Pronunciation in elderly language learning

The foreign language learning process can provide significant health and social benefits to elderly citizens and is also becoming a more and more necessary skill in the rapidly changing world environment. 

However, FLL in older age can often come with difficulties – the challenges are not limited to memorising issues and information overload. Still, a big part of the discomfort comes from pronunciation specifics, especially when it comes to pronouncing sounds that are typical of the English language and not present in the native tongue. Though adults tend to be faster foreign language learners than children at first, senior learners still find it much more challenging to adapt to a new phonological system, learn syntactic rules and memorise lexemes than children and younger adults, who can easily acquire native-like pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary of a second language. This biological determinant(fossilisation of articulators) often can create serious self-awareness issues, senior learners become hesitant to actively practise pronunciation due to self-consciousness and the risk of embarrassment. Therefore the teacher’s goal becomes to not only attract older adults to participate in FLL but to create and ensure a safe, friendly environment so that the learning process can go as smoothly as possible. 

Why is pronunciation so important? Pronouncing correctly helps to avoid misunderstandings, for example, making “ship” sound like “sheep” and changing the meaning of a word entirely. At the beginning of the learning process, it is crucial to outline the sounds that differ from the native language and how to use them to avert a rough approximation of the newly acknowledged sounds with the ones learners already know. Progressing in correct pronunciation also gives a confidence boost and unlocks more opportunities.

What does pronunciation consist of? It is important to focus on all of the components when learning: pronunciation involves attending to the special sounds of a language and also different aspects of speech like stress, intonation, vowel, consonants, rhythm and voice, and voiceless of different sounds. You can find various printable sources, for example, this Bridge infographic, which can not only be taken as inspiration for the main keys of pronunciation but also placed somewhere visible in the classroom or shared with learners for their individual use.

Difficulties learners face in a language course may be overcome especially by eliminating affective barriers (mostly fear and frustration). 

Here are some tips that can help with a smoother pronunciation learning process for senior learners:

  • Create a safe and cosy environment
  • Choose content that is relevant to the age group
  • Take it slow 
  • Be careful with “listen and repeat” exercise recordings at first. Don’t start questioning individually, work as a group.
  • Use audio/video recordings. Make sure that the given recordings and videos are clear, without noises in the background.
  • Focus on intelligible pronunciation – there is no need to push for “perfection” trying to attain a “native-like” accent since it is difficult in older age. The main goal of communicative competence is to make it intelligible and point out the common mispronouncing tendencies and mistakes. well enough to be comprehended. If the learners’ speech cannot be comprehended, learning a foreign language will face a deadlock. 
  • Choose a clear approach or a mix depending on the student group. It is stated that there are three significant approaches to teaching pronunciation namely the analytic-linguistic approach, intuitive-imitative approach and integrative approach. Detailed attention to listening, pronunciation and speech production, e.g. revision and drilling, described as the audiolingual method is recommended to seniors only if the pace and self-consciousness are already reduced, to avoid a de-motivating effect.
  •  Try Multisensory Modes of instruction (visual, auditory, and sensory-motor/kinesthetic/tactile)
  • Compare different techniques – it was found that reading aloud, dictionaries and dialogues were the three most frequently preferred techniques by language teachers to teach pronunciation to learners. Nonetheless, what do you feel is best for your group?