Older Adult Learner As The Subject Of Cross-Cultural Communication


The article emphasises the growing need for cross-cultural communication in modern society. An older adult learner having become a participant of modern cross cultural communication, it is necessary to make this process easier. To achieve it numerous problems have to be solved: there are no textbooks written for such a type of learners, teachers are not equipped with appropriate teaching techniques, there are no training courses which could prepare teachers to work with older adult learners. The article attempts to work out a theoretical basis for teaching a foreign language to older adult learners. It admits that not only can learning foreign languages help older adults be successful in communication with residents of other countries, it can also enhance their socialization in the retirement period. Investigation methods used in the article include critical analysis of scientific literature on the problem considered, a survey and the following quantitative and qualitative analyses of motives and preferences of older people in EFL. This paper analyses specific psychological, physiological, and sociological features of older adult learners that influence their foreign language acquisition. The research outlines the factors contributing to successful foreign language teaching of 50+ learners and focuses on the principles that would take into account older people’s psycho-physiological characteristics and ensure success in training their foreign language communication skills. These are: the principle of cross-cultural orientation, the principle of awareness, etc.

Keywords: EFLolder adult learnerteaching principles


At the age of international travelling, Internet communication and easy access to international information resources the English language has become a survival tool in the modern society and cross-cultural education has acquired utmost importance for all generations, older people being no exception. It has been largely recognized by linguists, educationalists and other society members (Haskins, 2019; Tareva, 2011), as it promotes mutual understanding between people of different cultures and ages (Dement'eva, 2008), as well as during language teaching (Meshcheryakova et al., 2016). Nowadays, an elderly person has become a potential and equitable subject of cross-cultural communication (Kramsch, 2014). The term “older adult learners” refers to women over 55 and men over 60. This meaning is currently changing as by 2034 the retirement age in Russia is to be raised by eight years for women and five years for men.

The necessity to analyze the needs of learning foreign languages by 50+ adults has grown rapidly in recent years. However, the problems of teaching them are numerous: there are no textbooks written for such a type of learners, teachers are not equipped with appropriate teaching techniques as there are no training courses which could prepare teachers to work with older adult learners.

For the past 20 years fundamental advances have been made in studying various aspects of ageing, in particular, its psychological, physiological, sociological factors. The complexity of age effect is not only based on chronological age together with physical and biological factors (Fed'ko, 2017). Needs for emotions and individual characteristics as well as temperament, lifestyle, marital status and level of creativity must be taken into account among important factors for describing age effect (Klimczak-Pawlak & Kossakowska-Pisarek, 2019; Strizhitskaya, 2013; World report on ageing, 2016). Moreover, common specific changes in physical and mental condition, significant for older adult learner as the subject of cross cultural communication, include weakening of motor (Frličková & Macušová, 2017) and mental (Stuart-Hamilton, 2012) functions, decline in cognitive processes (Budarina & Ilina, 2016), especially memory decline and loss of concentration (Vysotskaya, 2016).

Although some researchers are trying to prove that learning languages cannot be the way of improving physical and mental condition (Berggren et al., 2020), this paper (as long as some others (Antoniou et al., 2013)) suggests foreign language learning being an effective means for older adult learners to become part of cross cultural communication. Previous experience (Budarina & Ilina, 2016), logical comprehension prevailing over mechanical repetition (Stuart-Hamilton, 2012) make foreign language learning easier for older adult learners. Besides, the influence of learning a foreign language has a positive influence on such learners (Antoniou et al., 2013; Chen et al., 2008; Kramsch, 2014) and is positively perceived by them (Schwab et al., 2016).

Problem Statement

The major problem of teaching English to senior learners lies in the necessity of tackling ageism and the stereotypes connected with it. The researchers are convinced that such stereotypes are groundless. Nevertheless, their influence on the educational process cannot be overestimated. Both students and teachers believe that due to the deterioration of cognitive and physical abilities older adult learners are bound to fail in studying. However, as it will be shown below, a number of abilities for learning a second language are the same in 50+ learners and younger ones. The reason for such stereotypes lies in the inadequate organisation of studying, which does not take into consideration the principles of teaching older adult learners. Thus, to tackle the problem of negative stereotypes and ageism it is essential to raise awareness of 50+ learners’ abilities and cognitive characteristics among all participants in the educational process.

