Language learning for seniors — your path to a younger mind
Delaying Alzheimer’s and dementia can be an intimidating task – but for many, it is possible. Part of maintaining healthy brain function lies in consistently challenging and expanding the mind. When not pushed or lugged into a dull routine, a person increases his or her risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia.
No one wants to watch their loved ones, or themselves, go through the process of forgetting who they are, where they are from, and other specific details about their life.
As more research is done, it is increasingly apparent that learning a second language can delay or stall the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Learning a new language certainly qualifies as sufficient brain activity.
In fact, according to Alzheimers.net, speaking a second language is an incredible tool in the fight against both Alzheimer’s and dementia. In the study noted, participants who spoke a second language were able to delay symptoms of the diseases by an average of 4.5 years.
How the brain benefits from language learning
As the brain works to translate between the languages internally, it is able to at the same time push away symptoms of the diseases. While it’s not entirely known why this happens, the evidence is clear.
Those who fail to exercise their brain or challenge the way they think and live don’t receive the symptom-delaying benefits of polyglots.
Part of the reason behind the increased brain function may stem from the fact that when hearing and speaking a second language, the speaker is more disengaged from the emotions that go along with the words – i.e. they don’t have specific memories triggered or personal ways of saying something when it comes to phrases, words, and stories they hear in that language.
This all sounds great – but what is the best way to learn a second language late in life? The process of learning the new language can help the brain stay on top of memories, abstract thinking and phrasing of sentences, and general alertness.
You may have learned this lesson over and over in your life, but here it is again: exercise pays off. This line of thought is particularly true when it comes to challenging the brain.
Learning a new language is kind of like learning to play basketball, especially at an older age. At first, it’s tough, frustrating, and often makes you feel sore. You’re using your brain in a way that you haven’t before.
But with time, speaking foreign words and stringing them together into sentences starts to feel routine and even enjoyable. The trickiest part is sticking it out through those initial tough moments.
The brain continues to develop, even on days when we don’t do much productive thinking. When challenged, the brain responds positively and ‘learns’ from the experience, making it better prepared it for next time.
It is now believed by a growing number of experts that learning a second language is no harder when you’re older. That said, it still takes motivation and dedication.
Do older language learners have any advantages?
We’ve all heard that saying, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’
We’re here to call that saying a bunch of baloney. Language learning should be a game, much like playing chess, or any other activity that challenges your mind.
When younger people begin to learn a new language, is used to be thought that because they are young, the material ‘sticks’ with them better than it does with older language learners.
As we discussed above, this is false – you indeed have the advantage of more experience learning and challenging yourself.
Older language learners also have the benefit of experience when it comes to choosing how they want to learn a language.
While there are a number of apps and software programs that make promises of learning a new language in a month, or with only five minutes a day of practice, older language learners have heard enough commercials and promotions in their lives that you can easily discern what is true and what isn’t.
And as you can probably guess, five minutes a day is not enough time to learn much of anything.
Before getting started, think about what you most enjoy when it comes to absorbing new material and media. What has worked for you in school? In work? Apply those techniques to learning a new language.
Immersive language learning for delaying Alzheimer’s and dementia
At Live Lingua, we believe we’ve found a path to delaying Alzheimer’s and dementia: immersive lessons with native speakers, taken from anywhere in the world.
Immersive language learning is one of the most effective techniques for learning a new language, especially later in life.
Direct, one-on-one communication with a native speaker of the language helps students engage in a productive manner, with everything from conversation to study habits personalized to an individual’s preference and style.
The engagement factor is what really gets it – instead of simply studying grammar and pronunciation, immersive lessons are entirely built around the student.
The teacher gets to know the student, and vice versa, allowing not only for a more natural flow of conversation but also for an actual relationship that can serve as a motivator.
In addition to learning a second language, we encourage adults to regularly stir the pot when it comes to intellectual engagement. Play board games, partake in trivia nights and community events and have an active presence in the community.
The idea is to keep the brain active and the mind alert – which certainly doesn’t happen when much of a person’s time is spent sitting in front of the TV.
The thought of learning a new language can seem intimidating, especially the further along one gets in life. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Immersive lessons remove any factors of intimidation and replace them with friendship and comfort.
Progress is made at the students’ personal pace – there’s no pressure to keep up or deadlines to meet, and there’s never a worry of the end of the class standing as a pass or fail moment.
A few words of encouragement
Turn it into a game!
Above we have a simple French tongue twister. Fun activities like this make all the difference when it comes to challenging the mind.
Learning a language is tough. Even if you have great teachers and excellent curriculum it takes a good amount of sweat and tears to forge ahead. Here’s a story from my experience as an older language learner (I was in my 50s) that will hopefully give you the encouragement you need to continue.
