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¡Fantástico! A Workout for the Brain | Tiburon Ark

90-year old student proves -- it’s never too late to study Spanish

Patricio Tapia and Gil Smith
Gilbert Smith may be the oldest Spanish student in Marin County-or the Bay Area for that matter.

   The retired urologist has been studying Spanish for 40 years, off and on. "I keep trying," says Gil, "I’m getting better." Currently, he’s a student at Spanish in Marin, run by Patricio Tapia, a native of Chile.

   Studies have shown that studying a language, learning to dance or play a musical instrument are all helpful in keeping the brain sharp, at any age. Another healthy side effect is the social connection that comes with attending a class.

   Gil’s Spanish class has been meeting for six years. "We’re like an extended family," he says.
   The group meets for two hours at the Elks Club in San Rafael on Tuesday afternoons. They have a conversation around a topic they’ve prepared for, and read stories which are cultural and educational in nature. In addition to grammar and vocabulary, there is plenty of good cheer and laughter among these dedicated learners.

   "It’s a combination of learning and having a good time," comments Patricio, who developed a unique teaching method that uses visual aids to stimulate learning and promote interaction. While described as a class for adults, several of the students are seniors. At 85, Bill Kleineke is the second eldest.

   "I would miss it if I didn’t go," says the octogenarian, even though he admits to using his Spanish "muy poco" (very little). Bill and his wife have traveled with Patricio on two cultural trips, a tour of South America and another to Spain which included Spanish classes at Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo.

   During his career as a physician, Gil practiced in San Jose and was affiliated with Las Gatos Community Hospital. Being able to speak a little Spanish with patients was valuable, he recalls. "They appreciate it."

   Other class members include Jackie Moskowitz, a retired Marin County teacher, who enjoys the camaraderie of the class. "It’s been a wonderful learning experience-getting a little better in an enjoyable environment."
   Ray Douglas has been with the group since its beginning. He works from home which he sometimes finds isolating.
   "You’re always in danger of thinking you’re more intelligent than you are," he quips. But he finds the class "breaks you out of the singular mold and keeps the brain matter working. That’s important."
   Marin-ite Dan Steinberg rounds out the group. "I’ve been trying to get better at Spanish for a lot of years," he says. Dan travels to Mexico frequently and hopes to build a home there one day.
   His fellow students agree when Gil says, "it’s a very good class. I enjoy the people and the subject, that’s why I’m here."