Why Seniors Learn a New Language in Retirement
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Retirement is the perfect time to expand your horizons, take on new interests and build new skills. One of the most productive activities older adults can engage in for overall well-being is learning a foreign language. It can open up an entirely new world and even give them a newfound sense of purpose. Perhaps more importantly, there are significant cognitive and social benefits of learning a foreign language, backed by years of scientific research. As research progresses, the reasons more and more seniors are learning a foreign language at an older age become clearer.
The Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language
Reducing the Risk of Dementia
A variety of studies consistently find that learning a foreign language at an older age both reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, and can slow brain deterioration in seniors who have forms of dementia. Today, modern research gives us a better idea of how. According to the American Academy of Neurology, speaking more than one language increases the number of neural pathways in the brain, allowing information to be processed through a greater variety of channels. In one study, CT scans of two groups of seniors at the same stage of Alzheimer’s, a monolingual group and a bilingual group, those fluent in two or more languages showed higher cognitive ability and brain function.
In many of the same studies concluding that learning a new language can protect against Alzheimer’s disease, it was also found that multilingual people have better memory retention and are less prone to memory loss. Though one of the most compelling studies on language-memory connection focused on young people, it showed that multilingual participants’ brains pulled memories more easily and quicker than monolingual participants. When the brain is forced to recall specific words in multiple languages, the areas responsible for storing and retrieving information become stronger, much like a muscle strengthens by exercising.
Increasing the Ability to Multitask
When learning a foreign language, parts of the brain like the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for complex thought, are more actively engaged. This “executive function,” as it’s called, part of our brains is responsible for focusing attention. The brains of those who speak more than one language, and especially those who are learning a foreign language at an older age, constantly exercise executive function to prevent two or more languages from interfering with each other. All that exercise has been shown to help a multilingual person better process multiple sources of information, as well as better focus attention on multiple sources. Basically, because multilingual people are forced to switch between multiple languages, their brain naturally becomes better at focusing on multiple tasks.
Learning a new language opens up new pathways in the brain. It encourages your brain to make unfamiliar word associations, essentially utilizing both the left and right side of the brain. Just like how parts of the brain are activated to improve multitasking and problem-solving abilities, different parts are activated to think in more creative ways. A monolingual person is more likely to think of a single word to convey a thought, while multilingual people are more likely to experiment with new words and phrases to convey the same thought. This kind of “reaching” that happens in the brains of multilingual people is the same process that occurs in creative thinking.
Gain opportunities for Socialization
The benefits of learning a foreign language at an older age go beyond exercising the brain. Like learning any other skill, learning a new language provides a sense of reward and boosts confidence. In turn, this tends to give many seniors a boost in their social lives. Plus, the actual process of learning a new language provides plenty of opportunities to socialize. Taking classes with other like-minded people and practicing a newly learned language with native speakers are the best ways to become fluent – and make friends along the way.
Looking for a community of people who love to learn (or re-learn) a foreign language? Our senior living community in Salt Lake City has regular Spanish language classes and residents can join together to create groups to learn languages and new cultures. Explore our activities calendar.