* Sharing Language Across Cultures AND Generations

AFLTMA Conference, Canberra July 2001


I started my professional career in the 60’s teaching French and Latin in NSW high schools. By 1981 I had started TESOL training and since then have taught ESL to NESB students from 5 to 75 years of age in Melbourne, Newman (remote Western Australia), Blackwater (central Queensland) and Brisbane. I have a special interest in NESB students with low levels of literacy in their first language.


For the past five years I have had a mutually valuable arrangement with an Aged Care Centre near the Institute where I teach: my adult ESL students have opportunities to practise their casual conversation skills with friendly native speakers, assuage some of their cultural homesickness for contact with an older generation, and learn more about aspects of Australian life previously beyond their experience; the residents of the Aged Care Centre have had many enjoyable outings and are made to feel they are fulfilling a useful function in our society, as indeed they are.

In my presentation I will explain how I arranged this very valuable, on-going interchange, details of the sorts of gatherings and activities which have been successful, and some of the outcomes, both expected and unexpected.


When I first started to teach in the city, I found the majority of my students had very little contact with native English speakers, apart from very brief interchanges with shop assistants, Centrelink staff and English teachers. So I scratched my head and began to look for people who were willing and had the time to chat with my students. At every turn I was frustrated because the vast majority of willing people were already overcommitted. Then I thought of my mother.

She was at that time in her eighties, living by herself and not getting enough company to satisfy her very gregarious personality. She loved to chat – with anyone. If I left her for five minutes on a seat in a shopping centre, I would invariably come back to find her chatting away to some passer-by. When she had visited us (we have lived interstate for the last 30 years), her contacts with my students had always been extremely positive: students from most NESB countries have a great respect for the elderly and often sadly miss their contacts with older generations and my mother revelled in the attention they paid her.

So I rang one of the major churches and asked whether they had an Aged Care Centre near my workplace. I then spoke to the Supervisor of the Centre and she referred me to the Diversional Therapist. And we rather hesitantly arranged for some of her residents to visit our institution for morning tea. We were both a bit nervous about the outcome.


I spent quite a bit of time preparing my students for this event.

·        We discussed suitable (and unsuitable) topics of conversation. I suggested they should bring photos of their families and home countries to show the visitors.

·        I provided the students with information about the types of accommodation used by the elderly in Australia: independent units in retirement villages, hostels and nursing homes, living with adult children and living by themselves in their own homes with various Government services as backup.

·        We discussed the range of problems faced by the elderly and the help they can be given to cope with these: Meals on Wheels, home cleaning, modification and maintenance services, visits by nurses to change dressings, supervise medication and help with showering, respite care, day care activities, transport for shopping and medical appointments, Vitalcall emergency phone service and Red Cross phone contact service.

·        We discussed what food we would bring for the morning tea, to make sure it would be culturally appropriate and easy to manage – finger food, rather than slippery noodles. (One problem I've never completely resolved is getting the students to take the tea bags and the teaspoons out of the cups before they hand them to the visitors!)

The First Event:

When the great day came, I brought table cloths and china cups from home (so that the elderly visitors were not trying to handle flexible polystyrene full of boiling liquid). We laid the tables and set out the food, had the urn boiling and waited a bit nervously but quite excitedly. When the visitors arrived, the students bustled round and offered them tea, coffee and food and within a few minutes the ice was broken and the room was abuzz with conversation. By the time the visitors were ready to leave, there were hugs and promises to visit again as the students walked them out to their vehicle.

After the visit I discussed it with the Diversional Therapist. She said she had initially met with reluctance when she proposed the visit. However, those who came the first time were so enthusiastic about the great time they'd had that by the second visit her problem changed: so many wanted to come, she didn't have enough transport and had to leave some people behind.

On-going Programme:

Since then we have established a regular pattern: mid-term we have a get-together, either in our classroom, at the Aged Care Centre or for a joint excursion; on the last day of term, the elderly people come and join in whatever end-of-term activity we have planned for our classes. Last year I took a term off and went to Europe. When I returned, the Diversional Therapist told me one of the ladies had asked plaintively, "Are we going back to TAFE again this term?"

I use these activities as my assessment task for the Certificate in Spoken and Written English Casual Conversation competencies. I never cease to be amazed at the way in which even the quietest, least confident students blossom and become almost garrulous in this situation where they have a cultural imperative to talk to the generation they have always been taught to respect and look after. It is a painless and completely natural way to engage the students in sustained conversation.

As time has gone on I have experimented with an increasing range of activities. Because of the turnover of students, the novelty remains for them but many of the elderly people have been coming now for five years and I feel I must provide some variety for them, as well as for the minority of students who have been involved on a number of occasions.

