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The unexpected joys of learning a new language later in life

I’m not saying it’s easy. I’ve been at it for seven years now and I’m still learning my third/fourth language — Spanish.

Actually, Hebrew is my second language, French is my third, and Yiddish a distant fifth. But now Spanish has become my third language replacing, for better or worse, my French.

I was travelling to Havana a lot seven years ago and wanted to be able to converse with the children I met there. I also wanted to feel more a part of the Cuban scene.

I started evening Spanish classes at Dawson once a week after a day of teaching. My friend Marion joined the class and we entered Spanish Level 1 as two teachers with absolutely no Spanish in our heads. It was really tough at the beginning and I was a bit lazy on homework. Yes, I know, I’m a teacher but when a teacher becomes a student, it’s not an easy adjustment.

Fast forward one year and I had completed Levels II and III and had practiced my Spanish on one or two trips to Havana. But I was still a long way from feeling comfortable in the language.

Learning a language later in life is a slow process but it is one of the best ways to energize your brain. It’s known that learning anything new is very good for the senior brain. Unfortunately what they don’t tell you is that you will confuse your second languages especially if they are similar, as are French and Spanish.

Every time I return from Ecuador or Cuba, I say Por Favor instead of S’il-vous-plaît, and Si instead of Oui and disculpe instead of Pardon or Excusez-moi. On the bright side, if you know two languages well, learning a third or fourth is easier.

At this point I can happily say I am reasonably comfortable in Spanish, having just returned from my fourth stay in Ecuador where Irwin and I spent two months in Salinas. There were days when I spoke almost no English. It amazes me that so many American ex pats who live in Ecuador speak no or little Spanish. Of course it also amazes me that so many Americans support Donald Trump but let’s not go there. Suffice it to say that my niece who is entering Grade 2 in LA is not being taught Spanish as a second language. What is there about Americans that makes them think that knowing their own language is all they need? Spanish is the second language in the USA. There are 45 million Hispanophones who speak Spanish as a first or second language in the US making the United States the second-largest Hispanophone country in the world after Mexico. (Source: Wikipedia)

Back to Ecuador I was able to converse with Felicita’s grandchildren, all 10 of them, and understand them — if they spoke slowly and clearly. This is a family I have bonded with.

I met Felicita, who speaks no English, because she was my “cleaning person” but we soon became friends, that is, once I could speak Spanish.

My latest project is helping her grand daughter Stephanie enter university in Guayaquil to study computer science. I could never have begun this process without my Spanish. At this point, Stephanie is entering a catch-up course so she can qualify for university. Although tuition is free, Stephanie, 20, has had to work in a factory (when she has work) to support her family, consisting of a sister and brother and her single mother.

I can’t tell you what a joy it is to converse in my new language. If I don’t know the words, I substitute with a word I do know.

Conversing with Felicita’s family has done worlds of good for my Spanish and given me much happiness. Spending quality time with these children, 5 to 20, teaching them art and English, sitting on the beach with them, taking them for frozen yogurt, and visiting the Iguanas in Santa Helena, a town a bus ride away from Salinas,  have all been splendid for my Spanish and my heart. I look forward to many more good times with them.

I hope you take the opportunity this fall to enroll in one of the many continuing education language courses offered at Dawson, Vanier, McGill and Concordia.

I was in my comfort zone at Dawson and highly recommend their language teachers in the non-credit courses.

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One Comment

  1. Don Rosenbaum says:

    Terrific Barbara ! I have harboured the same ambition for awhile now, but have yet to act on it. Your story will encourage me to take action. Merci ! Gracias !!

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