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The older, the better when it comes to learning foreign languages

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Kian Ramezani

Published

12.11.2021

Zwei Personen an einem Tisch, eine schreibt auf einem Blatt Papier

Think all those years of French during school were a waste? At the Migros Club School, you can pick it back up, and you’ll be amazed at just how quickly you progress.

What could be better than learning a foreign language and discovering a new world in the process? Or how about reading the original version of Harry Potter? Or chatting with spice dealers in Marrakesh on holidays? Or watching Squid Games in Korean without (incorrectly translated) subtitles? Or watching Omar Sy as Lupin? Anything is possible, and the largest language school in Switzerland is never too far away. At the Migros Club School, you can learn over 50 different languages at fair prices.

Illustration, Collage, mehrere Personen im Gespräch via Laptop und Handy

«Anyone can learn any language»

In the following interview, Maria Ferreira, Head of the Club School in Basel, explains why it’s never too late to learn a foreign language and what factors are crucial for successful learning.

What kind of people come to the Club School to learn a foreign language? 

Maria Ferreira: Professional development is popular in Switzerland. People often come to us in order to learn a local language, such as German in German-speaking Switzerland, French in French-speaking Switzerland or Italian in Ticino. Others come to learn English and French for business purposes. However, the majority want to learn a new language just for fun. Everyone who wants to learn a foreign language at the Club School comes with a specific ambition. The last time they took a course was usually during school, where they didn’t always have the greatest experience. And then suddenly they feel motivated to start learning it again.
 

What kind of motivation?

Relationships are the most common and strongest motivation for learning a language. Many people want to be able to communicate with someone to whom they are close, such as a partner, daughter-in-law or son-in-law, as well as to learn about a foreign culture. Our globalised world draws together very different languages and cultures. Travelling is also a strong motivator for learning a foreign language. Media also plays an important role. Some customers, for example, want to watch their favourite Netflix series in the original language. Money Heist, also known as La casa de papel, is even better in Spanish! Korean is currently a trendy language, which attracted mostly young people at first because of K-pop. Now it also appeals to adults thanks to the Oscar-winning film Parasite and the hit Netflix series Squid Game.
 

Some learn for love, and others learn for Netflix. How do you manage this all in the same course?

Teachers are faced with the challenge of addressing these different motivations on an individual basis. Since all teachers teach in their native language and have the relevant cultural background, they can tackle this challenge in a very authentic way. The rest takes place on a relational level between the teacher and students, as well as between the students themselves.
 This kind of microcosm makes learning more fun.

Things are way different here than they were back in school.

- An often-heard statement during language courses at the Club School.

… more than back in school?

Teaching is very different today. It’s much more concrete and situational, and also includes a lot more dialogue. What should I say, how and in which situation? Modern teaching materials are also important. We can all recall example sentences from school that had absolutely no relation to our own reality. I experienced this again a few years ago when I took an Arabic course. The learning materials were structured in a very traditional way and contained sentences such as: “The dog is lying under the tree.” What concrete value does this sentence have when I’m on holiday in Marrakesh and want to communicate with the locals? At the Club School, we always approach teaching as building relationships, communicative competence and cultural understanding, which is also the lived experience of our teachers. Therein lies the strength of the Club School. Our students often stress this by saying: “Things are way different here than they were back in school.” I’m convinced that anyone can learn any language with the right method. And for most people, this means a less academic, more authentic approach. 

Wasserhahn

Students at the Club School also learn to avoid so-called “false friends”, which are words that sound nearly identical in their native language, but have an entirely different meaning. For example, “caldo” in Italian means “hot”, not “cold”.

What type of motivation brings the most success?

Based on my experience as a teacher, I would say that people who want to obtain a specific title with a certificate lose interest more quickly in the language and in attending a regular language course afterwards. Conversely, someone with true inner motivation is better prepared to invest time over the long term and stick with it. We have conversation courses at the Club School that have been running for over 10 years now. The resulting dynamic is much different than if someone just needs a certificate for their CV.
 

Is it really true that it’s more difficult to learn a foreign language the older you get?

I think that’s a myth. While it’s true that young people generally learn more quickly, older people who take a course at the Club School have many other advantages and competencies from which to draw. First, they often already know the basics of grammar and vocabulary, which they learned in school and can now recall. While their knowledge may be passive and perhaps hidden, it is still there and can be built upon. Many people are not aware of this and start off in a beginner’s course, even though they really don’t belong there. Second, they are highly motivated, since they have a very personal ambition. They also possess perseverance and discipline. All this more than makes up for a perhaps slower learning pace.

In 2020, the Korean film Parasite was the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in the history of the Oscars. Since then, interest in Korean has grown, including among adults.

Placement test

Free placement tests, which can be completed online from home on your personal computer, are available for English, French, Italian, Spanish and German. This allows you to find out immediately where you stand and which language course is the best fit for you. The placement tests are based on six levels, which are internationally standardised:

  • A1 (Beginner)
    You can understand and answer simple questions.
  • A2 (Elementary knowledge)
    You can communicate using short sentences in familiar situations.
  • B1 (Intermediate language use)
    You are comfortable communicating in almost all everyday situations. 
  • B2 (Independent language use)
    You can clearly and spontaneously express your opinion about many different topics. 
  • C1 (Advanced knowledge)
    You can communicate fluently, with nuance and virtually error-free.
  • C2 (Language mastery)
    You have mastered the language in all situations.

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