My undergraduate program had a unique option for those of us trying to become ESL teachers. We could student teach in the US for a semester or we could travel overseas for the summer to teach and immerse ourselves in culture. For me, the decision was a no-brainer.
I was young, adventurous, and ready for risk. Without thinking twice I willingly signed up for an internship in Siberia, Russia.
What I failed to read in tiny little print at the bottom of the “About This Internship” page was that I would also be a language student. I had unknowingly signed up for six weeks of Russian language lessons in addition to ten weeks of teaching.
I’ll be the first to admit my reaction to this news was fear. Living in landlocked America at the time I spoke only one language fluently: English.
What little high school instruction I had in a foreign language had produced a mediocre French accent amid pathetic attempts to speak the language. I’m pretty sure I spent more time talking with friends then soaking up French.
I imagined myself slinking into a room of young children who matched my language skill level and being wedged into a primary chair for eight hours a day. That first morning when I walked up the staircase to enter my eight hours of bondage, I felt like a stupid tourist. And then I rounded the corner and saw her.
Standing before me, with a smile as broad as the sun and compassionate warmth radiating from her was Svetlana. She was old enough to be my grandmother and gave me a gigantic hug as soon as we met. I think I actually let out a sigh of relief as we settled into our chairs.
What ensued over the next few weeks was an endless amount of one-on-one practice and homework. She was a relentless grammar perfectionist and I was a fumbling, bumbling student but we slowly worked through the never-ending stream of tenses and conjugations.
Each day I would leave with a pile of homework but it was Svetlana who kept me returning day after day after day.
More than any of the other people I met in Russia or the classes that I taught, it was Svetlana who made a truly lasting impression. What I learned from her was a simple truth that students of language can often forget: learning a language should be an exercise of joy. She kept it fun and encouraging.
My “a-ha” moment came later in the summer while sitting on a train. There was a vendor behind me making his way up and down the rows. I looked at my seatmate and shouted, “Toothpaste! He’s selling toothpaste, right?” In the middle of the chaotic noises of a Russian train, I had absorbed and understood what was going on. Svetlana would have been proud.
For the family members of older language learners
If you are helping someone in your family — maybe a parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle — learn a new language, here is some advice from my experience.
My mother-in-law is Filipino. She comes from the city of Iloilo on Panay island. She is a spirited, bright, and creative individual who embraces her culture.
While she lives in America, she resides in the Midwest and my husband, children and I live in Southern California. Our main means of communicating with my in-laws is through video chat on Skype, just like we use for language lessons at Live Lingua.
We call them periodically and the kids flash pictures of artwork, sing them new songs they are learning, and connect with their grandparents on a virtual level.
We try to make it as personal as possible but sometimes my heart aches when my young daughter reaches out to touch them and her fingers hit a cold tablet screen.
Because my mother-in-law is not from America, she is considered bi-lingual. She speaks fluent English as well as Tagalog, her native Filipino language.
Tagalog is the official language of the Philippines and, although there are regional dialects, most Filipino people can speak Tagalog fluently.
My husband and I have a strong desire for our kids to be bi-lingual. We feel that it will only serve to broaden their horizons and (quite luckily) we live in a school system that has total immersion language learning.
Even though my husband is Filipino, his mother did not pass down the language to her children. Hopefully we will win the school lottery next fall and my son will be enrolled in a language immersion school.
Tonight we were video chatting with my in-laws and suddenly the lights went on in my head. My son could easily video chat with his grandmother and have very personable, fun language learning sessions from his Lola (grandmother).
Even if it’s just a couple of hours a month that broadens his horizons to think beyond the English language, it will be worth the time and effort.
As students of language we can be so focused on the details of language learning that we forget to think outside of the box when it comes to language practice. This especially happens with our children.
We can be to intent upon enrolling them in the best schools that we can easily overlook the current relationships in their life that will help them learn language faster and better than any program.
Although it seems like an obvious reminder, don’t forget to include grandparents into the language learning mix!
Beyond video chat, you can ask grandparents to only speak their native language to your children. This works best when the child is young and still mapping out language in their head.
If they expect a new set of language sills each time they interact with grandma or grandpa they will begin making connections.
If possible, you can visit the homeland of your parents or in-laws as a multi-generational family trip. This will give your children a chance to see and understand their cultural heritage.
If you are fortunate enough to have non-native English speakers in your family, don’t forget about them! As the relationship guides the language learning, your children will learn a depth of valuable information.
Language learning resources
We hope you’ll browse around our website a bit more – we offer a number of great language learning resources and information on how to learn a language online.
We offer immersive lessons in the eleven most highly spoken languages in the world, any of which works towards delaying Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Additionally, the following free workbook and audio files will help you get started with language learning, at any age.
And, sign up for our FREE Spanish Survival Crash Course and have learning material, tips, audio lessons, and more sent right to your inbox: