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Learn a Foreign Language for Better Senior Mental Health

Updated 8/10/15 1:20pm | Good senior health is important as you age in place with Alert1. You want to be in both physical and mental health. Exercising and eating well helps the former. The latter is a bit trickier. There are many studies that have analyzed the aging brain and its functions. Nothing is ever set or certain when it comes to the brain.

Aging comes with a slew of issues. A 2012 study found that adults aged 65 and over are less likely to receive mental health services. This is in comparison to their younger counterparts.

Like a muscle, seniors should exercise their brains. You can be proactive about your aging. You should be proactive about your aging. And, like all exercise, it can come in many forms.

I offer one such form: learn a new language. There are several benefits, and the process of learning a language can be fun. The old adage “an old dog can’t learn new tricks” definitely does not apply in this case. 

Why Learn a Foreign Language?

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You don’t need to be a diplomat or Noah Webster (of dictionary fame) to have a reason to learn a language. If senior mental health is our main concern then learning a foreign language can definitely make a difference.

Brain cognition supplement.

  • Cognition definitely takes a hit as you age. Studies have shown that learning a foreign language can improve senior cognitive abilities. Bilingual people were better at areas of reading and general intelligence than English-only speakers.

Dementia care plan.

  • Dementia, and in its more famous form, Alzheimer's, challenges our thinking and reasoning ability. Senior citizens appear to be the target demographic affected by dementia. In 2012, 1 in 8 seniors had dementia, which is 5.4 million people. Studies have shown that bilingual folks have pushed the onset of dementia away by 4.5 years. That’s definitely a significant amount of time with your loved ones.

Beyond the health benefits, the practical benefits of learning a new language are just as alluring.

Travel. 

  • This one’s a no brainer. A large reason why people learn a foreign language is to travel. Seniors can travel domestically and engage in foreign language conversations amid the American melting pot. Try that new Brazilian restaurant around the corner and recognize the Portuguese on your menu. Or, be a host to a foreign exchange student. You can meet visitors and build a senior network of global friends. There is nothing else that helps put things in perspective like understanding another’s way of life. On our journey in life we should never stop the learning. That’s when you have truly retired. So, learn something from someone who is from somewhere else.

Confidence. 

  • Like practicing any skill or sport, the process of constant repetition with a goal in mind builds confidence. It’s inevitable. Learning a foreign language is no different. The process may be challenging. You’ll be using prepositions that don’t make sense in a sentence. You will fumble at pronunciation. Vocabulary will escape you as fast as the native speaker is conversing with you. The key is understanding that this is all normal. It’s part of the process. Allow yourself to fumble. Allow yourself to mess up. It’s part of the fun.
  • And, if at this point in life, you haven’t learned how laugh at yourself, well now is as good a time as any to do so. With each new accomplishment, each new sentence formulated, seniors can sharpen their minds. Depression among seniors has taken an all-time high. Use this opportunity to stave off not only dementia but bouts of sadness.

How do you say “I love you” in French?

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How do you get started learning a new language? This list, though not exhaustive, is a start. The methods to learning a language do not have to be memorization. Read on and find what works best for you.

Language exchange. 

Community college courses.

  • If you are not able to study on your own, take classes at your local community college. The group setting is ideal for practicing. The pace is brisk and not intensive. There are online courses through the school available as well.

Immersion programs. 

  • For seniors seeking world wide travel, there are immersive programs abroad. You will first have classroom time learning the foreign language. Then, you spend the afternoon volunteering with a local NGO. This is an opportunity not only to surround yourself in the language but also progress at light speed.

 

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Just as you are deciding on your aging in place plan, decide how you will best learn your new language. This journey does not have to be a lonely one. Learn alongside your grandkids. Have fun learning how to pronounce the Estonian greeting tere hommikust. For lefties, finally know what it feels like to write from right to left in Arabic without smudging the ink. Soon, your senior mental health can be a journey of eating, praying and loving with a worldwide community.