One of my best and most memorable teaching experiences has been the beginner Spanish course I did for the Senior Adult Learning Center at the American Embassy in Santiago de Chile.
I must admit I had certain doubts at first. “Do they want serious classes, or are they looking for someone to simply entertain the elderly and pretend to be teaching them Spanish?
The reason for my doubts lied in the well-known belief that once you’ve turned a certain age, it gets close to impossible for you to learn a foreign language.
The lovely group of 15 retirees I was to meet twice a week quickly proved me wrong.
They were not only the kindest, the most motivated, and the most fun students I had ever had, but they also made astonishing progress.
Here’s what I learned from them about the secrets of language learning at an advanced age.
Spanish For Seniors – Dos and Don’ts
The following list is a collection of tips I got from the students themselves and facts we realized together as our classes progressed.
✔️ Define your goal.
✔️ Find your pace.
✔️ Focus on conversation.
✔️ Train your memory.
✔️ Make sure you have fun.
❌ Don’t be too hard on yourself.
❌ Don’t be scared of technology.
❌ Don’t waste your time studying useless things.
❌ Don’t limit your learning to classroom time only.
❌ Don’t worry about mistakes.
Let me explain each of these suggestions briefly.
1. Define Your Goal
When you take up Spanish when in your sixties, seventies, or eighties, you better know what you need it for.
My students were clear about their goal from the very beginning: they wanted to be able to communicate on everyday topics. That is why we focused on basic topics such as greetings, family, body parts, clothes, simple shopping vocabulary, common restaurant phrases, etc.
Knowing what you want to achieve will help you to stay focused and optimize your results.
2. Find your pace
Everyone learns differently and takes a different amount of time to assimilate new contents.
Senior citizens might additionally struggle with different health conditions, which can make their learning even slower.
When you take one-on-one classes, your teacher will easily adapt to how fast you are able to progress. With group classes, it gets way more challenging.
How did I handle it? I told my students to come and talk to me at the end of the class whenever they felt frustrated or thought they were lagging behind. I’d explain things again or offer supplementary study materials.
For the fastest ones, I always had extra exercises at hand, so they didn’t get bored.
3. Focus on conversation
Even though I am a firm believer in the “focus on all four skills” approach to learning a language, my senior students quickly made me realize that at their age, they mostly wanted to talk.
Also, the contents they have chosen required constant dialogues, so pair or group work soon became our favorite practice method.
Remember, the sooner you start SPEAKING and COMMUNICATING in Spanish, the more progress you’ll notice. Being able to articulate even the simplest questions or greetings and start a conversation in this language is a massive boost to your self-confidence as a student.
4. Train your memory
If I had to point out the biggest obstacle to learning Spanish at an advanced age, it would undoubtedly be the waning memory.
New verbs, nouns, adjectives, prepositions – all of this needs to be learned by heart and stick in your active memory.
Of course, learning new vocabulary offers excellent training for your brain, but if you feel you are struggling and Spanish words seem elusive, you might want to try some useful techniques:
- playing with flashcards
- jotting new words on post-it notes and sticking them in visible places
- making posters for bigger vocabulary groups
- practicing new words with examples
- using mnemonics
My absolutely favorite word learning technique is the so-called “Memory Palace,” which involves visualizing a familiar place (e.g., your house) – and using it as a visual space to deposit new concept-images.
5. Make sure you have fun.
Have you finally retired after a long life of school and work? It is time for you to start enjoying yourself.
Studying Spanish at a late age is not an obligation. If you decide to do it, it’s because you WANT to dedicate your time to it. Don’t let Spanish turn into an additional source of stress and frustration.
If you stop having fun, it means you have to re-think your goals and reasons, your motivation, and – let’s be frank – the quality of your teacher.
6. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
This tip is related to the previous one. Enjoying yourself while studying Spanish is the key.
So don’t fret over verb conjugations that you never seem to get right, don’t worry if you repeatedly place your adjectives before nouns (and not the other way around), and don’t hit your head against the wall if your pronunciation is far from perfect.
Just like you can understand foreigners speaking broken English, with a little bit of patience and goodwill, people will understand your Spanish. Effective communication does not require perfection.
7. Don’t be scared of technology.
As technology is getting more and more user-friendly, you are running out of excuses to stay away from it.
Rember, by befriending the internet, you’ll find yourself a limitless source of materials to improve your Spanish:
- podcasts for Spanish learners
- excellent movies and series in Spanish available on streaming services
- Youtube channels dedicated to the Spanish language
- online language courses and apps such as Langbox
And if you are up to it, you can even open a social media account and join Spanish study groups.
8. Don’t waste your time studying useless things.
For those who aim at 100% proficiency in Spanish, there is lots and lots to learn. But if you just want to pick up enough Spanish for a summer stay in Cancún or the Dominican Republic – focus on what you really need.
Breaking your head over the Spanish imperative case’s nuances or the subjunctive mood, when all you need is to order a few drinks and get a taxi, is probably not the best idea. Better channel your energy and motivation into vocabulary building.
9. Don’t limit your learning to classroom time only.
At your age it should come as no surprise: you can’t learn a language if you only study it twice a week for 45 minutes. Your official classes should only be considered an opportunity to ask questions, have your doubts clarified, and explain new contents.
The rest of your learning should come from the individual, daily contact with Spanish in any form you feel the most comfortable with: reading a book, watching a movie in its original version, listening to a podcast, emailing your real or imaginary Spanish friend.
10. Don’t worry about mistakes.
Everyone makes mistakes; it is part of the learning process. Even native speakers don’t always speak or write perfect Spanish. Don’t let the fear of making mistakes seal your mouth.
Even if it seems that you can’t say a single word without some kind of error, with persistence and practice, your Spanish will get better and better.
Age should never be an obstacle to learning something new. Acquiring a second language when you are well-seasoned is not only possible, but it is also an excellent workout for your brain, benefiting your intelligence, memory, and concentration and reducing the risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s.