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Experiencing culture, making friends and learning for the over-50s

Seventy-one-year old Sean Chestery from Chicago decided to learn a new language at an “older” age. Driven by his passion for food and culture, he decided to learn French, the language of fine cuisine and ardent romance.

50 Plus Program Class. Photo: ELC Santa Barbara50 Plus Program Class. Photo: ELC Santa Barbara

Older learners are capable of concentrating for longer periods of time and are usually more humble and honest with their learning curve. Younger learners require teachers' patience for discipline

Chestery has booked courses at Accent Français language school at Montpellier seven times, and he might go again in the future. “I come here for three reasons – first it’s very rich in culture and a wonderful place for gastronomy. The second reason is the school: the teachers and the program are very well organised. And the third is the weather, it’s always sunny at Montpellier!” Chestery says. 

Chestery is one of the thousands of students in the world who are now categorised as “mature learners”, or members of society who seek education over the age of 50. They usually value learning a language alongside experiencing culture and making lifelong bonds with their classmates.

A baby booming market

High-income countries are witnessing ageing populations. Japan is home to the world’s most aged population, with 33 per cent of its people aged 60 or above in 2015, followed by Germany and Italy with 28 per cent, and Finland with 27 per cent.

According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ World Population Ageing 2015 report, “Globally, the number of older persons is growing faster than the numbers of people in any other age group,” making mature learners a promising education market for language schools.

“Happy customers come back and this is what we depend on for publicity. Word of mouth and social media are the main marketing tools we use”

“[In 2017] we [saw] an increase in demand and as the population ages in the developed world we expect to see more interest in the future,” Phil Hopkins, chief executive at the UK’s English Language Centre in Brighton and Eastbourne, says.

With limited financial obligations, these baby boomer clients are willing to pay for pleasure. “Baby boomers have the time and money to travel and enjoy life abroad,” explains Anna Diaz, director of French language school IS Aix-en-Provence.

“It’s a sector of the population that has a lot of free time, no economic problems and an interest in travel,” Andreas Carrion, marketing director at Escuela de Idiomas Nerja in Spain adds.

Photo: ELC Santa Barbara

So-called “Club 50” courses are as unique as their customer base. “The students want to make the most of the spare time they have, the motivation is much more genuine as they are not learning because they have to for work or study,” says Hopkins. “[They have] a real interest in the language and the culture.”

Language courses abroad allow 50+ students to make new friends with the same interests. “Consequently this makes the esprit de corps on our courses really special as the students bond with each other and the staff,” notes Hopkins.

Most Club 50 programs report that returning students come year after year to meet old friends and maintain their language progress.

“Happy customers come back and this is what we depend on for publicity. Word of mouth and social media are the main marketing tools we use,” director of TLCdénia in Spain, Mari Carmen Timor, says.

Culture-centered learning

Excursions like taking a stroll in sunny Montgó Natural Park in Dénia, Spain, or improving your English at the English Wine Centre in Sussex, or while discovering Malta’s incredible history are what make Club 50 programs an unforgettable experience

The blend of culture and activity has replaced the conventional teaching pen and paper methods. Ideally, students are placed in small groups for two to four weeks and are encouraged to converse through engaging activities and practice.

With 30 years’ experience in teaching English to older learners, ELC Eastbourne has found that students tend to focus on communication skills in contrast to other courses that may be more overtly dedicated to grammatical or lexical content.

Photo: TLC

Although English language is covered in the classroom, content is linked to activities and afternoon trips, for example, a lesson on British sports is followed by an afternoon playing croquet or bowls.

Florence Yazdanpanah, director of Institut de Français OISE Paris agrees, but says students learning French appreciate being reassured by structured grammar and vocabulary lessons first, to make sure they speak correctly.

But generally, “They enjoy using it in different contexts during class visits around the city, culinary activities or art.” Dividing them into small groups allows staff and teachers to get to know students as individuals and tailor their lessons to meet their personal needs.

Having a knack for 50+

Providers that create an enticing learning ambience for Club 50 students are expected to deal with the differences between teaching this generation and today’s youth.

Language teachers selected for 50+ courses “have an affinity with the older age range and are genuinely passionate about showing off the local attractions and culture,” ELC’s Hopkins says.

IS Aix-en-Provence’s Diaz says teachers are not trained differently but older students may require more patience and repetition.

On the other hand, older learners are capable of concentrating for longer periods of time and are usually more humble and honest with their learning curve. Younger learners require teachers’ patience for discipline, she explains.

Older students prefer to take notes whereas the younger students take photos of the whiteboard, according to Slavka Bertova, operational director of Inflexyon, a language school in Lyon, France. 

“English language schools in the Philippines have developed their courses to meet the demand of the Japanese market”

As a result, teachers hand out more written materials to older students because they need to understand everything otherwise they feel lost, she explains.

“In general, the older segments do not like deductions. They prefer to get the explanations and theory, then practice with the exercise,” Bertova says.

People in their 50s are not old anymore, notes Virginie Courau, Accent Français director. At this school, students “don’t want to be old and they do not appreciate being separated from the other students. More and more clients ask us to be placed in all ages study groups,” she says.

As a result many language schools are tailoring cultural programs open to all ages. “It is available during all the summer months, from June to September. This is usually the program we recommend for mature adults and they are much happier with that”.

The oldest society in the world

“[English Language Centre] is also starting to see demand from markets like Korea and Taiwan, which previously have been very focused on university age and young learners,” Hopkins says, in addition to traditional student source countries such as Germany, the UK, the US, Switzerland, Italy, Russia and France.

Around 65,000 Japanese students studied abroad through the Japanese Association of Overseas Studies in 2014 and around half went on short-term, non-degree awarding courses. According to Sayaka Machi, part of the marketing team at the Japanese GIO Club Study Abroad, adult, relaxed-paced learners make up part of that cohort.

Photo: Celtic English

Western countries and Oceania are popular regions in the Japanese market, but interest in studying English in the Philippines has also increased over the past five years. “Hence, English language schools in the Philippines have developed their courses to meet the demand of the Japanese market,” Machi explains.

Celtic English Academy in Cardiff has also seen an increase in interest from Japan. Over the last two years, the school has received groups of Japanese students with an average age of 69.

Emelyne Burkhard, marketing director at the school, says in addition to the cultural and social program the school offers, these students are motivated to learn English for another reason.

“Ahead of Japan’s upcoming international sporting events [2019 Rugby World Cup, 2020 Olympics and Paralympics] the Japanese government aims to increase international visitors to Japan,” she notes.

“Improving their English will give the Japanese seniors the opportunity to engage with an increasing international presence in Japan [and] the chance to volunteer at the games.”

Like other language providers, Burkhard says senior study travel is an area where Celtic English is expecting growth, having seen an increase in retirees.”People are living longer,” she says, adding, “with more time and money, they have a desire to do more than just travel, but to have enriching experiences.”

  • This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared in The PIE Review, our quarterly print publication.  

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