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Learning a new language isn’t an easy task especially as your cognitive skills and memory decline with age. Study shows that being bilingual keeps your brain younger and delays the onset of Alzheimer’s by five years. But for some, taking the plunge to learn a new language later in life is more about finding confidence and making social connections.

Amy Chien-Yu Wang
Published on
Monday, February 19, 2018 - 12:11
6 min 34 sec

78-year-old William Wei first came across English as a junior high school student in Taiwan many years ago. Even though he’s lived in both New Zealand and Australia, speaking the language has always been a struggle.

“When we are moving here, every time we go with my family, to speak always my wife. I am the driver. I cannot open my mouth. Both of no confidence and I can’t speak English very well, so most of time, I don't speak English.”

Since his wife passed away, William’s had to confront the reality of communicating in English on his own. There was one particular incident that motivated him to take lessons at the ripe age of 77. He was on a road trip driving from Sunshine Coast to Brisbane, and had to ask for directions in English.

“The time is getting late, dark. I driving my car and I lost my way, then, I go to a shopping mall to somebody to help me. I met a family, the man; he said to me “where do you heading to?” I don't understand what’s that mean “hading to”? I just (repeated) “had to?” I just stuck here, I know my English level.”

Realising his English wasn’t good enough; William decided to join the English conversation classes run by Brisbane’s Sunnybank Uniting Church just over a year ago.

“For my age, like me, my memory’s very very bad. Today, I learning one vocabulary, another day, I forgot pretty much after class, I study by myself over 3 hours a day.”

With regular conversation practices, and hours of self-study each day for over a year, William is now a very different person. He finds it amusing to be mistaken for a European from the way he speaks.

“It’s really good for improve my English, I can speak for confidence. You see, I went to shopping, the staff, he said, ‘are you German?’ He said, ‘your accent’. I said, ‘no, I’m not Germany’, I said, ‘I’m Chinese’. ‘You’re Chinese?’ Then he said, ‘you must (be) half-British.’”

His English teacher, Dianne Morris, says most of her students are migrants aged over 50. Coming to class is often the only chance they get to speak in English despite living in Australia.

“The biggest difference I notice, really, is the social part of class. They make friends, they start to feel a lot more confident and happier. I find some of the students that come don't get to do very much in Australia at all. They’re very isolated, and they don't speak English outside of English class, it’s quite bizarre, actually.”

Annita Esposito has lived in Brisbane for 42 years. She came here after meeting her husband in Italy. With extended family living close by, Annita never had to learn much English. It wasn’t until her failed attempt to communicate with an Italian pharmacist that sparked her interest to learn the language in her late fifties.

“It was little bit harder because if I was go shopping, someone had to come with me, because I couldn't understand nothing. So, one day I had to go to the chemist, there was some Italian lady there working, and when I come, I couldn't understand her at all. She was speaking Italian, and I couldn’t understand her, she was speaking  her dialect, and then I said, ‘it’s hard now. I have to learn something, you know, because I couldn't understand my language.”

Annita’s been attending English conversation classes for more than three years. She’s now able to socialise in English and even fill out basic paper work without having to rely on others. She urges people to take up any new language – especially English.

“Go. It’s fun, and it’s nice for ourselves to learn. You can have a conversation when you go to a party, when you go to a restaurant or something, you can have a conversation.”

As for GP Dr Marlies Dowland, she’s always found the French language attractive. Even though as a young girl in Holland, she studied French an hour a week for over five years, she’s never been able to hold a proper conversation. She decided to take lessons again at Alliance Francais at 68. Three years on, Dr Dowland, says learning a foreign language isn’t just good for the brain, it also makes life much more interesting.

“I think it’s very beneficial for people to learn a language, yeah, I think so, cos it’s social. It gets them out of the house and it gets them interacting with people, and new friendships and getting to know new people. It’s really great.”

Now 71, Dr Marlies Dowland admits that with her memory not as sharp as before, constructing a sentence in French can be tricky at times.

“I like speaking, but I get a bit tounge-tied, I am a bit shy you know and if y our memory’s not as good and you always can’t think at the moment that you want to say, but you can’t think of it, then it comes to you later. Whatever you want to say comes to you later. It's a bit daunting but I think it’s really great for people to learn a new language. I would recommend it to anybody.”

Annita Esposito says getting comfortable in speaking a foreign language is overcoming the fear of making mistakes.

“You know, you have to just have patience, and then you have to be yourself, and you have to say, I can do it.”