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  • Jane Leder

Learning a Second Language At Our Age

I was a whiz at learning French. In high school and college, I soaked up the language like a new sponge in a sink of soapy water. I read Sartre, wrote literary essays, and carried on conversations with ease. Sure, I had an American accent that never went away, but the French, Swiss, and Canadians accepted me as one of their own. (Well, maybe not the Parisians.) I was a regular bon vivant. I spent a summer in Sion, Switzerland, with the Experiment in International Living. No one spoke English. (My boyfriend found another main squeeze while I was gone, but that's another story. Truth be told, I had a crush on my host's son.)



So, when in my late 60s I decided to learn Spanish, I expected that I'd grasp the language as easily as I'd mastered French. I mean, why not? My memory was still intact (Ah, I remember those days fondly--at least, I remember that), I was a dutiful student who didn't mind a load of homework--ever the overachiever--, and, unlike too many Americans spending time or living in a Spanish-speaking country, I wanted to absorb the culture and communicate with the locals.


I signed up for Spanish classes for adults at a well-respected language school here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Adults, I was informed, learn differently from younger folks. Just as well. I didn't want to crawl into morning sessions surrounded by perky twenty-somethings who may have been partying all night but still managed to get their shit together. Me? Not so much.


Language classes for adults, we were informed, were all about repetition. Say it once, say it twice, repeat it a third time. Reminded me of product sales and how to garner customers or marketing a book and hoping that, after doing a ton of PR, 2 percent of the recipients would buy the damn thing. We had flashcards that sometimes made me feel like a first or seconder grader in a math class, workbooks, and partners. My first partner didn't know a direct object from a preposition, so she didn't have a shot. My second partner had taken the Beginners' class twice and still couldn't speak a lick of Spanish. By the time I was assigned Partner #3, I'd decided to sit in a corner and talk to myself.


As my Spanish has gotten better, my ability to speak French has all but vanished. Last night, I couldn't remember the word for house. It is sad but true that by the time we're in our seventies, our brains have shrunk to the size they were when we were between 2 and 3 years old. Unfortunately, most of the loss is in gray matter, the critically important part of the brain composed of neurons, the cells that transmit the signals that keep us breathing and thinking.


Breathing? Rather essential, wouldn't you say? Thinking? It's game over.


I don't want to be a Debbie Downer round about now. I'm happy to report that, while I can no longer speak French worth a damn, my Spanish is coming along quite nicely. Sure, I forget the same words over and over again. I have workbooks from six years ago to prove it. But last night, for example, I had a long talk in Spanish about a friend's new romance, my son's professional situation, and ideas for future blog posts. Not bad for a seventy-four-year-old!


I keep promising myself that I'll drag out my Pimsleur tapes, find an online program, and relearn French. "Oh, it's all in there," people say. "And French and Spanish are so much alike." Bull. Does casa sound like maison to you? Chat like gato? My memory may not be so sharp, but my hearing is just fine, thank you.


Our future plans may include a trip to France. Let's hope that by then I'll have relearned "Where is the bathroom?" If not, half of my suitcase will be filled with a pile of pee-proof underpants--the ones that promise complete protection for those of us who have to "Gotta' go."