Another problem lies in the absence of state programmes of teaching a foreign language to senior students. Researchers claim that second language acquisition plays a significant role in providing for a happy old age but there are no requirements for such programmes. It results in inefficiency of the educational process as it is organised by individual teachers, the majority of whom do not possess sufficient knowledge or experience to adequately manage the process.

Research Questions

Our investigation shows that there is no unified regulatory base for teaching older people that would take into account their own psycho-physiological characteristics and ensure success in training their foreign language communication skills.

At the same time, education of older people is a factor that may contribute to their socialisation and enrichment of their spiritual life during retirement; it may increase their social activity, and generally have a positive effect on them. It may ensure safe and harmonious ageing. But what are the prevailing motives and interests that determine the decision of older people to get down to foreign language learning? What physiological, psychological and other features characterise older adult foreign language learners? What are the principles of foreign language teaching that would be most efficient for them? These are the questions our study aims to answer.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this research is to work out a detailed and consistent theoretical basis for preparing older generation learners for cross-cultural communication as part of their socialization under new conditions of the fast changing society, including understanding their motivation, distinctive age characteristics and the most essential principles to guide foreign language teaching to senior learners. For the implementation of this goal the following tasks are to be solved:

  • to gain an overview of the underlying theory behind developing senior adult learners’ cross-cultural communication skills;

  • to clarify distinctive physiological and psychological age characteristics of older people that influence their foreign language learning;

  • to find out senior people’s individual educational goals and their background educational experience in foreign language learning;

  • to understand motives and preferences of 50+ people in foreign language acquisition;

  • to figure out principles that are recommended to follow while teaching a foreign language to people of the older generation.

Research Methods

The research relies both on theoretical and empirical investigation methods. To address the issue of peculiarities of the development of senior adult learner’s cross-cultural communication skills the critical analysis of scientific psychological, physiological, methodological and linguo-didactic literature on the issue under discussion has been used.

In the attempt to find out motives and preferences of older people in foreign language acquisition a survey has been conducted and the following quantitative and qualitative analyses have been applied.

Thorough analysis of the research findings allowed us to synthesise principles that form the theoretical base for preparing older adult learners for successful cross-cultural communication.


Scientific literature has recently produced a new term “ageism” (Kolpina, 2015) which labels the discrimination, humiliating or arrogant attitude or behavior towards 50+ people. In modern cross cultural environment such a term means that people under 50 are unaware of how to treat older adults, not saying how to teach them. That is true about further education as well. The project “Moskovskoe Dolgoletie” (“Moscow Longevity”) providing free educational and sports programmes and necessary services for 50+ people started only about two years ago. It showed the growing interest of the 50+ generation in information technologies and learning a foreign language.

The peculiarities of 50+ are usually related to various manifestations of the learners’ ageing. But many researchers come to the conclusion that the concept of “old age” has a complex structure and is not just a combination of chronological, physiological and biological factors (Klimczak-Pawlak & Kossakowska-Pisarek, 2019), that calendar (chronological), biological and psychological ages do not always coincide. Moreover, some 80-year-olds have similar levels of both physical and mental abilities to many 20-year-olds (World report on ageing, 2016). Ageing is determined by many factors, including the constitutional type of personality, temperament, state of physical health, lifestyle, marital status, and creative activity. 50+ learners don’t constitute a homogeneous group, and individual psychological characteristics of students should be taken into account while teaching older adult learners. Generally speaking, the circle of their interests becomes narrower, their mental processes slow down, their health deteriorates, they feel dissatisfied with themselves and other people. On the other hand, this age also has a lot of valuable, beneficial qualities, mostly related to the experience a person acquires with age.

Ageing is accompanied by significant changes on the level of physiology. Ageing is characterized by a gradual chronic accumulation of molecular and cellular damage that leads to progressive and generalized disorders of many body functions, as well as increasing vulnerability to environmental impacts and leading to an increased risk of disease and death (World report on ageing, 2016). There are about 200 theories of ageing (see the review in Abrass, 1990), but none of them is universally recognized. Senior people show significant gradual changes in the cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous, endocrine, excretory, and reproductive systems, as well as changes in vision and hearing (Abrass, 1990; Stuart-Hamilton, 2012; Timiras, 2002; World report on ageing, 2016). Some of these changes, mainly affecting the perception, comprehension and production of speech, are of great importance for teaching older adult learners.

