A Challenge Well Worth the Effort – Exercise Your Brain

2013 October 2013 Suzanne A. Marshall

By Suzanne A. Marshall from the October 2013 Edition

When my husband and I took our first few vacations to resorts in Mexico, it was fun trying to wrap our tongues around some of the resort Spanish and ‘crack’ a few people up (including staff) with our miss-pronunciations. Nonetheless we pursued. And because we were so willing to give it a try, some of the Mexican locals, (known for discretion and polite control) liked us enough to translate some of the more questionable things we were saying in order to save us embarrassment and have a good laugh with us. For example, when my husband kept repeating his ‘version’ of good night, one of the shop keepers let him know that he was using a slang expression that was the equivalent of ‘nice ass’! Or, when I tried to joke with staff about my being too old to do certain things, I was actually calling myself the mayor!!

That was many years ago and we fell in love with Mexico and now enjoy the winters in Manzanillo in a lovely little condo on the beach. As it happens, we chose a spot and a building owned exclusively by professional Mexicans from Guadalajara who vacation in Manzanillo on weekends and holiday seasons. When everyone is there for major holidays the pool is filled with giggling ‘niño’s’ and parents and the atmosphere is filled with the sound of that beautiful Spanish language. I was smitten with the desire to converse with these wonderful neighbors in their own language in spite of the fact that most of them speak beautiful English. They have been so kind to us and I believe in part because we are making an effort to learn their language. They respect that and know it is not that easy for a couple of old codgers like us.

There are times even, when we must insist on their speaking Spanish to us, because so many of them want to practice their English. Overall, they are very patient with us and we’ve given them all permission to correct us or help us learn phrases. However, the condo staff do not speak English, and when the fun is over on the weekends and all have returned with families to work and school, our building is very quiet and we must converse with the staff somehow for various needs.

We have a lovely woman as the administrator. Taking care of and coordinating everything from the cleaning and gardening staff to overseeing renovations and matters for the condo board of directors. On her own she had enrolled in English classes (for us!) but managed to convey to me that it was too difficult with the work and her four children at home. She offered to take me to a recommended local school named Universal Languages so that I could check out and potentially enroll for Spanish lessons.

For some reason I found myself really wanting to learn the language so I agreed to let her take me in her car and show me where to go and so on. And I enrolled for 110.00 Cdn per month and went to school every morning Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to noon with access after lessons to a language lab with computers. My husband was working on the internet at the time and couldn’t join me. To this day he is jealous because my Spanish is better. But I met other English speaking learners and by the end of the second month was dreaming in Spanish I was so deluged with a brain full of information.

Since those initial two months I have continued to study with online programs and force myself to speak a little when I can. The fact that we return to Canada in the spring for six months doesn’t help my retention much but over the past couple of years I have found that it is ‘sticking’ better and a month before our migration back for the winter I start to review my notes and lessons.

I cannot say that I am fluent, but I am so much better at it than I was. And I find that just the exposure to the language on a regular basis has words popping up in my mind that I couldn’t remember learning. If I have any luck at all perhaps a process like osmosis is taking place. That would be great! I have accepted that it is a long term process and it will be many years before I can debate politics and religion in Spanish.

Giving this a bit of perspective, it makes sense that permanent and semi-permanent immigrants to Manzanillo should be making efforts to learn Spanish for the same reasons that we would expect foreign immigrants to our home countries to learn our language. But I have noticed that many expatriates have found a comfort zone in seeking out English speaking friends and avoiding the challenge of taking up the local language. I personally know how comforting it is to latch on to fellow migrants and that’s okay. But I think an effort should be made to blend in and truly become part of the Mexican community.

There are great benefits from such an effort, the least of which is exercising our aging brains. Check these facts out:

“Physiological studies have found that speaking two or more languages is a great asset to the cognitive process. The brains of bilingual people operate differently than single language speakers, and these differences offer several mental benefits.” Anne Merritt, EFL lecturer, UK, South Korea


Speaking a foreign language improves the functionality of your brain by challenging it to recognize, negotiate meaning, and communicate in different language systems. This skill boosts your ability to negotiate meaning in other problem-solving tasks as well. You can become better with math, reading and vocabulary.


Consistent results from several studies show the mean age for the first signs of dementia is 71.4. For adults who speak two or more languages, the mean age for those first signs is 75.5.


The brain functions better with exercise. Learning a language involves memorizing rules and vocabulary, which strengthens the mental “muscle”. This exercise improves overall memory, making multiple language speakers better at remembering lists or sequences. They’re better at retaining shopping lists, names and directions.


A study from Spain’s University of Pompeu Fabra revealed that multilingual people are better at observing their surroundings. They are more adept at focusing on relevant information and editing out the irrelevant. They are also better at spotting misleading information.


According to a study from the University of Chicago, bilinguals tend to make more rational decisions. Any language contains nuance and subtle implications in its vocabulary and these biases can subconsciously influence your judgment. Bilinguals are more confident with their choices after thinking it over in the second language and seeing whether their initial conclusions still stand up.


Learning a foreign language draws your focus to the mechanics of language: grammar, conjugations, and sentence structure. This makes you more aware of language, and the ways it can be structured and manipulated. These skills can make you a more effective communicator and a sharper editor and writer. Language speakers also develop a better ear for listening, since they’re skilled at distinguishing meaning from discreet sounds.

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