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Profile of a Lifelong Learner: Burke C.

Here at ICLS, we love getting to hear about how language can become a lifelong learning journey for people all around the world! So we were so excited for the chance to sit down with lifelong Spanish learner Burke C. to hear all about his language adventures. Whether you’re learning Spanish or looking for inspiration for your next travel adventure, Burke’s story is sure to inspire. Ready to learn? Check out our language classes for mature adults today.

First encounters with Spanish

Burke’s first encounter with the Spanish language occurred when he enrolled in beginner classes at a local community college in upstate New York. His initial motivation was to exercise his brain, something language learning does beautifully — but he also wanted to explore Central and South America. As an engineer who specialized in sunrooms and greenhouses, Burke’s attraction to warm and lush places was no surprise.

At this point, his experience with language learning was limited. He had taken five years of French in high school but did not remember any of it.

Or so he thought:

“When I started learning Spanish, I realized languages are stored in the same box. I would go to pull out a Spanish word, and a French word that I would have never thought of in a million years would pop out!”

Learning Spanish in Nicaragua

In 2006, Burke took his first trip to Nicaragua, where he worked as a volunteer with Bridges to Community, helping build houses for those struggling with homelessness. This trip gave him a chance to put his Spanish to work.

“The courses gave me the structure of Spanish, then I started using it and working on it when I did the volunteer work”, he added.

At first, his language was mainly construction-related. He could name any tool on the job site before saying anything else. He quickly made friends who helped him improve, and he even picked up some slang along the way. Burke combined this immersive experience with some additional structured practice.

“I would also study on my own, the 501 Spanish Verbs book was my friend, and I had Word Reference on my phone.”

Burke attended a celebration dinner at the end of his first trip as a volunteer. His hosts showed him a great of water where he could enjoy rowing, and they took him to the city of Granada, which he immediately fell in love with.

“All these things combined made me want to come back. I had found myself a second home.” 


Building a second home

Burke participated in a few more of those volunteering projects. Then in 2008, he bought a run-down house in Granada and spent the following 14 years fixing it up.

At the moment, Burkes lives in Nicaragua for about 4 months of the year. He’s planning on renting out his house on Airbnb when he’s not using it until he is ready to retire there with his wife, a Nicaraguan whom he met in Granada in 2017.

His frequent trips to the country and being married to a native speaker have helped his Spanish quite a bit. However, Burke continues to supplement these authentic interactions with more formal practice activities:

“I spend a lot of time having conversations in my head, and when I come to a word I don’t know, I look it up. That’s how I expand my vocabulary. It’s not always easy. I learn and forget and relearn a lot.”

Burke’s approach to language learning illustrates how adults are more self-regulated than younger students. While an adult’s memory might not be as good as a child’s, adult learners make up for the difference with their ability to self-manage their learning.

Burke’s tips for lifelong language learning

When asked whether he has any tips for adult language learners, Burke shared the following advice:

“Have conversations as often as possible. In my experience, conversations are more effective than rote learning events. And you’ll have to stick to it. It’s work. It is intellectually challenging, especially if you push yourself.”

Although Burke remains humble about his current proficiency, he shared that he can now engage in conversations, even occasionally crack a joke or understand one. This is no ordinary milestone. According to researchers Roberts and Kreuz, who study adult language acquisition, understanding and using humor is commonly considered the point at which you can consider yourself fluent.

Fluent or not, Burke shared his satisfaction with his proficiency and expressed his plan to continue improving upon it.

“I’m happy with where I am now. My goal was to get to know people better, and you can’t do that if you don’t speak the language. It’s all about the journey; there is not an endpoint; you go in to participate.”

Lifelong Learning at ICLS: Language classes for mature adults 

Inspired to start your language-learning journey? Whether you’re looking to dip your toes into a new culture, prepare for an upcoming trip, or boost your professional skills, ICLS has a language class to help you become a lifelong learner! Our highly experienced, top-tier instructors will make sure you achieve your goals and have fun while doing so. 

Our Lifelong Language Program offers 6-week online language classes for mature adults centered on travel and culture themes in French, Spanish, and Italian. 

And if you’re looking for a more intensive experience, try our 10-week Online Group Language Courses. Choose between courses in Arabic, Chinese, French, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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