The psychological features of ageing are caused by the breakdown of habitual social and psychological relationships of an elderly person, overall mental abilities decline and changes of the short-term memory of a person. Loneliness, retirement from work, daily routine, lack of communication are some of the stressful factors for 50+ people. As a result, many older adults develop such character traits as a state of psychological discomfort, uncontrolled affective reactions, a tendency to sadness, tearfulness, attachment to the past.

Most of the psychological and physiological changes outlined above have an impact on teaching older adult learners a foreign language. Among the most significant are the following ones.

Physical activity deterioration. In some cases this process may make it difficult for older adult learners to perform tasks related to moving around the class.

Hearing and vision impairment. Some researchers point out a proportionately greater decline in the perception of high pitched sounds in relation to low ones (Dzhurinskiy, 2018), as well as some difficulties associated with the perception of the speech signal against the background noise (Abrass, 1990; Dzhurinskiy, 2018; Stuart-Hamilton, 2012; World report on ageing, 2016). These facts can lead to difficulties in the perception and comprehension of speech by ear and requires an appropriate teaching materials selection.

Deterioration of cognitive processes. The following cognitive functions are particularly vulnerable: speed of reaction to external stimuli, ability to concentrate attention, ability to quickly switch from one type of activity to another one. But the memory of current and distant life events, skills acquired in the past, orientation in time and space, adequate assessment of one's own personality, perception, speech, thinking, etc. remain preserved. The natural decline in cognitive abilities of older people is associated with a decrease in the speed of mental processes and the level of attention. Thus, ageing leads to a certain weakening of the ability to perform complex tasks that require attention switch (World report on ageing, 2016). A short-term memory may be considered as a stumbling block in teaching senior adults (Savina, 2015). Consequently, logical and systematic learning should predominate over mechanical memorization. Moreover, slowing down the speed of information processing can be minimized by appropriate training. There are more facts to take into account, for example, automatic, intuitive cognitive processes remain stable or even improve, the ability to concentrate does not deteriorate, and the ability to concentrate does not suffer, language functions such as comprehension, reading, and vocabulary remain stable throughout life; moreover, there is virtually no link between ageing and memory for factual information, knowledge of words and concepts, memory of a personal past, and procedural memory (World report on ageing, 2016).

Changes in the emotional sphere. Social and emotional development usually progresses with age thanks to the self-regulation skills acquired by older people over the years, and stable social relationships (World report on ageing, 2016). However, for various reasons a depressive and anxious mood sometimes predominates with older adults. Moreover, due to the unsuccessful previous experience of learning a foreign language and the stereotype that it is more difficult for them to learn a foreign language the fear of a possible failure can demotivate them.

Thus, both positive and negative factors affect the process of teaching 50+ learners. Klimczak-Pawlak and Kossakowska-Pisarek (2019) consider independence, rich life experience, stable intelligence, understanding and semantic processing of the language to be the positive ones. The list of the negative factors includes: more time required to form new connections to represent new word combinations, slower word recognition, difficulty understanding spoken language, attitude to learning, reduced ability to process complex sentence structures, increased attention to topics for discussion and emotional background (Klimczak-Pawlak & Kossakowska-Pisarek, 2019).

On the whole, researchers conclude that learning a foreign language has a positive effect on changes in the cognitive abilities of older adults, including the level of attention, the speed of mental processes, and memory (Antoniou et al., 2013). According to some surveys, learning is often understood by older people as an effective way to prolong life, overcome the state of margin - the process of socialization, adaptation to changing circumstances, and dialogue with the younger generations. As a result of this formation, the positive characteristics of an individual can not only be preserved, but also significantly enhanced (Dzhurinskiy, 2018).

The paper is based on the empirical investigation of individual educational goals. The survey was conducted by teachers of Moscow City University in order to prove the findings. Adult learners of English as a foreign language served as participants of the survey (101 people took part in it). All participants were native speakers of Russian. There were 86% of female students and 14% of male ones. Speaking about the learners’ educational background, we can note that 85% of the respondents have higher education degrees while 15% have secondary education certification.

