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Sharpen Your Brain by Learning a New Language

If you'd like to do this, here are some resources that can help.

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gif of post-its on apple with the word "apple" in different languages
Elena Lacey
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As someone about to turn 50, I’m well aware that, along with my body, my brain isn’t 25 anymore. That became more evident recently when a friend asked me on a Monday what I did over the weekend and I drew a complete blank. I decided it was time to give my brain a boost.

Like staying physically fit, maintaining cognitive health — how well we think, learn, and remember — is essential as we age. The brain is like a muscle that loses functionality if it’s not exercised.  So, knowing I was about to cross the half-century line, I was on the search for the perfect exercise for my aging brain.

I knew all too well if I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t stick with it. Crossword puzzles put me to sleep. My fear of numbers took sudoku off the table. I tried to think of something I liked as a kid when it dawned on me: Spanish.

I was first introduced to the language by watching Sesame Street in the 1970s. I loved how certain words just rolled off the tongue, like abierto and cerrado (for “open” and “closed”). I remember the cartoon of an orange monster opening a box only to have it keep slamming shut.

Over the years, I learned a few more basic words but not enough to have a conversation — or even eavesdrop on one. The fact that more than half the world is bilingual (but I’m not) always made me feel like I was missing out. I decided learning Spanish would be my mental workout.

Speaking more than one language isn’t just good for brain health, it can delay the onset of dementia. Researchers at Baycrest, an academic health sciences center, and York University in Toronto found that the constant juggling of languages helps fend off cognitive decline. That’s because the brain can make new connections — known as neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity. Early researchers thought this stopped shortly after birth, but now we know the brain never stops changing in response to learning.

Last fall I enrolled in an online Spanish class that met once a week via Zoom. We hit the ground running, which required my undivided attention. The teacher would call on us at random and we’d have to introduce ourselves, recite the alphabet, and say useful phrases like ¿Puedes hablar más despacio, por favor? (Can you speak more slowly, please?). We also discussed the weather and conjugated lots of verbs.

Even though it was nerve-racking, I enjoyed it. My classmates were friendly and supportive, probably because we were all equally uncomfortable.

After 10 weeks, I’m nowhere near fluent, but that’s OK. A new study published in Aging Neuropsychology and Cognition shows that simply trying to learn another language boosts cognitive function in older adults in a way similar to being bilingual. Turns out, as long as you’re challenged in some way, it’s good for your gray matter.

But fighting off cognitive decline isn’t the only advantage of learning another language. Just ask 75-year-old Marsha Scarbrough, International Living magazine’s Spain correspondent and author of the books Medicine Dance and Honey in the River.

Certified in teaching English as a foreign language, Scarbrough moved to Madrid from the U.S. when she was 70 and has been actively studying Spanish. She’s adamant the benefits go far beyond giving the brain a workout.

“Learning a language requires speaking, listening, reading, and writing,” she told me. “It involves your body. You use muscles in your face, in your mouth, in your throat. It also involves emotion. It’s a lot like learning to dance.”

It can also open up new opportunities for social interaction, which may have additional protective benefits for brain health. “You’re able to communicate with more people, which is good when you’re over 70,” adds Scarbrough. “And now that we’re easing into traveling again, it’s a great way to make friends in a foreign country.”

If you’re thinking about learning a new language, here are some resources that can help.

1) Take a language class. Many are available online or in person at local schools, community education centers and public libraries. “When I first arrived in Spain, I took classes every day for the first couple of weeks,” says Scarbrough. “I met interesting people living in the country who were in the same position I was in.”

2) Watch shows in another language on TV, Netflix, Amazon Prime or other streaming services. You can turn on the subtitles in the other language so you can hear and read at the same time to learn faster.

3) Use a smartphone app like DuoLingo or Babbel, which offer free games and stories in multiple languages.

4) Listen to podcasts. There are many free podcasts available in other languages at beginner levels, and you can slow down the speed or press pause to look up words.

5) Visit websites such as Meetup.com to find local groups of people who get together and speak the language. Or hire a private teacher to talk with, one-on-one, through Italki.com.

And be sure to check out AARP® Staying Sharp®, an award-winning brain health program, where you can learn how to take control of your brain health. Staying Sharp offers engaging content including articles, recipes, exercise videos, Brain Health Challenges and more that fit into your daily routine.  Staying Sharp’s engaging information and science-based resources are designed to empower you to take control of your brain health as you age, and it’s included with AARP Membership.

As for me, it’s too soon to tell if my brain is sharper. But I do know I took on a big challenge. I started to learn a second language that can benefit me in all sorts of ways. And I had fun along the way.

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