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Why You Should Learn a Second Language at Midlife

On my blog, I’ve discussed how tackling brain-stimulating activities and engaging in sustainable hobbies, such as learning a new language, can help protect your brain and perhaps delay the onset of age-related memory loss. Speaking two languages benefits the aging brain, according to new research, and it can be just as beneficial to learn one later in life as in childhood: In being bilingual, you’re activating a whole range of different mental functions.  Linguists compare the act of switching between languages to a physical workout. Well, my husband and I have decided to follow that advice, ourselves, and are now studying español.

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Although it is commonly accepted that language acquisition is easier for children, adults are better equipped than you might realize. Adult learners are usually more motivated and focused, so don’t limit yourself with a label that you’re too old or not talented enough. At this point, you can draw upon the types of learning strategies that you’ve developed and have been successful for you in the past. Young children, who are totally immersed in the second-language environment, will certainly learn quickly and most likely will not retain an accent, but that doesn’t mean that adults cannot also learn and make progress.

After all, you need to consider your goal. It might be to enhance travel, indulge your passion for another culture, improve communication with in-laws, neighbors or colleagues, open up volunteer opportunities, help a child with homework, bond with your spouse or friend, or simply, take on a new challenge. In all likelihood, you need not become perfectly fluent to accomplish your objective.

Classes and conversation groups are widely available. Check out adult education programs, senior centers, park districts, community centers and the library to see what they offer. You might want to look into online meet ups, too. Classes can be fun and motivating, as well as offering opportunities to make friends and practice. Many people are also using technology by buying programs such as Rosetta Stone. While some people swear by this method, I have heard others complain that it is neither user-friendly nor of of good value, so you will have to judge for yourself.

My husband, Roberto, and I have opted for another method—hiring a private tutor. We found a retired high-school Spanish teacher who is patient and muy simpático. The advantages are that we can customize what we want to study, get more attention and accommodate our fluctuating schedules.

Look for ways to reinforce your learning. We downloaded an app to our iPhones, Span!sh D!ct, which offers useful and fun features such as, word of the day and a list of your favorite words. I ordered some children’s books online for us, Huevos verdes con jamón (Green Eggs and Ham), Buenas Noches, Luna (Good Night, Moon), and Jorge el curioso (Curious George), among others, as well as an instructional tape for my car. Think about downloading a podcast in your target language to listen to while you exercise. We’re not quite ready to enjoy Spanish-speaking television programs, but maybe in a few months, we will be.

I am fortunate to live in a community with a sizable Spanish-speaking population—almost any errand or outing affords me the opportunity to embarrass myself practice my newly-learned vocabulary and make a fool of myself bolster my confidence in speaking. Of course, the best way to make progress is not to worry about making mistakes and certainly, don’t be offended if others correct you.

I don’t want to be remiss by omitting a most effective and enjoyable learning strategy—finding a native-speaking girlfriend or boyfriend. Of course, I am recommending this for those of you who are single!

Finally, for those of you who might be seeking an adventure and a way to take your language study to the next level, you might want to consider a language immersion program in your country of choice. Studying abroad isn’t just reserved for college students, and you needn’t worry about tests or getting credit for your courses. There are a wide variety of programs tailored to older learners, such as Road Scholar and AmeriSpan Study Abroad; you will also enjoy excursions and cultural activities. These trips are great for solo travelers and would be a wonderful experience to share with a grandchild.


Belinda Brock

My background is in teaching and educational publishing. Currently, I am a writing coach working with students who are applying for college, graduate or professional school. I am in the midst of setting up a small publishing company to publish my children's stories. My blog, Grandbooking, focuses on children, books and literacy.

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Belinda brock

Saturday 25th of April 2015

Leah, thanks for your kind comments. It certainly sounds as if you are involved with mentally-engaging activities. If you have the time, I think you would enjoy this post as well:

Leah M. Briick

Thursday 23rd of April 2015

I love that you are taking on a new language. Last year I decided I wanted to learn to play the piano. While not a new language, learning to read music is like reading "Greek" LOL. It is really challenging my brain. In addition I am finishing up my that is a really brain twister.

Loved your column.


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