To address the issue of the different age groups of the participants we included the point in the survey in which we asked the learners to indicate their age. We found out that the age range of the learners varies, the youngest participant being 55 and the oldest being 82 years old. Nevertheless, the average age of the learners can be noted as 67 years old.

The participants in the survey were recruited from several distinct course groups, their general level of English being noted as beginning and elementary. It is important to stress that 21% of the participants indicated that they were true beginners, 30% of the learners mentioned the fact that they were able to use familiar phrases and certain cliches in speech. The biggest group of the learners (35%) noted that they could comprehend separate utterances connected with their immediate surroundings and everyday life. Only 14% of all the learners chose the option “I can communicate my ideas in most cases”.

The survey presented had two clearly identifiable blocks. The questions in the first block mainly dealt with the participants’ experience of learning the language in general and their needs. We provide descriptive statistics for the variable of the aim of learning English as a foreign language, revealing a considerable range in scores. The mean percentage of the responses obtained corresponds approximately to the general desire to communicate in English. The maximum score corresponds to “being able to ask the way” (24,2% of the learners), the next most popular answers were “being able to shop and buy different goods” (18,5%) and “being able to talk to the staff at the airport” (15,2%), whereas the minimum score corresponds to “being able to talk about the state of health” (3%).

Speaking about motivation of adult learners it is important to stress that performance rewards are essential and could include opportunities for positive affective events and strengthened sense of identity. Specific motivators may be performance goals and rewards such as autonomy, participation in training, transfer of their competence, and taking up relevant roles in teams (Kooij et al., 2008). Older learners will invest effort if they perceive that this will lead to performance.

Figure 1 shows the descriptive statistics for the most preferable topics for discussion in class. On average, participants chose such topics as “going to the cinema and theatre”; “medical care” and “education” with 31,6%, 14,3% and 13,7% respectively.

Figure 1: Preferable Discussion Topics
Preferable Discussion Topics
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With their efficient text-processing abilities the learners mentioned the most effective ways of acquiring and memorizing vocabulary. Putting down words (33,3%), pronouncing them (24%) and acquiring the items in the text had the greatest appeal.

The second block focused more on the reading practices and preferences of older learners, as reading was chosen to be one of the skills to give a more detailed analysis. To measure the reading preferences in terms of literary genres participants completed a multiple-choice test question. There were such options as: adventure stories, love stories, poetry, science fiction, fiction, detective stories, historical novels and autobiographies. The majority of students indicated “historical novels” as the most appealing literature genre (23%). Classic fiction literature (21,5%) and detective stories (14,8%) come next. Only 5,3% of the participants chose science fiction literature.

As for the most appealing features in fiction books learners indicated the description of everyday situations (28,8%), the plot of the book itself (24,5%) and the description of the events (22,2%). As expected, only a small number of learners noted the stylistic devices used in the story (0,5%). In the survey there was also a question about the dislikes in reading. This observation was statistically significant as 28,8% of participants indicated long nature descriptions, 20,8% - a lot of historical facts and 23% - the complicated plot.

As it was said above, foreign language communicative competence of senior citizens is developed within the framework of mostly non-formal education; it is a socially oriented process. Therefore, the purposeof teaching a foreign language to older adult learners is to socialise elderly people in the process of forming their foreign-language communicative competence (language, speech, socio-cultural, compensatory, educational and cognitive subcompetencies) and thus prepare them for cross-cultural communication. It can be viewed in subgoals as:

  • arranging older adult learners’ curriculum around familiar and everyday topics,

  • meeting the needs of older people in communication,

  • maintaining their health, helping them improve the quality of cognitive processes,

  • familiarising senior citizens with the benefits of information and communication technologies,

  • satisfying the needs of older people for personal development.

These features determine the choice of principles of teachinga foreign language to older adult learners. The principle is the basic guideline of any system that applies to all the phenomena of this system. The matter of principles of teaching 50+ learners is a key issue in preparing them for cross-cultural communication as it guides the teacher and determines the choice of forms, methods, tasks and activities.

