. Tones are so important in China, and getting a tone wrong changes the whole meaning of what you are saying. I did this frequently! One time a young local told me it was trendy to use měi wèi to complement the chef on her food, rather than the usual hăo chī I had been using. Unfortunately, I used the wrong tone on the first syllable and I actually told her it lacked flavor. After a few odd looks and some clarification we all had a good laugh! At the same time as some initial work on pronunciation, I found learning some practical sentences for daily interactions like greetings and shopping gave me confidence and instant rewards for learning the language.

I am still amazed and frustrated by the amount of thinking time necessary to process information and then to find the words and construct the sentences to reply. It is like the pause button needs to be pushed after each sentence to give my brain time to respond. Fluency takes such a long time! Planning was often required before going out on a task, thinking of the sentences I may need to use and looking up new vocabulary. The dictionary on my phone was invaluable. With this planning, the highs often followed. Recently, I had to visit a podiatrist where the whole session needed to be done in French. With a lot of forward planning, it was successful and the highlight of my day. I felt so proud!

I have already mentioned the important role the teacher performs in creating a welcoming, relaxed setting, where students feel comfortable to take risks when learning a new language. I found some small things made such a difference to my confidence. Words of encouragement and positive feedback on my progress helped ease the pressure I placed on myself for not progressing as quickly as I would have liked or as fast as some other class members. I could see some teachers were very perceptive about how different students were feeling in the classroom and asked questions accordingly. Picking up every mistake does not help confidence. For me, I have always found listening very difficult and exhausting in class, so I preferred when teachers directed questions to me early on in the session when I was fresh, rather than in the last half an hour when I often felt ‘brain dead.’ In some classrooms, I found the teaching still very grammatically based and they provided little opportunity for students to speak. Needless to say, I didn’t stay in these long. I cannot stress strongly enough the need for pair work in every session. This gives every student some speaking practice in every class and helps prevent the problem where one or two dominant students do all the talking. It is not easy being a teacher, who is a student, who would like to control how she is taught!

Revision of work previously covered is always important and I think even more important for older language learners as I found I needed to frequently revisit grammar and vocabulary already covered or it would be forgotten. In my individual classes in China I was able to negotiate two lessons of new content and then a lesson of revision.

In most of my classes, in both countries the teacher chose not to speak any English during class. I understand how this helps your second language development but personally, I found it difficult. As my listening skills were often not as good as my peers, many times I struggled to understand explanations of grammar rules or new vocabulary in class. Often, I resorted to searching the Internet later at home to read the explanation in English so I understood for the next lesson. I found the use of a textbook assisted me in preparing for what might be said in the next class. This in turn, allowed me to be less stressed, so that learning came easier. I attempted to listen to conversations on the subway, in the street and snippets of television, but particularly in the early stages it was very difficult. I thought of the many times students had said to me ‘ I can understand you, but not other people.’

Now, you would think that living in a country and learning the language of that country would provide you with endless opportunities to practice your speaking. That you actually needed to spend a lot of time creating these opportunities came as a bit of a surprise. I did not have children attending local schools and in both countries I was not allowed to work.  It became very important to develop routines and relationships involving locals, otherwise I could have spent my whole time speaking English with other expatriates. In China, I bought my paper from the same paper stand every day and gradually got to know the lady working there. I became friends with the locals cleaning shoes in a nearby street and went to the same vendors at the wet market. Chinese people were always very encouraging to anyone who tried to speak their language. It was usually thumbs up and some encouraging words. It made me look forward to my next class and my next interaction People were generally very kind and when someone heard I wanted to learn tai chi, I was introduced to a local group in the park where I participated twice a week. Volunteering also provided great opportunities for language development. One afternoon a week, I visited a playroom at the Children’s Hospital showing families how to use the western toys there and another afternoon I taught English to final year students at a local primary school. Both, these places gave me opportunities to practice my Mandarin. The highs I felt when I had even small successes were amazing. I haven’t forgotten the first time a taxi driver understood my directions to my school. I rushed in to tell my teacher, the receptionist and anyone else who would listen. I felt like I had a smile on my face all day. Funnily, I cannot remember many of my own students telling me of their small successes. Maybe this is something I will introduce in the future! Later on, we were fortunate to have a driver in China. It would have been very amusing to have been a fly on the wall in our car. I often spoke to the driver in Mandarin to practice my Mandarin and he often replied in English to practice his English. Could he be responsible for my poor listening skills?

Surprisingly, I found it more difficult to develop local friendships in Paris to practice my French. In Paris, we had brought our dog with us from Australia and this proved one of the best ways to meet people and chat. It was very important that I had a number of French phrases relating to dogs. I also found some volunteering, teaching English once a week at a charity’s home for teenage boys and like China, got to know my vendors at my local market.

When I commenced French lessons after three years of Mandarin, I found it very difficult to change languages. When I was searching for a French word, it was like my brain said; it is not an English word so it must be Mandarin. I guess that is what I had been training it to do for the last three years. Sadly, I found I needed to make a conscious effort to forget my Mandarin, so as I could start thinking in French. This helped me, but I it was hard to let go of the language I had invested so much time in over my stay in China.

It has been amusing how many times I am reminded of incidences that happened when I was a teacher in Australia, but in role reversal.  In China we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary and I discovered the card I had bought was actually a wedding invitation card. It reminded me of the time when my students gave me a sympathy card as a birthday card.

Learning another language or two has been challenging and frustrating, but immensely rewarding. It is a bridge to develop new relationships, and discover other cultures in more depth. In both languages I studied, I never achieved my dreams but I persevered, and reached a level where I could carry out everyday interactions and simple conversations.

On reflection, my three R’s to encourage success in language learning would be; a relaxed environment involving lots of conversation, relevant materials and repetition.