A few years ago, my wife and I decided to celebrate my retirement by living for several months in Rome, Italy – to both explore the historical treasures as well as to learn another foreign language. We both were fluent in several languages (German, French, English, and my wife also in Dutch).
These were languages we had learned either as children or young adults, living and/or working in the respective countries. However, Italian was to be the first language we were going to learn as mature adults.
A few months before our travels, we began using Pimsleur's self-teaching Italian language courses and completed all three levels of the program, totaling 90 lessons. This was an accomplishment. We felt quite smug about being able to understand basic Italian, but we also knew that the real test would come when we arrived in Rome.
The drive from Fiumicino airport into Rome to our apartment did not prove conclusive, as our landlord's driver wanted to practice his English – which was clearly better than our Italian.
Our apartment in Trastevere was located in a narrow street, above a bakery/grocery store. Directly opposite was a wonderful little restaurant called “Le mani in pasta.” Here we could try out our Italian. English was not spoken.
Limited Vocabulary and Skills
We discovered rapidly that our vocabulary was quite limited. What we remembered best were the set phrases we had learned in our language course: How to order a glass of wine or beer, how to buy 100 grams of prosciutto, etc.
We also found that while our knowledge of French was quite helpful at times – both Italian and French are Romance languages and share many similar words - at other times our brain simply refused to memorize certain Italian words.
We also realized that by having used mainly CDs and tapes, we had not learned how to read and write in Italian. Through a local bookshop, we found a wonderful young Italian tutor, whose initial writing test quickly ascertained this deficiency.
Over the next months, as she worked with us and monitored our daily homework, our confidence grew. We started to understand and enjoy Italian TV and movies, and increasingly conversed with shopkeepers and people we encountered throughout the day.
Language Learning is Good for an Older Brain
Learning a new foreign language as an adult takes effort and some discipline. But our brain is certainly able to acquire new vocabulary and new grammar rules. In fact, research has shown that such mental exercises can be especially beneficial to an older brain.
Playing electronic/computer games does not have to be the purview of children and young adults. Seniors who play language games also exercise their gray cells and have fun doing so. They don't feel guilty. They are learning a new language at the same time!
We now watch Italian movies on a cable channel at home, read Italian newspapers online, and continue to exercise our gray cells. We believe: “If you don't use it – you lose it!”