1. The principle of scientific basis implies that the process of preparing older adult learners for cross-cultural communication should rely on the data of gerontology. According to this principle scientific data of the psychology of the old age should be taken into account, which primarily includes physiological characteristics of senior learners, i.e. hearing, seeing and movement limitations as well as changes in the emotional sphere. Moreover, a number of cognitive functions of senior learners are fading; here belong short-term memory and attention. Hence, the acquisition of the new material among older adult learners should be organized in a logical and systematic way rather than mechanical.

2. The principle of cross-cultural orientation of education is based on the belief that the purpose of second language acquisition is to prepare the learners for communication with representatives of other cultures. To achieve this goal it is necessary to promote broad-mindedness and sympathy; the traits of characters, which could be crucial among senior learners, who tend to have a rather conventional outlook on life. The key strategy is to acquaint them with various traditions of the country whose language they are learning by explaining the reasons for them. Thus older adult learners can understand the differences in the backgrounds, which predetermine the gap between their culture and the foreign one. This understanding leads to recognizing, accepting and respecting another mentality, which in turn would result in adequate cross-cultural communication, the ultimate goal of second language acquisition.

3. The principle of awareness implies that 50+ learners acquire new information by understanding and comprehending it rather than learning it by heart. With older adult learners this principle means that new facts and phenomena are to be intertwined into the learner’s experience. To apply this principle to practice the teacher is supposed to employ such strategies that determine the success of education, i.e. search for analogies and comparison of the first and second language structures. What is more, the teacher should provide consistent and detailed explanation of the new material, as well as use verbal support and visual aids and constantly turn to learners’ personal experience.

4. The principle of adequate simplicity means that the acquired material should be within learners’ capabilities, as 50+ learners tend to be afraid to make a mistake and become easily frustrated by difficulties. This fear is fueled by negative stereotypes and ageism (Kolpina, 2015). As a result senior learners are reported to lack self-confidence and may stop studying or disrupt cross-cultural communication when overwhelmed by challenges. According to this principle the teacher should be constantly seeking the balance between relying on students’ existing knowledge and skills and gradual introduction of new material. The level of difficulty should rise slowly and gradually; the teacher should choose the optimal pace of classes to avoid the students’ doubting their intellectual skills and memory. Besides, various tests are regarded as a potential source of stress, and thus should be avoided. The assessment should motivate learners, consider their needs and encourage them to participate in cross-cultural communication.

5. The principle of communicative orientation implies active involvement of 50+ learners in cross-cultural communication. Older adult learners’ psychological characteristics determine gradual realization of this principle, taking into consideration their previous experience in language acquisition, which might have been negative. Senior learners may not be prepared for an abrupt transition to innovative approaches in education (Savina, 2015), thus the teacher is supposed to make the transition to communicative methods as smooth as possible, maintaining the motivation to learning. Mistakes, especially those that do not result in communication disruption, are to be treated most carefully in order to create a relaxed atmosphere in class and enhance self-confidence among 50+ learners.

6. The principle of visual-aids use contributes to making up for the deteriorating short-term memory of senior learners. Verbal support and visual aids are of great use as they decrease stress levels by lifting the burden from students’ memory. While selecting visual aids (the font, colour compatibility, level of lighting, etc) physiological characteristics should be considered.

7. The principle of durability involves keeping language patterns and speech units in mind for further use in cross-cultural communication. Bearing in mind physiological characteristics of senior learners this can be promoted by such practices as involuntary memorizing and mnemonics, as well as visual, audio and kinesthetic methods. Moreover, the teacher should arrange systematic revision of the learned material. It is often the case that senior learners have great experience in education; they should be encouraged to take full advantage of it and choose their individual cognitive strategies that they have successfully used before.

8. The principle of learner-centred approach to education involves equal interaction of all the participants of the educational process, where the learner is an active participant, and the teacher and the learner are treated as equals. The reliance on senior learners’ experience is crucial: they should be able to share their expertise, give advice and recommendations, which proves to be an excellent incentive and motivation for cross-cultural communication. The teacher-learner collaboration manifests in mutual decision-making, delegation of authority and reciprocal interaction. Besides, the principle of learner-centred approach to education means that learners’ needs and interests are considered, which does not only determine the topics for discussion but also allows the learners to immediately apply the acquired skills and knowledge to practice in cross-cultural communication instead of waiting for this opportunity in the future.