Visits by the Elderly to Classroom:

We generally arrange for them to arrive at 11am & give them a cuppa on arrival and have a bit of general casual conversation. Then we have some sort of activity.

·        Sometimes I borrow a kit of old domestic equipment from the Queensland Museum which has an excellent lending service to teachers. This generates a lot of conversation: the elderly people can explain what most of the things are since they are the domestic tools of their youth; students from third world countries often recognise the articles as well because those, or similar items, are still in use in many countries.

·        Sometimes I organise a quiz and divide the group into small teams (who become very competitive and often cheat with enthusiasm!): I make up about 5 lists of 10 questions each, covering world history, geography and natural history, Australian history, politics and flora and fauna, sport, music and films etc. I have accumulated a collection of photos of well-known world leaders, Australian historical figures and politicians, flora and fauna, and have a few cassettes with extracts of well-know music, pop and classical.

Then we have lunch together. (The Aged Care Centre kitchen staff always provide a vegetarian quiche with our Moslem students in mind!) After lunch we generally have a singalong. We are very fortunate to have one 93 year old man with an excellent, strong singing voice and a very extroverted personality and an 80 year old lady who plays the very elementary, portable keyboard we have at our Institute. Sometimes we also have students who bring guitars and help leading the singing.  The Aged Care Centre has song books containing popular old-fashioned songs and I have typed out a number of the easiest into a little book we use for these occasions. (We have a second song book of Christmas songs as well.) The students enjoy learning from the elderly people and they are chuffed that they can show the immigrants something of their cultural heritage. So we all sing with gusto Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do!


I always plan an excursion around a topic I want to cover in class and use it as a basis for recount or report writing competencies. Sometimes, these excursions are appropriate for the elderly people as well.  However, a degree of caution is necessary here because of the reduced mobility of the elderly. I always go myself and check out the venue thoroughly with the elderly people in mind: how far do you need to walk? are there steep or uneven surfaces? are there too many steps? is there some way of overcoming these difficulties?

We visited Parliament House in Brisbane together. (As preparation the students learned about Australian government) The class caught the train to the city and walked to Parliament House where we met the elderly people who had come in a maxi-taxi and been dropped off at the front door.  I had forewarned the guide so that, while I took the students up the stairs, he showed the elderly visitors into the lift.  After our tour of the buildings, we walked across the street into the City Botanic Gardens for a picnic lunch together.

Another very successful trip in 2000 was to University of Queensland's Museum of Classical Antiquities.  (As preparation we read about the Olympics and the influence of Greek and Latin on English.)  Again the class caught the train and we met the elderly people at the ferry stop and went up the river to the university which has a moderately steeply sloped site.  The Dean's secretary was extremely helpful and arranged for the university's minibus to take the elderly visitors up the hill while the students walked.  Again we had a picnic by the river before we caught the ferry back.

Last term I organised to go together to Mt Coot-tha Botanic Garden where the educational staff conduct an excellent programme on Aboriginal use of rainforest plants.  (In preparation for this I read with the class extracts from Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel (Norton, NY, 1999) and supplied copies to some of the elderly people.)  After we had tasted the various bush tucker plants and tried our hands at making string, we went to my house which is a few minutes' drive away, to have lunch and look at my collection of Aboriginal artefacts, books on Aboriginal art and photo albums of our years of living in the Northern Territory and learning from the Aboriginal people there.

 Aged Care Centre:

The students are generally very sceptical at first about the very idea of specialised accommodation for the elderly; they feel we Australians treat our older family members disgracefully.  So they find a visit to a well-run centre a real eye-opener.

On arrival, the residents provide us with a cuppa.  Then, after a while chatting, we are taken on a guided tour of the whole facility which has independent units, hostel and Alzheimer's section.  Then, we return to the recreation area for a barbecue lunch which our male students cook – generally with a lot of supervision from the female students!  After lunch, we have a singalong and the day has disappeared, as has the students' scepticism.


This has proven to be a very valuable programme, both for my students and for the elderly participants.  In fact, the Diversional Therapist is about to write an article for her professional journal about its contribution to the well-being of her clients.

I had anticipated that the programme would provide opportunities for real-life casual conversation for my students.  I did not foresee how valuable it would become for the elderly people whose sense of their own value in the community is greatly enhanced and whose lives have been enriched by the new interest in other people and the world at large.  Nor did I predict how many varied activities the programme would generate.

The downside, of course, is the amount of effort required to think of new activities, ensure that the activities have educational value for my students and are within the physical scope of the elderly people.  However, the enthusiasm of, and value to, all the participants far outweigh the time and effort I put into the programme.