Opinion: Give Coronavirus a Break — Learn a New Language

The flag of Spain.

Learning a new language makes me feel good, especially now. It’s distracting, mind building, and gives me hope.

I teach Spanish, studied Hebrew and, a couple of years ago, started French.

My advice is to give learning another language a try, at any age, if not for the brain exercise, for the pure joy of parachuting into another culture and getting to know people, even virtually.

In a famous “Saturday Night Live” sketch Steve Martin lamented, “[The] French have a different word for everything. You never appreciate your language until you go to a foreign country that doesn’t have the courtesy to speak English.”

Martin got one thing right. If you are over 10, learning a foreign language is hard work.

In “The Mature Mind,” Gene Cohen, a former director of the Center on Aging at the National Institutes of Health, writes that the brain is like a muscle. “Use it, and it grows stronger, but let it idle, and it’ll grow flabby.” He says language study — like dancing, playing a musical instrument, or doing crossword puzzles, engages the mind, works up a mental sweat and lowers the risk of dementia. And these activities strengthen parts of the brain that process information, boost learning and memory.

My linguistic journey began as a high school exchange student in Córdoba, Argentina, living with a family who spoke little English and who took me everywhere. I watched soap operas, memorized television commercials, learned lyrics to Spanish love songs and came home with a new world view that took me to the University of Madrid and, later, to work as a bilingual reporter.

I’ve taken classes in Japanese, which I learned has the same vowel system as Spanish. And I enrolled twice in a five-week, five-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week intensive Hebrew course at Tel Aviv University.

Ping-Li, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, has used new brain imaging methods to study how we learn languages. He says the best way to learn a language is to “immerse yourself in the environment of the second language [by] talking with native speakers, forgetting as much as possible your native language while learning, and building a community of learners.”

That has worked for me. It pushes the novel coronavirus from my head. Instead, I conjugate verbs, repeat nouns and sum up readings in my own new words. It is like meditation and is calming.

And living in Maryland can offer you a travel experience without leaving home. In Montgomery County nearly one-third of the population is foreign born, and one in five residents is of Hispanic or Latino descent. I can turn on Spanish radio, watch television, read a newspaper and speak in Spanish all day, no matter where I go, whether to the grocery store or on a walk past the Salvadorian Consulate, which recently relocated to south Silver Spring.

The consulate has become the salon for a folklore forum –or Peña — run by the local non-profit, La Casa Cultural El Salvador. Those evening events feature poetry, dance, music, art and indigenous crafts from El Salvador and its North, Central and South American neighbors. Now the events stream live online on the last Friday of the month.

Also, look at do-it-yourself language tools like Babbel, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone (some are free or low-cost) which are great to build vocabulary. Give online foreign language newspapers, radio and television programs a try. Some programs are subtitled and help with the rhythm and cadence of the language.

But, you can only get so far without a teacher and you are most likely to stick with it if you make a commitment to study with someone. Until recreation and community college classrooms reopen, you can meet a teacher online or in a virtual chat with a native speaker. Another idea is to tutor a non-English speaker and share the time by learning the language your partner speaks.

Once you are rolling, you’ll find that you already know more than you think. For example, many French words — like deja-vu, etiquette, avant-garde and a la carte — have become part of our parlance. Americans have adopted thousands of words from other languages.

— ROSANNE SKIRBLE

The author is a freelance writer and leads El Club Español, live on Zoom for the Montgomery County Public Libraries every Thursday.