9. The next principle implies differentiated instruction to teaching different skills. While teaching listening the teacher has to consider deteriorating hearing abilities of 50+ learners: the speech should be distinct and expressive, the volume of sound-producing devices should be adjusted; short videos that facilitate listening should be shown. The time of tracks for listening could be limited to avoid causing fear among older adult learners: at first tracks have to be as short as 15 seconds, then the teacher may gradually increase their length.

The above-mentioned principles reflect practical character of gained skills and knowledge, take into consideration physiological and psychological characteristics of older adult learners as well as guide the process of preparing them for cross-cultural communication.

In teaching a foreign language to older adult learners, the focus should be on reading since: 1) language functions such as comprehension, reading, and vocabulary remain stable throughout life (World report on ageing, 2016); 2) reading is a comfortable and familiar type of activity for 50+ learners, which they tend to rely on when learning; 3) reading is a receptive skill; the printed text is always there to work with which psychologically supports the learners; 4) reading performs an aesthetic and cognitive function, activates the reader's spiritual life; 5) reading implies using texts which give an opportunity to discuss the topics which excite 50+ learners’ interest if chosen accordingly; 6) reading the target language literature is of great socio-cultural value, it can help learners of a foreign language be closer to the native speakers of the target language (Uddin, 2019); 7) reading has a great potential in terms of developing the various skills necessary for cross cultural communication within a certain range of typical situations, such as: giving personal information, meeting people, shopping, at the airport, in a cafe, at the hotel, at the doctor’s.

The theoretical and empirical data made it possible to outline some criteria for selecting appropriate reading material for older adult learners: 1) the plot is dynamic, not too complicated; 2) the text contains description of life events; 3) long descriptions of nature should be avoided; 4) the text shouldn’t be filled with a large number of historical facts; 5) the text is a mixture of dialogue / polylogue and monologue (description, narration).


This research is an attempt to work out a scientific basis for satisfying the educational needs of 50+ language learners.

An elderly person as a potential subject of cross-cultural communication and, consequently, as a subject of teaching a foreign language, is characterized by such significant distinctive features as:

  • physiological and psychological properties connected with the ageing process;

  • the structure of motives for communication and for mastering a foreign language;

  • a complex combination of factors of success and failure in language acquisition;

  • the existence of negative stereotypes concerning older people's cognitive abilities, which is one of the main factors that slow down the learning process.

All this taken into consideration, the principles of teaching older adult learners a foreign language include: the principle of scientific basis, the principle of cross-cultural orientation of education, the principle of awareness, the principle of adequate simplicity, the principle of communicative orientation, the principle of visual-aids use, the principle of durability, the principle of learner-centred approach to education and the principle of using differentiated instruction to teaching different skills.


The research has been done in the framework of Moscow City University (MCU) state assignment for the 2019-2020 academic year “The Development of an Original Method of Teaching Reading as a Means of Developing Foreign Language Communicative Competence of Elderly People” as part of the “Moskovskoe Dolgoletie” (“Moscow Longevity”) programme. The authors would like to acknowledge the support and encouragement provided by MCU and express their deepest gratitude to “Moskovskoe Dolgoletie” (“Moscow Longevity”) educational centres that provided their assistance and audience for the survey. The completion of the research could not have been possible without the participation of our colleagues who did the quantitative analysis of the survey results Nataliya Vishnevetskaya, Darya Korotkevich and Victoria Mashoshina. The authors would also like to express their deepest appreciation to all the survey participants.


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1st Edition




Sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, bilingualism, multilingualism

Cite this article as:

Makeeva, S. N., Idilova, I. S., Spichko, N. A., Fetisova, A. A., & Frolikova, E. Y. (2020). Older Adult Learner As The Subject Of Cross-Cultural Communication. In Е. Tareva, & T. N. Bokova (Eds.), Dialogue of Cultures - Culture of Dialogue: from Conflicting to Understanding, vol 95. European Proceedings of Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 562-573). European Publisher. https://doi.org/10.15405/epsbs.2020.11.03.60