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Learning English Reaps Major Rewards

A second language may help you land a better job, keep mentally fit and get closer to your grandkids

Her teacher, Viorica Dolganiuc, says older students often show more interest in these finer points than younger students do, asking more questions to make sure they've understood each concept. "They're a little bit more detailed," she says. "They want to make sure that they know [the concept] because they know they've been making these mistakes."

Righting such linguistic wrongs can be a powerful motivator, says Judy Sparanese, president of the South Coast Literacy Council, a 40-year-old, all-volunteer program based in Mission Viejo, California. The free program uses about a dozen donated sites for classes, including several senior centers.

Sparanese says more than half her students know some English. Many come to improve what they consider embarrassing accents; others, often recent immigrants, want to communicate with their grandchildren. "They live with their [extended] families and take care of the grandchildren, and the grandchildren don't speak the native languages," she says. "That's a very motivational factor."

In fact, older ESL students may be more motivated than their younger classmates, educators say. And that's just one of a host of advantages they bring to the classroom. Older students also tend to devote more time to their studies and thrive working in groups. They often form friendships with other students, a reason many tend to stay in classes longer.

But even more important, says Montgomery College's Kinerney, is that older adults bring a lifetime of experiences upon which to build their language skills. She says life experiences act like mental "hooks" where students can "hang" new information for future reference; this ability to make connections can more than make up for age-related memory loss. "The more experience that you have, the easier it's going to be for me to teach you," says Kinerney, who oversees about 7,000 ESL students.

But older ESL students might also confront pitfalls. Hearing or sight loss can hinder classroom learning, and older students are often embarrassed about making mistakes, an important part of language learning, educators say. Among students who speak some English, errors they have made persistently can "fossilize" over time, hardening into habits that are difficult to break, educators say. But breaking those old habits and learning new ones is worth the effort.

Juan Diaz, 50, has wanted to learn English since he moved to South Florida from Honduras 18 years ago, but pronunciation has always tormented him. Now the landscape maintenance business owner jokes that he's returned to first grade: He's spent about five months working on Level 1 English, the most basic level.

He'd tried other classes, but they didn't get him far enough. This time, a tutor affiliated with the national group ProLiteracy is working with him and his wife in private sessions for free. Diaz works six days a week, but says his Sunday tutoring sessions are worth giving up his one night of leisure: "Any time you can learn is the time to learn."

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