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Anti-Age the Brain by Learning a New Language

By Kerry Baker for the NABBW

Learning a second language has the same benefits to the brain as programs for purchase, such as Lumosity. New, often free tools make learning a new language easier and much more fun.

Kerry BakerLast year, in pursuit of re-invention and to preserve my next egg, I decided to move to Mazatlan, Mexico. While Spanish is not required to live here, I love the language and began its study in earnest after being away from it for 30 years.

In addition to the greater ease in navigating my new environment, I was delighted to read evidence that learning a second language  protects your brain from cognitive problems even if you learn it later in life.  Consider it a “workout for your brain,” the reports said. Sound familiar?

Not long ago, my favorite radio station started advertising Lumosity, the cognitive training program for the brain. Among it’s claims are that it can improve your processing speed, cognitive flexibility, verbal and visual declarative memory scores. While the jury seems to still be out on Lumosity, studies on learning a second language closely mirror the benefits of the program as they describe it.

Studies have shown that those who speak two or more languages have significantly better cognitive abilities compared to what would have been expected from baseline tests.

The strongest effects were seen in general intelligence and reading.  The effects were present in those who learned their second language later in life as much as when young.

Think you are too old to learn a second language? Think again.  A Medical News Today article about the advantages that adults have over children in learning a second language summarizes it in this way, “Archaic and downright false assumptions about brain plasticity have discouraged older people from learning foreign languages for far too long.”

learning-SpanishWhere do you start?  When the thought of Moving to Mexico was just the tiniest of a speck in my subconscious, I had the good fortune of finding a wonderful beginners’ Meetup Spanish practice group. MeetUps take place in cities all over the country in every imaginable category.

Look for groups that meet during the day, which attracts older and retired people who are more patient and genuinely there to learn.

Set in a coffee shop, my twice a week gathering was our own  Parisian Cafe, where we’d hang out for hours trying to tackle about every subject under the sun in Spanish, often with funny results ( I once accidently asked the group’s 80 year-old patriarch if he liked to dress in leather.  He has Parkinson’s, is uncontestibly the hippest person there, and laughed until he cried. It doesn’t get better than that.)

Neither tapes nor learning programs will put you under the pressure necessary to actually speak the language out loud. Practice groups are necessary, social and keep you motivated to keep studying. I’ve made some of my best friends there. There are always native speakers sprinkled in to keep us honest.

The study tools available are endless.  Lumosity uses puzzles, games and quizzes to make it more fun.  Today’s language tools do the same. For beginners in my group, the formal learning program that gets the highest marks is  Pimsleur.  Many also enjoy Duolingo, which  introduces a gaming element and allows you to compete with friends who are learning.

A few members like telenovelas, Spanish language soap operas shown on Spanish-speaking television networks. In a similar vein, if you subscribe to Netflix, you might try  Mad Men for its telenovela pace, plus there’s a pause button. Yabla is another video based online program and costs about $6.00/month if you like visual learning.

Once a week, I Skype with a language partner in Spain whom I found through the on-line program “My Language Exchange.” The mechanics of the site are much like dating sites.  You provide search parameters and reach out for partners by age, gender, nationality and what language you want to practice. The site offers lesson guides to share if you need them.

There are many language learning podcasts. When I was getting started, my favorite was  Coffee Break Spanish. Televised from Scotland, it was my favorite both because it is organized in 20 minute bites, and because Spanish spoken with Scottish brogue made me laugh. They have French and German programs as well.

The incontestable top prize for free online-learning programs goes to Audiria, which offers a free mix of stories, videos, movie trailers, cooking lessons, short and long phrases to try. You can read half page lessons, listen to them in audio and test. This program is especially good for intermediate learners.

You gain vocabulary faster than your ability to speak. If you are a reader, reading books takes you to a new level. If you are an intermediate, pick teen books translated from English, like “The Hunger Games. ”

Scheduling a trip will also keep you motivated. Before a ski trip to France years ago, my husband and I decided to learn some French and took flashcards with us whenever we took longer drives.

The takeaway is to look as what you enjoy doing in your life; watching television, reading, finding music on Youtube, and you can probably find a free language tool out there that mirrors it, making the process more enjoyable.  After a few wins in your practice group, you’ll be hooked.

For more, see my blogs on learning the language on my site, www.ventanasmexico.com

Kerry Baker is a partner in Ventanas Mexico, Mazatlan which helps single women explore living full or part-time in Mexico. She is responsible for marketing, research and program planning and maintains United States-based accounting/business operations for Ventanas Mexico in Denver, Colorado.  Kerry has 12 years experience as Development Director for the Boy Scouts of America and 10 years consulting experience in San Diego and Washington, D.C.  She has a Bachelors degree majoring in Spanish from the University of Oklahoma and is CFRE (Certified Fundraising Executive).

NABBW Contributing Author

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