You're never too old to learn

November 13, 2022 - 09:09
If age and experience is anything to go by, these 'pupils' in Hà Nội really are top of the class. Once a week the elderly learners meet up to have English lessons. The silver-haired 'students' are living proof that it is never too old to learn.
The youngest student in the class is over 60, and the eldest is already 86. VNS Photo Minh Phương

Vũ Thu Hà

“My name is Nguyễn Thị Thanh Đà. I am 81 years old. I always spend time practising English,” slowly, word by word, Đà repeated aloud the English sentences she has written down in her notebook.

Inside a small room packed with seats and tables in Hai Bà Trưng District, Hà Nội, Đà joins other seniors to learn English, something that she could never have imagined just a few years ago.

“When I was young, I didn’t have a chance to learn English, so when this class opened, I wanted to attend,” she says.

“It is very challenging to study at this age. Our hearing capability has deteriorated. Our eyes are no longer bright, and even travelling is difficult. However, I can overcome all those obstacles because I like learning.”

This special class is held every Tuesday, with the youngest student being over 60 and the eldest already 86.

It was among many free English classes opened in localities across the country in 2019 by the Venerable Thích Chân Quang, abbot of Thiền Tôn Phật Quang Pagoda in Bà Rịa Vũng Tàu Province. He aimed to keep elderly people active, find joy in life and set examples for younger people.

The class members come from different backgrounds but share two things in common: all are Buddhist followers and have a yearning for knowledge.

Lã Thị Sáng, 76, lives 10 kilometres away. It takes her nearly one hour to go to class by bus, but she has never missed a single lesson in the past four years.

“Whether it rains or shines, I still go to class. Learning is fun and helps my mind be active. It is good for old people like me,” she says.

Nguyễn Văn Ánh, 81, the only man in the class, says: “When the Venerable Thích Chân Quang set up this class to encourage elderly people to learn English, I was very excited. I wanted to learn new things and improve my knowledge, so I registered to learn right from the first days.”

Ánh and his wife, Nguyễn Thị Lộc, decided to turn a room in their house into a classroom.

Lộc recalls the difficulties she encountered during the first days starting the learning journey again.

“I didn’t know a single word,” the former teacher says.

“But I didn’t want to let our teacher down, so I kept practising reading English words again and again," she says after pronouncing a list of words.

Thanks to her consistent efforts, her pronunciation skills have greatly improved. Her score on an English-learning app even reached 100 points for pronouncing English words correctly.

The class is held every Tuesday in a house in Hai Bà Trưng District, Hà Nội. VNS Photo Minh Phương

Unlike any ordinary English class, the lessons here focus on pronunciation and simple vocabulary to help the students understand basic English.

The textbook titled English for the Elderly was written by the Venerable Thích Chân Quang himself with some lessons on the Buddha's life, making it easier for Buddhist students to understand.

Phùng Hải Yến, 30, teacher of the class, is an office worker in the insurance industry.

She joined the class after being asked to take over a lesson for her busy friend. Despite not being a professional English teacher, she is happy to carry on the job.

"I was so touched by the strong desire to learn of my elderly students," Yến says.

Every week, Yến teaches two English classes for seniors: one on Tuesday morning and one in the afternoon.

There are three offline classes and a few online ones for people who can't attend class in person currently in Hà Nội. Even during the COVID pandemic, the classes were still ongoing, all conducted online.

"It was initially challenging because my elderly students had never studied English. So, in the beginning, I had to teach them repeatedly, carefully, sentence by sentence, and word by word. Then gradually, after one or two months, they naturally fell in love with the language," she says.

Despite the challenges, Yến is happy she has devoted students from whom she can learn many things.

"My students are hard-working. The spirit of hard work and enthusiasm of the old people gives me the motivation to overcome difficulties," Yến says.

"Sometimes, they still ask me for homework at night. Such a spirit of learning encourages me to keep trying to impart a little bit of my meagre knowledge to them."

The journey to conquer English is long and challenging for the special students, but they find it enjoyable and rewarding.

"Just memorising a phrase or a word can excite me," Ánh says.

"Sometimes our family holds a birthday party for our grandchildren. Before, we couldn't sing the song Happy Birthday with them. We just sat there and clapped our hands. But now that the teacher has taught us, we can sing along with them, so it is joyful."

Đà, although her English vocabulary is still modest, says that it still helps her a lot.

"For example, at first when watching television, I couldn't understand anything in English," she says.

"But now, when coming across some English word, we can understand. Or when we go to the airport, we can tell what is sold at a fast food stall and read some signs. This is how we use English in our life." VNS