Sometimes we need a real-life example of how awesome knowing another language — and raising our kids bilingually — can be.

A recent article from The Guardian about older adults was that example for us this week. Written by Emma Sheppard, it’s called, “The care home residents proving it’s never too late to learn a new language.” And it’s amazing.

I (Kaci) have worked in the automotive industry for most of my post-graduate career, but after I had my son, I had a year-long marketing gig in senior living services. In addition, in college, I was a Human Development and Family Sciences major with a focus on Adult/Lifespan Development. During my junior year, I had a semester-long internship at a senior living center. These experiences, combined with being raised in a majority-elderly church, has fostered my love for older adults.

So when I read Sheppard’s article in The Guardian about the intersection of elderly care and language learning, my heart filled with joy.

Language Classes for Older Adults

The Guardian article spotlights a Scotland-based company called Lingo Flamingo. Robbie Norval launched Lingo Flamingo in 2015 to provide therapeutic language learning courses and lessons in French, Italian, German, and Spanish to older adults. Since its inception, it has delivered these lessons to more than 800 people across Scotland.

The lessons are designed with accessibility in mind. For instance, textbooks have large font sizes. Sensory learning is integrated into the curriculum. Even the colors have been carefully selected so that people who have dementia can recognize and relate to them.

Here’s a fun one from the article:

“One group writes postcards to a twinned care home in France, and has held a lesson with local schoolchildren.”

Bilingual Benefits for Older Adults

Lingo Flamingo’s foundations are based upon research, primarily from the University of Edinburgh, pointing to bilingualism’s positive effects on the brain, including older brains:

  • Bilingual people develop dementia up to four or five years later than monolingual people.
  • Bilingual people who have had a stroke or who develop dementia have more interconnected brains and improved cognitive reserve. This essentially means they tend to have better coping skills after their diagnosis.
  • Learning a new language enhances various skills, including decision making and multi-tasking.
  • Learning a new language heightens concentration and attention, verbal fluency, and memory — and the effects can be seen in a short period of time…within just one week of intensive language education!
  • Learning a new language gives older adults, especially those with Alzheimer’s and dementia, self confidence during a time when self confidence otherwise might be very low. From the Lingo Flamingo website: “We’ve worked with individuals at all stages of dementia diagnosis, and 90% of our students say they loved the classes and felt an increased sense of confidence and self-worth.”

Along with all these benefits, Lingo Flamingo establishes an atmosphere of camaraderie. Friendships are forged. Games are played. “For that period of time, the dementia is not there,” says Marie Dougan (as quoted in The Guardian article), daughter of two older adults who have participated in Lingo Flamingo’s language classes.

Breaking the Stigma of Later Life Language Learning

Organizations like Lingo Flamingo have to cut through misconceptions of language learning for older adults. How many times have we heard, “I’m too old to learn a language” or “It’s too late for me”? With all the talk of “critical periods” of language acquisition for children and teenagers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming there’s no hope for older learners of languages.

Steve Kauffman, speaker of 16 languages and cofounder of the digital language learning platform LingQ, gives his wise two cents in Huffington Post article “Are You Too Old to Learn a Language?”:

“If they accept the fact that they can learn, that it’s a gradual process and you have to do it with enthusiasm and determination, there is no difference between a 16-year-old and a 66-year-old.”

Kauffman also describes the advantages that adult language learners have over younger ones. As a 60-plus-year-old, Kauffman says he’s a better language learner now than he was at the age of 16. The man speaks 16 languages (and has an entire online brand including YouTube videos to prove it), so who are we to argue?

How Does This Apply to Parents Raising Bilingual Kids?

One of the great powers of knowing a second (or third or fourth) language is using it when and where we’re needed. Fluency in another language gives us an opportunity, and a responsibility, to bless others. Gifting our children with languages equips them with a special desire and the skills they can use to create, manage, or volunteer at language-related companies like Lingo Flamingo.

Beyond raising bilingual kids, many of us parents will witness the aging process of our own parents in the years to come. Some of us will become caregivers, even if only part time. In the absence of a Lingo Flamingo where we live (many of our readers are in the United States), will we be able to help our elderly loved ones learn, retain, or strengthen their bilingual skills? Better yet, will our children, whom we’re raising to know more than one language, be able to assist? Just some food for thought!

Something else to consider: For us monolingual parents who may be sending our children to language immersion schools, hiring bilingual tutors, or dropping our kids off at bilingual playgroups, what’s holding us back from becoming bilinguals ourselves? If it’s a matter of our perceived age and “declining” cognitive abilities, this post should be an eye-opener. Adults in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s — many with dementia — are learning second languages. So what’s our excuse?

Finally, the Commercial of All Commercials

This is merely a commercial, but it’s the commercial of all commercials — one we watch a few times a year. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a heartwarming three minutes of your time:

Would you considering volunteering with your children at a nursing home or senior living center?

If your family is bilingual, or your kids are at least learning a second language, perhaps you can call around and see if senior living staff can connect you with an older adult who speaks your family’s heritage or target language. Visiting an older individual or couple to practice and connect around languages might turn into a beautiful activity for your family.

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