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Learned a New Language Lately?

Are you old enough to remember foreign language laboratories where students strained to hear a question in, for example, German, and answer it correctly in the microphone, all the while desperately hoping the instructor wasn’t listening to you? Yeah, me too.

When I was fourteen, my mother decided I would take Latin. It wasn’t a successful language choice. I saw no reason to learn a language no one spoke. On the other hand, I saw even less reason to get in trouble by failing the class. I discovered that while I wasn’t too good at grammar, I could memorize vocabulary lists. Even better, I found dual language books – the ones with opposing pages. The left side was, in this case, Latin. The right side was in English. Armed with these tools, I could score a B grade on the tests, which like Caesar’s Gaul were usually in three parts: Vocabulary, Grammar, and Translation. If I knew enough vocabulary, and read the dual language book on the assigned section of Caesar’s account of conquering Gaul, I could answer the questions. In hindsight, I suspect the teacher was on to me. And she knew what would happen.

My plan backfired. I did so well in first year Latin, my mother decided I would go on to the second year. It was a disaster. Lots of tears on my side and shaking of the head on hers. And, to make matters worse, while I and my fellow prisoners suffered what seemed like the most boring class in the universe, the students in the German class down the hall got to sing folksongs. A sort of “learning by doing” concept, I suppose. Ah, yes, I thought. I should be taking German.

Beware of what you wish for. We moved. I changed schools. Good News: the new school didn’t offer Latin. Bad News: I still had to take a language. Good News: they had German. Bad news: the teacher didn’t play the guitar. This was the “memorize the weekly dialogue and do language drill” German. No singing whatsoever. On the upside, I had a ear for German. I still didn’t have a knack for grammar, but I knew which ending sounded correct. Easy peasy.

Based on the illusion that I could “do” German, I declared a German major when I entered college.

Big mistake. Turns out, at a certain point you need grammar, or you can’t write essays in a foreign language.

Oddly enough, those memorized German dialogues were really helpful when traveling in Europe. I could order food, find the bathroom, and converse at a six-year-old level. Woo Hoo!

It’s too bad I didn’t stick with German and become bilingual, because recent studies demonstrate that bilingual speakers can stave off up to three forms of dementia (Alzheimer’s, frontotemporal dementia, and vascular dementia) for 4.5 years. The effect is better if the speakers use both languages daily. In other words, switching between languages and concepts keeps the brain fitter longer. And, these people are better at prioritizing and multi-tasking. [Hmmmm. Does that mean multi-lingual Europeans have less chance of getting dementia than monolingual Americans?]

Learning a new language is only one of many tools being recommended to stave off dementia and a new chorus of “she can’t find her keys.” But there’s another even more important reason to learn a language: Communication. I figure it’s too late to do much about my brain waves, but still time to connect with people.

Last fall the Handsome Bloke and I made our fourth visit to India. Once again I felt frustrated by my inability to communicate. Most Indians speak a certain amount of English, but at this point, it’s only common courtesy to be able to say something more than “hello,” “good-bye,” and “thank you.” I promised our hosts and myself that before our return, I would be able to say at least 20 words.

How’s that working out?

Excruciatingly slowly. I purchased the Rosetta Stone program for Hindi. It uses pictures, and has the student repeat words, and point at the correct picture. Things like that. And, it’s fun. Unfortunately, I seem to forget the words as soon as I turn off the program.

“OMG.” *head bang* “It’s Latin all over again.”

And then a miracle happened. Last night, the Handsome Bloke said something and I was agreeing with him. And the word just fell out of my mouth.


It’s like HAH with a long sound. HAAN – yes.

A small word, but one that came out of my mouth without engaging my brain.

There’s also a word for ‘no’. NAHI  But that’s the answer to a different question.

So, I now know five words – only fifteen more to go.

How about you? Are you multi-lingual? Can you find your keys? What language, if any, would you like to learn? Leave a comment.

Featured Image by Eugen Nosko, provided by Deutsche Fotothek, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany, Wikimedia Commons

For more information, check:

Alok Jaha. “Being Bilingual May Delay Alzheimer’s and Boost Brain Power.” The Guardian. Feb. 18, 2011. Accessed Feb 24, 2014

Jonel Aleccai. “Speaking Second Language Delays Dementias.” November 6, 2013. Accessed Feb 24, 2014

Sarah Wildman. “Using Language to Combat Dementia.” Accessed Feb 24, 2014

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


  1. Aloha! If using dual languages daily helps stave off dementia then those of us who are fortunate to reside in the 50th state are in luck! Every day I use several Hawaiian words and sometimes hear more on the nightly news. Living on an island places are described as toward the mountain or toward the ocean, maka or makai. Then there are two of my favorite foods loco moco and musabi. And sometimes we go holo holo. Pau!

  2. You’re right, Priscilla. Hawai`i gives us plenty of opportunities to expand our working vocabulary. Other parts of the country have similar conditions — for example, areas with large Hispanic populations. Pretty exciting!


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