Welcome to Fool for Language

Welcome to Fool for Language, the site for people who are crazy about learning languages - like me! If you are new to this blog, I recommend you read the articles in order. The information will make better sense.

This is my first blog and writing each essay has been much more enjoyable than I expected. I have spent most of my life teaching and, more importantly, learning languages. I have “survived” a wide range of teaching techniques, materials and teachers. The result is that I have a pretty clear idea of what has and has NOT worked for me. Yes, I am opinionated, but even if you don’t agree with me, I hope you will enjoy the stories and think about what gets you “wired” when you dive into the wonderful world of learning another language.

I want to thank some people who have helped me maintain momentum with this blog. To give you, the reader, a break, every 10th essay is written by a guest blogger, all close friends with their own special take on language learning. As for the uploading process, Kurt meticulously proofreads and makes insightful comments on each essay; while Yoh patiently provides technical support, including selection of the vibrant visuals. Thank you!


52. Brain Benefits for Older Language Learners

I recently took a group of seven participants to Sichuan to test their communication skills after 20 hours of studying Chinese both online and in the classroom. I run these survival courses once or twice a year for research purposes (see blogposts 33, 34 and 35) to confirm how quickly you can get someone communicating on the street in a new language, as well as to determine a change in participants' attitudes about themselves as language learners.

In Sichuan, apart from typical onsite tasks, such as using local transportation or bargaining in the marketplaces of Chengdu, we also climbed Mount Emei, a World Heritage site, to watch the sun rise slowly over a sea of clouds in the valley below. The view was magnificent but the climb to the summit was, frankly, hell. Slipping on ice and snow in sub-freezing temperatures while asking for directions in Chinese, I kept thinking, "You are getting too old for this craziness."

In a few months time, I will turn 60. Although I still feel like a kid (and generally act like one), the harsh reality is my joints are beginning to feel the years of wear and tear. Climbing Mount Emei brought this home. At one point, I slipped and slammed my knee into a tree trunk resulting in a limp for the remainder of my visit with a very bruised leg and ego!
I suppose the same can be said for my language learning efforts. Years ago people would praise my ability to seemingly pick up a new tongue after a few days overseas in the company of locals. Now I watch some of my brighter students breeze past in my survival language courses as I struggle to keep up. Sure, I can communicate but it definitely takes more effort than in the past.

Despite the Emei episode, I still see myself learning languages and testing communication skills far into the future (although perhaps in less treacherous terrain!). I find it exhilarating to watch insecure students "blossom" over a few weeks, becoming more independent and confident in their ability to function in a new language. And I still get an adrenalin rush when I put myself to the test and successfully complete onsite tasks with my students. Age does not eradicate one's desire – and ability – to learn a language (see blogpost 26).

There is another reason why older individuals should take up the study of a second language: apparently it benefits your brain.

There are numerous studies, particularly in the field of neuroscience, that suggest learning a second language maintains brain health, possibly even restructuring your brain. Not only does learning a new language evidently delay the onset of age-related mental diminishment, such as memory loss, but changes in the brain’s electrical activity seem to occur from the outset of learning a new language, good news if you are senior and want to get those neurons firing.

In the past, it was believed that after reaching puberty, your brain "hardened" and for most people it was impossible to truly learn another language. More recently, studies into the phenomenon of phantom limbs accidentally revealed that the brain does not harden but, in fact, remains plastic throughout our lives and can benefit from ongoing mental activity, such as learning another language.

On the other hand, to achieve the utmost gain, such language study requires specific conditions, including the recycling and expansion of content, as well as the need for learners to focus on the material they are studying. In other words, review must be built in, for example, in a spiraling format, while learners should definitely not multi-task when they study. (Turn off your cell phone!)

Another condition for training one's brain is the length of time for each study session. Research suggests that the maximum period a brain can effectively input information before losing focus is 100 minutes. My own experience with online language training using my website, Sulantra.com, suggests computer-based learning time should be reduced to about 60 minutes, the apparent limit of my attention span.

In many ways, maintaining your brain's vitality is a lot like developing your physical condition. As the saying goes, use it or lose it. Training sessions should be frequent, regular and relatively short. Saving yourself for a multi-hour training blitz on the weekend cannot be compared to 30 minutes of focused, intense training each day. The practice time may be the same but the results are definitely not.

One more factor comes into play when studying a language online, your brain’s chemistry. We find it easier to maintain interest if there is a little "thrill" added to the study format induced by the chemical dopamine. This is easy to achieve online (just look at gamers as they zap their way through attacking aliens). Getting language learners wired with a dopamine boost can be as simple as bells and flashing lights after each successful user attempt. You hear, see and feel your progress. And, hopefully, with pleasure comes perseverance.

The field of neuroscience is fascinating with new data being published all the time about the impact of learning a language on your brain’s health. Do an online search using key words like "brain", "benefits" and "multilingualism", and you’ll see what I mean.

When I started building Sulantra.com my reasons were simple. I wanted an online language learning website my older family members could use with ease. I was thinking of one aunt who wanted Polish to deal with her in-laws, another who wanted Swahili so that she could venture to Tanzania and watch wildebeests trekking across the Veldt, and my mother who was attracted to French, the native tongue of her favorite teacher in school (see blogpost 1). Sadly some of these family members are now experiencing brain deterioration or have passed away.

As I contemplate the end of six decades of life's adventures, I realize that the chief benefactor of my website may ultimately be me. I envision years of continued language study and, hopefully, travel to places where I can test my communication skills. And while learning new languages online, I will not only continue to make the most of life, but likely be improving the health of my brain. Definitely an excellent reason for lifelong language learning.

Now if only I could remember where I put that computer mouse?

(If you are really a fool for language, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese,Turkish, Bulgarian, Thai, German, KoreanPortuguese and Italian!)


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