Language learning strategies: a study of older students of German at the University of the Third Age

Ohly, Kim (2008). Language learning strategies: a study of older students of German at the University of the Third Age. PhD thesis The Open University.



Laslett’s (1996) concept of the Third Age identifies learning as an important part of successful ageing. As an ageing population shows growing interest in language learning, so research into ‘foreign language geragogy’ (Bemdt 1997, 2003) has expanded, although some early studies of older adult language learners proved inconclusive (Singleton 1989).

The current study investigates older language learners of German and their use of language learning strategies. It modifies Graham’s (1997) strategy categorisation into cognitive, metacognitive, social/affective and communicative.

A mixed method approach involved questionnaires, think-aloud protocols and interviews: 72 learners (all over 50) of German and other languages at the local University of the Third Age provided background information and reported on their strategy use. Think-aloud protocols illustrated how older learners employed learning strategies whilst working on a variety of tasks (reading, speaking, listening, writing). Interviews elicited student perspectives on learning strategies and wider issues such as motivation, beliefs, anxiety and past experiences.

The study concludes that:
• The research instruments were broadly suitable for exploring strategies among older learners, showing individual and general tendencies in language strategy use. Think-aloud protocols may require some participant training.
• Older learners did not employ essentially different learning strategies from other adults; differences were more apparent in affective areas such as motivation.
• It was possible to identify a list of typical strategies employed by older learners.
• The subjects adopted mainly metacognitive and cognitive strategies, adapting them to their individual learning needs. The range of communicative and social/affective strategies was limited, perhaps because think-aloud protocols allowed fewer opportunities for them.

The findings help to identify key implications for supporting the older language learner.

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