Bilingual Skills = Food for the Brain
I’ve begun balancing my physical practice (yoga and PT exercises) with some juicy food for the brain — relearning a second language… Here’s why.
Last summer the BBC and NPR summarized medical research into activities that can make even adult brains more resilient and youthful. Learning and speaking a second language on a regular basis can slow down the aging of your brain. (There’s clinical evidence for these assertions.)
Actively using a second language has been proven to postpone or reduce the onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia by five years or so.
Unfortunately for former language majors like me, there’s no lasting impact from college studies, if you don’t actively use — or practice — a second language in your normal daily life.
Use It or Lose It
The NPR and BBC broadcasts were a wake-up call; I was once fluent in French, semi-fluent in Spanish. I had even passed the entrance exam to the Sorbonne, a rare accomplishment for an American student without a French parent. But that was then…
Since college I have had few occasions to practice French or Spanish. Earlier in my career I worked at a couple of French trade shows, and hosted some French speakers who were meeting with my employer.
These days my French and Spanish skills have largely evaporated, for lack of use. Some foreign travel, lots of movies, but no sustained practice.
The good news: My oral comprehension gets much better after a few weeks’ immersion, especially for French, my stronger language; the bad news: vocabulary recall and verb conjugations have disappeared into the ether.
¡Hola! Buenas dias.
I’m starting to fight back, starting with Spanish — a practical and arguably more useful language for Americans. As much as I love French, it’s hard to argue about the practicality of Spanish for people who live on this side of the Atlantic.
My husband and I have decided to vacation in Mexico this spring, partly because it’s easier to visit Mexico from here, and partly because it’s the perfect excuse to relearn Spanish.
I pulled the trigger and invested in a multi-media beginner-to-advanced language course. The drill-and-practice disk is now in the CD player.
I’ve begun with basic written and oral exercises. I’ve finished lesson 2, “la gente y la familia,” and am now moving up to numbers. If all goes well, I’ll be able to handle basic interactions in Sayulita this year.
Context versus Content
Relearning this language is proving to be a curious experience. I find myself remembering many of the subtleties: the rules of grammar, verb tenses and gender-matching, but I’ve forgotten most of the words.
I know when to use the subjunctive or the past present tense, but not how to conjugate a verb into those tenses. I also understand that these more nuanced expressions are less and less common in daily parlance.
So I have retained the context, but lost the content. Ironically, the concepts that are hardest for native English speakers to grasp are clear to me, because I still remember the “algorithms” for the Spanish language… In this regard my former French skills make it easier to relearn Spanish.
As for my husband, who never took any Spanish classes, he plans to defer language learning until retirement. His German skills are rusty, his French skills good enough to follow my slow conversations…
In the meantime he’s hopeful that I’ll be able to serve as our joint linguistic chauffeur to Mexico and elsewhere.
Estoy aprendiendo español.