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Elderly learners bring new life to language classes

By Laura Kane and Mohamed Algarf On a typical Saturday, French, Italian, Arabic and Mandarin echo through the classrooms at…

By Laura Kane , in Culture Feature story , on April 4, 2011 Tags: , , , , , , ,

By Laura Kane and Mohamed Algarf

On a typical Saturday, French, Italian, Arabic and Mandarin echo through the classrooms at the University of British Columbia.

These are not only the usual twenty-something students, but boisterous mature learners.

“When they see all the white-haired people in the class, they go, oh dear, do I have to study with them?” said Nan Hornaas, 74.

“But I think we’ve reached that period where we’re in our second childhood, and we act younger than they do.”

Every Saturday morning for most of the year, the Vancouver campus is packed with senior citizens learning new languages through Continuing Studies.

The demand for language courses among seniors has grown in recent years, said Nina Parr, Program Director of Languages, Culture and Travel at Continuing Studies.

“I think seniors are more active than they’ve been. People are traveling more in their post-retirement years, so there’s a lot more interest in other cultures and languages.”

The department will likely continue to expand its programming for its more elderly students in the coming years.

“As the baby boomers are retiring, we’re probably going to see that age group increase,” said Parr.

Active brains, active lives

The non-credit courses are open to all ages, but senior citizens make up most of the language students.

In an Advanced French class, students range from age 27 to 82.

A group of seniors in the class have been attending together for up to 20 years. They call themselves “le club samedi,” or the Saturday morning club.

“It’s a social thing for them,” said Parr, “just keeping themselves active and keeping their brains engaged.”

The students hosted a goodbye party in their classroom on the final day of class for the semester in March. Bottles of red wine and platters of sharp cheese crowded the tables as French conversation filled the room.

“There’s lots of fun. We joke, we laugh at each other,” said Joyce Craig, 82.

“We’re here because we really want to be here.”

Travel is a major reason for learning a new language, at any age.

“It’s really enjoyable to go to Montreal or Quebec City or Paris and be able to actually converse with people in their language,” said Craig.

Often people will hear her accent and begin speaking to her in English, Craig said. When that happens, she has a firm response.

“I’m here to speak French.”

Life experience

Continuing Studies first started offering French classes in 1970. Mandarin classes were added in 1972 and then Spanish, Italian, German, Russian, Arabic, Greek and Japanese were added in 1974.

The extra courses were added due to demand, but the most popular classes for seniors continue to be French and Spanish.

“Mandarin is our number three language and there’s a lower percentage of seniors in Mandarin,” said Parr. “People tend to learn that language for more business or professional reasons.”

Senior citizens enrich the classes because of their life experience, Parr said.

“In a language class, because they are conversation-based, people are sharing their lives. You learn so much from their experiences and what they’ve done.”