Shalom, Bienvenue, Velkommen, or Bienvenido. Whatever language you speak, adding a second language to your vocabulary is a welcome addition at any age. Some would assume that venturing into the golden years closes up the opportunity to learn a second language, but studies show that, in fact, you can teach an old dog new tricks.
“Recent brain research has demonstrated that our brains remain plastic well into old age. Adults have a wide vocabulary in their language and are better language learners than children,” wrote linguist and language enthusiast, Steve Kaufmann. He has learned four additional languages since turning 55 years old.
If you are looking for a way to sharpen your mental skills, build confidence, or add interest to your day, learning a new language may be just the ticket. Here are three reasons why.
1. Brain Calisthenics
As with activities such as crossword puzzles or Sudoku, the process of learning a second language exercises the brain and keeps it running fit. Some studies have shown that learning a second language helps “trigger” an adult brain with new information. Such a practice helps stave off the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
As a cognitive neuroscientist and an expert in tracking the positive effects of bilingualism in adults, Dr. Ellen Bialystok has found that the regular use of two languages delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms, among other benefits.
2. Builds rock star confidence
In a society that is tempted to merely pat seniors on the head and sequester them to the nearest rocking chair, acquiring language skills creates an empowering attitude for older adults. At a time when it seems the world doesn’t need the skills a senior once relied on for a self-sufficient, independent life, gaining new skills in a second language adds a renewed sense of value.
Learning a new language creates immediate rewards and trackable progress. Plus, it’s a cool way to impress people. Of course, relying on the admiration of others as a motivator for learning a second language has its limitations, but there is something to said for stopping your overprotective adult child who’s about to order for you at the Mexican restaurant by saying, “Hey, I’ve got this.”
3. Talk some sass with class
And I do mean “class” in a literal sense. Learning a second language in a social setting creates great opportunities for fellowship. Sharing the same goal of learning a second language creates a base for all sorts of social activities both within an assisted-living community and beyond. Learning a language introduces one to a new culture and cuisine, as well as exciting possibilities for discovery.
For example, the staff at most assisted-living facilities would be thrilled to teach a class on how to make empanadas or host an Italian lunch. As residents progress in their language class, they could watch popular soap operas in Spanish, listen to a concert or opera in German or Italian, or enjoy a big soccer match being announced in Portuguese.
“At St. Joseph Villa, we love the elements that diversity brings to our facility, and we enjoy celebrating different cultures and languages,” said Marketing Director Layna Hassell. “We want all of our residents to feel comfortable and confident that when they need to communicate with members of our staff in the language in which they feel most able, we are available to listen, understand, and help.”
At a time when it seems older adults are limited by what they can do, the one activity that knows no boundaries is the gift of learning. By making the decision to learn a second language, seniors will strengthen mental functioning, build self-confidence, and encourage friendships. That’s a good thing in any language.
A version of this article was published by Daily Herald. It has been republished here with permission.