¡Fantástico! A Workout for the Brain
Tiburon Ark, July 21, 2008
¡Salud! Student Dave Albert (l.) and Spanish teacher Patricio Tapia toast each other's health. Studies show that the constant challenge that comes with learning a new language helps to keep the brain fit, but interactions that begin in class often lead to new friendships too.
Hooked on Sudoku? Counting on the New York Times crossword puzzle to keep your brain sharp? They're great activities, but according to a recent Brazilian study, learning a foreign language, participating in a dance workshop, playing a musical instrument and adding regular reading to the mix will give your cerebrum a more effective workout. It's a combination of regular activities, both mental and physical, that really keeps the brain in shape.
Foreign language is a favorite for many residents of the Tiburon Peninsula who are heading back to class, whether it's for the challenge, to enhance travel or simply because it's something they've always wanted to do and finally have the time.Dave Albert of Tiburon took up Spanish seriously last year. Although he studied it in high school and junior college, he never used the language and dabbled in it off and on for years. Now, after being engaged in Spanish for the better part of a year, he feels comfortable conversing, although he is not yet fluent. "I'm a good mimic," he said.
He also speaks German, which he acquired while living in Germany; however, "Spanish is far more useful language," he said. "It's very easy to find people to speak Spanish with."
Albert is in a local class that meets for two hours a week with instructor Patricio Tapia, a native of Chile who has been teaching Spanish in Marin County (see www.SpanishinMarin.com) for more than 18 years. Although he has taught children, Tapia's preference is working with adults. "I build a nice relationship with the people. It's good old David, not a student," he said, explaining that teacher and students bond, so the meetings become social gatherings rather than just a class.
He finds that older students learn Spanish because they want to. "They come with the desire and commitment," he said. The majority of his students are over 50 - some are in their 80s - and they decide to study a new language for the mental challenge, the social activity or "just because." Many professionals want to exercise the brain, and others simply enjoy learning a language.
He teaches mostly through dialog and stories, with some grammar, and describes himself as an entertainer first and a teacher second. Free conversation is an element of his classes and he never knows where it is going to go. "It's fun," he said, although he believes that the learning gives his students an intellectual workout as well. "My classes are aerobics for the brain," he said.
"It's easy to converse with them [other students]," added Albert, who believes that speaking is most important.
"We're there to try to do something we don't normally do," he said. Another benefit, he observed, is that "the best way to learn correct English is to learn another language."
He recently got the opportunity to test his language skills when he and his wife Joyce went on a lengthy cruise around the world. He enjoyed speaking Spanish in Ecuador, Peru, Easter Island and Barcelona and occasionally on the ship. Most of the passengers were older professionals - professors, scientists, book authors - who spoke a variety of languages, although the first language of most was English. He enjoyed the conversations, as well as the ship's lectures, which, he said, were fascinating and well done.
In addition to taking up Spanish, Albert, who has a background in karate, and wife Joyce took dance classes in San Francisco. "Dance is wonderful," he said. "Memorizing the patterns, the grace, the balance and working with a partner really helps the learning experience."
Dance and language are part of the prescription for wellbeing. The Brazilian researchers recommend learning constantly, saying that although games and puzzles are worthwhile, they exercise specific areas of the brain, while ongoing mental activities stimulate the neurons in a different way and are especially valuable when they are connected to a good night's sleep and physical activity. For cerebral health, balance and variety are key.