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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Foreign Languages and Aging Brains

My husband and I have started taking a Spanish class. Why you might ask? Several reasons. First, and most importantly, our son and his fiancĂ© are planning a wedding in the Dominican Republic where some of her family lives. We thought it would be nice to be able to communicate with some of the bride’s family in their native language. And a little Spanish might be helpful on the trip, ordering food and drink, and so forth.

Second, we thought learning another language could be good for our brains.  And finally, how hard can it be? Everyone says Spanish is one of the easier languages to learn and we already know a lot of Spanish words: “queso”, “vino” and “gracias”. Food, drink, and thanks—I’m thinking all we need to know is how do you say, “Check, please?”

So why is it so hard to learn the rest of the language? Regular and irregular verbs, matching the genders and number of adjectives and nouns.  And what’s with all the inanimate objects having to be masculine or feminine? Seems in English we are removing gender even from words that refer to people. Police officer instead of policeman or woman. How gauche to call a flight attendant a steward or stewardess. So why in Spanish do I have to learn whether the table and chairs are masculine or feminine? No one answers that question.

I suppose my disgruntlement with the difficulties of learning another language stems in part from the fact that I was never very good at learning another language, at least not a spoken language. I was never all that good at memorizing anything. Maybe I should just acknowledge I’m happy to be sort of fluent in English.  

Studying Spanish verbs at my age is at least as hard as when I was trying to memorize spelling words and multiplication tables back when I was in grammar school. I was so slow to memorize those things my mother in her exasperation would hit me in the head with the vocabulary and multiplication cards. It didn’t help me to remember but it did make me dislike studying.

In four years of high school Latin, I eventually learned to translate the written word. Not too surprisingly, there wasn’t much call for speaking Latin, a dead language. And to top it off, the nuns who taught us Latin, taught us to speak based on what some expert believed was Cicero’s pronunciation. Incidentally, this Ciceronian pronunciation does not correspond with Church Latin, legal Latin or any other known pronunciation. Whatever the pronunciation, I did not excel at spoken Latin. And I remember very little of it now. Thank goodness, I haven’t run into Cicero and had to try to say whatever the Latin equivalent is for “Hola”. 

In college I studied two years of German. By my second year I could read Herman Hesse in the original German without needing to translate. Not too surprising since again my language classes had focused on the written rather than the spoken word.

My verbal skills in German lagged far behind. This was despite the fact my grandparents and my father were native German speakers. Probably though, hearing German at a young age resulted in my ability to reproduce German sounds fairly easily. But other than a very few memorized words and phrases, (“Guten Tag, mein herr” for example) which sound fairly authentic, I am clueless in German. When push comes to shove, I’m quickly revealed as a Deutsche-fraud.

On a European trip when we changed planes in Munich I said a few words in German to a TSA-type official who was digging through the gestalt-like mess in my luggage. The Frau-in-Charge, unlike her French counterpart in Paris, did not politely switch to English as I mangled her language. Instead, the Frau-meister gave me a stern lecture in German about German grammar. At least that’s what I think she was doing. I didn’t really understand anything she said.


So what folly is it to think that now, as a senior citizen by most calculations, I will be successful in understanding and learning to speak Spanish? I’m tempted to engage in a slight digression as to whether I’m actually a senior citizen. But I will try to save that detour in our journey to Spanish language land for another post.

Maybe my problem in memorizing is I take too many mental side- trips down the discount aisles. So, anyway, back to learning Spanish with an old brain. We all believe what we’ve been told, that learning a second language is a good challenge to the brain as you get older. Just as we’ve been told lifting weights and running is good for an older person’s physical well being.  Unless you drop dead of a heart attack first.

And no one talks about how damn hard it is to learn new words in a language you’d never even heard until you were middle aged. Or how painful it is to walk around the track, let alone run, when you’re in your 60’s and have bursitis in your hips and arthritis in your knees. I must be in the senior citizen category and entitled to some of those discounts if the exercise, mental or physical, is that painful.

Now that I’m sort of a senior citizen, everything makes my brain hurt. I’ve long since solved the problem of not remembering spelling words and multiplication tables with Spellcheck and a calculator on my cell phone. So now I’ve also downloaded iTranslate. Who needs a smart, young brain when you have a smart phone? Too bad there isn’t a smart phone App that replaces exercise.

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