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Can Learning a Second Language Delay Dementia? I Sure Hope So!

For the past few months Lisa and I have been sitting down after dinner to study Italian. We’ve got one of those online courses and so for about 45 minutes to an hour, we parli Italiano. Why, you might ask? Well, because this fall we’re going to Italy for awhile and we thought it would be nice to try to converse a bit.

Oh, we won’t be fluent by any stretch, but it’s great fun, and since we’re mostly staying in Airbnb’s in some out-of-the-way places, we can’t expect everybody to cater to us. We don’t want to be ‘those’ Americans. And unlike us, many Europeans are conversant in English, German, French, etc. as a second or even third language, but making an effort might open some doors, or even land us an extra bicchiere di vino or help us catch il treno.

We’ll be spending some time with our cousins exploring the Trentino region where my Grandmother grew up, so that will be another chance to polish our dialect. When I was growing up my Grandmother, Mom and Aunt all spoke Italian around the house. Most families spell things they don’t want little ears to hear. Until they learn to spell. My folks kept me in the dark by speaking Italian. Until I wised up. It’s been a long time since those days but bits and pieces float to the surface while we’re doing our lessons. It’s been a lot of fun while sharpening our mind a little. 

Speaking of which – The Wall Street Journal recently published an article entitled ‘Language-Learning Apps Translate to Cognitive Benefits’. An analysis of research published in 2020 found that bilingual people developed symptoms of dementia four-to-six years later than monolingual people. And you don’t have to achieve fluency to benefit (Whew!), you just have to try. Learning a new language develops new neural pathways to counter age-related deterioration, according to this study. 

While teens and young adults are the biggest users of language apps, older adults are increasingly using apps like Babbell, Duolingo, Pimsleur and others. They also use them more frequently, tend to stick with them longer, and often pursue interests in multiple languages even without any intent to visit those countries. They cite reasons like ease of use – you can learn from home, at your convenience, and for very little cost. It’s also good fun and entertaining, while you train your brain. Of course learning from an app is not as effective as moving to Italy, but it’s a lot easier and cheaper. They also encourage augmenting the interactive app by seeking out and having conversations with others who speak the language.

Other studies caution against viewing bilingualism as insurance against dementia but agree that there’s really no downside to learning another language. Physical exercise remains the most effective thing you can do to improve brain function but the ‘use it or lose it’ adage applies just as much to brain fitness as it does to physical fitness.

So while my level of forgetfulness appears to be well advanced some days, apparently learning another language may help forestall further deterioration. And we’ll be traveling and conversing with native speakers, which is supposed to be even better. Heck, maybe somebody ought to enroll old Uncle Joe in a course. Can’t hurt. They say it doesn’t matter how old you are when you start, you will attain some benefit from the effort. One can only hope that’s true. 

Meanwhile, we’re having a ball, tossing off lines to each other inviting a gioco di carte or cosa c’è per cena. My old Nona would be so happy. So to you and yours, che tu possa avere un anno benedetto davanti e goditelo due barattoli di passata di pomodoro. Hey, I’m still learning! Arrivaderci.

Written by Gene Wunderlich, Sr. Staff Writer

Prior to his retirement in 2021, Wunderlich served on a number of local non-profits and boards. He spent the past decade as a legislative advocate for the housing and real estate industries as well as a coalition of local Chambers of Commerce advocating on behalf of small and local businesses.

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