Those who learn English late in life may face unique challenges, but they also gain wide-ranging benefits. "The benefits of language learning are going to extend across a lifetime," says Donna Kinerney, instructional dean for English for speakers of other languages at Montgomery College in Maryland.
Some of those benefits are financial, such as better jobs for those still in the workforce and greater ability to understand banking, savings, investments and insurance. Others are less tangible, such as building tighter bonds with grandchildren or keeping the brain sharp. Studies show that learning something new can increase concentration and memory skills. In addition, according to a recent study, being bilingual from early on can stave off dementia by more than four years.
The two most commonly cited reasons for taking ESL classes don't expire with age: a Department of Education survey found that more than 90 percent of ESL students said they signed up to improve how they felt about themselves or to make it easier to perform day-to-day tasks.
Granted, by starting later in life, Little missed out on some advantages of learning English. Her career suffered. A dental hygienist in her native country, her credentials weren't accepted here and she didn't have the skills to take college classes in English. She ended up working in blue-collar jobs. With her children's teachers, she had to rely on translators to communicate. And she felt lost when she had to talk to English-only speakers after she and her husband, who spoke English well, divorced.
But Little says the confidence and skills she's gained from ESL classes now help her daily. Chatty and energetic, she enjoys conversing in English with supermarket patrons where she works part-time serving food samples, and with neighbors and friends. "It's important because I want to express myself," she says. "I speak, and they understand."
In her ESL classes — taught entirely in English — 60 percent of the students are Hispanic, and 22 percent are 45 or older. On a recent morning, small groups drafted sentences using comparisons, mastering when to use "more" and when to add "-er" to the end of words. "Hamburgers are more popular than hot dogs," Little and three other women in her group wrote. "Salad is healthier than pie."
It's these nuts and bolts of the English language that Little says she's missed over the years, even as her vocabulary grew and she began to make herself understood.